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The Gift of PresenceA Guide to Helping Those Who Suffer
By Joe E. Pennel, Jr.
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2009 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFollowing the Example of the Good Samaritan
The teachings of Jesus encourage us to reach out to those who suffer. For example, the parable of the good Samaritan has a word for us about how a follower of Christ should respond to those who are caught in the web of suffering. The story goes like this:
"A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" [The man answered Jesus], "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise." (Luke 10:30-37)
This parable of Jesus vividly reminds us that the Gospel does not give us permission to pass by on the other side as did the priest and the Levite. The story beckons us to stop by and care for those who are wounded and broken down by life.
Becoming a "Good Samaritan"
Consider how we become the good Samaritan each and every time we turn to those who are suffering. The title "good Samaritan" fits every person who is moved by the misfortune of another. It is far more than having a casual curiosity about another's pain. It is the heart moving toward availability.
The indwelling Christ does not make our hearts cold toward those who are torn by the bite of suffering. The reverse is true. The more we are open to the living Christ, the more we will have a hunger to reach out to those who are beaten down by life.
It is worth noting that the Samaritan does not remain detached from the man who has been beaten and robbed. He does not limit his response to merely feeling sorry for the one who has been injured. He is moved to offer tangible help to the man who was half dead. So, a good Samaritan is anyone who offers the kind of embodied help that flows from a heart that is filled with the love of Christ. It is the kind of help that carries a price tag. It costs something.
If we are to reach out to those who are impaired by suffering, we must have the will to do so. If we are turned in upon ourselves, we will have great difficulty in giving ourselves to the needs of others.
It is here that we are put in touch with one of the key teachings of the Christian faith: We cannot have fruitful and meaningful lives without reaching out to those who walk the road of suffering. Likewise, we cannot truly find ourselves until we are willing and able to give ourselves to others.
Suffering also has the strange power to unleash love. This happens in two ways. First, when we suffer, we are more in tune with the suffering of others, which opens us to respond with compassionate love.
For example, a few years ago I developed a strange but real travel anxiety. I had traveled widely in both the United States and many parts of the world, and I had never felt anxious while traveling. On one occasion we were on a ship, and I put one of those motion sickness patches behind my ears. Without knowing what was happening, I suddenly had a physical reaction to the chemicals. I started perspiring, and I had a severe discomfort in my chest. My mind jumped to the conclusion that I was having a heart attack while we were in a very remote area off the coast of Alaska. To say that I was frightened would be to minimize the entire episode.
When we arrived home, I went to my physician and discovered that people do react to these patches in strange ways. However, this information did not wipe out my anxiety about future ventures. The same feelings were triggered each and every time we were away from home. The experience was so severe that I had to turn to professional help. I am happy to say that drug therapy, self-talk, and meditation have contributed to solving ninety percent of my problems with travel.
My suffering with anticipatory travel anxiety has given me an instant connection with persons who have had similar experiences. I am also more compassionate toward those who have walked the same path. Because of my experiences, it is more natural for me to reach out to such individuals with empathy and compassion.
Second, suffering calls us to respond with unselfish human love. Some people answer that call and some do not, but the call is still present. A good Samaritan will not, with indifference, pass by the suffering of another person. Whether in major or minor ways, a good Samaritan has a helpful and powerful solidarity with those who suffer in either major or minor ways; and he or she cannot and will not withhold love from those who are in need.
Organized Responses to Suffering
Let us not forget that there are times when the many responses to suffering need to be organized so that more comprehensive help can be given. We see this with physicians, nurses, clinics, hospitals, counselors, congregational care groups, and clergy. I call these "good Samaritan" organizations, and we need each of them in a rather crucial way. It is important for us to find many ways to offer gratitude and encouragement to those whose lives are spent in reaching out to broken people.
Also, we must not forget the importance of having many webs of caring. Many of these groups are woven into the fabric of congregational life. We see this voluntary work in Stephen Ministers, lay hospital visitation, prayer groups, and various networks of caring. Larger tasks require careful organization, and we should be grateful to those who care enough to order the life of the congregation around the needs of those who suffer. When we order congregational life around the pain of the community and the pain of the world, we are following the example of the good Samaritan.
Of course, the parable of the good Samaritan goes far beyond functional and organized ways of reaching out. The eloquence of the parable calls upon every individual to bear witness to love in the face of suffering. Organizations and institutions are important, but they cannot be a replacement for deeds of mercy and kindness that grow out of love for others. Every time we practice love for a neighbor, we open up the possibility of giving birth to a civilization of love.
This moving parable teaches us to reach out to those who suffer –whether we do so as individuals or communities –because in so doing, we join the living Christ who is also compassionate toward those who are suffering. We can be a vessel through whom Christ can work if we follow the example of the good Samaritan.
As you thumb through the pages of this book, you will find many practical and constructive ways to reach out to those who are wearing the garments of suffering. As you do, you will become a modern-day good Samaritan; and as you are present to others, you will meet Christ there.
Excerpted from The Gift of Presence by Joe E. Pennel, Jr. Copyright © 2009 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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