Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A List of "Do's" and a Few "Thank You's"

Well, it's been a while, hasn't it? I'm still not quite "up and running" again after the events of the last few months, but I just read something that summarizes-- in a practical yet poignant way-- some of the encounters that have shaped me this year. It's an article on the New York Times website featuring a family that pulls from their experience with suffering to offer insight as to how to care for suffering people. Titled "The Art of Presence," this family's list of "Do's and Don'ts" might appear somewhat counterintuitive for those who want to reach out to a friend in need, but it gave words to something I've been feeling this year and yet unable to name. 

The list starts with "Do be there." During my mom's battle with cancer, this has made all the difference. A widow, my mother doesn't have a "full-time" care-taker, so friends and family have literally flown all over the country to be there for her-- and us-- in that way. And she's done a lot of her treatment in a foreign city (her hospital is in Houston, TX), but people have come out of the woodwork to visit her. Friends of friends who live in Houston have come to the hospital to meet her and spend a few hours with her; churches of friends who live in Houston have sent prayer teams, flowers, gluten free cookies (!!) and pastors to encourage and pray with her. They've transformed our entire experience of her treatment not because they've had the right words to say or made the problem "go away," but just because they've done what is here suggested-- they've simply been there. 

I appreciate how this article mentioned that for many people, it feels awkward to offer presence ("What if they just need space?" "I won't know what to say anyway.") And sometimes, honestly, it is awkward. It's awkward to sit with someone in that much pain, or in a situation that sad-- especially if you don't know that person very well-- but that's because the realities of suffering should and do make us deeply uncomfortable. It's not the way things are supposed to be. And yet, if you're not there awkwardly sitting with that person or that family, they're facing those painful realities just the same, only alone. 

The other thing this article mentions that I want to comment on (I recommend you read the whole thing for yourself!) is "do bring soup." I'll confess that in the past I've tended to over-spiritualize things like ministry or caring for those in need-- I've denigrated the very practical, physical gifts like bringing a meal, cleaning a kitchen, etc. in favor of "spiritual" things like offering counsel, for example. But as I read the article, I realized what a false dichotomy that is. Simple acts of kindness have ministered to me more deeply than anything else during my mother's treatment. People have kept my family fed in two cities; they've come over and cleaned my mom's house; they did her Christmas shopping while she was in the hospital; they sent money for groceries, gave children rides to school, and mowed the lawn. They've done mundane, practical things that needed doing. And not only this year, but for as long as I can remember. Fifteen years ago, my father battled cancer too, and there were six small children in need of those same practical, physical things. And the people who stepped in to fill those gaps-- the "builders" as the article calls them-- are the ones who kept me from flunking high school. 

The presence of ordinary people doing ordinary things to love my family has given me a more true understanding of who God actually is. God is Spirit, yes, so the "spiritual" things are important-- but that same God made Himself most known to us by taking up residence in the ordinary, mundane, physical matter of this world and simply being there. He sat with people on a mountain. He offered them bread and fish when they were hungry. And His great promise to His people for this age was not, "I will explain all things to you and make the pain go away" but "I will be with you." 

So thank you. Thank you to everyone who has manifested Christ to my family by being there, and by bringing soup. And if you know of someone in need in your own world, don't consider it too small a thing to do the same.