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You Don’t Know What It’s Like

One day, three conversations.

1. I’m at a function where my job is to give a short devotional and prayer before the meal. Pastor-y stuff. You know. I’m trying to be witty, disarming, light. I make some throwaway comment about how I know we’re all hungry and that the soup smells good, but please won’t you just spare 5 minutes or so for the presence to descend? I do my thing. Appreciative smiles, all around. Let’s eat.

I wander around the room, hungry for praise, when a woman approaches me. I smile warmly, preparing myself for the inevitable, “Oh, thank you for your words” and “That was so wonderful” or some other appropriately appreciative expression of gratitude. But she isn’t smiling. “You shouldn’t have said that, you know!” I look blankly at her. “Um, what?” “About being hungry. We’re not hungry. None of us has ever been hungry. Certainly not you. You shouldn’t have said that.” I’m waiting for her to say, “Ah, just kidding!” or “but other than that, your words were, of course, quite brilliant.” I’m waiting for the conversation to make the obligatory turn. Doesn’t she know this isn’t how it goes? Doesn’t she know about the appreciative remarks and that grateful smiles? Hasn’t she read the script?! But there is no turn. And she still isn’t smiling. “Um, well, I’m sorry,” I mumble unimpressively. “My husband was a prisoner of war,” she says, face unmoving. “He knew about hunger. But you don’t know what it’s like. You should be careful about what you say.”

2. I’m speaking with a friend about health challenges. He’s had all kinds of incredible procedures to help his heart work better. He has a machine under his skin that pumps the blood. He watches eager young health professionals control his heart with computers and devices. He marvels at the technology, but he wonders if we really know what we are doing with all of the ways we have to keep people alive these days. He wonders if our technological abilities are outrunning our capacity for ethical reflection upon how/when/if we use these technologies. He speaks of watching people he has loved die slow, painful deaths. I think of other people I know who watched the people they love suffer agonizing, slow, unspeakably degrading deaths. Our conversation makes a hesitant turn toward the issue of euthanasia. “What do you think?” I ask. “I don’t know,” he says. “I know it’s a lot easier to have a position on these things when you’ve never had to watch someone close to you suffer. So many people have opinions, but they don’t know what it’s like.”

3. A young man I know struggles to fit in. Always on the outside, frequently misunderstood, even by those closest to him, those who should know better. He often feels alone. There was another incident, another experience of the hateful, petty smallness that human beings are so eminently capable of. A bit of racism, a bit of physical abuse, and an assortment of the other methods human beings typically employ to make ourselves feel big by making others feel small. My blood begins to boil. How do we not understand that the things we do leave such deep and damaging marks? I think of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem because they refused the things that would bring them peace, of bloody Jesus hanging on that ugly cross, praying for these idiotic creatures who have no idea what they are doing as they mock and belittle and destroy and kill. “Can you tell me about what happened?” I ask him. He looks away. “You wouldn’t understand. You don’t know what it’s like.”

He’s right. They’re all right. I don’t know what it’s like. God save us from the words we speak about things we have never faced.

And now, we make the turn from Lent toward Holy Week, and the cocktail of misplaced expectations, chaos, suffering, death, and, ultimately, hope that we rehearse each year. Whatever else we might want to say about this highest point of the Christian calendar, surely one of the most important things we can and should say is that God knows what it’s like to be us. God knows the burdens we carry, the wounds that bow us low. God has experienced the long arm of our cruelty and stupidity. For all the many and varied ways that we don’t know what it’s like, God does. God bears the weight of the hurts we carry. And God also—inexplicably, irritatingly, and, in the end, mercifully—forgives us for the ignorant words and the misguided actions that we persistently blunder along in, leaving untold wreckage in our wake. Yes, God surely knows what it’s like. Even when, or especially because, we don’t.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tanya #

    Thank you Ryan.

    April 11, 2014
  2. mike #

    ” I wander around the room, hungry for praise, when a woman approaches me.”

    hahahahahahaha…I DO know what that’s like..hahahahahaha……priceless.

    April 11, 2014
    • mike #

      I was merely reiterating with my comment the fact that Ryan has the forthright honesty to admit his (Our) Ego’s need for praise and affirmation. You won’t find many people, much less preachers, who will do that publically or even privately. I was laughing WITH HIM because I see this attribute frequently in myself as well. Sorry if I didn’t make myself clear in my initial comment.

      April 14, 2014
      • No need to apologize, Mike. This was the spirt in which I interpreted your comment 🙂 .

        April 14, 2014
  3. I appreciate how you show your vulnerable side in this post, one of the signals (I think) of a man of integrity.

    April 12, 2014
    • Thank you for these kind words.

      April 13, 2014
  4. Alice Smith #

    I appreciate this post very much. I hesitate to even say this, but the first woman was wrong to say what she did to you. Hunger and starvation are two very different things. Of course you have experienced hunger. The only reason I point this out is because I think that kind of action hinders understanding.

    April 12, 2014
    • Thank you, Alice.

