Can I Get A Witness: Our Pain and God's Presence - Kelly Kapic
Suffering comes in different forms, but however it comes those who experience it need to have room for both lament and hope. So how do we help one another without denying or belittling the genuine pain of our sisters and brothers? In our brief time together we will consider the practice of bearing witness which allows us to be honest about genuine suffering while also creating space to see God’s presence and power in the midst of our questions, struggles, and grief.
He kind of peaked into the room, and he asked “how was she doing?” I was sitting next to my wife, who was sleeping in the hospital, recovering from cancer surgery. How was she doing? just an hour so before, my two children who were only three and five at the time. I’d watched them leave the hospital with the grandmother, and a dear friend. And they were gonna be gone to California for weeks, while we tried to figure things out.
How was she doing? His voice was tender, concerned and gracious, and I tried to respond and no words would come but tears did. So he sat down and we just were quiet for awhile and, then after some time I tried to speak again and… This time the tears just turned into gushes. We didn’t want to wake up Tabitha, so we went out to the lobby, and sat there and every once and a while, I might try and talk even about something light and I couldn’t. And after some time and he was gracious, he was compassionate.
After a time it became clear, I couldn’t speak and he didn’t need to. He had come. He had witnessed. He had agreed that the grief was warranted. And he knew no explanations, no cliche could help. All that he had to give were his prayers and presence. So eventually he laid his hands on me and prayed. That was all he could do. And that is all I could receive. That was the summer of 2008. Two years later, after Tabitha had been declared cancer free. One day out of nowhere her four limbs spiked with pain.
Accompanied by after that debilitating fatigue. And I know spouses are supposed to say this, but if you spent 20 minutes with my wife you would know this. She is really one of the most brilliant people you’ll ever meet. One of the most able and at the time she was the president of Medair US, an international relief and rehabilitation organization, based in Switzerland, she was with the smaller US office and she was spending long hours working because this was after the Haiti Earthquake and they were involved. And this is a crisis mode, and this is very serious stuff and hopelessness is all on the ground.
And it was coming back from a meeting that she pulled over on the side of the road and called me to say I don’t know what’s going on. But my leg’s not working now, the constant pain, the devastating exhaustion and the endless questions were not for others, they were for her. And they were for us. I will skip the rest of the story, but just to tell you, since that day in the summer of 2010 to this day my wife has never had a day without serious pain. And this took us all the way to the Mayo Clinic where we’ve had two diagnoses to know what it is, and at this point there’s no cure. If you saw her by the way she’s beautiful and you would never know and she would never tell you.
Although she’s given me, cause she’s in Georgia, she’s willing to let me talk about it with you. Because she believes it matters to the church and to the world. I begin with this background, not because any of the rest of the time will I give you autobiography. I only say it because if I’m gonna talk about suffering and I’m gonna talk about how we ought to think about it. I owe it to you to at least say that this is not hypothetical to my wife. It’s not hypothetical to me, to my family or my community. And so I owe it to you to tell you that. So how are we to respond to those who suffer? Suffering comes to all of us in various ways. It can be anguish caused by a devastating hurricane. It can be violence against a victim of abuse. It can be from bodily pain. It can be from great social injustice.
And each of us face this in a distinct and personal way. Some people face suffering with this athletic commitment to overcoming it. Some people face suffering with shame. Some people face it by trying to cultivate detachment. Some without bursts of rage. Each of us is different. And all of our suffering is particular. But what I think even amid the differences, what I think we must realize, and we don’t always appreciate, is that there is real power in simply walking with another person through a particular experience. Bearing witness to their real challenges. So I want to talk to you about witness. Witness holds a particular special place in the Christian tradition.
And in our day for a lot of Christians in North America, if you use the word witness they instantly think of a Christian telling a non-Christian about Jesus. But really that qualifies more of what we’d call Evangelism. But in the Christian tradition witness has a special place. And it’s the place not simply when Christians tell non-Christians about things, it is a practice that Christians do together. We bear witness within the community. And within this tradition, witness is always at its best twofold. It’s twofold on the one hand it acknowledges that our troubles are real. Our troubles are real.
And on the other hand, it acknowledges that God is unflinchingly faithful. Anyone with a knowledge of the history of the black church in America or personal experiences. In such churches recognizes this practice. To this day it’s common in these services to hear a speaker proclaim “I need a witness”. Or in the midst of that you will have people in the congregation say, “testify.” Testify. Phrases like these normally arise in that context when either the speaker is talking about a painful experience that they or the community has gone through. Or… when they speak about the strangeness of finding God’s faithfulness in the midst of their suffering. Both the pain, and the provision require a witness. Stacy and one Floyd Thomas, and I wrote this before I knew they were gonna be here speaking.
So this is a delight to have them here. But they talk about this very thing. And they said that, “the black worship becomes an activity of nurture. That bears witness to the activity of God. It shows awareness and concern for life’s realities and provides nourishment. In the form of communal solidarity. And pastoral awareness and response.” And here I think, I think that predominantly white Protestant churches have much to learn from our sisters and brothers in the black church tradition. We must grow in our ability to hear other people’s laments. Responding, “yes that is really terrible.” Even we as encourage them, that when they think they see God in the midst of the difficulty, this is not to say that God is the author of evil.
