Job was this old geezer – two thousand years before the birth of Christ – who had lost his home and his wealth and his children, and he was covered in sores from head to foot, suppurating boils, so inflamed and aggravating that the only way he could get any relief was by scraping at them with a sharp edge of pottery. Cripes! No one wanted to know him. He, quite literally, stank.
No one’s life, I hope, is as bad as that. None of you reading this are quite that low, anyway. Indeed some of you are positively ridiculously blessed and privileged. I know some couples in their fifties who have never lost a child or a partner or a parent, have never had to battle with a disease or depression and are in comfortable employment, thank you very much. The worst they’ve known was a sense of ‘what’ll-we-do-now?’ These lucky souls are all married and so have each other, and the life they choose. But, you know what? Some of them think they are qualified to give comfort to those who have lost partners, children, peace and security. What a nerve! They are the very ones who will throw a Patience Strong phrase at your head, or (please, God, help me to forgive them) a whole bunch of Bible verses, or – even worse – trot out some bloody stupid psychology mantra. Grrr.
Anyway, back to Job. He was as low as he could go, and then his friends bowled up – and surprise! surprise! it just got a whole lot worse. His pals just overflowed, with good advice. They said all the right things, at great length, so right-on and clichèd that Job stopped shouting at God and turned his venomous bloodshot eyes on them:
“I’ve had all I can take of your talk.
What a bunch of miserable comforters!
Is there no end to your windbag speeches?
What’s your problem that you go on and on like this?
If you were in my shoes,
I could talk just like you.
I could put together a terrific harangue
and really let you have it.
But I’d never do that. I’d console and comfort,
make things better, not worse!”
That’s the Message interpretation of Job 16
The great thing about the book of Job is that God honoured Job’s anger and bitterness, because it was honest. God values honesty. Society tends not to. Even in the Christian community there’s a move to say the ‘right’ things always, always giving praise and encouragement, claiming unalloyed joy. You know, my little bloggettes, if you can’t say something nice and be honest, you don’t have to lie and say something nice and dishonest, you can just extend the hand of friendship and listen. You can be honest enough to say ‘What you’re going through is lousy.’ You don’t have to pretend that everyone has a charmed life if only they could find the faith for it – sometimes we have lives that are blighted over and over again by death or illness or need. And sometimes the wisest counsel is silence.
Some think that they will show empathy by claiming a shared experience – or even by topping it. Hey – I’ve just remembered something that made me hoot with laughter-cum-disbelief. I was asked if I ever felt lonely. I said yes, isolated and irrelevant and although these times are mercifully brief and fleeting, when they hit they hit hard. The woman I was talking to said “Oh, I know, Cuthbert was out all day on Tuesday and I got really depressed.” Hah! ‘All day Tuesday.’ ( OK, his name has been changed to protect the innocent) She didn’t have to say that, it didn’t help. It minimised and dismissed and revealed just how superficial her interest was.
Words are cheap and empty. Don’t tell a lonely person that you suffer too, or you suffer worse, or that they don’t really suffer, or that you understand something about their situation that they haven’t quite grasped. And don’t say you’ll pray for them and then walk away. If they’re isolated, spend time with them. If they’re house-bound invite them to join you when you go to the pub, or out for the day. Even if you’re married! You know what? The fact that you’re married, smugly happy, and comfortable in each other’s company, does not excuse you from inviting others to join you! And it’s not just the house-bound, do you know how hard it is to go to somewhere new or busy when you must always go alone? Do you know how easy it is to be isolated in the middle of a busy community?
A retired cop told me that since his wife died seven years ago, he’s been invited to join a married couple on a trip out…. not even once. He used to love a stroll around a new town, exploring, sitting in the sun with a pint watching the people pass (his favourite town was Tenby) but he hasn’t been to Tenby since his wife died. His friends still go there, and tell him about it, about the new gallery, about the new coffee bars…. but they travel in twos and fours, never in threes. He’s not a church goer, although his wife was, and these people are all Christians who all, apparently, pray for him. No wonder he’s not impressed. I’m going to say something really really BAD now. Something that would have a thousand Pastors tutting over their Bibles. I am going to say ‘Stop praying for him and do something instead.’ When I was invited to join a married couple in a local pub one time, it was just great! There had been no ‘arrangement’, no ‘let’s gather together all the sad old widows we know’ , no do-goodery involved at all. Just a married couple thought ‘Luce lives round the corner, let’s ask her to join us’. Man, it’s rare. And much as I love prayer, I quite like a shandy too. I would love to think of that retired cop sitting with his friends in the sun, sipping his beer and watching the passing holiday makers.
To go with a group of singles isn’t much of a solution, take my situation for example: most single people are my age, and I don’t always want to be in a group of people of one age, one gender, one situation. It doesn’t lead to lively conversation, to new ideas and discoveries. We have an ageing population where one partner can outlive the other by 30 or 40 years, and loneliness is becoming an epidemic.
I don’t know what the answer is. And somehow I’ve wandered off the subject of Job and his boils and his awful finger-wagging chums. Sorry.
To get back to Job and the advice they heaped on his poor bowed head: A friend has told me about something he calls ‘friends in darkness’. This man has lost a son, and his grief is part of him. When it becomes overwhelming, he has two or three friends he can call, at any time of the day or night, and say simply ‘I’m in darkness.’ He knows that they won’t try to cure his grief, because it can’t be cured, they won’t give him advice, or say wise words, they won’t tell him to cheer up, or that the darkest hour is just before dawn (it isn’t!) they will simply say ‘Talk to me.’ and then, miles apart, two beating hearts are joined and he is no longer alone.
I love the idea of Friends In Darkness. It’s like the Samaritans but with people you know. I think it may be a ministry we could benefit from. What do you think? Shall I start a Friends In Darkness group here in West Wales? It won’t get us singletons out to Tenby, or down the pub, but it might make a few long nights less painful.
Friends In Darkness – what do you think? Shall I start it?