Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Where Are You Staying?

So the other day I was having lunch at KFC (2-piece, Original Recipe with cole slaw if you must know).  During my meal, the thought popped in my head, “Why in the world would they ask him that?”  This could be further proof that I should not be left alone for too long, or there’s something among those 11 herbs and spices.
                The question I was questioning is in John, chapter 1.  John the Baptist points Jesus out to two of his disciples.  They leave John and start following Jesus who gets a sense he’s picked up a tail.  He turns around and asks them, “What are you seeking?”  They respond with a question of their own, “Teacher, where are you staying?”
                What kind of question is that?  Maybe John was picking a fight with Luke.  One said, “There was no place for them in the inn.”  The other countered, “Oh yes, there was!”
                Perhaps John subtly protests a Gnostic claim against the humanity of Jesus.  Two real, live human beings spent the day with Jesus at his hotel.  They saw him eat and drink and take a nap.  He was real.  The saw him, heard him and touched him.
                Maybe this is simply how a potential student applies to enroll with a new rabbi.  They were John the Baptist’s disciples.  He had announced that one greater than him was coming.  He pointed him out.  Naturally, his students had been prepared to move up higher and study with the new teacher.  It could be some kind of way to ask, “Where is your school? If it’s down by the river, too, we’ve got to tell you we’re not big fans of the cafeteria!”
                These two disciples started following Jesus, and they discovered that they weren’t going to spend the rest of their time at headquarters.  They asked Jesus where he was staying, and they hit the road to see the answer to their question.
                Luke lets Jesus express, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  That’s accurate.  Jesus moved around a lot, and his disciples walked around with him.  Actually staying anywhere for more than a little while was beyond the norm.
                My Bible scholar friends have already beaten me to the punch.  The Greek in this passage that’s translated “staying” is from meno which has nothing to do with temporary lodging.  In other passages meno is translated “abide” or “remain”.
                Andrew and his friend follow Jesus and actually ask a pretty deep question.  Where can we count on finding you?  Where can we go to be with you?  Where can we go to receive what you have to offer?
                “Where are you staying?” This question get’s answered more with a who than a where.  John the Baptist’s disciples were looking for a new teacher.  They spent time abiding with Jesus and they found the Messiah.  Wherever Jesus is staying, wherever he abides, people have the opportunity to believe.
                Where do we meet Jesus?  The simple answers might be at church, in Sunday school, in Bible study and devotions.  I’ve seen Jesus abiding in plenty of other places.  In the “family waiting room” of the hospital emergency department, a young woman wailed inconsolably hearing the news of her mother’s death.  Jesus was there.  He shows up at the homeless shelter—he’s the one standing in line for food.  He’s present during the drought desperate for a drink of cool, clean water.  He could even be working behind the counter at KFC.

                Where does Jesus stay?  Well, where are you?  He’s there, too, but you’ll have to open your eyes and look for him.  Stay with him, and believe.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

“Are You OK?”

