I have been a minister for many years. Early on, I was often overwhelmed by my parishioners’ longing—longing for reconciliation with loved ones, maybe; or for an end to sorrow; longing for the birth of a healthy child or for healing from Cancer or Parkinson’s Disease. I felt the weight of this longing as a personal challenge to fix things.
At first, I thought that congregational prayer might be the thing. But I soon discovered that though shared prayer may draw people together, such prayer rarely, if ever, heals. In spite of all my prayers on behalf of parishioners they always lived for about as long, and died about as often, as other Canadians.
I sometimes wondered, then, whether I prayed with enough faith. When my brother was dying of ALS he used to muse—he was careful not to accuse—but Art used to muse, “if only my family had more faith, then maybe I’d get my miracle, and beat this disease.” It was hard to hear.
Or maybe, I thought, I just needed to keep at it—pray longer, more regularly, without fail. Irene and I prayed for the conversion of a friend and for peace in the Middle East for years—for at least twenty years, stubbornly, every night. In spite of our persistent knocking, though, the door remained closed and our longings were disappointed.
I now think that focusing on the quantity or quality or technique of prayer is a poor antidote for all the longing I found wherever I go. I now think of such prayer as really nothing more than thinly-veiled paganism, a tit-for-tat sort of religion where if we do the right thing in the right way, for as long as it takes, God will finally respond with the goods. I acted as if God was a powerful earthly potentate, a Ghengis Khan of the heavens, who sometimes rewards, and sometimes doesn’t reward those who come before his royal eminence depending on whether they came bearing gifts with proper etiquette or caught God on a good day. Silly me.
Over time, I’ve tried other theological answers to address this longing for healing I find everywhere. For example, I used to preach that even if God does not give us what we want here and now, there was always heaven in the by and by. In a way, that is what today’s scripture reading promises. Israel had been exiled to a foreign land. They long to return home. So, Isaiah promises that one day they will. That vision, as Isaiah shares it, is beautiful, a benchmark for what might count as heaven, even for us. It is all peace on earth and good will to all.
And, the Israelites eventually do march back to Jerusalem, too—though not to the sort of heavenly New Jerusalem Isaiah imagined, one where the blind see and the deaf hear, where no one ever goes astray and sorrow and sighing flee. In fact, as much as the Israelites longed for a New Jerusalem, what they would actually get over the next two thousand years was mostly loss, defeat, crucifixion, persecution, pogroms, and holocausts. Heavenly dreams do not necessarily make a difference on earth.
In the absence of easy answers, I’ve even considered Dylan Thomas’ advice for those who long for healing. "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
But honestly, I don’t do rage very well. Sure, we all long for a rich and comfortable life with decline and death ever on the far horizon. That’s why we avail ourselves of the best doctors, medicines, exercise and diet regimes. But to rage against decline and death seems like a poor substitute for longing. Rage ravages the inner psyche, poisons the pleasure we take in any one moment. And then, after the rage, in moments of calm, the longing always returns, anyway.
So, in the face of all our longing for so many good things, what can I offer, if not prayers that heal or sage advice for achieving what we long for?
Just this. Falling. Falling into each other’s lives and care and arms, answering the longing of others with whatever love and kindness we can muster to embrace them with as they fall. This does not make anyone’s longing go away. But falling does give deep longing a place to land.
The New Testament describes the church almost as if it was a huge firemen’s net, the sort of net that they stretch out on the ground when someone has to jump out of a burning house and fall to safety. Listen. The Bible says, "If one member suffers, we all suffer together," and "Carry each other’s burdens." It says, “have the same care for one another,” and “be hospitable to one another.” The Bible says, “bear with one another in love,” and it says “we are members of one another.” The Bible says “be kind to one another, tender-hearted,” and it says “encourage one another” and “build up each other.”
The Bible says, over and over, love one another deeply from the heart. The Bible pleads with us to so fall in love with each other that we are naturally there to catch each other’s burdens, and shoulder each other’s longing.
I’ll tell you a story. When I took my first church, in Sarnia, I lived in fear of everyone’s longing for healing. I was only 29. I wasn't sure how to handle it—especially if it came to a crises. As it happened, about six weeks after I moved into the parsonage, someone on the phone told me to get on over to the hospital, because there had been a terrible accident. A young woman and her daughter had been in a car accident. They were members of my congregation.
At the hospital a doctor pulled me aside, and told me that both mother and daughter had died. I would have to tell the father, in the next room. I'll never forget the next few minutes. Stepping into the ICU, the father was still longing for a miracle. And I was his angel of death. I remember seeing him, saying "Harry," his name, and telling him and holding on to him and the two of us sitting and crying for what seemed like hours.
I didn't have the right words that day, but somehow, by the grace of God, I managed to do the right thing. In sharing Harry's tears, in sitting there without having anything wise to say, in whispering an agonized prayer that I found in Psalm 88, "Oh God, why have you abandoned us? Why has darkness become my closest friend?" In being there I somehow shouldered just enough of Harry's pain for him to be able to get through that day, and the next, until he had learned some new ways for cobbling together a life.
The best answer to our longing for healing is not an unlikely answer to prayer or a miracle, which is, by definition, something we can’t count on, anyway. No, the best, if also incomplete and imperfect, answer to our longing for healing is that we fall into each others’ arms, at least figuratively, in order to share the load--now sitting in silence, perhaps offering to get a cup of coffee, not having to have all the answers.
I get that this is difficult advice for many of us. At church we don’t all know each other well enough to fall in love, so to speak. Anyway, many of us have our own friend networks and family networks outside of church. Our social lives and church lives are not highly integrated. And most of us are—at least compared to most people in the world—wealthy. We can afford to hire personal health care aides and therapists and counsellors when there is trouble. And perhaps our social distance from each other is a big city phenomenon, too. We don’t necessarily live close to each other. Traffic gets in the way. We can’t just drop by. Our friends are from work. Whatever.
We are also just too individual and private for that sort of touchy-feely stuff. Falling into each other’s arms for support is just too counter-cultural. Most of us value reserve and privacy and a stiff upper lip—a legacy, perhaps, of the Northern European cultural habits that many of us grew up with. So, when we long for healing, we tend to long for healing alone—or perhaps with the support of a key friend or family member, rather than a whole community.
Falling. Congregational crowdsurfing. The church as mosh pit. Sharing her load, sharing my load. Falling for each other as Jesus fell for us, is what Advent recommends to us, and what both the cradle and the cross are all about, really. Jesus shouldering our load, the divine not so much snapping its fingers to make everything better, as the divine in Jesus falling for us—loving us—till his end.
Falling. We can, and should practice doing this very Christ-like, very church-at-its-best thing. Pick up the phone. Ask how others are. Practice a bit of vulnerability yourself. Weep with someone. Because though it may seem hard at first, falling with and for each other is good, and humane, and the best way in the world to address the longing we all live with, one way or another. It’s like this song, from Over the Rhine. Falling.
Look around Breathe in 'Cause rain and leaves And snow and tears and stars
And that's not all my friend
They all fall with confidence and grace
So let it fall, let it fall