Tag Archives: Godly grief

Being a Neighbor to those Deeply Suffering

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Being a Neighbor to the Deeply Suffering

The shock of it all was numbing.  My mind – every ounce of energy I tried to find to think – was flailing to make sense of anything at all.  People were talking at me, but I couldn’t mentally connect one word to the next much less understand what they were saying.  I couldn’t figure out what was happening.  My world was collapsing around me and no one could tell me why.  My chest ached with a pain I had never experienced before, and I struggled to breathe and simultaneously try to hold back the sobs that shook me despite my inner protestations for them and everything else around me to stop!  Just stop!

When deep suffering strikes people are left incapacitated.  Whether the blow is physical, emotional, or something else, it knocks us breathless, so that even gasping for air feels like more than we can bear.  An indescribable, wordless, whirlwind of unanswerable questions and unidentifiable emotions flood over us until we feel, often, that we’d rather die than go on.

Do you know what to do to help someone in that state?  Do you know what to say – or sometimes more importantly, what not say to them?  Do you know how to be bodily with them in a way that is genuinely helpful?  How do you find what you need when someone else’s pain threatens to drown you, too?

These are questions I have asked and been asked many times in recent months.  They come from genuinely concerned people whose deep desire is to do something that will help, but whose experiences don’t come close enough to know what that kind of suffering is like.  “What can I do?” isn’t a question that is only asked of the sufferer – it’s one that helpers ask of themselves as well.

Suffering is something that every believer will experience – we are assured of this in scripture.  (1 Peter 4:12) But suffering is not something we are particularly well prepared for.  We live our lives as if suffering only happens to other people, or, more insidiously, less faithful people.  But that is not what the Bible teaches.  Instead we can bank on suffering if we’re Jesus followers.  And since this is the case, we ought to be prepared both for the suffering and the sufferers.  But it is all too common for those surrounding the sufferer to stand by helplessly asking the person whose world has just been torn apart, “What can I do?”  It’s not only not helpful, it’s insensitive and sometimes cruel to ask them what they need.  But what can we do?

Fortunately, Jesus has offered some very practical instructions to all of us who want to comfort people in their distress.  We can be prepared, at least to some degree, to be genuinely helpful in the face of unimaginable pain.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), Jesus does far more than instruct us on who are neighbors are.  He instructs us on what loving our neighbors looks like, too.  I think if we’re willing to pay attention to the details of the story, we will see some intensely practical concepts for walking with those who are unable to bear the burden of suffering alone.

Know that suffering overwhelms

The first man in the parable was traveling and was attacked by robbers who overwhelmed him.  They stripped him of everything, wounded him severely, and left him for dead.  There are many things that we encounter during the course of our lives that are difficult – really difficult.  They test our strength and stamina, they push us to our limits, and they sometimes make us want to give up.  That is not the kind of suffering we are talking about here.  Sometimes those things are not suffering at all.  Those are hard things, and sometimes we need help, but we use the resources God has given us and we get through.  Deep suffering, however, overwhelms our normal abilities to cope.  Deep suffering renders us helpless – stripped naked of all the resources we had.  You’ve no doubt heard people say things like, “I felt like I got hit by a truck,” or “I felt like I was drowning,” or some other iteration of being swallowed up, buried, or overcome.  All of these kinds of expressions try to articulate the sense of encountering something beyond our ability to cope.  People in these situations don’t just want help, they need it.  They are desperate for it.  Deep suffering overwhelms and renders us helpless.  Those suffering before you don’t just feel like they are drowning – they are.  Physical and emotional pain can render us deaf and blind to everything else going on around us.  Don’t expect much of anything from a traumatized sufferer – they are incapable of directing you.

Respond with compassion

The Priest and the Levite in the parable saw the helpless traveler and did nothing.  We don’t know what they were thinking, but we know from the story that they saw the man, that they made sure they were on the other side of the road – close enough to see, but far enough away to stay uninvolved – and we know they continued on their way.  But the Samaritan saw him and had compassion.  Unless there is something incredibly hard-hearted about a person, it is normal to have compassion on someone who is in distress.  In my experience, and from listening to many other sufferers, many people feel compassion toward a suffering person.  Lots of people say with sincerity, “I’m so sorry.”  It might be easy to take this for granted, but it must be recognized as the necessary first step in being a loving neighbor and actually helping someone who is suffering.  Compassion literally means with suffering (from the Latin, com – with, and pati – suffer).  It is a picture of entering into the suffering of another.  It starts with a stirred heart that is troubled by the pain of another, but real compassion – Christ-like compassion – cannot be satisfied with emotion only.

