Cotham Parish Church
Sun 30 Sep 18 @ 10am / Trinity 18 B
Num 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 / Js 5:13-20 / Mk 9:38-50

‘Bearing the unbearable’

As many of you will know, we have just come to the end of Welcome Week at the University of Bristol.

Thousands of new students from all over the world have arrived.  Free teas, coffees, burgers, sweets, vouchers, and publicity have been distributed.  Friends have been made, societies joined, hangovers acquired, and for some, lectures have already started.  A mixture of energy and exhaustion, excitement and apprehension, is in the air.

And of course, for many students, parents and staff, part of the apprehension has arisen from awareness of recent deaths of students at the University, some of whom are believed to have taken their own lives.  As you might imagine, part of my role as chaplain has been to support some of those affected

In response to these concerns, over recent months the University has put significant additional welfare support in place, both within halls of residence and within academic schools, alongside the specialist support services such as the Student Counselling Service.  We all hope that these

developments will make a real difference to the wellbeing of our students.

At the same time, questions will linger in many of our minds about what led to these student deaths.  Was it anything to do with their experience of being a student here – things that happened, or should have happened – or was it something else?  How could things have been different, and who could have helped make it so?  What was it that made these students feel that death was preferable to what they experienced or feared in life?

This might seem a rather sombre way to be speaking at the start of a new academic year, but it feels important that alongside all the freshness and hope we continue to live with these questions.  What can we do better as a university, as a society, as a local community?

Our three readings today also take us into stories of suffering

In the first, from Numbers, we hear of the suffering of the people of Israel in the desert, in limbo between the familiarities of life in Egypt and the distant prospect of reaching the promised land.  There is a wonderfully evocative description of their craving for the food of home:

‘If only we had meat to eat… we remember the fish, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic; but now… there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.’


They are desperate for some resolution to their wanderings – even if that means returning to slavery in Egypt.  They don’t feel they can carry on like this.

‘If only we had meat to eat… we remember the fish, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic; but now… there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.’


They are desperate for some resolution to their wanderings – even if that means returning to slavery in Egypt.  They don’t feel they can carry on like this.

And neither does Moses.  He is finding the burden of carrying the feelings of all the people too great to bear (the suffering, the nostalgia, the questions and the cravings).  ‘They are too heavy for me,’ he pleads with God.  ‘If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once… and do not let me see my misery.’  He is reaching breaking point.

In the reading from James we hear of care for the sick and suffering in a time long before pain relief, antibiotics or any recognisable kind of healthcare.  Pain must have been a constant companion for many – and death, when it came, often a welcome release.

In Mark’s gospel we hear of the suffering of those possessed by demons and the suffering of their families.  Now we may prefer to interpret the demons metaphorically, just as there are very good grounds for understanding Jesus’ comments here about plucking out eyes, cutting off hands and the fires of hell as also being metaphorical (but that’s another sermon!).

But certainly the symptoms and behaviours described are recognisably those of what we would now recognise as neurological or psychological conditions.


Again, so much suffering, and so little prospect of cure.  At what point does death become preferable to living with the pain as the days and years drag on?  Is there any alternative?  Can anything help?

A few months ago, George Monbiot, the activist and journalist, wrote in the Guardian about his recent cancer diagnosis, and the three principles in life that have kept him going while facing the uncertain outcomes of his treatment:

  1. Imagine how much worse life could be, rather than how much better.
  2. Change what you can change, and accept what you can’t.
  3. Do not let fear rule your life: name it, normalise it, socialise it.

Now we might not warm to these, and I guess they are a particular ‘positive thinking’ kind of approach – but they seem to work for him, as a way of bearing something that could otherwise easily come to feel unbearable.

But I am particularly drawn to his third principle, about fear – that what helps is being able to give voice to it, to find our thoughts and feelings shared by others, and to draw strength from the love and concern of others.

My sense is that the key word here is ‘others’.  People, connection, understanding, community, belonging.

And funnily enough, when we look back at our Bible readings, this is what we find in response to the suffering of the people.


In the Numbers reading, there’s no quick fix: the wanderings in the wilderness continue, and the people still have only manna to eat – for some years to come!

But now, instead of an increasingly overwhelmed leader, the people have 70 elders to engage with their concerns, to support and encourage them – and as for Moses himself, he now has colleagues to share his burden.


In James, we see the community gathering around the suffering, speaking openly with one another, praying, anointing.


In Mark, following on from Jesus’ healings, we have his injunction to ‘be at peace with one another’, to welcome and work inclusively with all who care for others: for ‘whoever is not against us is for us’.


