The Fellowship of the Suffering

Two weeks ago, I was a beaming face of hospitality at the welcome center of our little, crisp church. I greeted members and guests by name with exuberance and Christmas cheer. I wore my favorite red dress and made sure that I was an approachable presence for our parishioners and neighbors. I was sick, desperate for healing, but on Sundays, I strove to present myself as a picture of health and vitality.

I sit now, experiencing a different form of fellowship. I have identified this as the fellowship of the suffering. We are huddled in a group room of an inpatient unit for adults with eating disorders. It is Christmas night. The lights are glimmering on Christmas trees somewhere, and families are celebrating in distant living rooms somewhere other than where we are. A token wreathe and a menorah decorate our unit. Staff has confiscated my makeup and hair products, proving them to be futile. We are stripped to the bare minimum of our selves. Sweats and Pajama bottoms are the norm, even on this night where the world celebrates. We play a haphazard game of Scattergories, filling the anxious space where we all feel the agony of the unknown. Will we heal? Is there hope? We await our Christmas dinner, served on hospital trays in portions that stretch our refeeding bellies to the edge of their physical limits, as they monitor our phosphorous levels, making sure that the food isn’t actually going to kill us rather than heal us. I exchange anguished glances with these new friends, relationships forged through the furnace of the initial agonizing steps of physical recovery. We hold hands as we dangle on the edges of medical instability and emotional uncertainty. We, the broken, the underweight, the malnourished, the sick, look out the narrow windows of our fifth floor unit to the twinkling lights lining the down town streets below us. Many tears have been shed today, and with our masks forced off, we sit, barefaced, without pretense. Some of us lean into the vulnerability, opening up in ways that we thought were off limits. In our fellowship of the suffering, we have an unspoken understanding that our socioeconomic statuses are of little significance. Our degrees, job titles, and achievements sit piled in the admissions office, waiting for us to pick them back up at discharge. For now, for this evening, we sit on even ground.

Not everyone has this unique “opportunity.” I am not sure how to replicate it in the real world, but on this Christmas night, I am encouraged with the though that Jesus would be inclined to check in as a visitor to our little locked unit. He, “God with us,” gravitated to the uncomfortable situations of suffering and agony. He would pull up a chair to our “Christmas feast,” where individuals sit wide-eyed, staring at the daunting plates of turkey and sweet potatoes in front of them.

I sit with the suffering, and I think back again to two weeks ago. I forgot about the importance of transparency. I forgot about the joy of journeying the rocky road of life honestly with others. I forgot that being real is one of the best gifts that I can give Jesus, others, and myself. I am reminded of this here, in this obscenely unlikely Christmas “retreat.” With the weight of my accessories, achievements, and attachments lifted, I can breathe again. I can genuinely breathe life into the dead places in my heart, and I can connect genuinely with others.

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