Move toward the sufferer

In the parable, Jesus said the Samaritan went to him.  We might overlook this because it seems so basic, but the Samaritan didn’t stay safely on the other side of the road and yell, “Hey buddy!  Let me know if you need anything, OK?”  He went to him.  He stopped what he was doing, changed his direction, and went to where the man was lying in the aftermath of what had overwhelmed him.  There is no way to make an assessment of need without going to the sufferer.  This means that we will encounter a bloody mess sometimes (both literally and figuratively!).  It means that, depending on how overwhelmed the sufferer is we will likely need to move toward him or her without an invitation, without instructions, without knowing what we are getting ourselves into.  Yes, it’s scary, but this is one of the hard things that will stretch you and increase your capacity to deal with the stuff of human existence.  The sufferer you’re looking at didn’t have the luxury of deciding whether or not to be overwhelmed.  Go.

Skillfully dress the wounds

The Samaritan saw what had overwhelmed the traveler and took action.  The traveler was bleeding.  He was in pain.  He was naked.  He was alone.  Most sufferers are all of these.  Their wounds may not be visible, but they are just as devastatingly raw and exposed.  As a former cardiac nurse, I can tell you that pretty much nothing else matters if your patient is bleeding out.  The hemorrhage has to be stopped or all will be lost.  After that, nothing else can be addressed with a patient if they’re in intractable pain.  Measures need to be taken first to soothe the excruciating.  Healing has to start to happen first, then the patient can begin to engage.  The Samaritan skillfully applied life-saving measures by stopping the bleeding, cleaning out the wounds, and preventing infection from setting in.  We can help suffering people by skillfully taking measures to protect them from further injury while they are incapacitated and defending them while they recover.  Sometimes this will be as simple as shielding sufferers from insensitive comments or questions.  Sometimes we will need to guard the door (or the phone) so that they are not repeatedly overwhelmed.  Sometimes we will need to hold their heads while they cry or vomit out the unbearable thoughts and emotions that have swelled to flood levels decorum can no longer contain.  It’s going to be messy and ugly.  Do whatever needs to be done with sensitivity and care.

Use your resources

The Samaritan put the wounded traveler on his own animal and transported him to a safe place.  We may not need a donkey, but we may need to use our cars and other resources to get the sufferer to where he or she needs to be.  Sometimes they will need to be transported to a hospital and sometimes they will just need to be taken away from their environment for a little while so that they see that there is life outside of their misery.  We may need to drive someone to a safe house, or to a cemetery.  Or we may need to be willing to bring them to our homes where they can sit in quietness and safety from further threats.  We may need to use our time or money or efforts or comfort or ease as we love our suffering neighbor, but we will need to use what we have.  If we’re willing to help sufferers we will be called upon to use our resources.  It will be costly, and inconvenient, but it will be worth it.

Take care

Most Christians are fairly willing to do all of the above.  We are willing to jump into action when called upon, and graciously use our resources when a need pops up.  We make meals, clean bathrooms, drive, and even pay bills.  But here, right here is where we tend to fall down.  We’re busy.  Our schedules are full.  We have things we were planning to do as well as people waiting for us to do them.  We don’t have time to take care of suffering people.  Taking care of someone – tending to their wounds of body and soul – however, is a slow process that takes great quantities of time and patience.  But we are not a patient people.  We want things to be cleaned up quickly and we want the sufferer to be able to tend to his or her own needs without too much delay.  We tend to lose resolve around the two-week mark, but deep suffering often takes months – or years – to traverse.  Not surprisingly, those who look back on their suffering point to the people who were willing to be with them and take care of them over the long haul as the ones who got them through and helped them the most.  The reality is, the sufferer sitting before you in bewildered confusion at all that has crashed down on them doesn’t really expect you to be able to explain the inexplicable – they just want you to be speechless at it with them.  They want to see you in the room, not leaving but staying.  They want to hear your breathing (and occasionally your voice).  They want to feel your hands, your hugs, and even your heavy sighs that mirror their own as you hold them tight as if trying to hold them together while they feel like they’re flying apart.   Be willing to spend time with the suffering and take care of them.

Enlist others and support them, too

The Samaritan in the parable was on his way somewhere.  He put everything on hold to help the suffering traveler he found.  It was not what he had planned – no one can plan when suffering will strike.  But he was willing to do all that needed to be done to ensure that this man in desperate need was cared for.  We must be willing to do the same.

But no one can put their life on hold forever.  If you’re walking alongside the suffering, you will get to the point where the sufferer’s needs are greater than you can handle on your own.  You will need to do as he did – enlist others and then give them what they need to aid the sufferer.

