I was up early on Christmas morning — yeah, I know, not my normal routine. The house was quiet. I sipped the first of several cups of strong black coffee and enjoyed some poppy-seed roll while checking out Christmas texts and Facebook posts from friends and relatives.
One gave me pause.
A friend posted that his mother had died early that morning after years of struggling with dementia. Only a few days earlier, we’d talked about how difficult it was for everyone. How it would be a relief when her ordeal was finished.
I could identify. My mom was in a nursing home for 10 months after an incapacitating stroke. Such a helpless feeling.
I have several friends dealing with parents in hospice care or nursing homes. Another has spent many nights in a hospital, keeping her mom company as she recovers from surgery. So difficult.
And so easy at those times to start asking big questions like: Where is God in all of this? What kind of a God would allow any of this? Perfectly good and legitimate questions that hit right in faith’s midsection, especially at this time of the year.
Christmas is supposed to be about God being with us. But it sure doesn’t feel like there’s anything divine in this sort of suffering, does it?
It just seems to suck.
When I was growing up, I was taught to pray — to God, to Jesus, to Mary, to Joseph, to a vast array of long-ago saints with enormous halos — for a special favor. In effect, to convince God to wave some kind of divine, magic wand and make all the pain and suffering go away. Make everything end with a smile.
In that approach, God becomes like a director of those Christmas movies still playing on the Hallmark Channel. You know, everything works out happily at the end, cue the upbeat music, make the plastic snowflakes start falling from the studio ceiling.
And when we don’t get the happy ending, we can feel more hollow inside.
Faith? God? Try discouragement and doubt.
How do we wrap our heads around all of this? Is there a God and does this God care enough to do something about it when we’re hurting?
In her raw and real book “Pastrix,” Nadia Bolz-Weber recalls her stint as a hospital chaplain during her training for the ministry. She was struck by how much nonsense we tell grieving people in hospitals and nursing homes. Stuff like: God took your child because he needed another angel. Or, be happy that they’re with God. They’re better off. Yada yada yada.
“But when I’ve experienced loss and felt so much pain that it feels like nothing else ever existed, the last thing I need is a well-meaning but vapid person saying that when God closes a door, he opens a window,” Nadia writes. “It makes me want to ask where exactly that window is so I can push him the fuck out of it.
“But this is the nonsense spawned from bad religion. And usually when you are grieving and someone says something so senselessly optimistic to you, it’s about them. … But as a chaplain, I felt that people really just needed me to mostly shut the hell up and deal with the reality of how painful it all is.”
How painful it all is.
Confession: I’ve said many senseless things to hurting people in an effort to try to cheer them. I’ve done it. Nadia has done it. I’m guessing we’ve all done it. If the other person isn’t so sad, then it’s not so sad for us to be around them. Plus, we don’t have to feel their pain with them.
Who wants that?
Well, the one who’s hurting. And maybe God, too.
Sometimes the most loving thing we can do for someone is to simply hold their hand and listen. To set up a tent and take up residence with them in their painful place. To assure them that we’re not going to leave them alone. To rub our fingertips across the raw edges of whatever they’re feeling, even if it means our fingertips will get emotional paper cuts and bleed, too.
Basically, being willing to bleed with them.
I’ve given up trying to figure out exactly how God works. It’s beyond me. Mysterious ways. Every time I think I’ve wrapped my brain around it, I get a surprise that reminds me I’m clueless on many levels. But that’s OK.
I have no explanation for why pain is part of our lives; it just is. I’m more interested in what we can do to heal some of it. And it seems the only way to do that is to be there with the one who is hurting.
To be with.
There’s something both deeply human and infinitely divine in this being-with stuff. It‘s an intersection where humanity and divinity intertwine and overlap.
Our painful places become meeting places. Healing places. Loving places. Places where we recognize that we’re not alone. Places where love can take our hand, wipe our tear, and embrace our pain.
And give us what we need.