Sitting with Suffering
“Sundays only” Christians move directly from the Hosannas of Palm Sunday to the Hallelujahs of Easter Sunday. Jesus’ angry disruptiveness in the temple, Judas’s bitter betrayal, Peter’s cowardly denial, Jesus’ desolation by his friends, unspeakable agony, and finally death and burial – all these events that transpire between these two Sundays get passed over breezily.
We lose something essential to the Gospel when we turn away from suffering. Sitting with suffering – our own as well as that of others – is essential to learning, living, and serving in the way of Jesus.
Rosie was one of my all-time favorite parishioners. An accomplished Bible teacher to whose classes people flocked, Rosie attended every Bible study I offered. Every Sunday Rosie followed my sermons intently. As I was preaching, whenever I looked at her I got a shot of adrenaline to press forward, because she was visibly locked in to what I was communicating. After worship she would tell me how specific points in the sermon were especially striking to her.
When it came time to say good-bye, as I prepared to take another call, Rosie drew me aside and asked if I’d like to know what about my ministry meant the most to her. Of course I wanted to know! I wondered, was it my insightful teaching or passionate preaching that most captivated her? She told me, “It was when you sat all day with my mother and me as she lay dying.”
I was stunned. On that day I had had nothing to say. I read a few Psalms aloud, said a prayer or two, and the rest was nothing but sitting silently with a suffering mother and grieving daughter. I learned the critical pastoral significance of sitting with suffering.
Holy Week is a crash course in sitting with suffering. We sit while the Master washes our feet, despite his knowing that we will betray him. We sit at his table, receiving the bread and cup from his hand, knowing all too well our unworthiness to share in his body and blood. We have little to say, and even less to do. All we can do is sit and receive. When we try to speak up, we’re like Peter objecting to Jesus’ offer to serve us – bumbling, off base, even if our heart is in the right place.
Better to be still. Better just to sit.
Jesus asks his disciples to sit with him in Gethsemane as he prays in the dark hours leading up to his arrest. (Mark 14:32) They fall asleep instead. As long as they are talking, they stay engaged. But keeping vigil seems so inconsequential, so unnecessary, so demanding.
Sitting with Jesus during this week of suffering helps us sit better with others when they suffer. By sitting with Jesus amid his suffering, we learn how to experience the grace of sharing in the suffering of others, just as Jesus himself did. (Hebrews 2:18)
The season of sitting does not last long for Jesus’ disciples. Soon he will be rousing them from where they have hunkered down, sending them out to carry forward his mission. But the sending doesn’t come until they have sat with suffering – Jesus’ suffering, as well as their own. Sitting with suffering is part of the preparation for sending. Holy Week is a time for us to engage this anew.
Your companion in the journey,