On Stewardship

The best sort of pain, I hear myself mutter when I think no one is listening, is the kind I don’t feel anymore. 

And when I’m feeling particularly cynical, the scene oft replays wherein Westley, still thrashing about in his own, dares mock the grief of his beloved.

Life is pain, Highness, he chides.

It’s a bit of a recurring theme not in my dreams but in my waking these many weeks. A few months ago I paced my office, still a bit dopey from a Sunday afternoon nap. I’d felt the winds change long before Autumn had threatened to put out the summer sun. I saw a different glow emerging over the horizon, a change and a loss creeping in for which I was ill prepared and for which I had not asked.

My response to the anticipated ache had none of my usual careful measurement and analysis. Before I could fully think through the implications, I found myself facedown remembering one thing, one thing only:

Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

Who are the only ones who receive comfort? I asked myself, the same question I’d asked over and over of others. And always the good student, I repeated back the required answer, Only those that mourn.


It remains a matter of some debate whether my next words emerged from the most or least lucid moment I’ve experienced in my half-lived life to date. But I said it, and at least in the stillness of that moment meant it, though I immediately scrambled about looking for the backspace key that doesn’t exist for this sort of thing.

Do the thing You’re doing, Father. It’s not like I can stop You.
But then also do this: Let me feel the pain in its fullness.
I’ll need Your true comfort. No measure of self-medication will do. 

I still blame the cobwebs of daytime sleep. No epidural block?

He’s been outrageously faithful, I can tell you. To the experience of pain as well as to His comfort.


It came at me yesterday while I led our adult study. I scratched a clumsy reproduction of Paul Miller’s diagram on the white board, hacking out red scribbles in the open chasm between lines representing our hope and our reality. That land mass between the two, Miller says, is the desert, and it’s where we live. And I so wanted to add an extra S in that dry, desolate word and change it out for something that would delight my mouth so much more than a spoonful of hot sand.

God customizes deserts for each of us, Miller would say, reflecting on the hand-crafted desert experiences of Joseph, of Moses, of David, even of Jesus. God seems to have a preference for working in the desert heat.

The still, dry air of the desert brings the sense of helplessness that is so crucial to the spirit of prayer. You come face to face with your inability to live, to have joy, to do anything of lasting worth.  . . . The desert is God’s best hope for the creation of an authentic self. (Paul Miller, A Praying Life, pp. 184-185)

At the same time, we seem to favor the cool draft of air conditioning and the condensation dripping off a glass of ice cold lemonade. Andrew Byers suggests that we seek the relief of a snow cone for not only our personal pain and disappointment but for the pain of all creation as well.

The groaning of creation is so raucous and unsettling that most of us would prefer to clasp our hands over our ears or crank up the volume on our iPod just a few more clicks. And those of us who can afford an iPod to crank up probably live in environments that have been carefully designed to squelch out the noise of creation’s groaning. (Andrew Byers, Faith Without Illusions, p. 38)

Perhaps Westley was right.

There is pain aplenty to go around.

Despair comes easily enough when we consider how many times we’ve staggered  full speed toward the glassy surface we see on the glaring sand, just up over that next dune, only to watch the cool spring dry up and vanish, leaving us more parched and blistered than before, just for having hoped.

The desert seems far away when, with the Frio River as a backdrop, Jeffrey Overstreet lifts Frederick Buechner’s words off the page, suggesting that rather than burying our pain in the back yard of our souls like the unfaithful servant, we instead steward it well, bringing a substantial return on the Master’s investment.

Stewardship of pain. What does that mean? I have thought a lot about it. I think it means, before anything else, to keep in touch with your pain, to keep in touch with the sad times, with the hard times of your past for many reasons. I think it is often those times when we were most alive, when we were somehow closest to being most vitally human beings.

