When Job's three friends...heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. Job 2: 11-13
This afternoon, Beve and I spent some time with some dear friends whose lives we might hardly recognize if we saw them from a distance. They began a journey with a rare form of brain cancer 19 months ago. One morning she fell, thought she was having a stroke, had enough wits about her to still manage to call 911, and so it began. The cancer is so rare that no new advances have been made in its treatment in the last thirty years. It's rare to get, and rarer to survive beyond the diagnosis. I can't tell you the name of it (I think I'd need an advanced medical degree for that), but when the doctors finally figures out what was wrong with her, they told her to go home and put her affairs in order.
As you can imagine, she wasn't quite ready to throw in the towel that easily. Fortunately, there are world-class experts right down the road who weren't either. They didn't give up on her. She went through the whole cancer drill. I don't have to describe it here for you to know it began with surgery and ended with hair loss. But she made it out the other side and in those nineteen months has had a scan a month, checking her brain. Every scan has been clean.
Until Friday's. Within 15 minutes of that unclear scan, there was a new game plan, new marching orders. One more shot at trying to get those cells growing where they shouldn't right in her left frontal lobe.
Beve spent a couple hours with them yesterday and we went back over today as they prepare to drive down the freeway, marching orders in hand.
Mostly we just sat with them, let them guide the conversation wherever they wanted. She's always been a strong, independent woman, not too emotional. He's the emotional one, actually. At just one point today she showed emotion. Not surprisingly, it was when she spoke of her granddaughter's 2nd birthday, this coming Friday. She found a doll house on craigslist for little SM, and she called it, "Magic!" I told her about the dollhouse my dad made SK her birthday when she was little.
She asked me all about it (I know she'd loved to have built one herself if she'd still been able), what it looked like, how she reacted when she got it, everything. I told her that she loved it so much she barely noticed that we'd bought her a bike for that birthday. Nothing else mattered but that dollhouse.
"Did he love watching her play with it?" she asked.
"Oh," I said. "I don't think he ever saw her play with it after that weekend. He died that summer."
That's when she got upset. Not just upset, but angry. In fact, thinking about it now, it's not that hard to understand, of course. But I was shocked by her anger then.
She got to take all her anger and sadness and pain out about her own situation on someone else's death. She's exactly the same age my dad was when he died. And she's angry. She's sad and she's scared.
I didn't do the best job in that moment. I didn't have the right answer. She was angry that we hadn't sued anyone, or made someone pay, or something. It had to have been someone's fault, she kept saying.
"Money wouldn't have brought back our dad," I told her. That's the truth of how I felt when he died.
There's something very important about what Job's three friends did before they opened their mouths. They simply sat with him. "Sacramental silence," I remember being taught those days were called when I was in college and studying Job. They just sat on the ground with him. They didn't try to share his suffering because they couldn't. They didn't offer platitudes because there were none, they just sat there. They'd have done much better, I always thought, if they'd never opened their mouths at all and simply let Job have it out with God, rather than get in the middle of something they didn't have a hope of understanding.
I think the same thing about us. When someone close to us is suffering, we do best when we don't try to explain it or offer platitudes. What is most helpful is the gift of being. I know this because I've been the one who's needed it. And I know this because sometimes (even accidentally) I've been the one who's offered it.
The ministry of being: this is what I call it. It's what it's been called by better folks than me. It's an important comfort. A Holy Spirit work.
Let me--and you--remember that we don't need to talk to do Kingdom work.
Yes, sometimes the best work can be done with no words as all. (I really wish I'd practiced it better today)