You may have seen this photo, already; I saw it first on Facebook, then an article on TIME.com. It was taken at a Nursing Home in Dickinson, TX this weekend, which you can read about here: http://time.com/4917743/la-vita-bella-nursing-home-dickinson-texas-photo/
This morning I heard an NPR story about the abuse which goes unnoticed in many Nursing Homes (http://www.npr.org/2017/08/28/546460187/serious-nursing-home-abuse-often-not-reported-to-police-federal-investigators-fi); and that’s not to say that these two stories are linked, but of the simple reality we all know: it is happening. People are suffering, many times it can go unnoticed, and there can seem to be more need than response. There is just so much out there.
As I was reading the TIME article, one of the online articles that popped on the side was “Actors Who Now Have Real Jobs,” and it showed a photo of Jennifer Connelly from the movie Shelter, probably the most iconic image to promote the movie, where Connelly plays someone who is homeless and holding up a handwritten sign on cardboard: “I Used to Be Someone.” I looked at these two photos back-to-back and thought “Jeez, really?” as I sit in my comfy coffee shop, the conversations and laughter hovering in the background.
I remember going to a worship service, and the person I sat next to groaned when one of the pastors stood up to begin her sermon. The person next to me said “Her sermons are always so depressing. All she talks about is the poor and suffering. I don’t want to come to church to be depressed.”
I should have said something….but I didn’t.
How do you have a conversation that is more productive than the guilting/chastising lecture of how we need to do something, followed by the rebuttal of how bad things are locally and we need to focus on the people here instead of the people over there, followed by how we are all one, followed by then going on our online soapboxes about how we’re right and everyone else is wrong?
The first time I saw this photo of the Nursing Home under water was on an FB post, saying that while we all were enjoying the boxing match or the football, this was going on; to which a commentator argued that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying things in life, that there are some who couldn’t or can’t do anything to help those in Texas, and that we shouldn’t use tragedies to make others feel guilty.
It seems as though we have a new reason (and maybe not so new) to feel overwhelmed and even apathetic or stuck when it comes to our part in help: which side do we choose? How do we do more than see/hear/read about all these tragedies and suffering, and not be overwhelmed in the chaos all day, every day?
Yesterday Bishop Ken Carter, bishop of the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church preached at the church I serve (First UMC, Lakeland), talking about Prayer. He talked about a church he once served in a community which suffered the tragedy of some teenagers being killed in a car accident; that after he officiated the funeral services, people in the community would tell him that it was too awful a tragedy to think about or talk about. He said people would tell him two things: 1) “I don’t even want to imagine what it must be like for those families,” and 2) “I don’t even want to go there.”
Bishop Carter went on to say, “If you take prayer seriously, for the sufferings of this world….you go there. Whether it was those families, or Charlottesville, or Hurricane Harvey, you go there. Why? Because Jesus went there. And that’s what Intercession is; it’s going more deeply into the struggles of others.”
Intercessory Prayer is a type of prayer where one prays to God on behalf of others. It’s one of the most popular types of prayer in our culture, even if people don’t call it that, but there can be many who wonder what the point is. If God is in control, if God already has everything planned, what’s the point in praying to God for something to change? And then you can start wondering, “Why did God allow/cause these tragedies to happen in the first place?” And then you might get the response that it’s not our place to know, we have to trust, but that doesn’t make sense to many rational thinkers, or to those who truly empathize and want to do something, and you can get caught in yet another chaotic whirlwind. But part of Bishop Carter’s point was that we allow ourselves to go into the places and people we are praying for, as best we can. We do not just pray while disconnected, we become a part of it. We intercess, which I know is not a real word, but as a professional theologian, it’s one of the niftier things I get to do.
We go into the places and the people we are thinking about.
How do we do that in a way that matters, and in a way that doesn’t make us sink into the Swamp of Sadness? If you’re stronger than I, here it is, but I always have to skip this scene:
The part I think is worth noting, is that Sebastian–the boy who’s reading this story, and experiencing everything Atreyu expriences, including loss–turns the page, and he keeps going.
We don’t go there so that we might feel bad, as well, at least as the main reason. We must go there so that we are affected and experience our connection with others, remembering that we are not separate; but at the same time, we cannot allow our connection and feeling hinder us from what we can do. And obviously we can only do what we can do, but we should not feel as though we must measure our level of action with others.
We do what we can do, and if we act and work honestly, out of our desire to help, to act out of our empathy and human connection (and not to just make ourselves feel better/more comfortable), then the smallest act will make a world of difference to someone.
How do we help those in that Nursing Home, or the people of Texas right now? We may feel like we want to drive to Texas, or send a bunch of food and clothes–but many times that response can cause more headache than help. There needs to be time to organize, for professionals to see the damage and get the message out. For the time being, one way to help is to donate to organizations like United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). 100% of whatever you donate goes specifically to that relief effort. There will undoubtably be organized trips in the near future to help aid and rebuild, to be with those who have experienced loss.
Funds may not be what some of us can give; perhaps what we can give is time, and even if it’s not in Texas, perhaps it can be a Nursing Home in our community, to visit someone who doesn’t get any visitors. Or to volunteer to read with kids at a local school. Or to feed the homeless in your local community. I just found out my community (where I just moved) has a group called Street Warriors, who feed the homeless, so I’m goin’!
Or perhaps we have neither extra funds or extra time. Perhaps, in our own way, we are trying to stay afloat from the flooding in our own lives. Remember you don’t need to feel as though your challenges need to be pushed aside any more than anyone else’s; but also remember that sometimes the best way to pull ourselves out of our feelings of despair, can be pulling someone else out of theirs.
The point is….go there. It may be uncomfortable, it may be awkward, it may cause you to feel overwhelmed and even depressed, to in the midst of suffering. Maybe afterwards you listen to your favorite song, or watch something funny, or eat your favorite. There’s nothing wrong with being happy or enjoying life, and we should not serve purely out of guilt. We should serve because we know we are connected with each other, and no matter how big or small we can help, it all makes a difference.
Don’t get bogged down in the sadness, or the arguments, or the chaos. But let yourself go there, to those who are in need, who need to know they are not abandoned. And whatever you can do, if it’s out of honesty and love, it will mean something to someone else.