“Just Your Presence”

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A beautiful article in the Boston Globe today tells the story of a woman who is dying. She invited her friends over for a luncheon, a chance to celebrate while she still had life. One of the friends verbalized her feelings of awkwardness and helplessness in the face of her friend’s suffering. As she did so, the woman who was dying looked up at her and said this:

“There’s only one thing we really want,” she said gently. “We just want for you to be here with us. Just your presence.”*

Through the years, I have thought a lot about a theology of suffering, and the ‘fellowship’ of suffering.

Most of us struggle awkwardly in the face of pain and suffering. We don’t know what to do. We are afraid to say the wrong thing. We feel embarassed, don’t want to make the situation worse. And so we avoid suffering; and when we avoid suffering, we avoid those who suffer. Because there are many things that cause suffering, we sometimes end up avoiding the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the displaced.

We subconsciously reason that we can’t do anything anyway. We can’t change the situation, and we don’t want people to feel worse, so we avoid them all together. C.S. Lewis in his classic and beautiful book A Grief Observed talks about becoming an embarassment to his friends.

“An odd by-product of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t.”

A few years ago, as I was thinking about suffering and a theology of suffering, I wrote the following:

it’s too much for you to bear, but I will sit with you, I won’t leave you alone.

There is something about suffering that longs for someone to sit with us, to sit with us through the pain. It’s the fellowship of suffering. It’s the words ‘you are not alone’ put into action. The sitting bears witness to our pain. More than a card or a casserole the familiar, patient presence of another says to us “it’s too much for you to bear, but I will sit with you, I won’t leave you alone.”

So often we want to move people through the process of pain, suffering, and healing at our own pace, on our own terms. We want to impose our own schedule on the process of pain in another. We want to make pain and suffering controllable, manageable. Why is that?

Perhaps we feel helpless in the presence of the pain of others. We are not in control. We would do anything we can to make it all okay. But we can’t. We can’t make the pain okay. We can’t explain away suffering, and when we try, we tend to make up reasons for suffering. We end up forcing bad theology on people. A theology of suffering that has to have answers, instead of a fellowship of suffering that simply needs the presence of another. We speak too soon and our words are the salt in an already terrible wound.

Like the doctor or midwife that walks a woman through labor, not hurrying it along, aware that the body has to move through each stage to have a successful outcome, so it is with suffering.

The fullness of our presence can offer hope and comfort, and so we must not leave people alone. This is the fellowship of suffering. 

“If your friend is sick and dying, the most important thing he wants is not an explanation; he wants you to sit with him. He is terrified of being alone more than anything else. So God has not left us alone. And for that, I love him”**


If you are interested in reading a post that speaks to what not to say to people who are suffering, take a look at Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis. 

*Cancer Brings it Home

**from interview of Lee Strobel with Peter Kreeft, Boston College

3 thoughts on ““Just Your Presence”

  1. Thank you for this Marilyn! I love the call to fellowship of suffering. I’m aware of all the ways culture teaches me to avoid what is uncomfortable, slow, uncertain, disappointing…and how much that contrasts God’s promises in scripture. His presence is powerful– sometimes I want the solutions, the resolution, the answers, but He just wants to give me Himself.

    Love you! We must catch up! I’ll give you call this weekend!!

    Caroline

    On Thu, Jul 27, 2017 at 9:06 AM Marilyn R. Gardner wrote:

    > Marilyn posted: ” A beautiful article in the Boston Globe today tells the > story of a woman who is dying. She invited her friends over for a luncheon, > a chance to celebrate while she still had life. One of the friends > verbalized her feelings of awkwardness and helplessnes” >

    Like

  2. As I read this, a memory came back so vividly I could almost feel I was back there in Shikarpur at the time. I was sick and your Dad was away. Dr. Mary didn’t want me to go back home alone with a fever, so she put me to bed in their guest room. The memory is that all through that night in my fevered fog, whenever I opened my eyes, Mary was sitting there, just sitting. It may not have really been the whole night – I’m sure she had to work the next day. And I may have fallen into a deep sleep as the fever went down. But in my memory, Mary was there! What a comfort! Yes, the Lord was with me, but somehow His presence was more real because she was there. Dr. Mary, if you are reading this, thank you for just being there. And Marilyn, thank you for writing this and for the time you spend with us.

    Like

  3. Your post puts to words my long-felt thoughts as I often visit my mother with Alzheimers, alone. Often thinking “she is not dead yet”. Hoping my family will learn to just be present with her and respecting all she has done for us and our family – holding her hand, bringing her comfort, no matter where her spirit is.

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