I know, I’ll wait, I’m here

In a post circulating on facebook from 2016, a woman describes her struggle with giving up alcohol in a society that seems to require women to drink to just get through life. Giving up drinking seems to have rendered her acutely aware of her misery and unable to blunt it or to smooth it over.  In her case her suffering seems to come from at least a few different points, including a kind of omnipresent sexism in the work place, an ongoing  demand from her peers that she “enjoy” herself, particularly through adding wine into every occasion, and finally the way in which society seems to have transformed the feminist proposition “you can be anything” into “you must be everything”, an acute pain that seems to underlie her deep-seated ambivalence about sober life.

As co-authors interested in the problem of care in contemporary society, we were struck by this story, and asked ourselves the question: how could one care for a woman for whom life seems so impossible?

This is a question asked by Henri Nouwen in his 1972 book The Wounded Healer, in his case through an analysis of an ineffectual ministry conversation between a young theology student visiting a sick farm-worker waiting for surgery in hospital.  The farm-worker expressed – somewhat hesitantly – his fear of death, and his fear of life, in which no one waited for him to return from his operation. Sadly, he dies soon after on the operating table.  Nouwen asks how a young theology student with plenty to live for can respond to a stranger alone and in need. He encourages the minister to step into the life world of the stranger and offer personal concern and love. To offer, in fact, not to be a skilled counsellor, but to be the person waiting for him to return from surgery, in solidarity in both life and death.

How can we really be present for someone in both life and death? To offer structured counseling responses to the woman struggling with sober life  would perhaps not be as useful as being the person waiting, being willing to sit alongside in sobriety and life and say not ‘it will all be OK’ but I know, I’ll wait, I’m here. And through that statement, to draw attention not just to our presence but the possibility of One greater than ourselves who is also knowing, waiting, here.

Nouwen suggests that being present in this way can make the difference even in the few moments we might have with a stranger – to ignore our calendars and commitments, to express solidarity in the struggle of life and death and to be willing to ‘leave the ninety-nine in order to go after the one’. He asks us not to ‘diminish the power of waiting by saying that a lifesaving relationship cannot develop in an hour’, insisting that:

One compassionate gaze or one affectionate handshake can substitute for years of friendship when a person is in agony. Not only does love last forever, it needs only a second to be born (p 72).

He continues the thought when considering love and solidarity in death as well as life:

“I will be waiting for you,” means much more than, “If you make it through the operation I will be here with you again.” There will be no “ifs.” “I will wait for you” goes beyond death and is the deepest expression of solidarity that breaks through the chains of death (p 74).

In that moment, Nouwen asserts, we are no longer ‘minister’ and ‘stranger’, but ‘two human beings who awaken in each other the deepest human intuition – that life is eternal and cannot be made futile by a biological process’ (p 75).

We finish with another facebook story: of  Mohammed Bzeek, an LA man  who fosters terminally ill children since his own near-death experience of facing cancer treatment alone. He brings the children in to his home and nurses them until death, holding them in their last moments, communicating I know, I’ll wait, I’m here. Drawing on his own faith in God’s love for each of these children, he doesn’t shy away from the pain life can bring, or demand we enjoy ourselves.

We don’t all get the chance to minister in that grand scale, but in this day, this week, this space – can we awaken faith and hope through our care-full love of the stranger who happens into our lives, and indeed, our neighbour? Can we draw attention, not to ourselves, but to the possibility of an ongoing contemplative spiritual connection to God, through being present in another’s pain – or in this case, being in some ways The Presence.

Stephen Healy and Kelly Dombroski collaborate in writing and thinking about care. You can find us both at www.communityeconomies.org , Kelly also blogs at www.throwntogetherness.wordpress.com

On Lent and giving up the things I crave most

 

Lent is only a few days away, which registers with no-one in my household but me (although I’ll give the 1 year old and 3 year old a free pass for now). And I have been thinking about the story of the rich young ruler.

Do you mark Lent? I spent a good few years as an Anglican in my childhood and then as a teenager threw in my lot with the Pentecostals, and they didn’t really pay attention to Lent, so it hasn’t always been part of my yearly rhythms. I probably looked down on my completely unreligious school friends who tried to give up chocolate for Lent each year, without any particular purpose. But now, in my 30s, I am drawn most years to this austere season, even while my comfort-loving body shudders at the prospect.

And so the rich young ruler. Is he the archetype for the human who can’t give up the ‘things of the world’? That man we know so little about, this rich and apparently high status individual (a ruler?), who runs to Jesus, Mark’s gospel tells us, runs to him and kneels before him, and asks him a question. A future-oriented question. Not, according to better theologians than I, a question about how one gets to heaven, but about how he participates in the kingdom that is coming. The thing that Jesus is doing. And after going through the official answers, Jesus tells him to do two things: sell all that he owns and follow Jesus.

And what do we do with that? What can he do with that?

I have so many excuses for the guy, I do, probably because of my own relative wealth and privilege. How many people depend on him to survive? – extended family, dependants, employees, slaves probably too. It’s so far out of the ballpark that how do you begin to make sense of such an extreme invitation? Is it purposefully unpalatable? Why is that the only path Jesus offers him? That’s the bit that makes me saddest – the fact the story ends with him walking away. The conversation ends.

People have ways of explaining why Jesus asks him to sell all he owns (and why we don’t need to worry that he might ask us the same thing). And mostly it’s about priorities and things we cling onto – things that aren’t bad but come to matter too much. And so I ask myself what I cling onto, what I wouldn’t let go of? And if it was hard, would Jesus stay and help me?

I don’t think Jesus tries to make life harder for us, I don’t. I don’t believe that he enjoys asking us to give up the things that are hardest. But I think I also believe that my heart and my body cling to certain things for support that aren’t good crutches; and that if I hear a whisper of an invitation to give them up, that Jesus will walk me through the loss and be altogether more to me than they could be. We can walk through a hundred little deaths when we believe in resurrection.

How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God, says Jesus. How hard it will be for me. How many things compete for my heart and my money and my time.

Lent to me is an invitation towards death, the death of some of the ways I distract, anaesthetise and pacify myself to keep my mind away from my sorrow, longing, disappointment and need. It is like a rehearsal for better choices, or a practise run. A step of faith towards Jesus, that he might meet those needs if only I dare to step closer and let go of my comfort blanket.

 

If you’d like to read the story of the rich young ruler, here it is in the version in Mark’s gospel.

Chapter 10

17 As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.19 You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’”20 And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.”21 Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 22 But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.

23 And Jesus, looking around, *said to His disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!”