In any case, it was kind of you to share in my distress.  –Philippians 4:14

                “Dad! Come here!”  This exclamation is becoming increasingly a part of our household lexicon as my 11 year old discovers more and more fascinating things to see on TV.  I should feel honored that he wants me to join him and share in the experience, but it often interrupts more noble tasks which have my attention at the moment.  A recent “Dad! Come here!” pulled me from the kitchen to the living room.  My son’s channel surfing helped him come across Red Bull Cliff Diving.  Yes, supper would have to wait.
                Here’s the imperfect summary. Competitive divers travel to exotic locations to jump into water from about 90 feet above; best score wins. Some of the athletes look rather beaten up because they hit the water hard—9.8 meters/sec/sec works out to around 65 mph—the telltale kinesiology tape holding their shoulders, knees or backs together for one more dive.
                It was fascinating.  It was hard for us to determine what a good dive was and what wasn’t.  We just watched and followed the cues of the announcers’ ooh’s and ah’s accompanying artists at work.
                I noticed something else.  Safety swimmers waited down below.  Each time a diver hit the water, 2 swimmers went out to him.  The diver would give each of them the OK sign with both hands (4 OK’s in total) before the swimmers would leave him alone, let him swim to shore on his own to make another solitary climb to a perch 10 stories up, from which he would leap again.
                It was a rule.  No OK sign; no more diving; try again on the next stop. They had to tell the safety swimmers they were OK.
                “Are you OK?”  This is another question we often use.  Both cars move over to this side after the fender-bender, and the divers will ask each other.  Bump into someone harder than expected, and you ask.  40 years ago this along with “How many fingers am I holding up?” comprised the entirety of concussion protocol as we knew it.
                “Are you OK?” is also often used in our conversations with people who are suffering.  It is also a query often met with a polite, but less than honest affirmation.  It can be another way to offer a little comfort without all of that complicated obligation to commitment.  It can be another get out of the room free card.  It has become one of those socially acceptable questions fittingly answered with a socially acceptable response. Greetings and salutations.
                Long, long ago, I met with a couple who had lost a baby.  The hopes they’d poured into becoming parents were shattered because of the miscarriage.  We cried together.  They did a lot of talking, and I did a lot of listening.  Then the young woman sought her pastor’s counsel, “Can I ask you something?”
                I was already feeling a fair share of inadequacy.  Deep down I knew that my meeting with this hurting couple would require more than polite kindness and a sweet prayer at the end.  The soul requirement was coming.  Besides, they were positioned between me and my office door.  I couldn’t run away.  So, I let her ask her question.
                She choked back her tears and asked, “Why does everybody I talk to want to know if I’m OK?”
                I could also hear her contempt for the question and her weariness of having to hear it too many times.  My first response was, “Oh.”  It wasn’t the “oh” that typically accompanied shock, surprise or discovery.  It was heartbreak. That would have sufficed as my best answer to her question, but I went on, “They have no idea what to say to you, no words to help with what you’re going through, but they believe they have to say something.  They mean well.  They really want you to be OK, but they can’t make that happen.  If you tell them you’re OK that might make them feel better.”
                “But I’m not OK.”
                It’s interesting to me that in some cultures the gesture we use as the OK sign is used as a more vulgar expression.  I’ll just say sometimes OK is not OK, and you can Google the rest.  Here was a young woman who was hurting.  In her own experience she had hit the water descending at a bone jarring 65 mph.  She didn’t jump voluntarily. And though she was emerging from the dark, churning  sea of grief, she was “pretty far from OK”.   
It was time to listen more.

We have asked, “Are you OK?” with no expectation of having to endure an honest answer. We have asked as a way to protect ourselves from the “not OK” lurking beneath the surface of someone’s suffering.  When people have asked us, we have given them easy outs with our polite responses, and sometimes it’s because we didn’t want to be confronted by our own stories again.  Other times we have detected that they’re just trying to be nice.   The asking and the answering have been convenient attempts at self preservation.  But what if…

  • What if we really wanted to know?  Could we generate the will to ask someone, “Are you OK?” and then sit with them to hear them out as they answered?  On most occasions, we will ask this question to one of our friends. If we have been investing in the relationship with that friend we might develop the good intuition that kicks in to inform us whether she is or is not OK.  We might not finish each other’s sentences, but we know each other pretty well.
  • What if we really answered honestly?  “No, I’m not OK.”  Those could be the magic words which send the pretenders running.  OR they could be the way to let your friends know you are ready to tell them more.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

"I'm Praying for You."