Jesus said, “And the next day he [the Samaritan] took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’”  There is so much packed into this sentence.  When the Samaritan could stay no longer, he enlisted the innkeeper, gave him what he needed to care for the traveler, and promised to return.  He made sure that the innkeeper knew that both he and the traveler would continue to be supported.  In telling the story this way, Jesus shows that the Samaritan was not only willing to help the wounded traveler, but the innkeeper and anyone else the innkeeper needed to employ as well.  Jesus knew that helpers often need help to be able to help effectively.  Many times deep suffering requires a team of people.  It is profound and overwhelming to the sufferer and to those helping as well.  Following Jesus is a group activity, and this is one of the many reasons why.  Be ready as a church to help the deeply suffering.

Don’t say much

One final note of instruction that is easy to miss unless you’ve spent time on the sufferer’s side of all of this is to not say too much.  The Samaritan didn’t say much.  In fact, he didn’t say anything at all to the suffering man – he only spoke with the innkeeper in the parable.  Sometimes arguing from a position of silence in scripture is a difficult (and potentially dangerous) position to take.  But having been in the position of the traveling victim, I’m standing firmly on this one – don’t say too much to someone in deep suffering.

Words are inadequate to describe the indescribable.  Explanations are ineffective for the inexplicable.  And asking someone who is in agonizing pain to tell you how they feel is a bit ridiculous, really.  Let them talk if they want to.  Ask a question or two so they know they can, but mostly, just be with them and listen to their grief.  Let them cry, or sob.  Let them sigh, or moan.  Let them speak inarticulately or not at all.  When you must speak, use short sentences and small words.  Use gentleness in your tone of voice – even when they rail at their circumstances.  Job 6:26 says, “Do you think that you can reprove words, when the speech of a despairing man is wind?”  People who are suffering say things they wouldn’t normally say and don’t really mean.  Just let it go, remain calm, and remind them that you’re still there, you’re not afraid of the mess, and you’re not going to abandon them.  The pain of suffering becomes bearable when there is someone to endure it with you.

Conclusion

Beloved church – we must not be surprised when suffering comes, either to us or to those around us.  We must, instead, be prepared for it to happen.  Our own suffering proves whether or not we have faith – when everything is stripped away and we are wounded and exposed we find out quickly what we really believe.  If we are running to God – even in hurt and anger and disbelief – the proof is there.  It might be weak faith, it might be trembling faith, it might be doubting faith that says, “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief!”  But that is faith that is proven, and that proof is a gift, that we will be thankful for eventually.  But we must also be prepared to care for the suffering in our midst.  We must be willing to put our own things aside – our schedules, our priorities, our expectations – and bend low enough to stoop down to help the wounded soul who has been left decimated by the side of the road, helpless and desperately needy.  That’s actually what Jesus did for each of us.

My path of deep suffering is not over – I am very much in the raging waves and tossing winds of it.  Some minutes are good – most are a black, confusing, thick fog.  I am part of a great church with a kind and loving pastor and we are struggling together to learn how to walk this road with integrity – learning from and teaching one another as we figure it out by trial and error.  It’s hard to be both sufferer and tutor at the same time, but I’m convinced that God is teaching me even this so that I might be used to help others as he builds his kingdom.  Until then, I pray for strength to continue to walk one painful, faithful step at a time.  Learn from those who do this well.  Teach those who don’t.  Walk together with the ones who are suffering deeply.  You will bless them, of course, but you will be blessed too, for you will teach, and you will learn, a great deal about your Savior.

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Christmas Letter to My Kids

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Christmas Letter To My Kids

This was a hard, but beautiful Christmas in our family.  Heartache causes us to reflect and to look for beauty that will come out of ashes.  My kids amaze me with their grace and their capacity to love through all of it.  I could not possibly be more thankful for each and every one of them.

The following is a letter I read to them Christmas morning.  I know many people have to look for good through the lens of suffering and this time of year intensifies that.  I hope this will encourage others as well.

Two Strange Passages for Christmas

To My Beloved Children:

I want to read you two passages from the Bible which, at first, might not seem appropriate for Christmas, but I think you’ll understand why I chose them by the time I’m done.

The first is from the book of Genesis – from the story of Joseph.  This is near the end of Joseph’s story – after his brothers had been so wicked and envious of him that they plotted to kill him, sold him into slavery instead, lied to their father and told him Joseph had been eaten by a wild animal, and Joseph had suffered years of slavery, loneliness, unjust imprisonment, and through a myriad of sovereignly appointed events, had risen to enormous power in Egypt.  These years had shaped Joseph and had put him into a position to organize the Egyptians to store up vast amounts of grain during years of plenty because he knew that years of famine were coming.  But Joseph’s family didn’t have such stores.  Their father sent all but one of his sons down to Egypt because they heard there was food there.  The story is a little long, so for brevity, I’ll tell you that it had been many years since Joseph had seen his brothers and when he did, he was both relieved and filled with apprehension.  He remembered all they had done to him.  When he saw them after all those years, he recognized them, but they didn’t recognize him.  He decided to test his brothers to see if they had changed.  If you read the whole story, you’ll see that they had changed… some.  Joseph brought his entire family to safety in Egypt where they stayed and flourished, but when their father eventually died, the brothers revealed that they had not ever really reckoned with what they had done.  Here’s what they said:

