It was an Autumn Day, warm and sunny. I was working with some young people to prepare a significant event that they were to lead. Our work was slow, and we seemed to be going round in circles and time was running out. In the midst of this I received a call from a colleague who asked me to go to the hospital and offer care for a family whom he knew. They were there with their young child who was diagnosed with a serious illness and things looked dire. He has offered some support from a distance, but they needed someone to be there with them – would I go, now?
Everything in me wanted to say no, that I was up to my neck in important work and couldn’t leave it. Everything in me wanted to say that they needed someone else, someone with the right skills and expertise and training… Everything in me wanted to say that I couldn’t do this, and he needed to ask someone else. I wondered why he even asked me? I responded saying that I would go and meet them. I needed a few minutes to sort things out, but I’d go very soon. He gave me their details and I went back to organising the young people. We quickly divided some of the work and I left them to it. I ran around in some circles wondering what I needed to take with me; what ‘tools’ would be helpful. There was nothing I could find, nothing I could think to take – it was just me. I felt very vulnerable and uncertain as I drove to meet this struggling family. What would I say? How would I respond? What would I do? How could I be of use?
On the way I prayed – I can’t remember what I prayed for but certainly for help to be helpful and useful to these people, an instrument of God’s peace and grace, perhaps. I went, filled with anxiety and uncertainty, wanting desperately to be there but also not wanting to go. I suppose part of my anxiety was being confronted by deep pain and suffering that I understood they were feeling. I had young children and couldn’t imagine myself in this family’s place, how I would be and what I would feel, think, say or do.
I arrived and found the family. My colleague had told them I would be coming, and they were waiting. We introduced ourselves and they began to tell their story. There were tears and sadness and fear in their words and faces. Their young child was very ill and there was no guarantee that he would come through. They told me all that had happened so very quickly and how their lives changed overnight. They shared their fear and confusion and their absolute powerlessness. They moved back and forth between where we were sitting and their child, to ensure he was still sleeping and okay. The conversation went around and around, and I just listened. I wanted wise and profound words to say but there weren’t any that came. I wanted to be able to reassure them or do something to turn everything around, and make it good again, but there was nothing I could do. I felt their powerlessness and wondered if, as a minister, there wasn’t something I should be doing to make this okay??! There wasn’t. I felt a sense of being out of control, just as they did. The control and order we all desired in our lives felt so far away and there was no way to regain that order, that control. I had been forced to ‘let go.’
I realised that as I had travelled to the hospital, I was actually starting to let go of my sense of being in control. My initial reactions were around the fear of being out of control, being in a place where I couldn’t fix things or make them ‘right.’ I couldn’t make their child well and help him to be restored to proper health. I couldn’t make their pain go away and I couldn’t hide from the pain of life and the feelings that situations like this raise within me. I had to let go of my need to be in control and that is so hard!
The paradox was that when I let go and allowed myself to be vulnerable, the couple found they were able to talk and be present. They didn’t want or need me to ‘do anything.’ They wanted someone to sit with them, to be there, to listen and to share their burden and pain. They wanted someone who would pray for them because they could not articulate prayers and didn’t have energy to draw on other resources. They had doctors who were working to restore their son, but they needed someone who shared their vulnerable place and show them faith and hope, a light in the midst of their deepest darkness. They didn’t need all the words and empty promises but the presence of one who would sit alongside them and witness to love and grace in the silence and acceptance of their vulnerability.
I thought of this and the many other times when I have found myself out of control, both in my own life, through the experience of pain and struggle, and as I have been invited to share the vulnerable and dark places of people’s lives. As with most of us, I like some sense of order and control and find letting go difficult. Sometimes there is no choice but to let go. I thought of my mother and grandmother, of letting go of them through death. I thought of our previous dogs, of sitting in the vet’s surgery as these dear friends breathed their last. Letting go is so difficult when it is giving up people and animals we love into the mystery of death. Letting go of my control in many other situations is also very hard.
I thought of this as I read Matthew’s story of Jesus this week (Matthew 9:35-10:10) where Jesus sends the disciples out to proclaim the good news of God’s Reign and to cast out evil, heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, bring sight to the blind… He sends them out vulnerably – they are to take nothing with them but just go and rely on the grace of those who receive. They are to go, much as I was asked to go to the hospital, with nothing in hand, feeling unprepared and out of control – and to trust. Jesus didn’t sugar-coat the task. There would be people who rejected them and ridicule them. The task was not easy as they were sent into a pain-filled world to be agents of hope, peace, life and grace – in God. I can imagine their feelings, their questions, their anxiety. Having just been announced as disciples, their joy and pride may well have turned a little sour and they may have wished Jesus had chosen someone else – I certainly was wondering why I was asked to attend to the family at the hospital!
They went. They did what they were asked to do, and they did it in the grace and love of God. It seems that was enough!??! They were invited to let go of their need to be in control and ‘do’ something. They were to witness to what they saw, experienced, and knew through the ministry of Jesus. They were to witness through lives of love and grace, words and actions, to the Reign of God that was at hand – all around. This Reign that promises life, hope, peace, healing, justice, belonging, is there and we are invited to participate in it by letting go and allowing it to happen to us.
I found, in attending to this family in their deep pain, that there was something profound and mysterious present in our vulnerable space. God’s Reign entered into our experience and drew us into the hope and life it promises. There were tears and struggle but also a sense of calm and peace as we journeyed through the boy’s treatment together – in God.