Last week, I was driving in my car, and I turned on the radio and tuned it to NPR. And I got in on the tail end of an interview with an artist who designs and sells greeting cards online (emilymcdowell.com). Her name is Emily McDowell. Emily was being interviewed because she had just released a new and rather unique line of cards, which she calls Empathy Cards. Not Sympathy Cards, mind you, but Empathy Cards, which have been especially designed for people with a serious illness. Emily herself is a cancer survivor, and she writes:
The most difficult part of my illness wasn’t losing my hair, or being erroneously called “sir” by Starbucks baristas, or sickness from chemo. It was the loneliness and isolation I felt when many of my close friends and family members disappeared because they didn’t know what to say, or said the absolute wrong thing without realizing it.
Most of us struggle to find the right words in the face of a friend or loved one’s major health crisis, whether it’s cancer, chronic illness, mental illness, or anything else. It’s a really tough problem; someone we love needs our support more than ever, but we don’t have the right language for it…..
With Empathy Cards, my goal is to help people connect with each other through truth and insight…. I want the recipients of these cards to feel seen, understood, and loved.
Here are a few examples of her cards. The first one is very simple. The front of the card simply says, “There is no good card for this. I’m so sorry.”
Another one says, “I’m really sorry I haven’t been in touch. I didn’t know what to say.” And you know that situation. Where you don’t know what to say, and so you don’t say anything. And time passes, and the space becomes awkward, and you don’t know how to break that awkwardness. Well here’s a card for you. It lets them know that you care in an honest way.
Now the next two cards are my favorites because they use humor.
This next one has to be my absolute favorite.
Emily McDowell writes about this card:
Why is it that when you’re sick with a life-threatening disease, so many people feel the need to tell you about someone they know who died of the thing you have? It’s crazy how often this happens. Not only is it unhelpful, it’s actually quite terrifying. Please, everyone, stop doing this.
And so if this happens to be your impulse, buy the card and send it instead.
“Don't leave us comfortless.”
I bring all of this up because of where we are today. Today, we are in one of those in-between times in the church year. Last Thursday we celebrated Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, and next Sunday we are celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In other words, Jesus is long gone, and the Spirit hasn’t arrived yet.
You see, following his resurrection from the dead, Jesus appeared to his disciples for a period of forty days. He spent that time convincing them that he really was alive and talking to them about the kingdom of God. As his time on earth drew to a close, Jesus told his disciples to wait, to just wait. Jesus said, “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49).” “This is what you have heard from me, for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). Jesus’ then blesses his disciples, and while he is blessing them, he is taken up into heaven out of sight.
So here we stand, in between the times, missing Jesus and waiting for the Spirit, wondering what life has in store for us. It’s a place of anticipation and apprehension, a place of tension. This tension finds voice in today’s collect, which can be found on the front of your worship bulletin. This collect—this opening prayer that gathers together our collective intentions and offers them up to God—this collect is over 465 years old. It appears in the very first Book of Common Prayer, which was published in 1549.
O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before.
Do you hear the tension? “Do not leave us comfortless. Do not leave us comfortless, but send to us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us.” How often do we find ourselves in those in-between times, those places of anxiety between the now and the not yet?... where we beg God to relieve the tension, where we long for some measure of comfort?
I remember talking with my Mom when she was in the midst of her battle with stomach cancer. I remember her saying to me how the waiting was the hardest part. Not the chemo, but the waiting. Waiting to get the test results, waiting to meet with the doctor, waiting to see if the treatment was working. She said, “I can deal with whatever is going to happen, but not knowing is the worst part. I ask God to give me patience, and give it to me right now.”
“Human beings are God’s language.”
Does any of this resonate with you? Have you ever been in a situation where the tension of not knowing was more than you could bear?... so much so that bad news seemed better than no news? In these in-between times, we cry out to God, “Don’t leave us comfortless, send us your Holy Spirit. Come be with us, and console us with your Presence.” We may not pray these exact words, but this is what we want, this is what we need: the comforting, consoling presence of the One who made us and cares for us. But it is interesting how God chooses to answer our prayers.
