The kingdom of God is like a friend who sits with you and listens to your story, however long it takes to tell it and however painful it is to speak.
Last week I was on retreat with a group of Episcopal clergy. There was prayer and singing and long walks through beautiful forests. And there was unexpectedly hard and holy conversation. Early in the retreat, we set our agenda. People volunteered to convene conversations on different topics, and the rest of us signed up to participate in them. But then the Holy Spirit broke in.
A few offhand comments spoken during informal conversation surfaced some strong feelings. And those with the feelings, through the grace of God, spoke up. And before we knew it, we found ourselves invited by the Spirit to overthrow our own agenda. It was clear that we needed to talk about the hard things that had surfaced, which were nowhere on the sign up sheets. We needed to talk about alcohol abuse and the ways in which the church colludes in its continuing to devastate lives, and we needed to talk about sexism in the church.
It would have been easier not to have these conversations. Both involve hard stuff: the death of dreams, the tamping down of real emotions, the diminishment of the children of God. Not everyone in our room believed they were directly affected by addiction. Not everyone in our room was a woman. It would have been easy to simply say, “OK, the people who want to talk about addiction, go over here. The women who want to talk about sexism go over there.” But if we had done that, there would have been no opportunity for healing – no chance for Jesus to touch the funeral bier.
So on we went. And our facilitators did an incredible ministry holding us through this time. Those of us for whom addiction is a “just” pastoral issue we’ve been trained to address sat with those for whom addiction is an ever-present, live issue affecting their most intimate relationships and daily decisions, and listened. The men in our group sat with the women and listened.
In our brokenness before God, something emerged, something was recovered. Touching the funeral bier as we walked together, something like resurrection emerged. Not a Hallmark Easter card resurrection. Not the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” with trumpets accompanying. But like joy might just come in the morning, as the psalmist promised. God was loving us towards new hope for ourselves and our church.
In today’s gospel, Jesus encounters a widow who has just lost her only son. In that culture, to be a widow was to be at risk. Widows were entirely dependent on others for their sustenance. Her son was her lifeline – The one person who could protect her physically and socially. Daughters would not have mattered. Now she had nothing. Look at how Jesus reacts to her:
First, he does something we would expect of Jesus: He has compassion for her. He suffers with her. That is beautiful and it makes sense. But then he does something that appears terrible, at first glance: Look at what he says! Here is a woman who is in enormous pain and grief. He speaks to her what appears to be the least pastorally sensitive line in the Bible: “Do not cry.” Please do not try this at home! This is not anything I will ever say to someone facing loss. And if it were anywhere else in the Bible it wouldn’t make any sense. But here, it is a preview of the sign he is about to do: it is a message to the assembled to pay attention. Then, he touches the funeral bier. Because the people of that time considered the dead to be unclean, Jesus has just made himself unclean. He has entered into the death – shown he is unafraid of it – suffered with the dead boy. And the boy arises. God is not done – not done with you, your neighbor, the church, or the world. Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.
And so how might we, who are baptized into Christ, come to that dawn? We come to it together – only and always together – by embodying the compassion of God. We suffer with one another through hard conversations and persistent presence. In the face of addiction and sexism and all the other evil powers of this world, which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, we show up for those in pain, listening and praying and pointing to God, who is the one who can heal.
Last week someone in the parish sent me a link to a passionate blog posting by a man who has lived with pain for many years. When things were tough for him, lots of his friends said to him, “I am here for you.” He notes that while he knows they meant well, what he really needed was for them to say, “I am here with you.”
I’ve grieved many times in my life. I’ve been overwhelmed with shame and self-hatred so strong it’s nearly killed me. The ones who helped—the only ones who helped—were those who were there. And said nothing. In that nothingness, they did everything.
I am here—I have lived—because they chose to love me. They loved me in their silence, in their willingness to suffer with me, alongside me, and through me. They loved me in their desire to be as uncomfortable, as destroyed, as I was, if only for a week, an hour, even just a few minutes….
…The most powerful thing you can do is acknowledge. Literally say the words: I am here with you. Note that I said with you, not for you. For implies that you’re going to do something. But to stand with your loved one, to suffer with them, to listen to them, to do everything but something is incredibly powerful.
There is no greater act than acknowledgment. And acknowledgment requires no training, no special skills, no expertise. It only requires the willingness to be present with a wounded soul, and to stay present. — (www.timjlawrence.com)
A few days of honest conversation among clergy did not solve the problems of addiction and sexism in the church. But it opened up a space for something to get unstuck, and we all left convicted of our need to continue the work together and in other circles. It is daunting but it is not desperate. We follow a God who deliberately chose to attend to those on the margins, to be in relationship with those whose pain was invisible to mainstream society, who had compassion for those deemed unclean and unfit. And it is this God whose son promised to be with us and work through us to the end of the age. It is this God who reaches out to the darkest, deadest places within our own hearts and says, “I say to you, rise!”
Therefore, the kingdom of God is like a friend who sits with you and listens to your story, however long it takes to tell it and however painful it is to speak.