Keep in touch with it because it is at those moments of pain where you are most open to the pain of other people — most open to your own deep places. Keep in touch with those sad times because it is then that you are most aware of your own powerlessness, crushed in a way by what is happening to you, but also most aware of God’s power to pull you through it, to be with you in it. Keeping in touch with your pain, I think, means also to be true to who in your depths you have it in you to be — depths of pain and also in a way depths of joy, because they both come from the same place. (Frederick Buechner, The Stewardship of Pain)

The stewardship of pain. 

Indeed. What does it mean?


Photos: Top, autumn leaves in my front yard
Bottom: worship space overlooking the Frio
River at Laity Lodge, by Diana Trautwein. Used
with permission.

Read Buechner's full message here.

Linking with Michelle today.
Use it on Monday

38 responses

  1. You really prayed that? To feel the pain in its fullness?

    Holy mackerel. Still wandering in the desert, still craving a snow cone, not sure I’m ready to utter those words.

    Westley was right, though. Anyone who says differently is selling something.In the days ahead, I’ll have many hours on a train to mull your words here. I like what Buechner said about stewarding pain. Not sure I’m ready to ask for more talents, though.

    2011/10/10 at 6:23 PM

    • Let’s just say this: I can be outright stupid when I wake up from a nap.

      2011/10/10 at 6:26 PM

  2. Dee (aka Ethel)

    …was recently asked what my mountain top experiences were and realized they were moments of God’s grace in the depths of the valley. I hope you have a few of those in the pain.

    2011/10/10 at 6:41 PM

    • Hey there, Ethel. What fun to have you and Lucy here together. Isn’t what you observe here just the doggone truth? Where else does His grace appear more exquisite?

      2011/10/10 at 6:53 PM

  3. still though,
    I wish you weren’t feeling pain.

    2011/10/10 at 6:46 PM

    • You know though, Deb, it’s okay. It’s not different than all the rest. In fact, I’d say most of the time far less. But it is what it is.

      2011/10/10 at 6:52 PM

  4. I have never prayed like you did, but there is wisdom to these words. To not mourn or feel is to close up one’s heart, which blocks out others’ pain, too…and the result of that is lack of concern for others who are in pain, who are lost without Christ. I’ll take a broken heart versus a cold one any day.

    2011/10/10 at 8:00 PM

    • I’ve never prayed that before or since… I don’t, quite truthfully, really want my heart that open most of the time. But, I imagine, He’ll do what He’s going to do, with or without my cooperation.

      2011/10/10 at 8:44 PM

  5. Lyla – This was just amazing. The dream, the waking, the pain, the prayer. I have prayed this too, though it’s so terribly frightening. If we walk through pain and don’t feel, though, aren’t we wasting it? Aren’t we failing to be good stewards of it?

    By the way, I love the double-colon separators between your sections. It’s a favorite writing technique of mine, too! I think it’s very David Dark-like — putting several little bits of story together and letting the reader work to make connections. Love it!

    2011/10/10 at 8:05 PM

    • Ha. I use the separator because I’m terrible at transitions and worse at section titles! 🙂

      Coming from you, Charity, the encouragement not to waste our pain are words worth listening to again and again. Thank you.

      2011/10/10 at 8:43 PM

  6. First, I gotta confess. Are we talking The Princess Bride? I had to Google “Westley.”

    There, I’ve said it.

    Pain. I want to be brave and say that I want His will for me in all things….even those that bring pain.

    But most days, I’m a weenie. A faint-faithed weenie. 😦

    And some days, I get lost between stewardship and denial. I am the princess of, “It’s not that bad…look what so-and-so has to deal with!” As in, I’m missing my mother terribly, on the eve of the third anniversary of my delivery of her eulogy….but poor David has lost both his parents within a year!

    Exactly.Like. That.

    2011/10/10 at 8:37 PM

    • I hear you, Sheila. My stuff doesn’t stack up and even in the face of that, most days I’m a weenie right along with you. I don’t imagine I stand to acquire more than the one talent of the parable. It’s just a matter of what I opt to do with it.