This is not to say that God is evil. But to say somehow in the midst of evil God has still been there. And they sense it but they need to know they’re not insane. And the community says, “I see it too, I see it too”. I don’t have to pick between hardship and divine concern. Witnessing another person’s pain and laments, actually can allow us to rest. I’m sure I’m not alone on this. Let’s say I come home from work, something happened at work. For the sake of argument let’s say I’m in the right here. I come home from work, I tell my wife something that was said, or something that was done. And I’m pretty upset about it. If I tell her that and she enters into my frustration.
She says “I can’t believe that. I can’t believe they did that.” You know what happens to me? Not to everybody, but a lot of you are like me. I calm down. I calm down, because I’ve received a witness. What happens if I come home, or I go to a friend, or a colleague, or someone else and I tell them what happened. I tell them what I see and they say “ow that’s not a big deal”. Now I get more angry. Now I raise my voice higher. Now I tell you more examples. No, no, no, what I need is not for someone to tell me everything is okay. I need them to acknowledge that something’s wrong. That I am not insane. That a real problem is at hand.
When I see the others believe this, know this, feel this, I can rest because I’ve received a witness. Not rest from it all, but just have a moment to breath. Having my lament witnessed doesn’t actually make the pain go away. Doesn’t actually fix everything. But I am no longer isolated. I’m no longer isolated, I know need to convince others, or even myself that I am not crazy. I mean for us… You see this at a social level, people get upset, they’re like, “why are those people, why is this group or that group, why are they so angry? It’s not that big a deal.”
Listen. If people are raising their voices more and more. If they are having to get more and more extreme. More and more angry. It probably means we’re not listening. It is conveying to them we don’t believe it. It’s not a big deal. And they have no other choice. You and I have no other choice. No, no, no. How when someone receives my lament. When it’s witnessed. The geography of my suffering has changed. I am somewhere else. I’m somewhere new. No longer am I on the island of isolation. I’m now on the mainland of community.
Now I should just say as an aside there are dangers, for sufferers, where we can abuse other people. If a hurt person only dumps on others and never emotionally encourages them. If the hurt person only brings turmoil to others, but never actually helps. If they only achieve their own equilibrium by creating chaos among others, then we’ve got a problem. Because the other side of witness is not being adhered to. We must speak not just about pain, but about Christ, of redemption and hope. Now admitting that danger doesn’t mean, we can in any way underplay testifying to the reality of the pain and the anguish. There can be no sugar coating.
Let’s talk about God’s presence in our laments. Mary came to me because she wanted to talk. The memories, the grief and the ache were too much. She was overwhelmed by her own experience and the experience of others that she had seen. She grew up in her case in a Native American reservation. And she had known tremendous grief, hurt and pain. And in particular, she was often at night when she tried to sleep, she would think of this little girl. That eventually was in their home, and she up saw close in this particular case the pain that could come with disfunction and abuse. And she was afflicted.
And she said to me “what am I to do?” she found herself suffocated by grief. As I listened to Mary, I wondered what to say. And then it finally occurred to me. Mary was right. Her lament was killing her. Really. And I couldn’t solve her problem. And the pieces of the puzzle began to come together because I started to think about it. You know what if I or you, if any of us could truly and fully lament. And lament not just for ourselves but for others, for the world, you know what it would do? It’d kill us. A full lament is deadly, and you know how I know that? Because it killed Jesus. The one alone who fully and truly entered into lament. And in his case for others, he bore witness, he was the witness. Both to the reality, this is the wonder of the Christian image of the cross. He bore witness to the reality of sin and death and chaos.
While at the same time somehow, strangely, paradoxically bearing witness to God’s presence and love. He entered in, so our laments don’t have to kill us. If we fully and completely felt a lament of this broken and sinful world, it would crush any and all of us. And if you don’t think that, that’s just because, like because we’re living in denial. You don’t know how bad it is. My God, my God why have you forsaken me? But thanks be to God, this Jesus rose from the depths of despair and from the grave.
He rose and lives so that we are allowed, we are even invited to lament. He rose not so we don’t lament, but so we can take our laments to him. Because this world is still really broken. Our pain is real. Only the triune god can absorb our frustrations. He doesn’t fret before our questions. He’s able to respond to our concerns. I think we never need to— we should never forget that Sally Brown so wonderfully says “what ultimately shapes biblical lament, ultimately, is not the need of the creature to cry woe, as important as that is, but the faithfulness of the God who hears, and acts. We need both. Hope comes to us, not by denying or downplaying our pain.
But by acknowledging it before the God. Who abounds with compassion.” Let me conclude. We will only discover hope when we’re ruthlessly honest about what lies between us and that hope. And the church denies, the church denies the power of the gospel when it belittles grief. When it belittles physical pain, when it ignores social injustice. When it over-spiritualizes our existence in such a way, as to make a mockery of our creator lord.
Faithfulness to the gospel requires a Christian community to deal with the messiness of pain and human grief and suffering. Biblical faith is not meant to provide an escape from our pain, nor to belittle the darkness of depression in death. But it does invite us to somehow discover hope and grace amid the struggle. Beloved we need to learn to be truly honest, with ourselves, with each other, and with God. Our theology requires it. And our stories demand it. But together, must be together, giving and receiving witness. [banging] We can discover afresh the scandalous grace of God. That is so often spoken about. But so rarely, truly sacred. Amen. [clapping]