This Too Shall Last is equal parts memoir, therapy session, and theological treatise. It’s the memoir of a woman who experienced the sudden rug of health and vibrant youth pulled out from underneath her over ten years ago. It’s a therapy session with a licensed professional counselor. And it’s a theological treatise from a seminary graduate on the role of the suffering and weak in the church. At just over 200 pages, it’s a relatively short book and yet packed with engagement on a topic most would rather keep to a cozy paragraph — something neat and easily wrapped up with a tidy bow.
Ramsey starts the book with a pointed statement: “This is not a before and after story.”
It is unique to read such an honest book about this kind of chronic suffering written by someone smack in the middle of her own. Not looking back on her successful escape or triumphant victory – you too can beat suffering in these three easy steps – but, as one who admits that even during the writing of this book she was faced with really hard things and the inevitable question, “Do I really believe what I’m writing?”
The fact that she has to live out what she is selling here lends so much credibility and weight to what at times might feel impossible – like inviting others into what we would much rather hide and power through. This really challenged something I have swallowed over the entirety of my own 20 years of living with broken health – the glorification of bootstrapping and being “in constant pain, but no one would ever know it.”
Ramsey firmly posits, “Our stories can block us from grace when unacknowledged and forgotten, but when remembered with respect and care, they reveal the fingerprints of Christ’s incarnation in our lives.”
She states that the chronically ill begin to see pain as their enemy. I resonate. But I see an enemy just as significant in the day-to-day practical theologies of those who have entered into your Day 7,000 of chronic pain and on their Day 1 can’t comprehend all the days – and all the platitudes and frustrations and appointments and disappointments – that have come before. The knee-jerk reactions, shallow belief systems, pity instead of empathy, impatience and implication, and bad theology that bulldoze the sufferer just as we begin to see in Scripture, prayer, and the lives of long-dead saints the bittersweetness of the weight, worth, and gift that suffering has to offer.
This is why Ramsey’s book is so important not just as tangible therapeutic help for those with chronic suffering, but for the church as a whole – for pastors and small group leaders and prayer teams and anyone who wants to be a real spiritual friend to those in pain. Some in your pews and around the potluck table live with suffering that looks closely like Ramsey’s, with a hard-to-pronounce and serious diagnosis or the visible crippling of her body. But there are others whose suffering you won’t see as clearly, who may not share Ramsey’s gift for articulation and expression of the internal struggles and spiritual needs that accompany their own stories.
I implore you to let Ramsey guide you into her story, her theological framework of suffering, and the liminal space that might make you squirm a little. Welcome her many metaphors and anecdotes as an invitation into a story that is very likely shared by many around you who are desperate for you to show up for them with a more robust and realistic doctrine of suffering. Not just for their sake, but for the church as a body. Ramsey offers a thorough explanation for why “the church needs the embodied witness of weakness to fully inhabit the story of God’s Kingdom.”
One such story Ramsey shares that made me weepy was the day she went on a beautiful hike with strong and healthy friends. With a body that could not easily keep up, she found herself left behind while they all made it to the glorious waterfall destination. She says, “This is how suffering can feel. Like a forest whose light is threatening, a place we lose our companions. We panic as we wonder if we will ever find a way out. When suffering invades our lives, we feel lost, left behind by the church while they keep blissfully hiking toward a waterfall of grace we fear we’ll never reach.”
Ramsey invites us to name stories of weakness in the context of the whole story of Scripture, to turn towards our bodies with compassion as we look to the embodied life of Jesus who “didn’t merely identify himself with those who suffer, but became one who suffers,” to find the means of grace and power (in the Eucharist, spiritual disciplines, and elsewhere), and to reimagine a future not defined by the value-system of Western Christendom but by a suffering Christ.
Many of her arguments echo the conversations that led my husband and me into the Anglican tradition seven years ago. We needed the embodied focus on the entire Biblical narrative, to be nourished by the weekly Eucharist and confession, the incarnational focus on the physical, tangible, and active presence of God in our midst, and the stewardship of the mysteries of our faith.
May the stories of suffering around us be more than a ministry speedbump or potential success story for our prayer ministry. When we’re tempted to say (or at least imply), “I’m praying God fixes you soon so you can stop bumming us out and you can start pulling your weight,” may we pause and really think about what we’re suggesting.
In this much-needed book, Ramsey invites us into a better way to make sense of chronic suffering: “In Christ the suffering we want to escape becomes the place of more fully participating in the reality of the kingdom of God. Our union with Christ does not rescue us from our earthy existence. Rather it plants our feet on the arid soil of suffering and makes it fertile ground.”
I was honored to join K.J. Ramsey’s Launch Team and was offered an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy). Her book was officially released yesterday, May 12, 2020.