      Yes ma’am, Princess Bride. Some of the best lines in any film. 🙂

      2011/10/10 at 8:42 PM

      • I just read Dan King’s new book, and I’m pretty sure I’m always going to be in the weenie leagues when it comes to pain.

        And I wonder, “why me? How did I manage to be born in this place of abundance bordering on obscenity?”

        2011/10/10 at 8:44 PM

  7. forgot to subscribe. 😦

    2011/10/10 at 8:37 PM

  8. You take us to deep places, Lyla. You invite us along on the journey and we are better because of it.

    This reminds me of words Scott Cairns read last year from his book, in that very same room overlooking the Frio. You might enjoy the book, “The End of Suffering.”

    2011/10/10 at 8:44 PM

    • That book is on my never-ending list. Thanks Deidra.

      2011/10/10 at 8:46 PM

  9. sonny72562

    I was not quick to answer, had to actually write out the response, still not to sure, but here goes…I am going to try to sum things up using parts of chapter 21 of A Praying Life. Miller writes; The hardest part of being in the desert is that there is no way out. You don’t know when it will end. There is no relief in sight. I think most, if not all of us can attest to this. It is custom made for each of us. Pain is just another facet of the desert experience. Without the pain and suffering, what would be accomplished? If we pay attention, we learn from both. Was not our Lord subjected to pain and suffering in so many different ways? He was rejected, insulted and so on, do we not go through the same whether it be family, coworkers, friends, etc…. It is as Paul Miller writes: Suffering burns away the false selves. You stop caring about what other people think about you. The desert is God’s best hope for the creation of an authentic self. So very true. Looking back, I can see a difference in myself, but I can also see that God is taking His own sweet blessed time. He can change a person instantly if He desires, but oftentimes it is slow, painfully slow. I believe this is part of His process of separating the chaff from the grain. Slowly so that there is no doubt in your mind that He has you. Remember, the best is yet to come.
    Hope this wasn’t too long winded, just had to get it out.

    2011/10/10 at 9:16 PM

    • Larry, thanks for sharing your thoughts here. This was a challenging chapter, to be sure. And coming at the time that so many common streams converged for me… “Godspeed,” I’ve learned, is not fast. Nor is it by the straightest route.

      2011/10/11 at 2:31 PM

  10. Lyla, Every sentence here bears a blog post its own. Where to begin? Where to end?

    I keep settling in on this one: “God seems to have a preference for working in the desert heat.” That sentence both comforts and frightens me.

    I read Deidra’s comment above. I, too, thought of “The End of Suffering” while reading this. I opened up my journal from Laity, one year ago, and found these words on my Scott Cairns page: “… suffering as a means.”

    A means toward what? I don’t remember what he said exactly, when he read.

    But I’m filling in the blanks now.

    This is a rich, rich post.

    2011/10/10 at 9:19 PM

    • “Suffering as a means” all by itself is a mouthful. Without the “toward what.”

      It just is a means.

      Thanks for that.

      2011/10/11 at 2:32 PM

  11. I don’t know how to comment Lyla. There is so much here. I’ve been in that place of pain, in fact the circumstances really have not changed, and rather than open myself to it as you did I fought – hard. There was a foolish part of me that must have thought if I got made enough at God He would relent and change His mind. He didn’t. It left me in the middle – turn my back on Him and live in hopelessness or just surrender to it. The word He kept whispering was trust. I wanted to, but there was that other self again – so afraid that if I trusted He would give me more pain than I could possibly bear.
    In the end, it was Ps. 73:25 “Whom have I in heaven but You…” There really was no where else for me to go.
    In the surrendering, there was peace. Not a permanent peace, for I tend to let myself wander off into fear and doubt. When I can truly trust – truly believe He is who He said He is – somehow that peace is there.

