Are Any Among You Suffering?
Updated: Sep 26, 2021
How are you doing?
It's a question I feel like I ask and am asked in reply dozens of times a day, and it always goes something like this:
Hi, how's it going. / It's,,, going haha. / Haha, nice. / What about you? / Oh I'm uhhh,,,,, hanging in there.... you know,,,, all things considered.
The problem is that "hanging in there" often means "hanging in there by only a couple of threads" and "all things considered" means considering the only sort of contained global pandemic, a constant slate of natural disasters--flooding in New York and New Orleans, fires in Oregon and California; it means doctors and nurses and teachers and students and parents whose day-to-day routines feel unsustainable, watching border patrol wrangle Haitian refugees with whips or lassos, wondering if our government will actually collapse, or waking up on any given day and wondering if that tickle in your throat or runny nose is just allergies or the Plague.
There is a lot behind our "hanging in there,,, all things considered", though perhaps it feels unseemly in polite small talk to crack open the egg and spill all over the floor every time we greet one another, and I get it, and I feel the same way. How we're really doing might be too awkward or too heavy or too embarrassing or too inarticulate to fess up to. Perhaps we don't want to seem like a Debbie Downer or perhaps we feel like we are the only ones who are having a tough time. I get it. But I want more for us than just "hanging in there,,, all things considered", and I feel sure that God wants more for us than that too.
If you flip through the pages of the gospels--including the Gospel of Mark which our lesson is from today-- you'd be hard pressed to find a time when Jesus was too busy to hear somebody out or to address the hurt that they brought before him. This gospel is replete with stories of his cleansing lepers, healing paralytics, casting out demons, feeding hungry people, curing illnesses, blessing little children, answering peoples' questions, and even raising a girl from the dead. And I hear this lists of needs, of what Jesus sees and hears and responds to, and I wonder if our own world is not as replete with the exact same kinds of needs as His. So often, though, what I feel more than anything and I read our Gospels is a simple and utter bafflement at the shape of Jesus' life that allowed him to move as slowly and attentively as he did. It feels so unattainable to me when there are emails to be sent, errands to be run, strategic plans and metrics and milestones to be managed-- when the committee must meet, when the newsletter must be sent.
Before COVID even, we lived with such razor thin margins of time and attention and energy, and now with pandemic and civil unrest and natural disaster conditions overlaid, it feels like we live in a constant state of overextension, and overextension is not the ideal condition for ministry, especially in a year like this one.
So again, let me ask you, slowly, and on purpose, and in the words of James. How are you holding up, Trinity Episcopal Church? Are any among you suffering? Are any cheerful? Are any among you sick?
The work of ministry that we are called into is the same work of ministry that Jesus engaged in, to be attentive to our places and to our people, to actually hear them out in their hurts, their uncertainties, their longings, and to respond to them. The work of ministry that I have been charged with the care of college students and young adults and with this church, and this town, and it is work that you all share with me and what I have heard is that people are hanging in there,,, all things considered. And frankly, me too. But I want more for us than to simply cope, I want for us to heal. I want more for us than to seek out distraction, I want for us to feel present. I want more for us than to be functioning, I want for us to thrive. And I believe God joins me in that wanting.
Ministry asks of us a little more than a razor-thin margin of time, attention, energy and as I see it, space and breadth and leeway are both the conditions for ministry (for the minister) and the result of ministry (for the ministered to), to be doing a little more than "hanging in there" and to have a couple fewer things in "all things considered". I want to be able to tell my students that if your 17-credit course load causes you to stumble, cut if off, or professors, if the looming deadline for journal article submission causes you to stumble, set it down, or if the weekly response papers cause your students to stumble, pluck it out. I want to be able to tell all of you the same-- but I know that a preacher does not have the authority to absolve you of all the many responsibilities that you all bear in your lives. But I do have the authority to say that capital-c Church does not have to be one of the places that contributes to overextension.
At the end of the day, we have an incredible breadth of choice in how we live into our call to be the Church. We do not have standards of learning that must be met, we do not have accreditation that needs renewing, we do not receive updated transcripts at the end of every semester, we do not have boards asking us about our third quarter profits. As the Church, we are called to be faithful and we are called to do ministry and if the answer to "Hey, how's it going?" is different now in 2021 than it was two years ago, five years ago, ten, twenty, fifty years ago, our ministry gets to reflect that, and it should. And if any of the things we are cleaving to are millstones around our necks in these exceptional circumstances, know that it is okay to set them aside, cut them off, pluck them out and know that we will still be the Church.
I ask these questions without knowing much about the life of Trinity, but because I am asking these questions in my own ministry and because they are questions that I believe apply just as much to adults as they do to young adults and college students. So I will ask them again:
How are you doing?
Where does it hurt right now?
What do you need?
What do you wish you could set down?
How is your community? How are your colleagues?
Who isn't in the room to ask these questions with us and what do they need?
When I was doing my hospital chaplaincy internship a few summers ago, I worked in the ER and my supervisor taught me to walk slowly through the halls of the ER, slowly, slowly, looking into every room and seeing what I could notice or sitting in the waiting room and paying attention to who is hurting, who is suffering, who might be needing some attention and what kind of attention. Slowly, slowly, diligently-- what did you see? what did you hear? what did you notice? who needs your attention today? He told me that when I left the internship, it would serve me well in my ministry to look out into the world, into my community as a big ER waiting room, everyone carrying with them something weird or uncertain or painful, in addition to all the burdens that we shoulder together. His advice has never felt more true than it does right now. It always felt silly--like it was never the right question--to walk into an ER room and ask "hey's it going!!!" and that's how it's felt for the last year and a half too. But the beginning of ministry can be as simple as culling a little bit of extra attention to pay, asking "hey, how's it going?" and expecting to be called to action by the answer.