I was reminded of this incident yesterday by two things: the first was something posted on Facebook showing a series of cards that have been specifically designed to give to people upon the news of their cancer diagnosis. My favourite is the one that says: "There is no good card for this. (I'm so sorry)" As I looked at the cards, I thought to myself that us Christians have a lot to learn about what to say and when to say it. Sometimes it is impossible to find the words and yet we still strive to say something, anything, rather than sit there in a horribly silent void. Even though that horribly silent void is probably preferable to a glib assertion that we are praying.
The second was a conversation over dinner with my beautiful friend, Jax, who has been struggling with a chronic degenerative back problem for many years. Her back has not been healed. Despite the prayers and the crying out to God and the anguish, it has not been healed. Nor does it show any sign of miraculously being healed any time soon.
I do not say these things to be sensationalist, or offensive or because of a lack of faith. I believe that both myself and Jax have the faith for God to fully heal her back, just as Chad and Steph had the faith for God to intervene into the lives of their twins. But, what do we make of the sharp, painful pause before the healing? What do we do with the in the meantime moment? What do we do as we sit in the ditch and sob and prayer remains unanswered? When there really is nothing to be said or done, when no words can comfort, and no action can suffice.
As I spoke to my friend over the phone, I asked him how he was. A stupid question but I didn't know what else to say. He said many profound and humble things that left me with a lump in my throat and a sense of the incredible littleness and meanness of so many of my own complaints. The thing that he said that I will always remember is that he would rather be in the ditch with Jesus than without him. That somehow, in the midst of all that was happening, it was the simple knowledge of a Jesus who sat down in the ditch with him and wept alongside him that made it bearable. Jesus, the man of sorrows, the one who is familiar with pain sat in the quietness and the stillness and the mess of the ditch with my friend.
I recounted this conversation to Jax last night as we chatted. There is such beautiful simplicity in what Chad said: that the answer is not praying (although, of course, we pray and we pray and we pray); the answer is not in attempting to fix what is broken, to make sense of what is broken, or explain how it got broke in the first place; the answer is that Jesus is. Jesus is here. Emmanuel. God with us.
At a seminar at college last weekend, Adrian Chatfield shared about a translation of the bible that struggled to cope with God's name as 'I AM.' He asked us what we would call the God who names himself 'I AM' in culture that didn't understand philosophical reasoning, a culture without a category for thinking in that way. In this particular language that he referred to the translation of 'I AM' was 'I am the God who is really really here.'
We believe in a God who is the ever present one. We believe that Jesus took on all that it meant to be human. That he suffered alongside us and that there is no painful experience that is beyond his understanding. He chose to embrace all of our frailty fully knowing how much that would hurt and what it would look like to die rejected and abandoned, bloody and ashamed.
Perhaps, before we stumble to find clumsy words to say, we need to remind ourselves of the One who is really really here. The solution is not that we pray and Jesus fixes; the solution is that Jesus is here in the mess and the muddle and the hurt and the pain. He sits with us in the ditch. We need to learn to do that for one another. To sit beside our dear friends in the ditch, without words, and be those who are really really there, even if we don't know what to say.