Editor's note:

Suf­fer­ing is all around us. Even on the days when we can keep our own suf­fer­ing at bay the news blares the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers. My work as a spir­i­tu­al direc­tor with chil­dren reminds me that even the chil­dren in our midst expe­ri­ence suf­fer­ing. As com­pas­sion­ate adults, the suf­fer­ing of chil­dren unrav­els us. Flood­ed with ques­tions and pain we often rush too quick­ly with a super­fi­cial salve. In this 1992 Ren­o­varé newslet­ter arti­cle, Richard Fos­ter offers words of wis­dom for sit­ting with some­one in their suf­fer­ing. I’d like to invite you to take a long, slow look around you, are there chil­dren in your midst who are suf­fer­ing? How can you sit with them in their suffering? 

—Lacy Finn Borgo

Dear Friend,

I write to you today out of con­sid­er­able pain and sad­ness, not for myself or my imme­di­ate fam­i­ly, but because of the seem­ing unend­ing tragedies that have befall­en a dear fam­i­ly we are priv­i­leged to know. The lat­est occurred only yes­ter­day — the sud­den and trag­ic death of the moth­er, Paula Huer­ta. She was seat­ed on a lawn chair watch­ing a fourth of July fire­works dis­play with her five-year-old son when a drunk dri­ver careened off the road, broke through a fence, and struck Paula, killing her instant­ly. (Amaz­ing­ly the child, Eric, sus­tained only minor injuries.)

Paula’s death, how­ev­er, is only the lat­est in a long and heart­break­ing string of calami­ties that have befall­en these good friends. I would recount them for you, but they are too many for the mind to com­pre­hend and too sad for the heart to endure.

You, I know, were not priv­i­leged to know Paula … but you know per­sons like her — per­sons of noble char­ac­ter amid the most trag­ic of cir­cum­stances. I am immea­sur­ably enriched by my acquain­tance with Paula and her fam­i­ly. I hon­or her as a woman of great courage. Why she was tak­en so sud­den­ly in this seem­ing­ly capri­cious way I do not know.

What can I say or do about this or any of the oth­er sad events that have sur­round­ed this dear fam­i­ly? What can any­one say or do?

What We Do Not Say

I will tell you what we do not say. We do not say that these hor­ri­ble events are the will of God. We live in an evil world, a trag­i­cal­ly fall­en world, and some­times we are crushed under the weight of it all. To be sure, God — whose pow­er is over all — can take the hor­ri­ble and the unspeak­able and, in his time and in his way, work all these ter­ri­ble things for good … but he nev­er autho­rized the evil. In fact, he hurts with us over the awful­ness of it all. His heart is an open wound of love.

May I tell you some­thing else we do not say? We do not come for­ward with those God-awful plat­i­tudes about clouds with sil­ver lin­ings and pain­less vic­to­ry in Jesus. That is an affront to the gospel of the suf­fer­ing God, the God who stands with us in our agony and our per­plex­i­ty and our con­fu­sion. It is an offense to the gospel of Jesus Christ who in his moment of great­est agony uttered the cry that you have cried and that you will cry; My God, my God, Why? … Why? … Why?”

What We Do Not Do

Then, too, let me tell you what we do not do. We do not pre­tend that the evil and the tragedy did not hap­pen. We do not act as if all is well when all is not well. In 1849 an eleven-year-old, Cather­ine Eliz­a­beth Havens, wrote in her diary, I think spelling is fun­ny. I spelt infan­cy infantsy’, and they said it was wrong, but I don’t see why, because if my sev­en lit­tle cousins died when they were infants, they must have died in their infantsy’; but infan­cy makes it seem as if they hadn’t real­ly died but we just made believe.”

Shake­speare con­cludes his mag­nif­i­cent play King Lear with a haunt­ing cou­plet that speaks, not just for the play, but for the life and expe­ri­ence of us all:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel,
not what we ought to say.

And whether we look at the tragedies of life through the macro­cosm of human his­to­ry or the micro­cosm of our own per­son­al his­to­ries, we must see the sad time, we must lis­ten to the sad time, we must obey the sad time: Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” Every­one tells us that we ought to say that God came to the res­cue, that the tragedy was avert­ed, and that every­one lived hap­pi­ly ever after. But we must be more hon­est than that. We must look the sad time straight in the face. We are able do this because Jesus did it. When faced with the dark­est of tragedies, he nev­er flinched but stared it down. And as a result he stands with us in the dark­ness of our own tragedy.

What We Are To Say and Do

And stand­ing with peo­ple is what we are to do. Often at such times words fail us, but that does not mat­ter, for what peo­ple need is not our words but our pres­ence. We are to be with them, hurt with them, cry with them, ago­nize with them. The most valu­able thing we have to give peo­ple in times like these is our pres­ence. And, thus knit togeth­er in our pain and our sor­row, we wait for that day when God will wipe away every tear and right every wrong.

Originally published April 1992

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