This week’s guest post is written by John, a friend from our Texas years who, like us, no longer lives in Texas. Back in those days, John was one of my colleagues at work, one of J’s colleagues in grad school, and a fellow member of our church. Now he teaches philosophy at a university in Cincinnati, still makes a mean chili, and is the dad of a 1-year-old. Here he writes beautifully about carrying each other’s burdens during hard times, and I warn you, you might want to grab a tissue.
We had gotten the email earlier in the week. A close friend’s sister had finally lost her battle with cancer. Her name and situation had been on our prayer chain for months, and every Sunday my friend would ask our study group to pray for her as she endured chemo. As I read the few lines detailing arrangements for the funeral, my stomach began to tighten. “It” was going to happen again.
Being the son of a rural community preacher, I am well aware of many of the pastoral duties associated with ministry. Hospital visits for new babies, wedding services, and revival meetings were all happy events that ministers partake in as part of their calling. However, especially in the small country church, the most frequent responsibility was the funeral.
I hate funerals. I dislike them not just because of overwhelming feeling of loss, but because of the pure awkwardness in trying to address someone else’s pain. My social limitations, which are quite noticeable, become exponentially greater the more stress I endure. By the time I arrive at a funeral, I’m barely able to stand silently, or utter an occasional “I am sorry for your loss.” I simply become racked with a fear of saying, doing, or even being the wrong thing… and compounding another’s pain.
The Sunday after the email, the study group had gathered for a breakfast fellowship. Small talk was made, bellies were filled, and one by one our study leader pulled us aside to sign a card of condolence for my friend. I sighed a breath of relief. A card I could handle; a face to face conversation, not so much. I jotted down a few lines, included the obligatory “I’m sorry for your loss” and headed back into the room. On returning, I saw that my friend was sitting in the midst of the group, with a look that can only be described as ‘sorrowful’ on his face. In that moment, I knew I had to say something to him. Given, in that moment the thing I ‘thought’ I had to say was, “I’m sorry for your loss”.
So I sat in a chair across from him, looked him square in the eye, and waited for the courage to boil up just enough so I could take care of my social obligation. Instead, the Lord moved. The only part of the conversation that followed that I remember succinctly was the first few sentences I said. I told him, “I have no idea what you’re going through, and to try and pretend I did would be a lie. I just want you to know that your pain hurts me too because I’m your friend. You’re not alone. I’m sorry if I say or do something to make you hurt more, but I need to say something.”
The next half hour is a blur. He told me about the life of his sister, and how she represented his childhood home. I quoted Augustine (Confessions IX’s the death of Monica, Augustine’s mother) and tried to be as comforting and honest as I could. By the time we had finished, we both were nearly in tears. This is where community is defined for me… by moments where we are forced to admit our faults and limitations and carry our burdens together. My social inadequacies and his pain were not over, but, for a time, we had carried them together.