I have reached the age at which many of my peers are retiring. It seems every day, someone I know is turning in their professional position for the privilege of life without the demands of full-time employment.

When I hear of another colleague who has decided to retire, I am always intrigued and frequently ask, “Why? How did you know the time was right to retire?”

There is only one thing that occasionally tempts me to feel like I should perhaps join their ranks. These are the days when I feel overwhelmed by the pain that is an ubiquitous part of the human condition. Even in the relatively small parishes in which I have served over the past thirty-eight years, the litany of suffering I have encountered has been almost overwhelming. Pain is an occupational hazard of priesthood.

I have walked with people through paralyzing depression, desperate loneliness and deep family dysfunction. I have sat with people suffering from mood disorders and excruciating mental health challenges, and the bewilderment of those who love them in their suffering. I have seen dreams of happiness shattered by betrayal or the inability to resolve irreconcilable differences. I have witnessed abuse, dishonesty, and the crushing burden of failed professional expectations. I have seen the pain of terrible injustice, trauma and excruciating economic hardship. I have shared in the grief of suicide, violent death, and debilitating illness. I have stood at the graveside as we lowered a tiny casket containing the body of a small child into the ground.

Time and again, I have sought to speak words of comfort to people who were deeply grieving. More often than I wish to recall, I have sat with those whose hearts seemed on the verge of breaking.

At times it has felt too much to bear.

It is all very well to encourage professional distance. But “professional distance” is not what we do in the church. In the church we hold those who grieve. We commit to bearing the burden of life with those who feel unable to bear their lives alone.

We sit with the broken, even when we feel shattered ourselves. We do not turn aside. We do not refuse to see the reality of pain. Even when there is nothing on earth we can do to fix it, or to alleviate the suffering, we stay and try to stand steady.

This is the heart of Gospel.  This is what Jesus did, he who

‘has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.’ (Isaiah 53:4; cf. Matthew 8:17 ESV)

The cross says that God may not fix all the broken bits, but God never backs away. God never turns from the suffering. God does not flinch even when our experience of life cries out,

with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46)

There are times when this is the only possible response. It is all we can see.

But in this seeing a miracle is born. The miracle is that we cannot be destroyed by that which we are willing to see. It is only the things we deny, reject, or turn away from that have the power to crush us.

Of course, pain is not simply an occupational hazard for clergy. It is an inevitability of life. If you have people in your world, there will be grief.

Life hurts. Life hurts a lot; it hurts frequently and it hurts deeply.

The only question is how I respond to your pain, my own pain, the pain we share, the pain of the world. I can seek to retire from the pain. I can close my heart and retreat from reality, sheltering behind an artificial fortress that seeks to protect me from the hard bits of life. Or, I can follow Jesus and open more deeply with compassion, gentleness and love to the hard realities that are an inevitable part of being truly and deeply human.

When I try to banish the pain, I only create more suffering. When I bear the reality of life’s struggle, the possibility of resurrection dawns. Light does shine in the darkness. (John 1:5)

So, I determine to follow Jesus, to bear the sorrow and the suffering in the confidence that there is always a deeper reality born whenever I refuse to turn away. There is no retiring from pain.