Nothing brings love into the conversation like pain and suffering. The other day, I called an old friend who lives in Texas, confined to a wheelchair. He immediately burst into tears, telling me how he lost his 5-year-old grandson to cancer 4 days after Christmas. What was I to say? What can anyone say or do?
Sometimes, we send a card or flowers to let them know we’re ‘thinking about them.’ But in reality, we want to hide from tough situations like this one. It’s weird to hurt with people. It’s painful, time consuming and messy. If we can’t ‘fix’ it, we avoid it. It’s too uncomfortable to just ‘sit in.’ We don’t know what to say, there’s nothing we can really do, so what’s the point of just being there?
Love. That’s the point. Loving is being present with people. Loving is just showing up. Loving is sitting, listening, chatting . . . not being in a hurry, not offering advice, not ‘pontificating’ about theology or why bad stuff is happening. Loving is sacrificing your own comfort for the comfort of someone who is suffering. The word ‘care’ comes from the Gothic word ‘kara’ which means ‘lament.’ Care means “to grieve, to experience sorrow, to cry out with.” We’ve morphed the word into another verb . . . an action word, because it’s easier for us to do something for someone than to enter into the pain of someone.
“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” -Henri M. Nouwen
I first got a glimpse into this when my friend Rick’s wife died. I stood behind him as he manned the receiving line at the mortuary. I listened as person after person came through, saying things like, “She’s better off.” “She’s in a better place now.” They had no idea how hurtful and inappropriate those phrases are when someone is hurting, particularly when the person who’s passed has died at a young age. I’m sure Rick was thinking “Hey, I want my kids’ mom back here, not in a better place!” “Better off? I miss her terribly . . . what do you mean ‘she’s better off’?” These well-meaning people came, stood through the long line, dropped what they thought were comforting words, got back in their cars and left. Where were they during the months of his wife’s suffering? Of his suffering? And I was right there with them . . . guilty as they were. I learned a lot that night. First, there are no good words to say to someone who is grieving. Best you can do is a gentle hug and “I’m sorry.” But second (and more important) is the power of presence . . . of showing up right in the middle of the suffering instead of after it. Of simply being present with the person you care about. Being quiet, being prayerful, and being present.
I always share this as I mentor young men who’ll someday become elders and deacons and leaders in the church. Next time you find a friend in the middle of something awful, ask God for the courage to just go and as uncomfortable as it might feel, be present.