As my Mom and I sit vigil with my Dad, accompanying him on his death journey, I’ve found myself drawn to the Garden of Gethsemane. All four Gospels include narratives about Jesus’ time with his disciples in this garden, especially following Christ’s last supper with the disciples as he goes to pray prior to his arrest. I’ve often wondered about how the disciples could fall asleep when it was so evident that Jesus was in deep distress. Luke’s Gospel (NIV) provides the most vivid description: “And being in anguish, [Jesus] prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (22:44).” But it is also Luke’s Gospel that most compassionately describes the disciples’ experience: “When [Jesus] rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow (22:45).”
The disciples were exhausted from sorrow—exhausted from sorrow. They were accompanying Jesus in his anguish. They may not yet have understood that he was on his journey toward death, but they could see his anguish and suffering and it caused them sorrow—enough sorrow to fall asleep from exhaustion. As a pastor I’ve sat for a while with many families over the years as they accompanied their beloved ones in their death journeys. I could see the toll of sorrow etched on their faces and reflected in their eyes. Most often the sorrow was not wholly about their loved one dying; most of those I accompanied trusted deeply in and found comfort in the hope we share through Christ’s resurrection. Rather it was sorrow and anguish over the suffering that is often a part of dying and the helplessness to change that or help or improve their loved one’s situation.
Living in Lebanon the past two years as the country has literally been collapsing around us has also been a journey in sorrow, exhausting sorrow. I have been living the helplessness of not being able to do anything to improve the situation that leaves hundreds of thousands of people suffering. I’ve helped where I can. I’ve raised awareness where I’ve been able to do so for the purpose of advocacy. I’ve sat with neighbors and friends and colleagues numb with their anguish over their country’s collapse.
And yet, even these profound experiences have been written in a different key from the experience of entering into my father’s journey of dying. I understand better now the disciples’ exhaustion. I understand better now their sorrow and why they fell asleep. It is humbling to be present to my beloved father as death approaches. It is leaving me deeply aware of my own helplessness. I can only sit with him, be with him, care for him, make him as comfortable as possible, but I cannot fix his body. Nobody can.
In my helplessness, I have also reflected often on the first question and response in the Heidelberg Catechism (it has been etched into my being since junior high—part of my growing up experience in the Christian Reformed Church). “Q: What is your only comfort in life and death? A: That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour [sic] Jesus Christ.” It is this comfort I see in my father’s eyes even now when he is no longer able to speak and is struggling even to be able to swallow. It is this comfort that holds me in my exhaustion and reminds me that it is enough just to be here with my Pappy, accompanying him on this part of his sacred journey, a death journey, but not a journey in which death gets the final word.
It is a spiritual discipline for me it seems in this season of life—to be learning how to simply be present with those who are suffering. Not to fix and restore (really hard for the activist part of me!), but just to bear witness and to honor the dignity of the suffering ones as ones made in the image of God, as ones in whom Jesus is present, as ones with whom Jesus also suffers and bears their suffering. There is mystery here.
It leads me to wonder how this will become a part of how I lead in these tumultuous times. What could happen, how might Jesus enter in, if I continue to cultivate the capacity to be present to the suffering in others (whether they are those with whom I deeply disagree or those who are simply different from me), suffering perhaps that even they do not yet have words to articulate? What could happen, how might Jesus enter in, if I am willing to embrace the exhaustion that comes with attending to another’s deep anguish without being able to fix it? Would we somehow, together, experience something more of the mystery of God’s realm becoming visible on earth? Would we somehow, together, discover more of God’s intention for our communal lives and be more deeply equipped to participate in making visible on earth God’s beloved community?