Some time in the late nineties I was going through one of the worse depressions of my life. It wasn’t one of those depressive episodes where you try to hide what is going on. I had a resigned sort of exhibitionism. Why not spill all my beans? Beans just end up getting spilt eventually anyway… It was dark. People would walk by and ask, “How are you today Doug?” and immediately regret it as I answered them honestly and talked them through the vast landscape of my existential angst. It was usually met with one of four responses, that were for me both a source of dark entertainment, my own gothic improv stage. Here are the four things people would most often do:
1) Stop, Drop, and Roll. People would churn out a shabby exit strategy by first glazing over in fear and the offering up a foolishly crafted metaphor or aphorism as a segue out of the conversation. “Well that is how the muffins get made…kiddo,” “They say the smallest pin hole is where the light first breaks through.” “That why the lord giveth and the Lord..also soweth…in the…fields of..your great joys and… darkness holds us when… Have you read any Max Lucado?…”
2) The Tinkerers – No matter how rusted out and skeletal, if you line 100 people up to “take a look at” an 30 year old engine in a corn field at least 10 of those people will be convinced they can fix it with just a little 10/40 weight oil two pennies and a socket set. Similarly a person in the dumps is like catnip to some tinkerers who have memorized enough fortune cookies and Christian bumper stickers to never need to actually empathize with anyone again. Most of their responses being with “All ya gotta do is…” or most definitely include the “just” at least three times. “All ya gotta do is just take it to the Lord and he will just turn that back around and set you just where you need to be.” Eesh.
3) The Co-moaners – these folks will will seize the opportunity to bring you quickly up to date on all things miserable in their lives, or they will dive deep into your own pain hoping you will offer up details and let them wallow along in your bile.
4) Shock and Honest – This group was honestly my favorite, they would just look at you in the face and say something like, “Wow, that sounds heavy, I hope it gets better.” I like this because it has no pretense of operating any spiritual magical wands to make things better, doesn’t show off their superhuman abilities to heal people with enchanting quotes from “My Utmost for his Highest” and does not, as in the worst case scenario, reveal someone else’s vested interest in my suffering.
You can imagine, then, how refreshing it was when a friend of mine found and amazing fifth option: he Told a story.
Dan Royer and I had attended Church together for years, both at the Los Angeles First Church of the Nazarene and later at the Pasadena Church of the Nazarene. We had certainly shared some adventures. We had hiked Half Dome together, served on a worship team together for a while, and did the hard work of being a community in the hear of Los Angeles with all the challenges of living in a megalopolis. Those circumstances gave us sweaty palms (maybe that was just me on the Half Dome hike), a knack for harmonizing, and urban savvy (e.g. never step in a puddle of unknown origin…you’re welcome) and, of course, amazing views.
Even so, Dan was by no means the closest friend I had at the time, he was, however, a good friend to have. To be honest, the story he told did not radically shift my state of being in that moment, but instead it gave me an image that, over the years has shaped my sense of mission in the world, and frankly, taught me more how to love.I will get the detail all kinds of wrong but the story goes something like this.
Once upon a time the good folks at Los Angels First Church of the Nazarene had a knack for being a community. Knew the part of the story was true because I, myself, had been an embarrassed, and yet somehow hammy, participant in the annual “Star Awards” Banquets crooning star themed tunes and improvising Prairie-Home-Companion-Styled advertisements. We had our share of white elephant exchanges, trips to get Thai BBQ off Vermont Street, and even earthquakes. More than a couple of us live together in community and read Henri Nouwen’s compassion , a staple for these folks, as we tried to figure out what it mean to resist white flight and stay put in a neighborhood just blocks away form the flashpoint of the 1992 riots. They were beautiful people on a beautiful journey of discipleship and I was lucky to be part of them.
On one particular occasion, long before I joined their ranks, “LA First,” was holding one of their banquets / celebrations / services that included the long standing Nazarene practice of “giving a testimony” –the artful task of telling one’s own lifestory, or recent story that spoke honestly, and helped keep us all believe that God was alive and well in our friend’s lives. It also told us if we kept going along the journey, we would see it in our own lives too. Amen. I miss those services, it how I learned to look for God in everyone.
At one point in the service, Dan recalls a woman took her turn at the podium in the front of the room and began to speak, only she stammered, choked on her words, and found her tears were drowning out her ability to speak plainly. There are different kinds of crying in a testimony service, you see. One kind is because someone is “moved.” Those you can let hang in the awkward ether just fine and maybe even utter an, “Amen,” or even just click your tongue as if you were being moved too because you know God was doing something right before your eyes. Shhhhhh, just let it happen.
There is another kind of crying that means, “I am not sure I can do this.” To the untrained eye thee two kinds of tears may look a lot alike, but to most Nazarenes, we can spot the difference quickly. We know to leave the moments of “being moved,” alone as they will often resolve themselves quickly. The best thing you can do is take note, and be open to being moved yourself. But for this woman, on this night, her crying was the more unsettling kind.
In the same way that people didn’t always know what to do with my oversharing and all-to-honest replies to their causal greetings during y deep depression, Nazarenes didn’t always know what to do with people who are supposed to be testifying, but are unsure if they can even get the tightness of their throats to cooperate with vocalizing, let alone say something meaningful.
One man, however, knew exactly what to do (or maybe he was simply, “moved”). Without falling into any of the traps of trying to escape the awkwardness, resolve the tension, or somehow make the moment “ok.” He simply stood up, walked to her side and stood next to her. Stood.
He didn’t hug her, or pat her back, or tell her it was ok and try to usher her tastefully back to her seat. Sharing our stories is what we do here, and he wanted to make sure she had her chance. So he stood next to her. It was as if to say, “I will lend you my presence to be your strength but I also honor you and this is your job to do, not mine. Use your own voice.”
That was the story Dan told me. At first I had no idea what Dan was getting at or where he would end up with this story, but by the end I had an ide, but Dan was kind enough to drive it home for me just in case.
“I don’t know how to help you Doug. I don’t know what to do, but I would like to be like this man. I want to stand next to you. I care about you so I just want to stand next to you when you need it, so you can keep going.”
When he told me that I was a little… disappointed? Dan didn’t play into any of my IRL trolling or take on a character in my Awkward Response Improv Theatre Troupe. For the next few minutes he sat quietly next to me in a way that let me know he was doing right then, what I needed him to do.
It took me a long while and few thousand dollars to get better in that particular bout of darkness, but I did. I am not sure how much that conversation contributed to me getting better from that particular dark night, but I know the story has stayed with me and revisits me often, especially when I find myself in front of someone else who is not sure they can go on, or who would rather taunt me into reacting to their pain that to actually risk asking me to care.
I know I can’t through my arms around the world, and I know doing so doesn’t always even help. I did learn from Dan that night that there are lots of different ways to stand next to someone so they can go on. Sometimes you tell a story, sometimes you sit quiet on a bench, or sometimes you pick yourself out of your chair and walk up to stand at a podium and say absolutely nothing.
It is moments like these that the Church is doing some of its best work. Right now I see a lot of people suffering because the violence, threats and death in their communities. I want you to know I am trying to figure out a way to stand next to you, even when I am a few states away. Some of my other brothers and sisters have worked themselves into states of deep fear, anger and panic but the world is not unfolding as they had anticipated. You make me angry, but I am still going to stand next to you in your panic, even the panic of your own doing, so we can continue to go on. We are a time we will soon need to move, to reach out, to set our hands to the plough and do the hard work of love. “I will lend you my presence to be your strength but I also honor you and this is your job to do, not mine. Use your own voice”
But for today, whoever you are. I just want to stand next to you.