Know God, Know Peace?
There was a picture on the wall, barely visible, through the half-opened door. It looked faded and neglected and kitschy in all kinds of ways. There was an orangey sunset, maybe a lake or a river. I can’t remember, so instantly forgettable was the scene. It was the words on the top of the picture that grabbed my attention: “No God, No Peace; Know God, Know Peace.” A clever slogan, that one.
As it happened, I was looking through the half-opened door because I was killing time in the hallway of an assisted living home at the time. I was out there because the man I was visiting had thrown up on himself for the second time in five minutes, so violent was the hiccuping that came on two weeks ago and hadn’t left him since. A few staff members were assisting him with getting changed and cleaned up, a process equal part undignifying and exhausting by this stage of the game. He sits in a chair in his room for the vast majority of every day, unable to walk or speak, half of his body paralyzed since a stroke. He knows the words, but he can’t locate them, his tongue can’t find the sounds. This makes our visits very one-sided and frustrating experiences for him. He is hunched over, resigned, listless, defeated. Know God, know peace. Yeah, okay.
I walked down the hallway, peering through other half-opened doors. So many broken- down bodies and broken-down minds. So much loneliness and lethargy. So many once vibrant lives full of hope and promise now drenched in desperation and daytime TV. An unused shuffleboard table. A bookshelf full of terrible crime novels. A wall-hanging of an old western scene. A guy with a green Saskatchewan Roughriders cap grimly doing laps with his walker. A tattered list of Covid protocols. A woman sitting alone at a table staring out the window at the rain.
A plain wooden cross on a desk outside one of the rooms (of course there was a cross).
I saw a lot of sadness and weary boredom. Maybe there were a few scraps of peace for those who knew God, but they were hard to detect.
My friend was cleaned up by now, so I went to sit with him for a while. I talked to him about my family, about the church, about the weather, about anything I could think of. I asked him questions that he couldn’t answer. A care aide came in to give him medication and apple sauce. I asked him if I could pray with him. He shrugged his general affirmation. I imagine he figured the prayers were about as useful as the apple sauce by now.
As I was taking my leave, I looked at him and said, “I am so sorry that this is the road you must walk. I wish I could take your pain away.” I put my arm around him and held his hand and the tears started to leak out of both our eyes. I thought back to that cross I had seen in the hallway. I told him that I didn’t have any answers for his suffering, but I believed that Jesus walked the road with him, and that Jesus knew what it was to suffer. He nodded. Yeah, okay.
Someone recently told me that it’s hard to open our hearts to give love to others unless we first open our hearts to receive their suffering. This is one of those things that sounds beautiful in the abstract and the theoretical but can be excruciating when it touches down in real life. I don’t want to open my heart to receive anyone’s suffering. There are times when my heart is just fine with happiness and comfort and ease. Other people’s pain is hard, particularly when it’s those closest to us, and especially when we can’t do much to change it. But I don’t think it’s really possible to truly love someone without opening ourselves up to their suffering. This is how love works.
And this is how God works, too. I don’t like slogans or religious cliches. I can’t seem to spit them out, even when they might be pastorally useful. If I don’t believe it, I can’t say it. And so, I really do believe what I said to that man in the assisted living home—that Jesus knows what it is to suffer because he has suffered himself.
I think we’re often tempted to just think about the cross or of the events of Holy Week when it comes to the sufferings of Christ. But I think Jesus suffered in all kinds of other ways, too. He didn’t have many possessions and lived a fairly nomadic existence. He knew what it was to be persistently, even deliberately misunderstood, even by those closest to him. I imagine he often felt very alone, even though he had friends and family. At least on traditional understandings, he never knew the pleasures of romantic love or what it was like to have children. He died young and knew that he would, which had to have produced some measure of existential distress. His heart broke at the sorrow of his friends. Maybe Jesus didn’t know what it was like to have a stroke, but he knew what it was to open himself to the suffering of others. To the suffering of the whole world.
No God, no peace; know God, know peace. Really? A witty pair of homophones doesn’t necessarily mean good theology. I have seen people of deep faith on their death beds wracked with guilt and anxiety. There are people of no religious faith who at least seem to live and die reasonably peacefully.
And yet I do think that there’s a deep truth buried in that cliché. I do believe that Jesus offers a unique peace even in the midst of suffering. Jesus offers us a God who has not kept suffering at arms length, a God who has endured it and come out the other side, who has dignified it and ennobled it, who has declared in his cross and empty tomb that it is a defeated enemy. It matters who we know. It matters more than anything.
Thanks. For whatever reason (perhaps temperament), I tend to keep some emotional distance from people. Your piece reminds me to be open to feeling with others because that’s the path of love (love that costs).
Thanks kindly, Andrew.
Thanks Ryan. I needed to read this – I have become a bit too salty and disengaged. I see this as a reminder to be present with people (and myself) in the midst of all that they are experiencing.
Salty and disengaged—yes, I have my moments, too, Kevin! Thanks for this.