About ten years ago, my wife Kelly and I saw the world premiere of a play at the Alley Theater called Gruesome Playground Injuries. Written by Rajiv Joseph, it was billed as a dark comedy and at least in my eyes, turned out more dark than comedy. The play's protagonists, Doug and Kayleen, are not so much in love as mystically connected--magnetized by how the pain they experience keeps bringing them back together. They recognize themselves in each other's ongoing, tragic stories. The two first meet in the nurse's office at their elementary school. Kayleen's been stricken by a stomach ache that's becoming persistent, and Doug, a self-destructive daredevil, has been sent there after riding his bike off the roof of the school.
The play then follows the scarred and star-crossed pair over the next three decades in a non-linear fashion as their lives continue to intersect in a mental institution, a funeral parlor, an ice rink, a rehab clinic, and assorted hospital rooms. Sometimes these encounters are because of injury, often due to their own self-destructive tendencies, but seemingly always as a result of common heartbreak. The main theme of the play is that pain has a way of stopping time for a brief moment and binding us to one another.
And it does, doesn't it? My friend Mark Stolaroff ripped his leg open on a sprinkler head in my backyard while we were playing football when we were about nine. We?re still friends. In fact, when I look back at it, all of my own gruesome ?playground? injuries - the bad scar on my knee I got when I was playing with my cousins and I slid to catch a fly ball and landed on a broken bottle; the concussion I received at age twelve while racing bikes with my brother, and I flew helmet-less over the handlebars and onto the street; the broken nose I sustained as a teenager in a racquetball game with another life-long friend - they all brought me closer to someone.
The way Rajiv Joseph's play was written and the way Alley Theater presented it, the concept of the binding power of suffering was a bit too overt and graphic, but it did effectively drive home the idea that as human beings, we?re all just accidents waiting to happen. As our church's former pastor Bill Turner once put it so disarmingly in one of his sermons, ?Brothers and sisters,? he said, ?we live in a place where trouble can find us.?
While I?m firmly in the camp that says God doesn't cause the accidents and injuries we experience, it's still hard for us not to surface the question, ?Why does God allow these things to happen?? I realize I?m treading on some difficult terrain here, and I?m not dismissive of the question. We must wrestle with it. In the end, I suspect this may not quite be the right question to ask either. We might as well ask why we?re even alive and running around at all in this dangerous playground we call our lives.
Not long ago, we held a memorial service for Jean Unger at our church. Jean taught Sunday School to kindergarteners for half a century. She rarely missed a Sunday when she was in town. In fact, the only such Sunday anyone remembers she ever missed was on the weekend her son was involved in a terrible car accident that took his life. Jean's husband, John, an equally remarkable and faithful man, later wrote this line in a poem about their family's pain in which he addressed his friends, his church, and the sanctification and binding power of suffering:
?God,? John wrote, ?held us in your arms.?
This past Sunday, our church sang the hymn, How Firm a Foundation.No one is completely sure who wrote the words to it, but whoever the person was, their lyrics echo the Gospel story and suggest that God is more than capable of doing something powerful with the troubles that find us. The song tells us that though it's reasonable to want to avoid suffering, it's also undeniable that God can and does sanctify our pain.
It might be a bad scar on one's knee from the playground that creates a beautiful friendship. It might be a mystical connection with a kindred spirit that somehow arises in a hospital room or rehab clinic. Or it might be in the life-long embrace of friends after an unspeakable loss. Of the firm foundation our faith provides to us in difficult times, the unknown hymn lyricist poetically put it this way:
?I will be with you, your troubles to bless
And sanctify to you your deepest distress.