“Beloved, pray for us.” –1 Thessalonians 5:25

                “I am praying for you” is a beautiful thing to say.  It is also not a difficult bluff to call.
                Certainly, we are supposed to pray for each other.  That’s biblical.  It’s mandated.  Folks might wonder what kind of Christian you thought you were if you didn’t pray for someone else—especially a friend who was suffering.
Remember this? If you do...
you're old,...
 like me.  
                There have been times when we said “I’m praying for you” and it has been the wrong thing to say.  Learn from them.  Move on, and try to do better next time.
Please don’t say “I’m praying for you” as a way to promote your own piety.  Please don’t say “I’m praying for you” if you believe the other is a heathen.  I don’t think either case proves that your heart is in the right place. 
From this point forward, please don’t say “I’m praying for you” if…
·         You use it to end a conversation.  This one shouldn’t need explanation, but since it’s here, I guess we actually need that lesson repeated.  “I’m praying for you” can be one of our go-to phrases that we use on our way out the door.  If the conversation is awkward, we can’t wait to offer the phrase and probably not the prayer.
·         You don’t actually intend to pray. Please pray.  Talk to God on behalf of someone else.  Present your requests with thanksgiving and supplication.  Say your prayers.  We need it.
·         You’re not interested in praying with the other.  In addition to the work you can and should do on your own, please also pray with someone.  “May I pray with you?” might carry more weight than “I am praying for you.”
·         You’re not willing to listen. There are at least two persons to whom you need to listen.  The first is that other person, your friend who is going through some stuff.  If you are going to pray, ask, “What are some things we can pray about together?”  Of course, if you practiced good, active listening in your conversation, then you already know what some of those things are.
The other person who needs to have your ear when you’re praying is God.  If praying is conversation with God, then we also desperately need to listen to God.  If you practice a spiritual discipline of prayerfully listening, you might hear from God some of the ways that you can be an answer to the prayer you are asking.  God could reveal to you something you can do for someone else.  You might not consider it the most heroic deed you can perform.  Chances are good that God might even ask you to do something that makes plain, common sense.  Showing up with time and the willingness to listen sounds like a pretty good prayer in itself, the invocation to preaching the gospel without necessarily using words.

                Speaking of words, the following is an excerpt from The Little War of Private Post by Charles Johnson Post.  I discovered this book with the help of a homebound member of my church.  She told me the story I’m about to share.  I got the impression at the time she might have been a little fed up with sentiment disconnected from compassion.  I’m glad I was listening, and I needed the lesson.
                The Little War of Private Post is a memoir of a soldier who served during the Spanish-American war.  Post relates a story of suffering in vivid detail.  He and many other soldiers caught Yellow Fever while fighting in Cuba.  After the war, they were quarantined in a hospital camp on an island near New York. Their conditions were not much better than what they had suffered in trenches in Cuba.  They were so close to home, but they weren’t getting better. If you’d like the details, read the book.  Here are a few paragraphs which might help illustrate my point about prayer.
One day another civilian came into the tent.  He was a thin, pale little man with silky, curling first growth whiskers and a conspicuous Bible under his arm.  He had heard us [suffering soldiers speaking candidly about their condition and what they thought about it].
“You men—oh, you men!” he was ejaculating in tones of horror.  “Such blasphemy, such taking the Name. You soldiers who have been so near to death—to use such language!  Oh you, who have been in the presence of death, who have faced your God! I am praying for you.  I am praying for you!”
We suggested, and in unrestrained secular language that less prayer and more food might help.  He turned the thought aside.  Presently he went to another tent, in utter earnestness and in complacent uselessness.  The Bible never left its place under his arm, and he never lifted a finger to help that civilian nurse who was our only attendant, and for some hundred other men too.  At any hour of the day or night, or at dawn, he would thrust himself between the tent flaps and, with rapturous eyes, launch at us his excited prayers.  For this world, for this hospital, he had not time; we were merely a peg upon which to hang his pallid egotism.  The Assistant Postmaster of New York City (my uncle) was not permitted to establish any postal service in that camp, though he made a special and official trip for that purpose.  Yet this pious, worthless nincompoop was set at large to pray upon us.

