My hospital rotations during seminary days taught me more about ministry than almost anything else. It’s when the decrepit dementia patient in restraints and wearing an oxygen mask hit on me, her lurid come-ons chasing me out of her room. When the mild-mannered man in the hospital gown stared straight at me, flashed a wicked smile and said he had left his dead mother in the basement refrigerator. When a sad old trucker teared up and thanked me for coming to see him, because no one else ever would. When the sweet widow confessed: “I don’t care what people say. I still reach out to my husband. And he reaches right back to me.” A thousand awkwardnesses, chills and jokes, all rolled into one free-wheeling mass of human relations.
It’s when I started to learn things like listening to listen, not listening for a chance to give my two bits’ worth. How to really be with someone who is hurting. The staggering truth that we are “human beings, not human doings.” The immense difficulty of not saying stupid things to make myself feel less uncomfortable about the suffering of others. Like a supervisor asked once after I related to him an especially proud moment of prayer: “Who were you praying for? Yourself or the patient?”
He also said this: “The most important theological question of all is why good people suffer.” Don’t bother. You won’t ever come up with a satisfactory answer. The best biblical response to the problem doesn’t, either. The comedy of Job refuses outright answers to the question of suffering. Only hints. Keep your mouth shut about things you don’t understand. Don’t let pain poison your soul with bitterness. Just hints. Because the only answer worthy of the sufferer in the end is companionship. “For seven days and nights, Job’s friends sat silently on the ground beside him, because they realized what terrible pain he was in” (Job 2:13).