Our hearts are breaking for them.
Pam has fought cancer for twelve years, and appears now to be about to lose that battle. While counting the offering last Sunday, her husband, Larry, told us they have decided to request hospice care. It is thyroid cancer, the most treatable of all cancers, I am told, except for one kind, and that is the kind that Pam carries. By my count she has undergone three surgeries, the last resulting in a coma that stole six months of her life. We thought she had beaten cancer, we almost thought she would live forever, if only because we cannot imagine life without her.
Autumn was born about the same year that Pam began her battle with cancer; a long time to fight a disease, far too soon to cut short a childhood. Sunday, while Autumn was in church, her best friend died. Shelby’s death was absolutely unexpected; an autopsy reveled a weakness in the wall of her small intestine, and she died almost immediately when it ruptured. Shelby was Autumn’s next door neighbor, and her mother’s hysterical phone call is now embedded in the memory of Autumn’s father. Ed has been asked to speak at Shelby’s funeral, and of course he has agreed to do so; but this quiet, gentle man wonders what he could possibly say about this next door neighbor who had become like a daughter, and even if he could find the words, how he will speak them through his own tears, much less those of his daughter.
That’s what keeps us from visiting those who suffer, I believe: we don’t know what to say. We’re afraid we’ll say something trivial, or trite, or hurtful. We’re afraid we will make things worse, we will abrade their wounded hearts, afraid we will say something that opens a floodgate of tears we cannot still, because that is our own response to their dark Sunday. Or we are afraid we will have nothing to say at all. We are afraid.
Yet we know Jesus expects us to intervene. We love them, these two women and their families, we love them, and we know Jesus expects us to step outside the comfort of our own homes and lives and the comfort even or our own tears, to step outside even of our fears, and reach out to them, to offer Christ, to offer the healing power of the Holy Spirit. What are we to say?
My suggestion is that you tell the truth. That you listen hard for it, and when you hear it, when you sort it out from the beating of your own heart and the distractions of your own needs and fears, that you tell the truth in love. Because it’s the truth we all yearn to hear, what we’re all waiting for, especially when we suffer or when we’re afraid. Hearing the truth empowers us: when you tell me the truth It helps me feel as though I’m strong enough to hear it, to bear it; if you shield me from the truth, if you lie to me or try to distract me, it’s as though you’re saying the truth is bigger than me, overpowering, more fearsome and terrible than I can withstand.
To get at the truth, you need to remember that there are always three guests present in any room, each with their own truth: you, the one you came to visit, and your God. So you must focus hard and listen closely, for the different truth each of you offers.
I believe the place to begin is with your truth. Like most truths it is layered; getting to it is like peeling an onion. The truth closest to the surface for you may be something like sadness or anguish or anxiety, and your first reaction may be to hide it. Usually it will go away as you talk, usually you will find that it ebbs away if you simply take a deep breath and listen to the other, to the one you’ve come to visit. But sometimes it doesn’t go away, and it becomes like a wall, a barrier to discussion, like a monster hiding in the room, a dark secret. Sometimes the only way to dispel it is to own your feelings aloud, to say simply, “I’m afraid” or “I feel so sad I could cry” or “I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong thing.” The deep truth is that we do not want children to suffer and dear friends to die, and we are so afraid of those prospects we’ll change the subject or deny the feelings of the one who suffers. You need to listen to your own feelings, to the things that make your hands sweat or make you want to change the subject – because those are the very things you probably should most discuss, those places shrouded in secrets.
To hear their truth, you must decide who you came to serve: did you come to meet your own needs, or the needs of the other, the needs of the one who suffers? If you came to serve the one who suffers, you need to focus on just that person, listen to her, hear her out. That’s how they know they are present, how they know they are real to you, how they know you care about their person. That’s what’s so degrading about illness and trauma: the way it is so impersonal, the way it wants to steal your autonomy, your will, your freedom, your independence, your control of time and mobility and self, the way it tries to steal your life. Sometimes in those dark journeys our feelings are all we have left; don’t strip them away too. If the one you visit says he feels lousy or feels like dying, don’t say he shouldn’t feel like that, don’t try to talk him out of his feelings or change the subject. Say something like “it sounds like you feel terrible,” perhaps ask him to describe it, tell you what it’s like, tell you the truth. If an ill person says she must look terrible, don’t lie to her, don’t tell her she looks fine. She has a mirror in her bathroom, she knows what she looks like and she’s not a fool. The truth the sick are telling is not about their looks, it’s about the fear of what their appearance will do to you, to your friendship, to their worth, to another visit. Am I still recognizable, they’re asking; can you still see me? If they say they feel like they’re going to throw up you need to look for something to contain it, then stay and clean up. They are sharing the truth of their body, and giving you the chance to tell them the truth about your love for them apart from their body. If you leave, you’re saying they are detestable, they cannot be faced; if you can stay, your presence says you love who they are, regardless of what illness is doing to their body.
When people suffer, especially when they’re dying, they can begin to lose the social veneer we are all taught to wear, and often they see through us or at least through what we say. They can tell when you’re lying and won’t believe you. If they don’t believe you about the mundane, about their looks or their health, about your feelings or theirs, they won’t believe you when you talk about God’s truth, about the depth and breadth of God’s love, about our inability to escape the reach of God’s arms or the bounds of God’s heart, about the sure and certain hope of the resurrection, about God’s promise to wipe away every tear from our eyes. But you can’t start there, you can’t begin with God’s truth. You have to earn the privilege to share God’s Good News – and you earn it by being present, by engaging their suffering, by meeting them where they are, by living their truth. You don’t have to preach a sermon. It can be enough to end your visit with a prayer, especially your first visit; but even then you must seek their permission to pray. Cancer is trying to steal Pam’s life; the death of a friend is trying to steal Autumn’s faith. Don’t bustle in with your good intentions and try to steal their dignity, too.
In their suffering is Christ. That’s all the truth you need.
Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. Ephesians 4:16