Here is Post’s account of the civilian nurse mentioned above:
It was after midnight when an elderly, kindly civilian, a volunteer nurse, of which there was one for each tent-street, brought in some food in an iron pail…  He did all he could, faithfully and steadily. If he had not, we would have had nothing; no man, from the beginning of the war to its end, has my greater respect.
Jesus concluded the parable of the Good Samaritan with a good question to ponder, “Which of these, do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
           The lawyer responded, “The one who showed him mercy.”
            Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” 
I like how Clarence Jordan translates this last verse in the Cotton Patch Gospel, “Well, then, you get going and start living like that!”
Let us pray.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

“How Are You Doing?” and “Fine.”

“Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.” Romans 16:16

“Say hello to friends you know and everyone you meet.” Burl Ives, “A Holly, Jolly Christmas”

The next set of worn out words and feeble phrases I want to take on is the combination of greetings: “How are you doing?” and “Fine.”  I was all prepared to skewer these salutations, but then I realized that I use them quite a bit—actually I use them a lot.
                Now don’t get me wrong.  What follows should not be understood as a defense of “How are you doing?” and “Fine.”  I’m not going to offer any excuses for my own overuse of the terms.  Neither am I going to lambast anyone else with whom I find good company in this category.  What I want to do is at least make myself and others aware of what we are saying.  Hopefully, I might actually get back on course to do my part in more meaningful conversations.  Who knows?  I might also be able to drag some others along with me.
                Many times during the day, I ask “How are you doing?”  On most of those occasions, I use that question as a greeting.  When I encounter someone who greets me the same way, I usually respond, “I’m fine. Ha’yoo?” (I’ve really heard me pronounce it that way.)
                Somewhere along the way, “How are you doing?” became a greeting.  “Fine” became a traditional response of saying “Hey!” back.  Remember My Fair Lady?  Eliza Doolittle was taught to curtsey and say, “How dooo you do?” as a refined way of greeting someone.  Maybe we’re not in such reprehensible company after all?  If we’re lucky we’ll be mistaken for Hungarians.
                 I do hope “How are you doing?” and “Fine.” remain in our language as more than just greetings.  As a greeting and response, though, I guess they are OK.  Let’s not lament that we have lost a good turn of phrase to the department of salutations.   They have become greetings, and let’s settle on that fact.  When we used them that way, that’s all they are.  “Hi, how are you?” is simply the exercise of good manners.  We at least speak to each other.  Keep it up.  Make eye contact, smile, offer some cordial greeting, and don’t get all huffy if you don’t get anything back!
                One thing I want to lament is that we are losing the art of greeting each other.  Instead of following the simple etiquette of exchanging greetings, we can pass each other on the sidewalk or in the hallway and never turn our attention away from our smart phone screens. 
I got all huffy.
                As a greeting and response, they have their potential.  There is the possibility that we want to inquire about another’s well being.  There is also the secret hope that one responding really is “fine”—doing fine, feeling fine, fine as wine, etc.
                “Hello” didn’t become a standard greeting until after the invention of the telephone.  AG Bell instructed folks to say, “Ahoy.” Thomas Edison insisted on “hello”.  The earliest telephone books had instructions on using the telephone and favored “hello” as a standard greeting.  Instead of “goodbye”, however, the instructions told the caller to say, “That is all.”  I guess that is a little more genteel than “over and out”.
                Take a look at this article. 

