Religion Magazine

Toward a Fellowship of Suffering

By Marilyngardner5 @marilyngard

When my children were small and they got hurt they would come running to me, tears streaming down their faces. And I would pick them up and hold them close. I rarely said “Shh, shh – don’t cry. Everything will be okay.” Instead I would  say “I know, I know. It hurts so much. It hurts and I love you.” And then I would just hold them. Even now, I’m not sure why I didn’t tell them it would be okay.

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At one time I was an expert at labor. I have a body that takes to pregnancy like the proverbial duck to water. My body glows during pregnancy. My hips, inherited from both sides of the family, are made for delivering babies. In five pregnancies I only had morning sickness a couple of times, and that was because I made the mistake of taking prenatal vitamins with their mega doses of iron on an empty stomach. I’m not saying any of this in pride – it’s fact. I could have probably had 10 babies and been fine in terms of the pregnancy. (I’m glad I didn’t by the way – just in case you were thinking of asking. Post pregnancy, child raising is a completely different journey.)

I also went through the labor and deliveries of five children with no hitches, no complications, just the hard, hard work of labor. But no matter how “easy” the labor, no mom ever forgets that period that they call ”transition.” Transition is when you look at your husband and you want to say things like “I could kill you right now with my bare hands for putting me in this position.” Transition is where you think you can’t bear one more contraction, one more pain. During transition, you need the presence of people who will sit with you, with no condemnation, no judgment and walk you through the process. You need people who will not chide you for telling your husband he has bad breath, or to shut up and get out. There is no other way but through. You have to get to the end of yourself. During transition you don’t want an explanation, you just want someone there with you. You want someone to lean on, someone to rely on, someone who knows that you can make it through to the other side; the side of the tears and that baby that is so precious that it hurts your heart.

I think sitting with women through labor is a bit like sitting with people through suffering.

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There is something about suffering that longs for someone to sit with us, to sit with us through the pain. It’s the fellowship of suffering. It’s the unspoken words ‘you are not alone’ put into action. The sitting bears witness to our pain. More than a card or a casserole the familiar, patient presence of another says to us “it’s too much for you to bear, but I will help you.”

So often we want to move people through the process of pain, suffering, and healing at our own pace, on our own terms. We want to impose our own schedule on the process of pain in another. We want to make pain and suffering controllable, manageable. Why is that?

Perhaps we feel helpless in the presence of the pain of others. We are not in control. We would do anything we can to make it all okay. But we can’t. We can’t make the pain okay. We can’t explain away suffering, and when we try, we tend to make up reasons for suffering. We end up forcing bad theology on people. A theology of suffering that has to have answers, instead of a fellowship of suffering that simply needs the presence of another. We speak too soon and our words are the salt in an already terrible wound.

Like the doctor or midwife that walks a woman through labor, not hurrying it along, aware that the body has to move through each stage to have a successful outcome, so it is with suffering.

And so we must not leave people alone. 

Coming beside them, will I pick them up and say the words “I know, I know. It hurts so much. It hurts and I love you.” And then will I hold them? Will I work toward a fellowship of suffering?

fellowship of suffering

“If your friend is sick and dying, the most important thing he wants is not an explanation; he wants you to sit with him. He is terrified of being alone more than anything else. So God has not left us alone. And for that, I love him”(from interview of Lee Strobel with Peter Kreeft, Boston College)

 
“Out of the darkness of the cross, the world transfigures into new life.
And there is no other way.
It is dark suffering’s umbilical cord that alone can untether new life.
It is suffering that has the realest possibility to bear down and deliver grace.
And grace that chooses to bear the cross of suffering overcomes that suffering.
My pain, my dark—all the world’s pain, all the world’s dark—it might actually taste sweet to the tongue, be the genesis of new life.
And emptiness itself can birth the fullness of grace because in the emptiness we have the opportunity to turn to God, the only begetter of grace.
And there find all the fullness of joy.” Ann Voskamp

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