The first piece of devastating news comes via email on a nondescript afternoon. Afterward, I sit in a blue chair in my living room staring out the window in disbelieving shock for I’m not sure how long.
How could this happen? Why do things like this happen?
The second comes over the phone. I sit down (in the same chair) and listen until all I can do is cry, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” After we hang up, I scream and pound my fists into the cushions until my heart is exhausted.
The third (why is there always a third?) starts with a casual “Did you hear about …?” and my face flushes with shock and sadness and embarrassment, because I had not yet heard.
None of it is happening to me. Yet I walk through the next days quietly, not wanting to disturb the air, unsure what to do or say or how to think about life and death and sickness and health; who gets to have it, who doesn’t. Why none of it seems fair.
The following Sunday, I stand next to my family in a pew at church. We’re in this season of celebrating Immanuel—God with us—but God seems distant and harsh and confusing right now. The words Holy, Holy, Holy catch in my throat, they’ve snagged themselves on a fragile hook that feels like the preciousness of life.
When the next song starts, the one about God’s goodness, the one that attests to God’s name being worthy to be praised during the good times and the bad, I stop trying to sing. Tears fall instead.
I believe in God’s goodness.
But sometimes, Truth slams up against reality. What we believe and profess breaks down and falls apart in the middle of the road on which our loved one is walking; Good feels incongruent with our own understanding of the very same word; lyrics of a song dissolve into a vapor and our hearts press hard against our chests. We stand in this juxtaposed space and are incapable of nothing more than a questioning silence.
“I don’t know what to do,” I tell my husband after church. We’re making lunch for our kids. I stand at the counter, frozen in time for a few seconds, with a knife in one hand and a piece of bread in the other. “There is nothing that can make this better.”
He slathers jelly onto peanut butter and looks over at me and says, “I know. But this is where community steps in. This is the time to be Jesus.”
But How? I ask. What does Being Jesus even look like?
“I don’t know how to be Jesus,” I reply in a soft voice. I turn and walk toward the table where I will sit and eat lunch with our four healthy children and feel grateful and guilty all at the same time.
Do you remember the story from this past summer of the orca whale who, after a 17-month gestation, wouldn’t let go of the body of her calf that died shortly after birth? Do you remember the pictures of her holding the body up, nudging it with her nose toward the surface of the water, while she swam for nearly 1,000 miles off the Pacific coast?
Scientists had seen this type of behavior before, and clearly labeled it grief, but couldn’t comprehend why this mother behaved this way for so long. An unprecedented period, they said.
Our hearts broke for her. Of course they did.
For we are mothers, too.
And do you remember reading about how the mother was seen intermittently swimming without the calf’s body? How researchers weren’t able to document it, but deduced that other whales in her pod must have carried the body, so the mother could rest, feed—have a moment’s reprieve.
This whale’s pod, her community, took turns carrying the grief of her heart—until she was ready to let it go.
There’s a story in the Bible where the Israelites are attacked on their way to the Promised Land. Moses, their leader, tells his men that while they fight, he will stand on top of the hill overlooking the battle with the staff of God in his hands. When his arms are up, the Israelite army advances against the opposition. When he lowers them, the enemy starts to win.
In my memory, two men see Moses’s arms getting tired and they go up to the hill to help him. But the Bible tells us that Aaron and Hur, men of authority, likely in Moses’ inner circle, went up onto the hill in the morning with Moses.
Did they insist? Moses, we’re coming with you.
Did they offer? Moses, we want to help.
Did Moses ask? Hey guys, if you’re not doing anything tomorrow morning, would you mind hanging out on the hill with me—you know, just in case my arms get tired?
Does it even matter?
Because when Moses couldn’t hold the staff up by himself, they were already there. To give him a place to sit. To lift up his arms when he couldn’t. The staff stayed in Moses’ hand. But his people stayed with him until the battle was over.
Whether we are born into it, ease into it, jump into it, or wait years for it—community is a place of belonging, of being known, being loved, and cared for. It’s a place to lay burdens down.
It’s also a place to lift them up.
In this season when we celebrate Immanuel, as we give and receive tidings of great joy—all while breathing through the tension of pain and sorrow (whether it be acute or lingering), we may not know how to be a perfect Jesus to our hurting friends.
But we can offer our imperfect selves. To lift up, carry. Pray over and stand next to. For as long as they need.
Maybe that’s what God with us really looks like anyway.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.