During my time in Asia, I visited this place called the Home of Hope. The name is kind of a misnomer, however, since the atmosphere seemed to suck every breath of hope out of my lungs. I remember my eyes stinging, whether from the equatorial sun radiating off the concrete slab beneath my dusty flip flops or from the literal stench of death, I’m not sure. Either way, I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for the holistic, embodied suffering I was about to come face to face with.
I shuffled my eighteen year old body across the cemented field, fighting back tears as I smiled at the very bodies of dehumanization. Women literally left to lay out in the sun, crapping in their pants, and scratching the lice in their hair until they die. If there was anything that was going to strip any “savior mentality” view of service and missions away, this was it. Lotion bottle in hand, I was here to just love these women; there was literally nothing effective or practical that I was equipped to do. That sounded more romantic than it felt as I sat down next to a woman whose sun-leathered body looked older than her eyes told me she was.
I motioned that I could rub lotion on her hands, if she wanted. Without hesitating, she pulled down a piece of fabric that could barely be considered basic clothing and patted her arms. Looking into her desperate eyes, I began rubbing lotion on her arms and chest, smiling awkwardly and fighting the urge to find a corner that I could lose it in. Suddenly and without warning, she reached out and grabbed my hand, beginning to babble in a language I couldn’t understand. Hindi, Telugu, Tagalong, Kannada – it didn’t matter, because regardless, I couldn’t understand her. As I listened to syllables that held no meaning, looking with eyes that communicated care and slight confusion. Nodding occasionally, I made my silent inquiry of God:
“Lord, I don’t know what I’m doing. I just want to let this woman know how deeply You love her and, literally, all I can do is sit here, listening to her talk with words I don’t understand. I believe in Your power, so I know that you could open my ears to understand her. But is that what will bring You the most glory here? Where are you, Jesus?”
Inaudibly, He spoke tenderly: Maddie, just be with her. Listen to her, not for the sake of responding or fixing anything, but for the sake of letting her know she’s heard. My glory is here because you are choosing to see her, to listen to her, to sit with her in the midst of her suffering, simply because it’s where she is. And it’s where I am too.
I was reminded of this story tonight at dinner with a friend. As he asked about recent hurts and weights upon my heart, our conversation became an illumination of something that my soul craves but my self-absorption often hinders me from living into well.
We need to learn how to be fully with people in their mess, in their suffering, in their hard things, in their pain, and in their experiences. Especially when we don’t understand, it takes an extra measure of intentionality remain steadfast and attentive to the daily sloughing of a tired wanderer. It’s the kind of solidarity that chooses to fight the temptation to view life only from our individualistic, comfortable lens and engage in the hard things of another’s journey for the sake of letting them know they are not alone.
We think that suffering necessitates action, and it does, but it’s the kind of action associated with lament, not trying to fix something. It’s the action that embodies the statement: “I am with you.”
The specific action changes depending on the situation, however a general principle seems to be that simply being present, with an attention to the way other’s are feeling, hurting, or struggling in a way that validates it all, is a good place to start.
The thing is, this kind of embodied solidarity, this ministry of presence, is exactly the kind of thing that I see the Lord modeling in His incarnation. When Jesus goes to Mary and Martha after Lazarus is dies, He sits and weeps with them. He laments with them. If anyone could go with problem solving blazing, it was the Christ who knew he was about to raise the man from the dead. I think we miss something profound about the ministry of Jesus because we are so uncomfortable with engaging deeply with people in the places of their hurt. We have meaningful conversations that remind people we care and then we forget as soon as the candles are blown out. We forget what is hurtful, what feels isolating, and what remains hard for someone other than ourselves.
When the weight of waiting feels hard, I don’t want someone to offer me a quick fix or even tell me that the Lord is going to be faithful, that I just need to hold out for the blessing around the corner. When an LGBTQ student or someone of a racial minority opens up about feeling marginalized and alone, they aren’t looking for some problem solving, pat answer. The couple struggling with infertility doesn’t want you to tell them it’ll be okay or that you’re sorry for their pain, as the child on your lap snuggles against you. They want to know you acknowledge that it’s hard, that it sucks, and that it’s painful. It’s not about “getting it” or “fixing it” but about not letting their experiences go unnoticed. They want to know that not only are you viscerally aware of their hurt, even if you don’t get it, but that you are with them in it, whatever that means (making sure they aren’t alone, crying with them, leaving situations that are painful, letting them get angry, continually asking how they’re doing and being vulnerable yourself, etc).
I’m not saying that I know how to do this kind of embodied solidarity well; the fact that my best friend, whose dad passed away over the summer, cried the other night telling me that people are forgetting her grief indicates that I’ve got a long way to go in learning how to be fully, wholly, and truly with people in their pain. Even when I’m crying out for people to do the same for me. What’s amazing to me is that even in learning to do lament well, the process itself refines us to become more like Christ and pursue discernment. After all, we can’t do it well, in and of ourselves, because we don’t know what people need or how to engage well in their suffering. So, we keeping asking Him who loves individuals more than we ever could.
All of that to say (and apparently I had a lot to say), I think we are called to do more sitting, more weeping, and more simply being than we often do. Like Christ, we are asked to be with others, whether or not we understand their experiences or hardships, for the sake of letting them know that they are deeply known, deeply loved, and will never be alone.