In 1981, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner published his bestselling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In it, Kushner quotes a nineteenth-century rabbi who said, “Human beings are God’s language.” “Human beings are God’s language.” Kushner explains what this means:
When we cry out to God in our anguish, God responds by sending us people. Doctors and nurses work tirelessly to make us whole. Friends come and sit with us, hold our hands without speaking, without trying to explain away our suffering or diminish it by telling us of other people who have it worse. And though we did not know it, that is exactly what we need, the reassurance that we are not alone and that we are people worth caring about.
In 1995, six weeks after the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Kushner was invited to conduct a workshop for the clergy, psychologists, and social workers who were counseling those affected by the bombing. He also had the opportunity to meet with the families of those who were killed. And he asked them, “How have you managed to get through these past six weeks? What was the single most important thing in helping you to cope?” Kushner said he was surprised by the answers he received for everyone gave him the same answer: community. “People suddenly emerging, neighbors, members of their church, total strangers coming up to them to hug them and offer them a word of consolation. I was reminded,” said Kushner, “that people going through a hard time need consolation more than they need explanation.” It isn’t that words are meaningless. Words can be very important, but generally speaking comfort in times of suffering comes through the empathetic presence of another human being.
Kushner then cites a study that demonstrates this.
Several years ago an experiment was conducted by the University of Wisconsin’s Center for the Study of Pain. A number of volunteers were tested to see how long they could keep a bare foot in a bucket of ice water. One of the things they learned was that if there was someone else in the room, they could keep their foot in the bucket twice as long. The presence of another caring person doubles the amount of pain a person can endure. That is what God does when God sends us people to be with us in our grief.
So when we are anxious, when we or someone we love is struggling, God answers our prayers by sending people to come alongside us, to be ambassadors of God’s presence, agents of God’s comfort because “Human beings are God’s language.”
Agents of Comfort
Of course, you know what this means? It means that sometimes we are the word that God speaks to answer someone else’s prayer. Sometimes we are called to serve as the agents of God’s comfort, to help bear the burden of someone else’s pain. But we don’t always know how to play this role. We don’t know how to be with someone who is in pain, grief, or sorrow. We don’t know what to say or to do. And why is that? Lots of reasons could be given, but fundamentally, I think it is because pain and suffering terrify us, especially the pain and suffering of others. For example, when someone is diagnosed with a serious illness, we experience fear because we are being confronted by our own mortality. So we keep our distance. Or the suffering of others can make us feel helpless, powerless, and impotent. But we don’t like feeling helpless, and so we respond, ironically, by trying to fix the situation, which rarely brings comfort and often increases pain. Suffering, especially the suffering of the innocent, scares us because it suggests that the world is random and chaotic and that we have no control or influence over what happens to us. So we try to make sense of suffering, and we hear ourselves saying things like, “Everything happens for a reason.”
Or if our faith is being challenged by suffering, we might even hear ourselves saying, “It must be God’s will” or “God has a plan for this.” This is what Job’s friends do. They can’t bear the thought that they live in an unjust world, a world where the righteous suffer and the unrighteous prosper, a world where there is no moral gravity, where up is down and down is up. And so, Job’s friends take great pains to convince him that his suffering must be the result of his own sin.
And so it is that the pain and suffering of others triggers in us a whole array of unpleasant feelings and fears that we would rather avoid. We need to know this about ourselves, because, like it or not, each and every one of us has been called to be an agent of God’s comfort, to come alongside others when they are in distress, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual. We may be feel uncomfortable, we may feel inadequate and ill-equipped. We may not know what to say or do. And you know, that might not be such a bad thing because, when we are feeling anxious and vulnerable, we often try to say and do too much.
But this is what I want to leave you with today. Don’t underestimate the power of presence. Don’t underestimate the power of your presence. One of our greatest human needs is the need for empathy, the need for somebody else to know what we are going through, regardless of whether they can do anything about it. Again don’t underestimate the power of your presence, whether it comes in the form of a visit, a phone call, a brief message in a card, or a simple touch or hug.
So go, be with people. Learn to be with people in their distress. Engage a ministry of presence, and do it with all confidence, knowing that you have been called and equipped for this task and that you are not alone. After all, as ambassadors of God’s presence in this broken world, as agents of God’s comfort, it is not we who are providing the comfort, but God is providing it through us. For it is the very Holy Spirit of God who is working in us and through us, but that is a sermon for another week. Next week in fact.
In the meantime, go, be with people in their distress.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.