All three synoptic gospels recall the story of Jesus and the rich but isolated woman who was unclean because of continuous loss of blood (Luke 8:43–48 for instance). In this story, a ceremonially unclean woman, living with discomfort, having spent all her money on doctors with no effect, touched the hem of Jesus cloak in a crowded street and became healed. What stands out about this story is the way each Gospel records Jesus speaking to the woman, sharing her pain and commending her faith.
We are good at sharing happiness, we have ceremonies for it: a wedding, a baptism, a Christmas party, Thanksgiving, Harvest, some football matches. We seem to have only one ceremony to share unhappiness, a funeral, and most funerals are about celebration and thanksgiving tinged with sadness. But what about the people who genuinely suffer? All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, as Leo Tolstoy said. Part of the suffering is not being able to share. Other people may not understand your unhappiness unless they happen to have suffered in the same way, and then there is the risk that they tell you about it.
So, if you have a poorly child, you don’t get out much to lift your mood. It is difficult to share getting up in the middle of the night, and at 2 o’clock, and at 3 o’clock; only for the night to end at 4:30. We never create public events to share the grief and the tiredness. If you have a limiting illness which means you just can’t take part, there is by definition no one to share with. Add isolation to suffering.
It is possible for those who are driven to despair by private suffering to understand a bit about the woman in this story from the life of Jesus. “If only I could touch the hem of his garment…” The combination of desperation and hope is palpable.
One of the jobs that churches do well with older people, is to be aware of their personal suffering. I would put money on 80 percent of prayer requests being for people over 60. What churches are not so good at is identifying the suffering of teenagers and young parents, which is odd because all of us have been young in the past and should understand and be aware. The teenage terrors of insecurity, the feeling of perpetual inadequacy when faced with a system of exams designed to weed out those who are not in the top 10 percent, the desperation of rejection as relationships form and break, these conditions all tend to pass prayer groups by.
Time, perhaps, to change what we notice about people. Particularly those people whose problems and suffering prevent them from coming to church. Particularly those people who have listened to elevated sermons about abstruse theology which say nothing to their condition and who have left in despair. All these people need our prayers, and the point of those prayers is not to remind God about anything but to stimulate ourselves to action as bearers of love.