Oh hi. Me again.
Because it’s been two months since I’ve posted anything, but I’m not really in the mood to sift through my journal entries and try and compile what the Lord has been teaching me in the crazy past few weeks, I’ll give you this gem of a poem.
I’m not even sure where I found this, but it’s been a constant prayer of mine these past few weeks. The combination of commanding my soul to be still in the midst of so many unknowns, being reminded of the overwhelming trustworthiness of Jesus, and resting in the power of The One who stills the seas has been putting my tumultuous heart at ease.
As I lean on the words of others to give a voice to the depths of my heart, I pray that you find some joy and peace in this truth today. Know that you are loved more deeply than you could ever imagine!
Be still my soul, your God will undertake
To guide your future as He has the past
your hope, your confidence
let nothing shake
all now mysterious shall be bright at last
Be still, my soul!
The waves and winds still know His voice
who ruled them while
He dwelt below
K von Schlegel
“He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else. Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. ” 1 Thessalonians 5:10-23
Some people are natural encouragers. For some people, it take more conscious effort.
Some people gravitate towards encouraging “outside the circle people.” Some people naturally focus on building up those “inside the circle.” We need both.
Whether it comes naturally or not, everyone needs encouraged. We all crave affirmation. Granted, there’s a fine line between needing built up in Christ and your identity actually being dangerously rooted in the approval of others. At the heart, though, Christians should be encouraging one another with the knowledge that we all need to be reminded of the truth of who we are. It’s biblical.
When I was having a bit of an identity crisis, alone on my bed, it was the letters and cards of encouragement from family, friends, and mentors that ministered to my heart. Don’t misunderstand – I’m not talking about sappy, feel-good letters, filled with the kind of comments you’d see between young BFF’s on Instagram. These letters were written by people of love and grace and wisdom. They reminded me where my true identity lies. They reminded me to return to my First Love, the only Love that will ever fully satisfy my heart. They spoke of their love for me – but not because of anything that I’d done or earned or become.
I’d be the first person to admit that I need others. I need community. I need to be encouraged because I need to be reminded of TRUTH. We weren’t meant to do this alone, remember? It’s the same thing God told Moses about Joshua:
“But commission Joshua, and encourageand strengthen him, for he will lead this people across and will cause them to inherit the land that you will see.” Deuteronomy 3:28
Encouragement isn’t easy because it is 0% about us. It is solely focused on the blessing of the Lord in someone else. It means being in tune to what the Holy Spirit is doing in someone else – what’s going on, how they’re gifted, etc. But when we are living under the weight of insecurity ourselves, we become incapable of thinking about others. We are concerned about self: how we feel and how we can improve our self-confidence. No one wants to feel like they aren’t enough or they are a failure, so we naturally focus on digging ourselves out when we fall into that hole of lies.
But the catch is that we all have insecurities because we all have weaknesses. We focus on improving our weaknesses (through Christ, of course), which is a good thing. It’s the process of sanctification. But there’s a danger. We run the risk of missing out how the Holy Spirit is moving in someone else’s life, and getting the humbling privilege of encouraging them in that. And they miss out on the blessing and community that encouragement brings.
I’m reminded of what Paul says about our weaknesses. . .it’s all too familiar:
“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9
My insecurities, my weaknesses – I have to remind myself that those are the places Christ is made strong. Those are the areas where I can’t rely on myself. They are places where I am reminded that when you squeeze me in my flesh, nothing good or righteous or holy comes out. I am 100% dependent on Christ and His Spirit in me. So, the places that spur on my personal sanctification should also be promoting my encouragement of others. Because Scripture tells me that my weaknesses are never meant to point back to me; they are meant to point back to the God who has victory over all of them. The holy, holy, holy King who pours out such GRACE upon us.
Insecurity can kill encouragement. Because insecurity keeps us focused on us. But it shouldn’t be that way. Yes, we are weak in our flesh – but that only means that Christ that much stronger! So maybe we should step outside of ourselves and recognize what He’s doing in the people around us. Because everyone, even the most confident and seemingly secure people need to hear Truth.
Write a letter. Send a text. Meet someone for coffee. Pick up the phone.
It doesn’t matter how the encouragement comes. What matters is that it does, and that’s it’s rooted in Christ. Not encouraging others because you are too focused on fixing your own insecurities (or because you are “too busy”) doesn’t build up the Body of Christ. Encouraging superficial things or offering fake compliments doesn’t build up the Body of Christ. Jesus-lovers should be the most encouraging people around because we’ve been saved and encouraged in the most undeserving way. Even if encouraging others is a weakness of yours – whether in the family or outside of it – it’s not a fatal flaw; it’s just another place where Christ can show Himself stronger and more merciful than you could ever imagine.
I’m working on encouraging others. Those closest to me and the strangers in my life. If I’m being honest: the latter is harder for me. I’m working on encouraging people in the Spirit, and not just to boost their ego.
I’ve been so grateful for the encouragement of those around me during one of my hardest summers. Their encouragement has been such a blessing; it’s also convicted me to look at how I’m doing at encouraging others and recognizing where the Spirit is moving in other people’s lives. Needless to say, I need some work. But that’s awesome – because it’s just another place Christ can be glorified in my weakness!