                Greetings and their responses have been around for as long as people have communicated with each other.  Shakespeare employed a number of different greetings in his plays.  His characters have said hello with “good dawning”, “good day”, “good time of day”, “good even” and so forth.  We have been pretty much doomed since at least the late Elizabethan era.  Hamlet dug up a skull and wondered if it might have been a courtier who could have said, “How dost thou, sweet lord?” (Hamlet Prince of Denmark, V, i, 78).
                The apostle Paul is well-known for “grace and peace” as both a greeting and salutation (1 Cor 1:3 and other similar references).  A lot of pastors now use the phrase to conclude their church newsletter articles.
God called Moses by name, and Moses responded, “Here I am.”
Jesus was most often greeted by name or title or the combination of both (Jesus, Son of David for example).
“Hello” was once part of an extended phrase used to get someone’s attention.  We might be closest to understanding its original intent when were watching Back to the Future.  “Hello… McFly… “
“Goodbye” evolved a contraction of “God be with you”.  “Adios” has the same pedigree.
Once upon a time, greetings and farewells were blessings.  Consider “Hail, Mary, full of grace.  The Lord is with you.”   What if we were able to actually greet each other like that again?  We still try to greet and depart with blessings on a corporate level.  We greet the congregation in a worship service. If we are fortunate, maybe we also pass the peace, greeting each other with a blessing, “The peace of Christ be with you.”  At least weekly, if you attend a service that often, we hear a benediction before we leave the sanctuary.
                We often really do mean it kindly when we ask, “How are you?”  To ask with the kindest heart when time is short, though, will probably only get us another “fine” in return. 
I had an aunt who used to cock her head to the side when she greeted me.  She would sigh and ask me, “Chip, [sigh] how are you doing?”  She really wanted to know!  She would wait me out until I told her everything or at least until I came up with something more creative than “Fine.”
If you have the time and you really want to know, go ahead and ask.  I think you could make it sound like less of a greeting and more like a question posed by someone who cares.  Figure out how to communicate to someone else that you really want to hear an honest answer.  That might be more of the product of relationship than of body language or vocal inflection. 

“How are you doing?” might just open the door to more conversation.  If it does, be ready to hear an honest answer.  You just might encounter someone who is not “fine”.  From there, can you listen and receive what someone might tell you? 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

"Is There Anything I Can Do?" Part 3

            I mentioned two lists.  The second list has to do with the intangibles.  There are things we can do for one another which might not register on a practical tally sheet of accomplished tasks.  These items, though we might not see direct progress or results, are quite essential in how we care for each other.
Pray.  Well of course we should pray.  Bow your head, say your prayers, ask your friend how you can pray with her and for her.   Let “I’m praying for you” be a statement of profound spiritual fact and not another conversational crutch also approaching insignificance—but that’s a topic for another sermon.
Care.  Please keep caring.  This seems obvious, but we might need to ask the “so what” question about our involvement with others. It might restore us to minster for the right reasons.  We do so because we care and not because we are obligated to any sense of duty.  If someone asks, “Why are you here?”  I hope your honest answer will be, “Because I care.”