    2011/10/10 at 10:04 PM

  12. Umm, this is deep stuff. And it’s awfully late. I’ll be back . . .

    2011/10/10 at 10:19 PM

  13. Ten years ago, I thought desert experiences were short lived… that my faith was enough to carry me over the desert. That way I could see the sand, feel the heat, and understand what ‘desert’ was, study the topography a bit and have a better view to see where I was going… and, yes… have the balls/nerve/ego/pride to talk about it…. like some expert… riiiiight … “incontheivable”… (couldn’t help it) ad vomitus. At the retreat, I mentioned to Diana DRGT about that stage of life where you think you know it all and try and tell everybody. She wisely mentioned that’s not a stage of life… it’s a stage of immaturity.

    Anyway… fast forward to desert living… he is here… he is faithful… he’s been slowly taking a few thorns out along the way. I may have to keep one or two of them, that in my ‘thrashing around,’ I put there myself. They hurt.

    Lyla, I see praying that prayer as his strength in you… emerging. Jesus prayed that prayer… Thy will. (I won’t mention references to caterpillars shedding skin or face masks here and how that just might actually involve pain.) I’m thinking of a Tozer quote right now… the one about attending to our pain, but looking to God more. I’ll find it tomorrow… you have my thoughts, my friendship, my empathy and encouragement.

    2011/10/11 at 1:08 AM

    • The caterpillar skins and face masks — they make perfect sense here, Pat. They do.

      2011/10/11 at 2:34 PM

  14. Dee (aka Ethel)

    Have you read “A Path Through Suffering” by Elisabeth Elliot?

    2011/10/11 at 7:36 AM

    • I have not… And so, another book climbs up on the stack… 😉

      2011/10/11 at 2:43 PM

  15. The Dread Pirate Roberts (aka Westley) is, indeed, a wise sage. I went to see that movie with a friend from treatment, and it still profoundly moves me. Yes, life is pain. Did we really expect anything else?
    Great pain = great joy. I don’t understand it. I don’t necessarily like it. But I know it’s true.

    2011/10/11 at 12:19 PM

    • Megan, I mustn’t confess here how many times I’ve seen the film. You might be embarrassed for me.

      Great pain = great joy.

      You are far wiser than our man Westley.

      2011/10/11 at 2:35 PM

  16. “Have fun storming the castle!” Okay, I got that out of my system. So much here, Lyla.

    You are so poetic – I think I like this type of poetry better than poems, if that makes any sense.

    I’ve said pretty much all of my life that I am allergic to pain. God wasn’t impressed. He told me to take a benadryl and get a move on.

    I’ve tried reminding myself that “blessed are those that mourn”. I’ve reminded myself of the verse somewhere in Psalms (or is it Proverbs?) that says “those that sow in tears shall reap in joy”. It all sounds good, but when it comes down to it, I still just don’t want to be in pain.

    One of the sayings that helps me through the desert is not from the Bible. It is from “The Little Prince” by Antoine de St. Exupery. He said, “what makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well”. The hope of a small oasis as I journey through the desert – a small victory – keeps me going sometimes when the end of the journey seems so far away. When I am so parched and dry that the larger victory seems outside my grasp, that little hope… that little hope is my travel companion.

    I might have to try that double-colon thing when transition eludes me (which is always).


    2011/10/11 at 1:15 PM

    • Carolyn, I once carried on a settlement negotiation with an attorney nearly all in P.B. quotes. I was almost disappointed when we almost got it done, between iocane powder, peanuts and “why didn’t you list that as one of our assets in the first place?”

      There is always hope, Carolyn. Always.

      2011/10/11 at 2:43 PM

  17. Found the Tozer quote… (We Travel An Appointed Way)… in a chapter on the vital place of self- criticism….

    “We might point out a danger here (for there will always be perils in the way of spiritual progress): it is that we become morbidly introspective and lose the legitimate happy cheer from our souls. … and we can avoid it by permitting Christ to engage our attention, rather than our own souls. The safe rule is, whenever we look at ourselves, be penitent; when we look at Christ, be joyous. And look at Christ most of the time, looking inward only to corret our faults and grieve for our imperfections.”