“It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.”  So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’  …  Joseph wept when they spoke to him.  His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.”  But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God?  As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”  Genesis 50: 15-20

Nothing Wasted

The point of the story is this:  God used even the evil that Joseph’s brothers had committed for good.  He used it to accomplish his good purposes.  Through all the hard and painful events of Joseph’s life God made him into a humble, powerful leader.  He used it to save the lives of millions of people by giving Joseph the wisdom and strength he needed to rule well.  And he used the wickedness of Joseph’s brothers to save them too.

Nothing is wasted that God ordains.

The second passage I want to read to you is from Matthew 23.  Jesus was talking to a large crowd of people who had gathered to hear his teaching.  The crowd consisted of people who genuinely wanted to follow him, some people who weren’t sure what they thought, and there was also a group of men called Scribes and Pharisees – religious rulers who were supposed to lead the people in all God’s ways.

But there was a huge problem.  The religious leaders – the ones who had full access to the scriptures and knew all the things God had told his people, were using their positions to fleece the people.  The  truth was so mixed up with lies that it was impossible for the people to know what God really required.  And they had become harsh and cruel.

Jesus said:  you say one thing, but do another.  You’ve played games with peoples’ souls and they follow you to hell – becoming even worse than you!  You’ve made it appear to those you should have been caring for that you were being faithful, but really you were feeding your own greedy desires at their expense!  You’ve neglected and taken advantage of the ones you were supposed to protect and care for!  You do not examine your own hearts but cast judgement on others!

But after he brought all these charges against them he mournfully cried out, saying,

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  Matthew 23: 37

Freedom to Grieve

So – why did I choose these two passages?

First, these have been a huge comfort to me and I wanted to share that with you.  This is a hard time in our family and it would be silly to try to act as if it were not so.  But I am convinced that God is working – even through all these hard things, and yes, even through the wicked things that have been done against us – for good.

Second, I want you to know that it’s ok to grieve over the way things should have been.  I’ve often asked, “how does one grieve over something one has never had?”  But then I remembered Jesus’ lament.  The Scribes and Pharisees were terrible leaders.  Their indifference to the suffering they caused was wicked and cruel – they should have shepherded, but didn’t.  That caused Jesus to grieve deeply.  We can grieve, too.

But very shortly after Jesus lamented over this, he was taken away, beaten and tortured and hung on a cross to die for them – for us.  He wept over the way things were, and then laid down his life to change that.  He might have wept bitterly, but he did not become bitter.  He loved.  We can do that, too.

That’s why he came.  That’s why we have Christmas.

I love you guys.

Mom

Come Grieve With Me

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Come, grieve with me

Come grieve with me

While my heart bleeds

                                                  –  and tries to breathe again.

Come let me cry

As waves crash hard

                                                    – against my will and might.

Come be the strength

Against my pain

                                       – for heavy is the load.

Come sit with me

In silent love

                                                         – my darkness needs your light.

Come say the truth

I need to hear

                                                         – speak noble, right, pure, true.

Come stay with me

Through darkest war

                                                     – let my soul mourn tonight.

Come.  Stay.  Cry.  Be.

My heart can’t see.

                                           –  I need to know there’s hope.

Sometimes there are no answers.

Sometimes the only thing to do is grieve – and it is right and good to do so.

But so often we don’t know how.  We hate the pain that suffering brings and we rail against it – trying with every ounce of effort to hurry it up and make it go away.  Whether it is ours or someone else’s.

But pain has purpose in God’s economy – and it is worth much more than we want to believe.

Sometimes, often times, the lessons are deepest, purest, truest through the pain.

Would we value health if we never encountered disease?  Would we rejoice in commitment if we never experienced betrayal?  Would we ever be able to bask in the glory of true peace if we never knew conflict?

NO, NO, a thousand times, NO!

Could we delight in the splendor of a simple cool drink if we had never ached with thirst?  Would we treasure life and goodness if we had never suffered evil loss?  Can we bask in the ecstasy of the joy of the Lord if we never know the depravity of our souls?

NO.  No.  no.

We cannot truly know the soaring heights of good until we know the unfathomable depths of the not-good – and the deeper we go into the abyss the more glorious the light of glory will be.

Don’t be afraid to grieve, and don’t be afraid to help others do the same.  Because of and by the very things that cause our grief, we will know and experience more joy.  And because of and by the entering into another’s pain you help them do the same.  You minister to them in ways that are almost impossible to articulate, but are priceless in the end.

We need the fellowship of one another to grieve well – and grieve we all must do.