Notice.  I think we especially struggle in church in failing to notice each other.  We can go for weeks without seeing each other before we begin to wonder if anything is wrong.  A better ministry of paying attention might be needed. Of course, this is not a blanket indictment.  There are some small groups that know how to do this quite well.  They call each other when they are missed.
Accept the challenge of a simple ministry of paying attention.  I think this is important especially with people who are grieving.  Think about that Sunday morning when a grieving friend returns to church.  The last time he was in the sanctuary, he left following his wife’s casket.  No one sets that aside in order to put on a happy face to get through a typical Sunday morning. 
Pay attention.  Notice when people are not around.  Check on them.  At least let them know they were missed.  Chances are good that such a conversation reveals more information, even information that might have you turning the page back to your practical list.
Notice when people come back.  Go to them.  They need your hugs, love and presence.  Be someone who might help them get through a difficult day which might—might—make the next time easier.
Of course there are other things to notice.  It can be powerful to caringly point out, “I can see that you have been crying.  Would you like to talk about it?”
Listen.  Along with the ministry of presence, there might be no greater skill you can learn than actually listening to someone.  If someone is willing to tell you about their hurts, you are blessed and invited into an inner circle with that friend.  Don’t get off track worrying about what to say.  Listen. 
Here’s an example of what not to do.  If a friend is telling you about his complications following knee surgery, don’t follow that with any commentary that begins, “Well, when I had my knee surgery…”  The same can be said about any number of situations.
The list of intangibles can probably be expanded as well.  A few more single word imperatives come to mind.  Support.  Console.  What about Love?  Put your imagination to work.  Use the Golden Rule to figure out how you can treat someone the way you’d like to be treated.  I feel certain that ought to work at least 90% of the time.
Is there anything you can do?  Well of course there is.  Let me tell you about one more that seems very important.
Show up.  Don’t discount the importance of the ministry of being there.  We have often been preached to and taught about being the presence of Christ for someone else.  There is good work to be done in simply showing up.  Job’s friends heard he was suffering and they came to him.  They sat on the ground with him for seven days without saying one word.  It’s my contention that if the book of Job had ended right there, it would have been perfect.
While serving as a chaplain in the hospital, I was called on to care for a family in a crisis.  A man’s wife was suffering from some serious heart problems.  She went from the emergency room directly to the cath lab.  Did I mention she was pregnant?  Every complication the mother was experiencing was affecting her child as well.  No doubt that her husband was also burdened with these thoughts.  I arrived and introduced myself.  From that point on, all I could do was stand there and feel absolutely helpless.  In the middle of all that stress, the husband turned to me and said, “Chaplain, thanks for being here with us, it really means a lot.”  What meant a lot??  It was a tough lesson for me to learn, but there are more times than we can imagine when we will do our best work to sit on the ground with folks and be with them. 