    I incorrectly remembered this to be about focusing on our own pain, although, I still think it fits. Dare I interject on Tozer’s thought?… in that, while I must be purposeful in attending to my own pain and looking to meet Christ in it (I used to believe I must first invite him; without realizing he has allowed it, is authoring it, and is already there)… I cannot let it wholly engage my attention…. but must allow Christ to engage me more. Looking to him with you.

    Sorry, so long…
    I read PB long before the movie, and yes, actually wrote to the publisher for that alternative scene of the fall into the ravine. Heard back that they were unable to send it due to copyright issues. pssh. Top favorite movie with Shawshank Redemption. =)

    2011/10/12 at 7:24 AM

    • Pat, thanks for adding this. I think you (and Tozer, kind of him to back you up here 🙂 ) have it square on, that being swallowed in our pain does nothing but that. But looking up, looking out, not just in, keeps us from being swallowed. For me, the encouragement to “keep in touch with” my pain is a necessary admonishment as well, as I’m more inclined to reject it out of hand and thus miss any of its gift. If I let it, it drives me back to Him, and all is as it should be. I really appreciate this additional dimension in the discussion. A cautionary and hopeful one.

      2011/10/12 at 8:01 AM

  18. So, so much here, Lyla. First, let me say that I am sorry that you are suffering. I hope you are finding some comfort and a bit of oasis from time to time in your desert wanderings.

    I love that Fred B. quote (I have to abbreviate his name, because I never can spell it and I’m too lazy to scroll up and get it right). There is so much truth there — that suffering opens us up to the suffering of others. That it helps us delve more deeper than we might otherwise. That Fred is a wise, wise guy. And you, too, my friend (gal, I mean).

    2011/10/12 at 9:07 PM

  19. Something must be wrong with me. I’ve lived in the desert most of my life.

    And I LIKE it.

    I don’t know what to make of that.

    2011/10/12 at 9:18 PM

  20. Stewardship: the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to our care.

    He trusts us with it? Like we’re supposed to do something with it and not just get over it and move on? It’s a gift? A present? Tied up with a bow?

    And look at the servants who were given to steward–and those who stewarded well were given more.

    I’m not sure I Iike that plan.

    Enough already.

    Have you ever read The Gift of Pain by Philip Yancy and Paul Brand? I think it used to be called the Gift Nobody Wants? You might want to slip that in your pile if your tp-read pile if you haven’t already.

    Years and years ago, I asked–begged–God to let me feel what Jesus felt. I lay spreadeagled on the floor and waiting. And all I got was words–It’s over. It’s done. It’s finished.

    And yet . . . I’ve been shattered by pain–rated differently, I suppose, on the spiritual pain scale than others might rate. But through it, I’ve seen Him. Without it, would I know Him? What is it about shared shattering that binds us together?

    Customized pain.

    2011/10/16 at 2:03 PM

  21. I’ve heard of that one, haven’t read it. Scratch, scratch scratch, adding it to the list. 🙂

    I thought I was crazy, just asking that He let me feel it, a measure of accountability so I wouldn’t deny or medicate away what could bring me the gift of His sweet comfort. But asking to feel what Jesus felt? Holy cats, friend.

    Customized pain. And you’ve got your share of it going on again now. My heart is with yours.

    2011/10/16 at 8:56 PM

  22. Anne Lang Bundy

    I don’t know that anything binds people together more surely than shared pain, whether us and Jesus (Hi Snady), or with one another.

    There was a time when I quoted Josephine Hart: “Damaged people are dangerous—they know they can survive.” Damaged is one thing. Broken is quite another. Broken people don’t have the ability to even survive.

    That is, they have no ability apart from our Lord. He looks upon the broken people and says, “Aha! This is one I can work with, with no ability, in whom My strength can be manifest.”

    2011/10/18 at 11:42 PM

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