Magazine article The Christian Century

Companion to Strangers: Building Bonds in Sorrow and Love

Magazine article The Christian Century

Companion to Strangers: Building Bonds in Sorrow and Love

Article excerpt

WE READ ABOUT the demise of church. Numbers are down. Church buildings are disintegrating or in closure. Metaphors are grim. The church as ship carrying us through the stormy seas has become the church as Titanic. Of course, we are people of resurrection. New forms are emerging like green shoots from dead stumps, and others shimmer on a horizon I find myself squinting at and unable to see clearly. In the meantime, I follow the shape of the church before my eyes. What I see does not discourage me in the least.

A year ago I received a Facebook message from a colleague on the other side of the country. Fie wrote from Los Angeles to tell me about a young woman he knew who was living in Brooklyn with her husband and two young sons. The family had not yet connected to an East Coast church community but had reached out to my colleague from the shadowlands of trauma. Although they lived in Brooklyn, this husband and wife were spending almost all their time in the pediatric intensive care unit of a Manhattan hospital where their 15-month-old son was dying.

I was in another hospital bed when the message came. I had just emerged from surgery with a new hip. It would take a few weeks before I was able to venture out, but my seminary intern was fit for the task even if she would have described herself as limping toward that intensive care unit, halting and unsteady before the door. Her ministry was all the better for that.

Pastorally, she limped and stumbled with them on that ground where no one can go with steady feet. She took the time needed--waiting, praying, weeping, listening, sitting. She was young and inexperienced for the task, but really, how does experience make such a journey easier? We often say that young people--and children--are the future of the church as if their powerful ministry is not happening here and now.

She helped Charlie, the five-year-old big brother, say good-bye. She stayed beside his parents as they hung on the edge of impossible decisions. I was steady enough to attend the funeral. There was Charlie, serious, sad, and clinging to his mother. His baby brother was there too, laughing from the huge photos prepared by coworkers in his father's design company, who did what they knew how to do.

My intern preached, and I led prayers around a small white coffin that was tenderly covered with favorite stuffed animals. Afterward I was ready to help the family find a church home closer to where they lived, but they stayed with us. We shared a bond, tethered by sorrow and love from one side of the country, one side of the river, to another.

Many Sundays Charlie hid behind his parents' legs. He rarely spoke. He didn't want to go to Sunday school but sat with his dad and drew pictures of cars and rockets like the one illustrating a prayer in the funeral bulletin. It was the prayer he'd spoken four days before his brother's death. "Dear God, please send us a rocket ship so Jakey and me can go to the stars. I love Jakey. Amen." Eventually, Charlie decided to go to Sunday school with his father sitting nearby.

One Sunday the Sunday school teacher prepared a lesson on Tabitha. She told the story of Peter raising Tabitha and also of how, after her death, the widows that Tabitha had clothed held her presence close through the fabric of her woven tunics. The teacher suddenly panicked. Wouldn't Charlie wonder why Jesus did not bring his brother back to life? Why hadn't God answered his prayers and those of his parents? …

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