The idea that one of our primary sources of strength and hope – and even healing – lies in our relationships with others, may of course not seem like rocket science!  But in our increasingly individualised culture, this feels in danger of being lost, amidst the perceived gains of greater autonomy and choice.  The experience of community as the pooling of our lives, both when it suits us, and when it is more for others’ benefit – feels like it is becoming increasingly counter-cultural, and challenging to commit to.


Loneliness is on the increase, and can have a huge impact on our physical and mental health. It can make the burdens of life feel intolerable. But whatever notions of stoicism or self-reliance we may have had instilled in us, we aren’t meant to be able to bear these burdens on our own. It is there in the creation story in Genesis: ‘it is not good that [we] should be alone’.

What a difference it can make to be able to express to someone else how we are feeling in our body or our mind – what it is like being us – and for that to be part of the pattern of life, even if only for a few minutes at a time.  But to be heard with interest, and without change of subject or false comfort – however vivid and uncomfortable it is to hear – however powerless the listener may feel.  To share our fears – whether of failure, abandonment, pain or death – and to feel that another person can bear hearing it.

We may have chronic pain or a life-limiting condition.  We may be in psychological distress. We may feel it is stretching the

outer limits of what we can bear.  We may feel our life shrinking, we may feel trapped in our body or our mind, or that we are spinning out of control.  We may sometimes think that death would be preferable.


Or perhaps it is death itself that terrifies us, for whom suffering is merely the harbinger. In one of his later poems, Philip Larkin writes of his horror of what he calls ‘unresting death’:

Nothing more terrible, nothing more true…


This is what we fear – no sight, no sound,

No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,

Nothing to love or link with,

The anaesthetic from which none come round.

We may or may not be able to do anything about our underlying conditions, or the inescapable fact of our mortality, but feeling understood, accompanied and in solidarity with the sufferings of others can help us to bear what we are experiencing.  Sometimes it can help even just knowing that this kind of support is available if necessary, even if we find we can manage without it.

And, at its best the Church can have much to offer here – when it remains closest to its calling…

A community founded on an intense experience of suffering, death and life in all its fullness.  That takes pain seriously in all its forms and colours – and knows the taste of death, but holds on in hope that suffering can be transfigured.

A real, gathered community committed to each other and to the needs of the world.  A community that any can belong to, whatever our age, life stage or experience of life.  Whatever our health, whatever our questions, whatever our needs.

A community that pools its experience and its resources, receiving as it gives, and giving as it receives, becoming more than the sum of its parts.

A human community, that makes mistakes and often falls short of its founder, of its vocation – yet which keeps trying.

A community which meets regularly, and holds each other in mind, visiting and praying for those in anguish.

And prayer is another way of sharing our burdens.  In prayer we can give voice to the cries of our heart, our mind, our body.  We can be heard with interest and without judgement – and by one who has shared our experience.

This is why Christ needed to suffer, not so that we wouldn’t suffer, but so that when we do, we can find in him another who understands, who is in solidarity with us in our humanity, our

sensations, our limitations and mortality – who knows what it is to feel completely alone.


Who wants an untouchable God?  Suffering is no remote mystery to the God who is suffering parent, suffering child, suffering spirit.


In a similar way, paradoxically, we can find reassurance in hearing the depths of human experience articulated with rare power and clarity in poetry – such as Larkin’s – and of course many other forms of expression.  It can act as a container for our own uncontained feelings.


RS Thomas concludes that – ‘the meaning is in the waiting’.  It can feel a leap of faith, but there is a seed of hope in the idea that meaning can be found in the midst of suffering – can grow out of it. Not in the sense of us seeking suffering, or it being sent our way, but that when it comes, and we can’t remove it, it doesn’t have to mean the death of meaning – there can still be glimpses of beauty and creativity, insight and growth.  We may not have chosen to restrict our diet to manna, but it may still contain the sustenance we need.


So we’ve had some Larkin and RS Thomas, and I’d like to finish with some DH Lawrence. You may be familiar with a poem called ‘Shadows’, that he wrote in 1930 as he lay dying of TB, in which he finds hope and meaning that strengthens in the midst of his physical decline.  This is from the second half of the poem:

And if, in the changing phases of man’s life
I fall in sickness and in misery
my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead
and strength is gone, and my life
is only the leavings of a life:

and still, among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion, and snatches of renewal
odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet new, strange flowers
such as my life has not brought forth before, new blossoms of me

then I must know that still
I am in the hands of the unknown God…


Ed Davis