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When Suffering is Simultaneously Too Near and Too Far

By August 14, 2014 No Comments

The news of Robin Williams’ severe depression, long battle with addiction, and suicide was the final blow for me this week.  The notice came up on my iPhone, and I was reduced to tears. It wasn’t merely the death of this man whose movies could delight, challenge, and inspire me.  It was the culmination of what Scott Hoezee rightly dubbed a summer of sadness: the most vulnerable of the human family terrorized, maimed, raped, blown to pieces, gunned down by police, and otherwise gruesomely killed  . . . all summer long . . . in far too many places.

When my NPR app popped up with the news of Williams’ death, my heart sank into a hollow cavern excavated by sorrows past. In this vacuous place, I had no words other than “How long, O Lord?” and “Come Lord Jesus.” This lament and maranatha were made all the more poignant by simultaneously holding my newborn daughter, so precious to me.

A number of my colleagues on this blog have shared their experiences, analysis, and wisdom in response to this woeful news. To this, I’ll add one small piece: the complexity of ministry when suffering is simultaneously too near and too far from us. As for the former, we are inundated daily with tragic news. Ours is an unprecedented age, when to quote a recent New York Times op-ed piece: “on a typical day, we take in the equivalent of about 174 newspapers’ worth of information, five times as much as we did in 1986.” As the article explains, the brain is simply not wired for this constant deluge. It saps energy, creativity, and problem-solving abilities.  And when the information includes an onslaught of inhumanity, we can be overwhelmed with helplessness, rage, and despair. Or we can insulate ourselves emotionally and become numb, calloused, jaded, and judgmental.

If the world’s suffering is too near in this way, it is also too far. Ferguson, Missouri is much closer than Gaza, Iraq, or the Ukraine. But it is still too far. I do not know those who weep and rage, and I cannot actually walk alongside them. I only hear bits and pieces of their story and that, too, is mostly filtered by powerful media agencies. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that this distance absolves us of responsibility, that it means we ought to ignore this suffering, or that we can simply treat it voyeuristically. But I am suggesting that the shape of meaningful ministry—in which we actually participate in Christ’s ongoing (though sorely hidden) ministry of healing and reconciliation—is often unclear when suffering is simultaneously too near and too far.

The Gospel stories clearly portray Jesus’ accompaniment of humanity in its suffering. But this is not abstracted or universal humanity. We see him with particular people, listening to them, befriending them, weeping with and for them, touching them, healing them. So many Christian admonitions to pray or to send money seem to fall woefully short of incarnational ministry. In fact, I fear that these admonitions too frequently stem from a kind of avoidance rather than compassion.

How can we join Christ’s ministry when we are swamped with the enormity and constancy of suffering, on the one hand, and held at a distance from it, on the other? Rather than propose a definitive answer (as if there is one!), I’d like to share an amalgamation of my colleagues’ wisdom, which has kept me centered even in the midst of this grief:

Lament and keep lamenting. As Jess Kas Keat put it, lament is the prayer of those who have entered the depths of faith.

Love the ones we’re with, which is to say, confront the racism in our own backyards (and our own hearts), dry the tears and hold the hands of those abandoned, abused, neglected in our own communities. Know their needs, live in solidarity with them.

Find joy in the many gifts we have received, for this is one of the signs of a grateful life. Guest blogger Sarina Gruver Moore put it well: “Use the wedding china and play the broken piano. Apologize for biting my brother. Eat food with friends, and always, always light the candles.”

Discover the grace of doing nothing, as Steve Mathonet-VanderWell admonished us. When combined with lament, this is neither apathy nor avoidance but a powerful witness of our desperate need for God. It places us in a posture of dependence and surrender.

Acknowledge our finitude, and turn off our televisions, satellite radios, and smart phones (or at least the news and social media apps). Practice Sabbath.

Remember our connection to all humanity, those near and far, and allow the Spirit to work compassion in the depths of our being when we hear and see massive amounts of suffering.

And then remember the promises of God, and do it all over again.

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