      Yes, my initial reaction to the content of her comments was the same as yours. I don’t really agree with what she said or how she said it, but I also acknowledge that the place from which the comments were coming was a very different one that any I have experienced.

      April 13, 2014
  5. Steve Kimes #

    Excellent post, and a reminder of the need for humility.

    As far as not knowing what it’s like, in the early days of monasticism in the Egyptian desert, an Abba of the monastic community was approached by a novice. The novice demanded to know, “Why are you treating some as better than others? The novice you just took in was a Senator and now he receives a pillow in his cell and more food than the rest of us. Why do you treat him so well, but us poor you treat worse?”

    The Abba replied, “You have only known hardship all your life. When you came into the community you received a bed, which you have never had, and a roof that doesn’t leak and three meals a day. That novice gave up a life of servants and comfortable bedding and fine clothing and food to eat our rough food and wear our rough clothes. If I can do small things to make his great sacrifice a little easier to bear, then no one should complain about it.”

    We are all called by a God who calls us all to sacrifice. Who are we to say that one sacrifice is greater than another? Only God is our judge. When one claims hunger, three days of fasting might be all he can bear. Another might not be able to fast at all due to diabetes. Not all hunger is equal, that is certain, but we shouldn’t tell another not to use a word because that’s not “real” enough for them.

    God bless you.

    April 13, 2014
    • Thank you for this story, Steve. What a great set of reminders: We are all called by a God who calls us all to sacrifice. Only God is our judge.

      Peace to you this Holy Week.

      April 14, 2014
  6. Kevin K #

    Thanks for the post.

    Admittedly this stuck a chord close my own occupational home. As pastors we tread regularly on grounds where we really don’t know what it’s like. It’s why we grow beards. Sit behind shelves lined with old books. Quote obscure philosophers. Are relentlessly taking notes about our own personal existential experiences. Perhaps we’ll give the illusion that we really know, at least intellectually, what it’s like.

    But the truth is we don’t. Really. There are a few experiences that have given us a window into these things. There is a way of talking about things with humility, with grace. There is something to be said for simply gaining experience in life.

    I’m beginning to learn about the gift of listening. The joy of conversations that don’t stop at the point my ignorance becomes apparently obvious, but rather begin. To those who give me an opportunity to learn from sharing with me because they know what it’s like, and I don’t, I am incredibly (and professionally) grateful. I know that for many people, if I can’t relate, than they aren’t willing to share. I respect that. But I also appreciate those who risk teaching (and trusting) me even when I haven’t got a clue.

    Thanks again for some striking observations!

    April 13, 2014
    • Thank you, Kevin. Your words here are wise and true and I appreciate them. Humility, deep listening, a willingness to learn… Over and over again. Yes, this is the only way, as we tread this ground where we so often don’t know what it’s like.

      (Every beard I try to grow is pathetic. So I mainly just keep adding to the bookshelves to hide behind 🙂 )

      April 14, 2014
      • Kevin K #

        Thanks Ryan. We all salve our insecurity regarding our lack of wisdom in different ways. My beard makes a few months appearance throughout the winter, but any sort of self confidence gained by its presence is quickly cut short (pun sort of intended) in the spring when I shave and people make the observation “did you get a haircut?”

        On a somewhat related to my comment, probably not at all related to your post… train of thought this brings to mind the somewhat well known ‘beards of ministry’ graphic. Always good for a laugh.

        April 15, 2014
      • Ha! I guess I would be the post-evangelical stubble. Not particularly inspiring. Perhaps an “angry whiskers” should be on my horizon…

        April 15, 2014
  7. Paul Johnston #

    I think one of the reasons Christ calls us to interior relationship with him is to give us a true sense and understanding of deprivation and suffering. Gethsemane was our Lord’s experience, through the Father, of what His passion was to be like. Of what it was like to experience what he had yet to experience.

    Through Christ we can share in the right understanding of and, at the same time, be delivered from every evil. That we might be of service in the deliverance of others.

    if our understandings of suffering seem somewhat dishonest and shallow to us, they probably are. Go to a quiet place and pray to our Lord for understanding, so that we might be of service to others.

    April 15, 2014
    • Yes, I agree about the importance of an interior relationship with Christ and of this interior relationship being in the service of others.

      I don’t think, however, that saying “I don’t know what it’s like to suffer as you have/are” is evidence of a dishonest or shallow understanding or the absence of an interior relationship with Christ. Far from it, in fact. I think acknowledging that we don’t know what it’s like to suffer like someone else is actually a necessary step on the path to the wisdom and humility that are necessary to genuinely suffer with and on behalf of others, with integrity, honesty, and compassion. I am convinced that those who suffer are less interested in someone saying, “I know what it’s like” than “I’m willing to walk with you through this, even though I have no idea what it’s like.”

      April 15, 2014
  8. Reblogged this on 2greatcommandmentpreschooler and commented:
    This from Ryan: honest and true and riddled with the grace we’re dependent on.

    February 26, 2015

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