My husband and I left an oppressive church environment and were verbally shamed, threatened and shunned in the process. We were heartbroken because we expected unconditional love from a community we considered family. Most of the brave ones who asked what happened or why we left were either trying to appease their curiosity or wanted to help make things right.
Job’s friends come to mind because I’m sure they were looking to do what they believed was best. But the people we reached out to personally for support were the ones who would listen without trying to fix anything; the ones who would hold space for us without judgment and who believed us because they had experienced similar fears and hurt. We needed a safe place to grieve our loss; a place where we knew we were accepted and loved no matter what.
For many of us, our first instinct is to fix things when we see someone suffering, not to sit with them and hold their hand. We talk before we listen because we are far too uncomfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Happy endings often seem more important than peoples’ stories themselves, so we try to rush things along.
I had a pastor’s wife tell me to “get over” what happened to me and focus on the Gospel if it was important to me. What she didn’t understand is that it’s not our place to give someone a deadline for their grief. It’s not our place to disempower someone by overlooking their feelings and dishing out advice and Scripture like breath mints. Our grief is far too sacred for that.
I have friends who live with chronic illness and depression, friends who have suffered the unspeakable tragedies of miscarriage and stillbirth. We all know people who have lost their marriages or jobs, whose parents are addicts, whose children are making dangerous choices that will lead to painful consequences.
The list of ways we suffer extends far too long and wide and deep. And while sitting with someone in their suffering may seem like a waste of time, I would argue that it is the inauguration of the miraculous. It is seconding God’s motion to invite us into God’s presence and perfect love in the midst of human affliction. Be still and know.
So how do we discern when to sit with someone in their grief and pain and when to lift them up and encourage them toward the future? How can we hold these two ways of healing together? I trust that God is not constrained to our timetables, our modes of operation or our theological worldviews. There have been many times when I needed God to show up in a miracle. There were many other times I needed God to show up as a person I could see and hear and touch.
What I’m coming to experience is that God knows my needs before I do. God is constantly bringing good out of my circumstances, whether I see it right away or not. God is persistently inviting me into relationship and into awareness of God’s presence, God’s love, Emmanuel. Sometimes that looks like a church service, sometimes it looks like a girl’s night out and sometimes it looks like a quiet, contemplative moment alone in my bedroom. God, speak to us wherever and however we will listen. May we be aware of how You are moving in and through us even now.
In this specific season of my journey toward knowing and experiencing God, I have found great comfort in a few friends who have chosen to show up in my mess and imperfections and just BE with me. They don’t quote Scripture verses to me when I’m feeling discouraged because they know it was used to manipulate and control me for many years. They don’t point out a silver-lining because they recognize that allowing the expression of grief is what brings healing. They don’t tell me to pick myself up by my bootstraps because they understand what it’s like to need to be carried or walk barefoot for a while.
They are sensitive to me because they’ve chosen to see me, to listen, to empathize and to ask soul-searching questions to get to know me more intimately. They show me what love and what God look like. They demonstrate what it means to trust God with someone’s life and journey, to watch Jesus perfect their faith. God is showing up here for me now and I find myself learning to show up for others in the same way.
While we see God in Scripture and in tradition, most often we see God in creation; in people. I see God when my husband brings me coffee with honey and lots of cream after we’ve fought all night. I see God when my children include someone at the playground. I see God when a friend sends a gift out of the blue. Because we are all living from the truth of God’s love for us, we are free to risk holding space for each other and remind one another of our God-given worth and of God’s divine and intimate presence. It is true for them because it is true for us.
If you find yourself grieving today, know that your feelings matter. Your loss matters. Your healing matters. You are enough right now, right here, just as you are. There is no shame in suffering and there is no shame in our sorrow. God’s will is for us to know we are loved in the midst of it. And you are. No conditions. So take your time, and look for people who will respect and love you in that holy process. You are worth it.