For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me, yet I cannot say which I will choose. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better, but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that, by my presence again with you, your boast might abound in Christ Jesus because of me.
Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel and in no way frightened by those opposing you. For them, this is evidence of their destruction but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ but of suffering for him as well, since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (New Revised Standard Version)
I believe that one of the greatest tragedies of this contemporary age is that millions of people suffer in silence, alone, with nobody knowing what they’re going through. Countless others cry by themselves, even in public. It’s as if someone who is suffering or sad is a pariah whom we cannot get close to.
It is not supposed to be this way. Suffering by oneself is a tragedy. Suffering with others is a privilege. We are not only meant to be one in spirit when things are going well and it’s a joyous occasion; we’re also to maintain that close unity when the world seems to be falling apart and there are those who are profoundly hurting in either mind, spirit, or emotion.
A few years ago, I stood amongst a gathered group of people, most of whom I did not know. I was there for a memorial service of a fellow colleague. She received the kind of news that no one wants to hear. In a matter of weeks, she was gone. Not every funeral I attend (or even officiate) is beautiful. This one was, and here’s why: It was a collective experience of both joy and sorrow.
I walked away from my friend’s remembrance with a clear conviction – one that had been percolating and forming within me for quite some time.
This conviction might seem exaggerated, yet it by no means is meant to be. It’s just what I have come to believe about the universal human experience. It comes from the confidence and experience of a lifetime of observation and ministry.
It is neither merely a heartfelt sentiment nor a passing feeling. No, it really is a conviction, a firm principle or persuasion. It is this:
Crying with strangers in person has the power to change the world.
I think I’ve always known this. It just crystalized for me through that experience. After all, I have watched with awe the privilege of walking into a dying patient’s room, full of tearful family, and be with them in their pain. The sharing of stories is powerful, eliciting both great joy, reminiscent laughter, and profound gratitude; as well as tremendous sorrow, grinding grief, and sad lament.
Tears and celebration mix in a sacred alchemy producing a kind of care which transcends description.
It’s one thing to observe other’s joy and sorrow on the evening news, or even from afar. It is altogether a different reality to participate up close and personal. It’s something akin to watching a travel documentary on Yellowstone Park versus visiting the place in person; there’s just no comparison.
Shared human experiences of suffering will nearly always translate into new and emerging capacities for empathy. And where empathy exists, there is hope for all humanity.
Being with another person or group of people in their suffering creates a Grinch-like transformation in which our hearts suddenly enlarge. A single tear from a singular small little Who girl in Whoville had the power to penetrate years of hardness of heart and change what everyone thought was a shriveled soul full of garlic and gunk.
Said a different way: The spiritual and emotional heart of a human being is able to shrink or expand. It shrinks from spending far too much time alone and/or holding others at bay, at arms-length, while playing the armchair critic to those who are out rubbing shoulders with real flesh and blood people.
The Grinch never went back to his isolation. Instead, he did what Whoville thought was the unbelievable: The Grinch fully participated in the joy of the community, up close and personal. It was a full-bore holding of hands, singing, and eating – which illustrates a conviction I’ve held for a long time:
Hospitality, that is, showing love to outright strangers through celebrative participation with food and drink, has the power to change the world.
Hospitality cannot happen from afar. Sitting around the table with strangers and interacting with them is needed. It alters our perspectives so that we live our shared humanity. It is rather difficult to hate someone when you get to know them and discover their loves and joys, hurts and wounds.
This all leads toward asking one of the most fundamental and basic biblical questions that must be asked by every generation and considered by everyone who respects God and/or the Christian Scriptures:
Am I able to see the image of God in someone very different from myself?
The Christian doesn’t have to go very far to answer this one, at least from an objective cerebral perspective. Jesus saw the humanity in everyone he encountered, from Jew to Gentile, from sinner to saint. In fact, Jesus saw this image so deeply within another that he sat around the table and ate with people whom others saw as not worthy to eat with. Jesus’ willingness to participate in the hospitality of strangers was downright scandalous. It isn’t a stretch to say that it got him killed.
What’s more, Jesus wept. He cried in public with strangers. For followers of Christ who seek to emulate him in his practical ministry, that point ought to be noticed. After all, we choose to remember and participate in the life of Christ through the elements of bread and wine at the Table. God’s radical hospitality toward us is truly meant to translate to an open heart toward those who look and act differently than me.
The great fourteenth century mystic, Julian of Norwich, a female devotee of Christ and an influential theologian in her own right amongst a world of men who tended to see the image of God in women as flawed, understood what it would take to reawake image-bearing humanity. She stated:
Don’t think for a minute that suffering with and crying with strangers is an easy thing for me. Truth is, crying is not something I typically do, or even like to do. Yet, constrained by the love of God in Christ, and putting myself in a position to feel with the emotions of others in front of me, I allow those tears to come.
Yes, collective experiences of emotion have the power to change the world. Yet, this occurs only if we show up. Perhaps that was the reason for the Christian doctrine of the incarnation: Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us, the One who is present. He showed up, and salvation happened.
And that is what the Philippian Church needed to remember, tap into, and live as one Body of Christ for the life of the world.