Sunday, February 10, 2013

When Comforting Others Seems Impossible

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
Paul's opening statement in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians has long struck me as one of the most profound and humbling truths in all of Scripture.  In 2 Cor. 1:3-11, Paul explains that the suffering and affliction that he and Timothy had experienced while in Asia occurred for the purpose of teaching them how to better comfort other believers who go through similar afflictions.  God not only subjected Paul and Timothy to affliction, but He comforted them even more abundantly because of their experience.  The benefit of being brought through affliction to share in the spiritual comfort that comes through Christ is that the Christian is able to better empathize and serve his fellow Christians who are in the midst of their own suffering. 

That's a marvelous portion of Scripture, because it teaches the Christian to view their suffering not as a simple question of "why does God allow this bad thing to happen to me?" but a question of "how does God want me to use my suffering to comfort others who might be going through something similar?"  That's quite a revelation; it turns our focus away from ourselves and encourages us to start thinking about others.

On the other hand, the 2 Corinthians text does at least suggest that if God has not chosen to subject us to a particular form of suffering, then we may not be as qualified to comfort others as we might like to be.  Therefore, the experience of affliction becomes a prerequisite for us to learn how to better comfort others with the comfort that Christ first shows to us when we are in the position of the afflicted one.

That's a hard truth that frustrates me.

I don't have the personal experience to empathize fully with a widow who lost her husband young.  Neither can I fully identify with parents who have had to bury their own children, sometimes before those kids have even been born.  And thankfully, I don't yet know the pain of losing a parent.  But I have friends who live with all these burdens.

Another example has weighed heavily on my heart in recent days. This past week marked an important anniversary for people associated with Union University.  Tuesday February 5 was the five-year anniversary of the tornado that destroyed most of the old student dormitories but did not take the lives of any people on campus.  I graduated in 2005, which means I was already long gone when the storm came, but I had many dear friends who were still there when it happened.  I still remembered how terrified I was that night in my Louisville dorm seeing the reports of the devastation on the news and trying to decide if it was wise to try and call my friends in Jackson, TN to see if they were alright.

After all was accounted for, all of my friends were safe, but they were forever changed after that night.  They had experienced something terrible, a sensation of terror that I cannot even imagine.  I have marveled at the Union story for all five of these years.  There is even a strange sense within me that actually wishes I could have been there on campus that night so that I could have suffered in solidarity with my friends and know the depths of what they had to endure.  I wish I could have been there to help them in 2008, but I wasn't.  And I wish I could be better qualified to know how to best comfort them even to this day.  But that's impossible.  I wasn't there, and I can't understand the affliction (and the comfort) that those students and staff came to understand all too well.

I am humbled by the reality that I am unable to comfort my friends with the comfort that can only come from the people who were there and lived that night.  I experienced my fair share of storm warnings while at Union between 2001-2005, but I never lived through anything even comparable to "The Tornado."  And because of what I've seen at Union, I've since tried hard to prepare myself for a worst-case scenario whenever I endure storm warnings in Louisville.  None of this, however, makes me qualified to compare my experiences with my friends who saw the sights and sounds of February 5th.  I haven't warranted that sense of solidarity. And so I'm frustrated, because I know I am helpless to do what I want to do.  In a very real sense, I am incapable of bringing comfort to others.

But where our own strength might fail, the wisdom and mercy of God abounds all the more abundantly.  Thank God that there are other people who lived through that experience who cared for and continue to care for my friends.  Thank the Lord for the church families of all those folks who served the needs of their own.  Praise be to God that in the Body of Christ, there will always be someone who has undergone suffering so that they might be made more adept to bring comfort to others.

In my helplessness to comfort my friends as I would like, I can only offer my prayers to the Father of mercies and God of all comfort (to borrow the words of the 2 Corinthians passage once more).  And though I might lack the requisite understanding that comes through personal experience, I can pray the words of Philippians 4:7 that God might comfort my friends with "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding."

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Grieve the Moment

I've spend a good deal of time on the internet over the past few years, and I've noticed a number of trends about how people use their social media accounts.

One thing I've learned is that whenever something tragic happens on a visible and public scale, people will inevitable try to immediately change the tone of the conversation away from a consideration of the present tragedy into a comment about some other issue that is morally significant to their interests.  It's not a matter of "if" someone will act in such a manner, it's only a matter of "when."

I observed this phenomenon after the Newtown, Connecticut school massacre.  Obviously, gun control  laws were and still are the popular subject of discussion, but I noticed another trend among many would-be paragons that bothered me.  There were a few folks who expressed some sentiment along the following lines "The murder of 26 children and school officials at Newtown was terrible but our country has legally aborted over 50 million babies since 1973!" Granted, that's a true statistic, but why does one think it's wise to frame the discussion in that light?  And as atrocious as abortion is, the argument against its legalization is not advanced by diminishing the severity of a mass-scale elementary school shooting.

I don't fully understand why people feel justified in doing this kind of "morality juke."  But I suspect the best explanation might be that the tragedy of the moment doesn't quite connect with their emotions at a truly personal level.  Although nearly two dozen children died (who most of the nation knew not by memory but only by their names and faces), some people immediately wanted to get angry about something else.  Such comments do nothing to console the pain of the grieving families of the slain.  If it were my children, parents, or siblings who were the victims, then I am certain that my soul wouldn't care about being burdened by an additional moral outrage.

As a point of illustration, I recall this same tendency in comments that were made in the context of local news reports about the car accident that claimed the life of my friend Stacy Ellison.

On the news broadcast that aired on television that night, the news reporter narrated the events of the crash and then abruptly changed the subject.  She warned that more automobile fatalities might be in store for Louisville drivers as wintry weather conditions descended upon the city.  Then, as a clip of my friend's crumpled Ford Taurus was displayed on the screen, she issued a morbid warning about the dangers of distracted driving.  I don't know if either Stacy or the truck driver who crossed lanes and collided with him were driving distracted at the time (though based on what I've read, the other driver simply had a medical attack and lost control in an instant), but that question certainly didn't matter to me. I know for certain that wintry weather conditions weren't a factor, but the nightly news nevertheless felt the need to create a narrative where it didn't need to exist.  If I were to ever have the opportunity to have a face-to-face conversation with that reporter, I would feel compelled to ask her why she felt the need to dismiss the immediate tragedy like she did. 

But I suppose I already know what the answer might be.  The fact is that while a fatal automobile accident in a Metro area is both public and newsworthy, it simply doesn't have much emotional power unless one actually knew the victims involved.  It was only newsworthy as a local story, not as a national tragedy.  And the only people who really had to suffer were the victims and the people who knew them and their families.  Those who weren't personally affected by the event could simply divert their minds to other concerns and move on with their life routines.

My hope is we will cease our habits of dismissing the impact of immediate tragedies in order to draw attention to other subjects, however important they might be.  Let us do more to follow the example of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, who grieved with their suffering friend for seven days and seven nights without even daring to offer a word, as Scripture recounts in Job 2:11-13.  And let us avoid the imitation of their eventual attempts to shift the narrative from one of grief into irate moral diatribe.  Though there is much evil and suffering in the world that might pain us and remain ever with us, we are often best served to focus on the present crisis of a fresh wound... and grieve in the moment.