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Twenty months in and the pandemic keeps dragging us in its choppy wake.
Many, many articles and webinars feature thoughtful speakers encouraging the church in ways to keep on with worship, whether online, hybrid and/or on site.
Many others are teaching ways to keep ministry programs going or rethinking how they might be offered. We are perhaps entering a time of profound reconstruction for many churches.
Yet throughout this season we continue to suffer. The suffering that comes regularly in our lives through sickness, bereavement, disappointments and estrangement goes on and the fallout from Covid continues to add layers of isolation, privation, and division.
How can the Church respond to this? Many of us might turn to searching for meanings or explanations. In Jesus’s action on the cross and in resurrection we have a story of God’s approach to suffering.
The Anglican theologian N.T. Wright puts it like this:
Jesus doesn’t give an explanation for the pain and sorrow of the world. He comes where the pain is most acute and takes it upon himself. Jesus doesn’t explain why there is suffering, illness and death in the world. He brings healing and hope. He doesn’t allow the problem of evil to be the subject of a seminar. He allows evil to do its worst to him. He exhausts it, drains its power and emerges with new life1.
A parish in my diocese approached a few months ago for help in forming and training a pastoral care team. They had experienced a strong call to organize and be responsive to the loneliness and hardship many had experienced in Covidtide.
Through a process of conversation and discernment they decided they wanted to become good, active listeners first. They gathered a core group led by a spiritual director and designed a workshop to learn skills of good listening.
This was one sign of how the church might respond to the times we are in now. They weren’t going to try and fix but they weren’t going to buffer themselves from the hardness around them either. They began with intending to become better listeners one-on-one or in small groups to those isolated and alone through age, sickness or other infirmity.
In a conversation with one of the parish leaders, she said this initiative was bringing them a fire and vitality they hadn’t known was in them for a long while.
This intention to be present and listen is one of the ways Kate Bowler, a Duke University scholar who was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer at age 35, suggests we might respond to the suffering we witness and experience.
In her book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, she offers several practical guidelines for approaching all of us who are experiencing adversity2.
I offer them in a slightly edited form here:
- The first is to say: “I’d love to bring you a meal this week. Can I email you about it?” But really she says, bring anything: chocolate, a plant, funny YouTube video compilations.
- The second is to say: “You are a beautiful person.” Unless that sounds creepy to you, maybe you say something simple that you admire about them. “I so respect the hard decision you made.”
- The third is to ask: “Can I give you a hug, hold your hand? Insert appropriate touch here. People who are suffering very often feel so lonely and cut-off and need touch beyond the clinical. Just ask first.
- The fourth is to say: “Oh my friend, that sounds so hard.” Let suffering people talk. Be willing to listen and stare down the ugliness and sadness of it all with them.
- The fifth and last is sometimes just not saying anything. Sometimes silence and presence is just the thing. There are no right words. Or in the words one colleague shared with me: “presence over perfection.”
Perhaps these can serve as points of reference for our churches own embodied responses to the ongoing legacies of the pandemic. Perhaps they can serve as guideposts for forming us once again in the pattern and hope of Jesus. They are not hard and fast rules and when in doubt, I think Jesus models for us drawing close to suffering. He always asks first: “What is it you need from me?”
What the church needs to ask is, are we willing to ask this question? How can we make sure we are not retreating into huddles of kith and kin after a prolonged season of withdrawal from our communities? In the face of our own fears and sufferings?
The instincts to withdraw and protect have been exercised for a long time. Another muscle that needs strengthening is solidarity. Resisting the isolation of suffering with the solidarity of suffering can propel us into loving action. The choice to do so is stark and urgent.
1 N.T. Wright. Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good (New York: HarperOne, 2017).
2 Kate Bowler. Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. (New York: Random House, 2018)
The Reverend Jessica Schaap is Missioner for Christian Formation in the Diocese of New Westminster in the Anglican Church of Canada on the traditional and unceded territory of the Coast Salish nations. Her mandate is to encourage and equip parish leaders in their development of holistic Christian formation for all ages.
Previously she was rector of St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Vancouver’s West End and assistant priest at St. James Anglican Church in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. She lives in east Vancouver with her husband, daughter and cat.
A very thoughtful and relevant analysis. Thank you.