As I sat across from her that morning while we drank espresso in the local coffee shop, something she shared with me took me away on a quick silent walk with God and my heart melted in awe at His faithfulness to me…. He was showing me what the fellowship of suffering looked like. We talked about life, our struggles, my fears, my heart, our journey, our hope, and our mutual belief that God is faithful. As we were one hour into our conversation, she casually mentioned the journal that my sister gave her and a handful of other friends at a luncheon a couple of months after my husband died. My sister had invited over these women who had been instrumental in holding me up (physically and spiritually) and even running my household that first horrendous week, when getting out of bed, getting dressed for the day, and sitting in my kitchen was the most I was able to do during this stage of shock and numbness. Those days were, and still are, a blur to me.
She had begun to use this journal as a prayer journal for my kids and me. She prayed for us continually (and still does) and recorded her prayers and how God showed His answers through events in our lives. I remember her saying that as she looked through this journal, she could clearly see that God had been holding us in His hand, carrying us, every step of the way, and is continuing to keep us in that safe place. She said “He is not going to allow you to hide because He has done great things in you and He will be glorified for it.” As she was telling me this, inside I was thinking, “Who am I to be blessed with such a fellowship of friends that would faithfully pray for my kids and me, listen to God on how to pray for us, and stay in it for the long haul with me?” I was listening to her but my throat was forcing down a big lump because I was washed over with gratitude and amazement at how God had placed friends in my life ahead of time that would practice such a deep level of fellowship with me….the fellowship of suffering.
In the book What on Earth am I Here For, Rick Warren explains that there are four levels of fellowship. The first and second levels are simply the fellowship of sharing and the fellowship of studying God’s Word together. Going a little deeper is the fellowship of serving together, but he says, “The deepest, most intense is the fellowship of suffering, where we enter into each other’s pain and grief and carry each other’s burdens.” I remember speaking with the wife of one of my husband's colleagues several weeks after he died and she said, "People are missing out so much by not "going there" with people who are grieving. It is such a precious time to share in something like that with those we love. We can learn so much through it." Warren continues with, “It is in the times of deep crisis, grief, and doubt that we need each other most. When circumstances crush us to the point that our faith falters, that’s when we need believing friends the most. We need a small group of friends to have faith in God for us and to pull us through.” I am abundantly blessed to have more than one friend who fits into the category of one who will “enter into each other’s pain and grief and carry each other’s burdens.”
I wrote something on this very topic in my first blog.
“There is nothing that will test your friendships more, or cause your relationships to build and mature, than death and grieving. I am honored and privileged to have the incredibly strong friendships that remain. They have continued to build, mature, strengthen, and deepen. The friendships that have remained firm are those that have continued to come towards me. They did not just say, ‘You know I am here if you need me. Just give me a call.’ These friends took the initiative and called to check in with me on a continual basis and offered their ear, shoulder, or their time. One of these friends came over one day just for five minutes, arrived with a flower from her garden and said, ‘I just had to see you because I would know how you were doing if I could look you in the eyes.’ After speaking to countless people who have suffered a loss, they all contend that calling someone for help or a need is not something that they did, even though the invitation was put out there by very well meaning friends. During this stage of grieving, it requires too much strength and effort to reach out most all of the time. We cannot think or take our emotions very far beyond our little grief boundaries. Others are welcome to enter into those boundaries but it is not often that we leave those boundaries looking for a listening ear or help in any way. We need the support to come to us. With that said, I want to thank and honor my friends who have continued to come and have had the courage to enter into the grief boundaries that have surrounded me this past year. They have been giving and giving without expecting anything in return…. and that is what has spurned me to write this. It has been a one sided friendship this year. I have had to take, and take, and take, and have had absolutely nothing to give…. I honestly had a difficult time caring about the daily grind in anybody’s life outside of my boundaries. Nothing but life and love mattered… In my heart, I wanted to be more of a friend in return for them, but I could not physically do it. The ability is slowly, ever so slowly, beginning to emerge. It won’t magically change after the one year anniversary either, which means my friends will continue to hang in there with me, within my boundaries, as those boundaries expand and broaden a little more each day. “The fellowship of suffering….
The bible also says in Colossians 3:12, “As holy people…be sympathetic, kind, humble, gentle, and patient.” Rick Warren says that in real fellowship, people experience sympathy. “Sympathy meets two fundamental human needs: the need to be understood and the need to have your feelings validated. Every time you understand and affirm someone’s feelings, you build fellowship. The problem is that we are in too much of a hurry to fix things that we don’t have time to sympathize with people. Or we’re preoccupied with our own hurts…Sympathy is entering in and sharing the pain of others.” These friends shared healthy sympathy with me. Real sympathy is a byproduct of the fellowship of suffering.
“Share each other’s troubles and problems, and in this way obey the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2
We know that our first and main purpose for our existence is for God’s family. We also know that, within that family, our purpose is to love, love, and then love some more. We show our love by taking the time to experience life together. We experience life together by sharing, entering in, having deep fellowship, during the times of suffering. If we keep our eyes straight ahead and our eyelids right before us, (right before us means “in the moment”), then we can be more present to others who desperately need that Godly fellowship to go deeper into the fellowship of suffering.
This friend calls anyone who is endearing to her, “Love”…. So I thank you, “Love”, for showing me another living example of what fellowship of suffering looks like.