Show up for your friends and neighbors in ways that bless them to see and know that they are not alone, and if you can do it without saying a word, even better.

Friday, December 09, 2016

"Is There Anything I Can Do?" Part 2

Getting back to “Is there anything I can do?” I want to ask a very challenging question.  Well, what can you do?  A grieving friend is not ready to give you a list of immediate needs.  So, if you are going to ask, be prepared to offer.  What can you do?  How are you gifted?
John the Baptist was out in the wilderness preaching repentance.  At the risk of being even more offensive, yes, we do need to repent, too.  If we have asked this question without the first impulse toward answering it, we have failed to contribute to caring for someone else.  We have only done our part to move a genuine offer of assistance toward a meaningless conversational sign-off.  We have turned our “God be with you” into “goodbye”.  We have taken our talents to bless others and buried them in the ground.  We need to repent.  We need to repent of participating in polite conversations that mean nothing.  We need to repent of our giving up on simple things when life seems to get complicated. We need to repent of taking the easy way out with hurting people because it might force us to confront our own hurts.
We have a role to play in redeeming the feeble phrase “Is there anything I can do?”  That redemption involves how we can act—the things we can do—as we care for someone else.
John preached repentance and a convicted crowd asked, “What can we do?”  Take a look at
And if you only have one coat...
there's still hope for you.
this gospel story in Luke 3.  John answered their questions, and he didn’t give them impossible tasks to accomplish that would result in their absolution. Repentance took the form of simple things that they really could do.  “If you have two coats share one with someone who doesn’t have a coat.  If any of you have food, share it with people who don’t have any.”
At the bare minimum there were plenty of folks hearing John preach who did have food to share.  Let me offer a rather selfish opinion.  As someone who has struggled and even suffered at times… pound cake helps!
I know some good cooks out there who, when they get word there’s been a death in the community, they get out the eggs and butter.  Sharing food and providing meals might be one good way we can answer the “Is there anything I can do?” question before we even ask it. I have even seen Sunday School classes respond to their friends’ needs by organizing meals for them for a week or more.
Sometimes the act of caring with food can be even simpler.  I called a friend while I was in the middle of a difficult time.  His first response to me was, “Let’s go get some lunch.”  Don’t sell yourself short.  A lot of good ministry can happen in conversation aided by a sandwich, a salad or even a cup of coffee. Sometimes having a quiet meal with a friend and not having to say a whole lot is enough.
What can you do?  How are you gifted?  We are blessed to be a blessing.
I came home one rainy afternoon, and half of our maple treed had fallen down.  A few feet of it stuck out in the road.  My sons and I worked on that part of the tree with a hand saw and a small electric saw.
The following Saturday morning, I was “this close” to convincing my wife that I needed—NEEDED—a chainsaw.  I was about to close the deal and head off to Home Depot when we were interrupted by the doorbell.  Our neighbor’s young son was at the door, “Daddy wants to know if he can bring his chainsaw and help you cut up that tree that fell down.”  Talk about mixed emotions!  So my neighbor came over.  He cut up the fallen part of the tree and cut down the remaining tree because it was eventually going to fall down, too.  It was a simple, neighborly act.  This is why you should buy a chainsaw in the first place!
Think about what you have to offer.  You will be surprised at how you are already able to be helpful to a friend who is struggling or suffering.  The tasks might seem obvious and ordinary, but someone going through a crisis might not have the time or energy to accomplish even some of the routine daily demands.  Your ministry might be as simple as picking up someone’s child from school or taking some books back to the library.  Think about some of your own routines that you might need some extra help with if you were also walking through a personal crisis.
What can you do?  How are you gifted?  If you have a gift—share it.  If you have a skill—put it to work. If you have some connections—make some phone calls.  There are many helpful things that you can do.  There might also be just the occasion for you to do something that is completely sweet and kind—because that’s who you are. 
Please also be careful in the process of caring.  You don’t want to do something for someone that might result in extra work to be done by the person you’re caring for.  Be thoughtful about even the good gifts you intend to share if they also come with some derivation of “some assembly required”.  It might not be the right time to bring over that casserole that requires a few extra steps to complete (please also work through your thoughts and feelings about using a disposable pan or your own Pyrex dish).
There isn’t going to be one benevolent project that will alleviate suffering or the source of suffering.  It might help treat a symptom, and that’s good, but it won’t cure the problem.  You and I won’t be able to do everything.  I hope that we will want to do something.
For each of us, it might be a good idea to make a couple of lists.  We can’t prepare for every circumstance, but it is a good idea to be ready.  There are practical ways we can respond to our friends in need.  Our lists will vary depending on how we are each gifted, but think about what you are able to do.  Here are a few ideas.  They might prompt what you’ll add to your own lists.
·         We have already mentioned food. 
·         Get together with a group and provide meals.
·         Go to the grocery store for someone.
·         Take in or pick up the dry cleaning.
·         Babysit.
·         Pet sit.
·         Babysit and pet sit (because you’re a saint).
·         Mow somebody’s lawn or rake their leaves.

            Regarding a list of practical suggestions, there can be a lot of simple things that fall by the wayside when someone is going through difficult times.  One basic explanation is that you can spend so much energy dealing with difficulties, that you don’t have any energy left to go about a simple enough task like picking up milk and eggs. Maybe you can be that friend who shows up and helps with some of the essentials that easily get forgotten?

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

"Is There Anything I Can Do?" Part 1

The following is something between a sermon and a chapter in a book.  I’m breaking it up into three easy pieces so you don’t feel like you have to read too much in one sitting.  I’m planning to take on more “worn out words and feeble phrases” in future sermons—I mean three-part blogs.

