I have seldom heard such crushing news that I couldn’t bear listening to it. I have heard many hard stories. But this one broke my heart and almost made me run – almost.
I sat and listened as a woman told of her journey that began as a Christian physician in a worn-torn, Muslim-majority country which weaved its way through bombings, bullets, and resettlements as a refugee. Her journey brought her to the US, where her faith in Jesus strengthened her yet again to learn English, a strange culture, and to start life over again as an adult. It was all too much for her husband who left her with a young son to care for, so now she’s doing it on her own.
But none of this is what broke me. None of this was new to me, and (hopefully this doesn’t sound callous) none of this surprised me.
Since she told me she was a believer, I asked if she had been able to connect with a good church here – had she found community among other believers in the US who were helping her cope with the arduous task of beginning again? Her answer is what made me catch my breath and try (unsuccessfully) to hold back tears.
She said, “I go to a good church. The people there – they have been kind, very kind. The Word is preached, and they have been very generous. They have helped me find a home and work. They have helped me with my bills. They have helped me figure out how to go to school and how to get needed help for my son.”
And then it came…
“But they leave me alone.”
She said, “In my country, if I was having a very hard day – 7 or 8-hour surgeries where I didn’t know if the patient would survive, babies born dead, limbs shattered because of guns – anything – I could call my brothers and sisters in Christ and they would be there. They would dodge bullets if they needed to – THEY DID! They would come to me and be with me. They would let me cry and let out my anguish without running away from it. I could endure all of that because they were always there.”
She went on, “You asked if I have found community with my church here. Not like in my country. People here don’t know how to sit with someone in pain, but my brothers and sisters there did. They knew they couldn’t take your pain away, but they weren’t afraid to sit with you in it. My church here is kind – but they run away from things that are not comfortable. And my life – my pain – is not comfortable for anyone. So, they leave me alone. I am very alone.”
If that doesn’t break your heart, there is something very wrong. I felt overcome with sadness for my new friend, but also a deep, deep sense of shame and grief for my beloved brethren here. I know that what she said is too true. We don’t know how to sit with people in pain. We don’t like being uncomfortable.
I found myself asking, “What kind of suffering does it take to wake us up?” If a refugee who has been so terribly traumatized won’t do it, what will? If abused women and children won’t do it, what will? If death and disease and trials that brake us won’t do it, what will?
Beloved church – dear, kind, generous church – we must wake up to the tremendous power of our presence in another’s life. We don’t need to know the answers – most of them are unknowable! But we do need to show up. We need to let people cry and pour out their anguish and pain. We need to be patient when they need to do it again and again until the storm is past. Suffering doesn’t care about schedules, and no sufferer will trust you with their story if you can’t first sit in the presence in their pain. We need to be there – and stay there while the storm rages. And since the weight of suffering is so great, sufferers usually need multiple helpers.
We don’t like to make ourselves vulnerable to the discomfort of much of anything really, let alone sitting in the presence of unrelenting suffering. None of us wants pain. We don’t know what to do with it. We don’t know how to just let it be. But we’re called to bear one another’s burdens – it’s what makes us different from the world around us. It’s how we demonstrate Christ’s love.
What keeps us so distant? Work? Sports schedules? School plays? Ministries that keep us running around with zero time to spare? These are not bad things, but none of them is good enough. We are called to die to ourselves for the sake of the gospel. If a brother or sister is naked or hungry, we feed them well enough, which is good. But if one is in prison (and what sufferer wouldn’t describe intractable pain as prison?) we are told to visit them – be there.
We all needed flesh incarnate to understand the love of God. We see it in Jesus – Immanuel – God with us. But we learn it from one another. We learn it from someone demonstrating it to us. God uses us to reveal his incarnate presence to others. Think about the awesome privilege that is: you, a frail and faulted human being have the honor of representing the living God in this way to a hurting soul. This is a powerful gift to humanity. Take it up – cheerfully, gladly, reverently.
Who is there in your life right now that you can give some of yourself to? Who is there right now who is suffering and lonely? Who is there who is aching for another human soul to simply show up and be there with them?
Go. Be there.