The book Between Shades of Gray, not to be confused with 50 Shades of Grey, chronicles the story of Lina who is a Lithuanian teenager deported by the Stalin regime to Siberia in 1941. While it is not a true story, it is an historical fiction novel. The book tells of Lina’s time in a Siberian work camp where she, her mother, brother, and some fellow Lithuanians work in bitter cold and filthy conditions. Their camp is disease-ridden as they live in confined quarters and are given only small rations of bread daily.
During the early weeks of their deportation from Lithuania to Siberia, the people were given some protein-rich slop. As they got closer and closer to their final destination, there daily slop turned to daily bread and the pieces got smaller and smaller. These Lithuanians had once been a perceived threat to the Stalin-led Russia because they were university professors, school teachers, librarians, and postal workers. All well-educated people with better-off lifestyles were relegated to slavery.
One of the things Lina’s mother took with her when they left home was the family Bible. On holy days and Sundays, Lina’s mother would read from her Bible. When someone was gravely ill, Lina’s mother would read from her Bible. The faith of the Lithuania people sustained them day in and day out of their oppression.
After some time, the camps were allowed to send mail to family members who had escaped deportation. The people would write verses of Psalms in their letters to convey messages about their conditions or the world news. It was their cryptic way of communicating the truth of their reality. They knew the Psalms well enough to choose a verse to convey what Stalin was doing around the Baltic states, who was sick, and which family members were alive and well in other camps.
It was the Psalms that comforted Lina’s friends and family throughout times of illness, in times of worship, and in times of searching. It was not their tiny pieces of bread which barely nourished their frail bodies that sustained them. It was the fullness of the Bread from Heaven that strengthened their spirits and gave them hope for an end to their suffering and the courage to persevere. Strength, courage, spiritual sustenance, hope, and love were the benefits the Lithuanian slaves received from their faith.
More than the daily bread ration, the Lithuanians found comfort in knowing that Jesus suffered like they were suffering. As their bodies were being abused and broken, as their blood was shed by injury, illness, and murder, Jesus knew their suffering. The Lithuanian slaves were mistreated at the hand of an oppressive government and treated as enemies of the state. Some were killed; most were beaten and all were oppressed. Jesus knew this same treatment all too well. He was beaten, abused, broken, and murdered as an enemy of the state.
There are trillions of stories of people who have suffered abuse, slavery, murder, mutilation, and torture. There are stories from the Holocaust. There are stories from Africa of people who traveled through the Middle Passage into slavery. There are stories from the wars we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are all stories of people for whom we have empathy. Many of these people found solace in the stories of Jesus’ suffering and found hope in the promise of eternal life.
In the face of our own suffering, we find comfort knowing that others have and do suffer far worse than we will ever know.
There are common Christian sayings that we use as part of our daily vocabulary. They are automatic responses to life situations. Some of them are very well meaning. For instance, that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Or, this is your cross to bear. The one that I hate to hear is, “Others have it worse.”
Yes, there is always someone who has it worse. The saying says get over it, whatever it is. Or, don’t feel sorry for yourself, feel sorry for someone else. Or, you don’t have it so bad. Or, find comfort that someone else suffers more.
But, it discredits the suffering we’re going through.
The truth is whatever we are suffering is valid. It shouldn’t be compared to what someone else is going through. Our suffering is real suffering. I propose we stop consoling ourselves with the notion that people have it worse than us and realize that Jesus wants to comfort us in what WE are suffering.
The problem is validating our suffering requires us to feel our pain. Pain is uncomfortable. We humans will do anything possible to avoid pain. But, it is when we feel our pain that we can turn to Christ for consolation. When we are willing to face it, we are able to invite Jesus, the one in whom God dwells, to abide in us.
Jesus knows what it is like to be human. He is the One in whom God dwells. God knows what it is like to be human. Jesus knows what its like to be tired from working all day. Jesus knows what its like to endure students who don’t seem to get it no matter how many times you try to teach them. He knows what it’s like to try to find time for prayer amidst a busy schedule. Jesus knows what it is like to be unemployed trusting God will provide. Jesus knows what its like to feel like the world is chasing you down for one more minute of your time.
That’s why the Bread of Heaven came down…to know what its like to be human. The Bread of Heaven came down to Earth to be with us so that when we suffer God knows what that suffering is.
All this talk in the Scripture text today about flesh and blood is, to be sure, proof that Jesus was in fact human. At the time this Gospel was recorded, there were some who believed Jesus wasn’t really human. There was a notion that perhaps he was a spirit or a ghost or a vision. This text today is a reminder Jesus really was human. It is a reminder too “that as Jesus lived and died in the flesh so we too live and die in the flesh; that as Jesus suffered, so will [we] suffer; that as Jesus died and rose again from the dead, so will we who have put our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior one day die and rise again to new life.”
I, in my suffering, find solace in the fact that God was the Bread from Heaven that came down as Jesus to experience being human. I have bipolar disorder. That is my suffering.
I was first diagnosed with depression when I was a teenager. I was treated for depression for nearly 20 years with some success. While I was in seminary, I was properly diagnosed as having bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder is something you’ve probably heard about in the news. There are various types of bipolar disorder. Generally, bipolar disorder is a mental illness in which a person has mild to severe swings between mania and depression. Mania is a hyperactive anxious state. Depression is something you’re more familiar with.
Currently, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. is being treated at the Mayo Clinic for bipolar disorder. Some have the type of bipolar disorder that causes such severe mood swings that s/he needs to be hospitalized to recover. I have not had an episode like that, but my mood does shift between mania and depression.
You have now witnessed my behavior in both a manic state and a depressed state. You may or may not have noticed. I notice because I am self-aware and need to be so in order to manage my moods. I take medicine and see a counselor and a psychiatrist. I’ve seen God at work in finding the right treatment and mental health professionals. I know it is God who reveals to me when I’m depressed or manic and helps me get back to a stable mood.
With a few years now of proper diagnosis and treatment, I suffer less. Still, in the middle of a cycle between mania and depression, I ask, “Why?” Then, I turn to Christ and know that he knows what its like to be human. Maybe he doesn’t know what it is like to be mentally ill. But, he knows enough about loneliness and anxiety to have empathy for those who are depressed or manic. He’s cured enough of it to know the suffer we endure. I am long suffering because he suffered.
Mary Lin Hudson, a writer for Good Preacher, affirms that: “The Incarnate One was full of grace and truth ([as] John 1:14 [says]), but he was fully flesh and blood in every respect. He was crucified and died in the flesh ([as it is written in] John 19:34), and he appeared to his disciples and Thomas in the flesh ([as we are familiar with from] John 20:19-29). It was Jesus’ flesh and blood through which the life-giving power of God was revealed. 
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