by the Rev. James H. Purdy

Saint Paul wrote to the community of faith in Philippi, and he writes to us:

Complete my joy — Do nothing from selfishness or conceit. Let each of you look not only to his/her own interests, but also to the interests of others.  (P 2: 1-13)

The images that fill the pages of our newspapers. The faces of suffering on our TV screens, that flash across our monitors. Human suffering. Unbearable human suffering. A friend asked me a haunting question, “Jim, do you notice those faces of God’s world?”

Many times, I have fled from others’ grief, from others’ pain. All of us have. We don’t know how to fix the situation or how to chase away the pain. There seems to be nothing we can do to help, so we flee. We withdraw in the opposite direction. We channel-surf the remote, hit the delete button, avert our eyes, turn off the TV, stop speaking to grieving friends. We try to move on. We turn away.

None of these actions helps anyone. None helps the suffering people. None helps us. We cannot shut out God’s world.

You and I are more aware of what’s happening in God’s world than were our ancestors. There is no way to change that. As hard as we try to close people out, we NEVER lose awareness of their suffering, their pain. The anguish corrodes and penetrates our shells, the misery gnaws at our being.

We WANT to help. Yet we feel impotent, powerless. So we withhold the one gift that DOES help, that makes a significant difference — our companionship.

When the mother and younger sister of the Jewish wife of my Episcopal priest-friend were killed in an automobile accident years ago, Jep and Rachel asked me to “sit Shiva,” to sit with the family, quietly, without saying a word or voicing a whimper. Nothing would be expected of me except myself — of course, next to my prayers, my most precious treasure, my self.

There we sat, mutely, evening after evening. There. Bearing witness to our loss and our sorrow. There I learned the practice of “bearing witness.” It’s not a “religious” practice. It’s simply being brave enough to sit with human suffering, to acknowledge it for what it is, not to flee from it.

“Bearing witness” doesn’t erase the pain. It MAY reshape the experience of suffering, of grief, but bearing witness does not eradicate it. When we bear witness, we turn TOWARD another person, TOWARD others. We let their experience enter our hearts. We don’t turn away our gaze. We step into their lives. We invite them to step into ours.

*   *   *

HOW we respond to suffering is OUR choice. We can feel hopeless and overwhelmed by this world. We can turn away, try to live as best we can, despite the pricks of conscience, the cries of the wounded. OR we can learn to bear witness. We can turn toward, not away from, those who are struggling. We CAN “look to the interests of others,” as Paul exhorts the Christian community.

A friend tells me that she takes whatever photo of recent devastation is available from the newspaper — a mother in a refugee camp, a child of war, displaced people moving across the trails of life, a family crouched in one of her city’s shelters. She gazes into the picture, makes eye contact, keeps her heart open. Meg tells me that this activity keeps her from fleeing their experience. It lets her hear their story, link life with them, bear witness to their fear and their sorrow. Meg does this, she says, to keep herself from hiding from the reality of other people’s lives. This way, she tells us, she “looks to the interests of others.”

We CAN turn away. We CAN turn toward, to one another, open our minds, open our hearts, open our hands, discover our humanity, glimpse our divinity. We can extend ourselves. We can listen. We can be patient, expectant, engaged. We can end the silence that keeps us apart.

We can turn away, or we can turn toward. These are the only two choices that God entrusts to us.

Let each of you look not only to his/her own interests, but also to the interests of others.


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