Given the nature of my work as a pastor, I’ve often expressed frustration that I wasn’t issued a magic wand at my seminary graduation. What a relief it would be, as I sit with people reeling from family stress or job loss, illness or grief, to be able to fix it for them. It’s hard to see people we care about hurting, and not be able to fix it. The list of problems friends and family members and church members are dealing with, ranging from physical illness to tremendous stress and anxiety, or emotional pain? I’m afraid it’s a long list, and I imagine yours is too. Don’t you just want to be able to fix it, sometimes?
I had an opportunity this past year to reconnect with a longtime family friend, someone I knew well as a child, but with whom I’d lost touch over the years. Now nearing retirement, her life’s work has been nursing, and she’s worked in some pretty tough environments. She has devoted her career to caring for AIDS patients, for instance, and to people suffering from drug addiction, and to people experiencing homelessness, and fairly often her patients have been fighting two or even three of those battles at once.
As we talked about this one day, I remember saying that kind of work must be agonizingly hard, because you would always want to fix the situation, but it wouldn’t often be possible to do that. I’ll never forget her reply. “Oh, Deb, I don’t think we can fix people’s lives. We can only let them know they are not alone, they matter, and someone cares. And that is something I genuinely love to do.” Wow.
Because sometimes we can’t fix it. There is no magic wand.
But it is perfectly within my power to convey to someone who is hurting: You’re not alone. You matter. I care.
William Muhl tells of a group of parents waiting in a church hall to pick up their preschool children from just before Christmas:
As the youngsters ran from their lockers, each one carried in his hands a ‘surprise,’ [or treasure], a brightly wrapped [Christmas] package on which he had been working diligently for weeks. One small boy, trying to run, put on his coat, and wave, all at the same time, slipped and fell. The [treasure] flew out of his grasp, landed on the floor, and broke with an obvious ceramic crash. The child’s first reaction was one of stunned silence. But [soon he let out] an inconsolable wail. His father, thinking to comfort him, knelt down and murmured, “Now, now [it’s ok]… it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter.” But his mother …swept the boy into her arms and said, “Oh, but it does matter. It matters a great deal.” And she wept with her son.
As we continue making our way through some of the questions you contributed to our “Glad You Asked” sermon series, I wanted next to address the question: “How do we pray, in the midst of so many problems in our world? We’ll begin today with the suffering of those in our immediate circles, because I was also asked the related question “how do we talk about our faith to people we know who are suffering?” It’s easy for us to feel at a loss in these kinds of situations, unsure what to say or how to pray.
First, as we discussed last week, lament can be a powerful form of prayer. It’s perfectly appropriate to sit with someone who is hurting, and to cry out with them prayers along the lines of those we find so often in biblical psalms: “Why, O Lord?” “How long, O Lord?” Maybe we can even encourage them to express their pain to God directly, for we know God invites our honesty, so there’s nothing we could be feeling that is off limits in prayer. Sometimes we might instead pray on their behalf: It’s not fair, God. Enough already. Please, Lord, have mercy. And surely tears can be a form of prayer. As we read in our New Testament lesson from Romans this morning, we are invited to weep with those who weep. Because sometimes any words we could offer would be woefully inadequate.
Speaking of which, I’m sorry to report that Job’s friends get it spectacularly wrong for an awful lot of chapters after the passage we read from the Old Testament this morning. They explain to Job, in quite a long-winded fashion, that he must have done something pretty awful to deserve his ordeal, and that things would start looking up if he’d only just repent. They try to convince him that there is a reason for what he’s going through, and they’ll be happy to help him out by explaining that reason to him.
I don’t need to tell you these are not the most helpful responses to someone who is in pain! Let me show you how this all actually makes sense? Why it’s all for the good? How many of us have been on the receiving end of words like these when we’ve found ourselves in the depths, or perhaps witnessed this kind of advice being offered to someone else? Remember, our Romans text also cautions us: “Do not claim to be wiser than you are.”
I suppose it’s possible people rush to offer answers to the problem of human suffering simply because we can be uncomfortable with unanswered questions. Surely everything must have a rational explanation? We might feel “I don’t know” isn’t a complete answer, even when it’s the most honest answer there is. Or maybe we want to get God off the hook a bit? If the suffering has a reason, or is someone’s fault in some way, perhaps God comes off looking better? But God isn’t fragile, friends. Whatever people need to dish out to God in their agony, anger, or frustration, I assure you - God can take it!
So again, for most of the book, Job’s friends are not the best role models for us! But I also find it fascinating that their initial instinct was a good one, which is why I selected these particular verses from Job today. Here in chapter two, they actually got it right. The text says they heard “of all these troubles that had come upon him” – Job had by this point lost his property, his health, even his children - and they dropped everything and showed up. As we heard, “they met together to go and console and comfort him… they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads” (these are simply traditional signs of mourning; they’re grieving with Job here), and “they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (Job 2:11-13) The most important thing they did in the entire book, for their hurting friend, was essentially to show up and shut up – in other words, to sit there and weep with him, and to let him express his pain.
Before Job’s friends open their mouths and start to offer all of that unhelpful advice, their initial instinct reminds me of my friend’s wise words: A lot of times we can’t fix people’s lives. We can only let them know they are not alone, they matter, and someone cares. It reminds me too of that mom consoling her preschool son, whose treasure – his special handmade Christmas gift for his parents – suddenly lay smashed on the floor: It does matter. It matters a great deal.
So how can we pray for those who are suffering? How can we live out our faith or speak about our faith, with those who are in pain? We lament, and we show up. We lament, and we take care of them in whatever ways are open to us. We weep with those who weep, and we remind them: I’m here. You matter. I see you. I hear you. I care.
It’s not always necessary to have answers to people’s questions. Perhaps, one day in the future, friends who are hurting now will be able to look back at these tough times, to reflect from a distance and to see something good that has come from an awful experience, or to realize they learned something through it. It happens. I’ve heard people tell powerful, eloquent stories of how God brought them up out of the pit, or what they learned while they were in the depths. Sometimes that gift of sense, reason, redemption of a bad situation is given to us. We certainly don’t seem to get it on demand, though. So it’s neither our responsibility nor any of our business, really, to try to force a reason for someone else. Nor should we require of ourselves that life’s hardest moments have to make rational or theological sense. If answers ever come, I’m afraid they have to come in God’s own time.
Now just to be clear – there are plenty of things we can do, plenty of steps we can take that are well within our power, to address human suffering and to help make the world a better place. I’d hate for anyone to leave this morning thinking we’re utterly powerless to make a difference! We’ll be talking about those other kinds of situations over the next couple of weeks.
But in situations it is entirely impossible for us to fix, in the absence of a magic wand, all we really can do for someone who is suffering – well, fortunately it’s also the most important thing of all. We can bring our lament to God on their behalf, and we can ask God for an opportunity to offer them some small measure of comfort, peace, or love. Then, like the mother of that little boy, or like Job’s friends, we can sit ourselves down next to the person whose treasure has been shattered, offer a hand or a hug to show them we care, and join them in their tears.
 As cited by Thomas W. Currie in “Not Without Tears,” Journal for Preachers, Lent 2018, p. 54.