            “Is there anything I can do?”  I have to admit, I have heard this question a lot.  I have to confess, I have also asked this question a lot. 
If you have been through… uh… some stuff, or if you have friends who have been through some stuff, the chances are pretty high that you, too, have heard it and/or asked it.  As people suffer, there is an ever-growing list of words and phrases that run a range of being rather meaningless to downright callous and hurtful.  “Is there anything I can do?” has to be one of the most overused of those things we say and ranks highly as one that might also be very close to meaningless.
            Yes, that is harsh language and plenty of folks will be offended by it.  We all should feel offended that our offers to help someone would be considered meaningless.  The question, though, has been used too much by people who ask but end up doing nothing.  It’s not that the proposition was insincere in the first place, but somehow it became a hollow salutation we attach to brief moments we spend with people who are in pain.  It would be better that we extend the moments without giving into the temptation that we have to say something.
            Think about visitations at the funeral home.  The tradition is already awkward at best.  A grieving widow stands in her spot near her dead husband’s casket while many friends from her community file by to offer their condolences.  How many of those folks concluded their short visit to pay their respects by signing off with, “If there’s anything I can do for you, don’t hesitate to ask, OK?”  Politely, the widow nods and says thank you.  She greets the next caring neighbor and probably goes through the same process with him. And on and on it goes. Meanwhile, the previous itinerant mourners are on their way to Waffle House to cap their experience with carbohydrates and hot coffee where they’ll probably render another deep sentiment, “Bless her heart.”
            To those who ask, thanks for asking.  More than likely, you are caring and sincere.  You ask, “Is there anything I can do?” and you really do mean it.  That’s good.  It really is.  Ask it, and act on it.
            With that disclaimer out of the way, though, there has to be a way to do this better.  The question can be a problem and here are a few reasons.

It’s a tired turn of phrase. 
Because of over-use, “Is there anything I can do?” has become one among many meaningless phrases which we unconsciously employ in games of conversational ping pong.  It ranks up there with “How are you doing?” and its equally empty reply of “I’m fine.”  These feeble phrases and worn out words actually debuted as genuine expressions of concern, so for those who still mean what they say, it’s up to you to reclaim them from the cedar-lined hope chests of colloquialism. 
Chances are good that if we think about what we say, we might actually get back to meaning what we say.  Think about this.  Our modern word “goodbye” is an abbreviation for “God be with you.” The sentiment has certainly evolved over time.  It’s easy enough to imagine nowadays that you might say “goodbye” to someone you would only give some credit for the first syllable of “hello” that you’re going through.

It’s a burdensome phrase.
            Even when sincerely asked, “Is there anything I can do?” moves the responsibility for its answer to the other person.  Once asked, it’s up to somebody else whether they will take what you have asked and bat that proverbial ball back into your court.  It seems cruel, to me, to ask someone who is suffering to then do the work of coming up with an answer to our question.
            When you are going through difficult times in your life, the farthest thing from your mind has to be jotting down a quick to-do list to refer to should some thoughtful volunteer show up who needs an assignment. 

It’s a conversation ender.
            It is likely that “Is there anything I can do?” has been employed too often as the polite way to close a conversation with someone who is hurting.  Just like “How are you doing?” anticipates “Fine”, we ask “Is there anything I can do?” as the prelude of our polite dismissal, “Thank you.”  Instead of asking this ancient question out of genuine concern, it has become our handy tool to get us out of the room.  If we have been listening in a conversation only for the opportunity to then ask “Is there anything I can do?” then we were never present in the room in the first place.  It got awkward and we wished we were somewhere else so we left, then we went back only to rescue our own bodies.

            I imagine that many other difficulties could be added to the problems I have already mentioned.  One point I am trying to make is that we are desperate to resurrect the practice of thinking before we speak, especially in situations where we care for friends who are in pain or are suffering.  Think about what you say.  Think about how that person might hear what you say. 
Don’t be afraid to say something, but please don’t offer it if the sentiment does not come from your heart.
            I have been fortunate to receive some wisdom along the way.  I lamented to a friend once as I was on the way to a funeral that I did not know what to say to this grieving family whose father died unexpectedly.  This young minister turned to me and said, “Bo, sometimes all you can do is hug people’s neck and tell ‘em you love ‘em.” 

If you’re willing to love people, your showing up at difficult times probably confirms what they already know.  Your saying so might be more of something you need to hear than they do.  For me, the unimaginable has then taken place. I have received back a deeply tear-stained, red-nosed “I love you, too” that has penetrated my soul.  Each time it has been an important gift that I didn’t know I needed—but I really did.