Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation and realized that the person was simply waiting for you to finish talking so he could pick up where he left off? I have--many times. It doesn't usually lead to a productive, thought-provoking conversation.
Have you ever greeted someone with a casual, "Hey, how are you?" only to keep walking without even giving them a chance to answer you? Did you really want an answer?
Sometimes the most loaded question you can get as someone who is chronically ill is "How are you?" A lot depends on who is asking and what type of answer they're looking for. Do they really want to know? Do they only ask to be polite? If they do seem genuine, how much can they handle? How much do they already know, and how much context will be necessary? It really can be exhausting trying to navigate these seemingly ordinary conversations.
Now try framing that conversation by squeezing all that analysis into the 5-10 minutes before church services start and multiply it by 10-15 people milling around trying to be "friendly" and "fellowship." Odds are good this is the scenario facing most chronically ill people at their local churches if and when they are healthy enough or stubborn enough to drag themselves out of bed to go to a service.
Needless to say, this situation does not bring out very many solid conversations. The socialite walks away feeling spiritual and satisfied, and the sick believer is left feeling disconnected, marginalized, and more isolated than before. Ironically, much of the time this ritual is being practiced in the name of "good Christian fellowship."
Our churches are full of people who want to socialize, but can't stop to actually listen. I'll be honest, there have been times when my least favourite question was "how are you?" because I had no idea how to answer that. As a Christian you feel like you shouldn't lie, but you also don't necessarily feel comfortable or even expected to tell the truth. And let's face it, who wants to be the person who always has an answer in the ballpark of "Well, I felt like crap for another week, but I'm still alive"? What do you do when the cultural expectation in church (answer to those types of questions must be positive or risk making the other person uncomfortable) conflicts with the basic Biblical expectation (don't lie)?
You might consider this a common problem, and you might even feel equally annoyed when someone asks you a question, but doesn't really want an answer. But how can we make this better? We are all busy here, and we need to get back to our schedules. If we actually stop to listen to the people we're "talking" to won't we be cutting down on our progress in ministry?
I do have an answer to that. The work of the ministry is people. Broken, hurting people. If you don't have time to listen to them and love them patiently--then you don't have time for ministry. Whatever else you're doing in the name of "ministry" that's not it. You may actually be doing damage in the name of Jesus.
There is quite the push in church to have program-oriented agendas. We will bake cookies, hand out flyers, invite people to church, witness to people, teach the children, etc. But we are not scheduling time out to just sit and listen to the people we're supposedly trying to help. Maybe instead of more programs and willing volunteers, what the church needs is active, compassionate listeners.
In the context of chronic illness, this can be a long, hard journey. There are lots of ups and downs in this walk, it is often not a fun experience. There will be medication transitions and hopes raised and dashed. There will be side effects, new symptoms, unexpected flare-ups, cancelled plans, and all kinds of trials unique to their own struggle.
Being there for all of it is exhuasting, but it is what the church is called to do. As sisters and brothers in Christ, we need to show each other the love and concern of Christ, and if we are going to follow his example, we must do what he did. Listen with compassion. Sit and grieve with those who are grieving the active life they will never have again. Sit and cry with those whose pain you may not understand. Listen to people without trying to "fix" them. Learn from their pain instead of avoiding it. The ministry of listening is crucial to someone in constant pain. The world around them often isn't listening. Many times other Christians make them feel worthless because they are physically incapable of typical church activities. We don't have to get a Master's degree in Psychiatry to be able to help the hurting around us.
Maybe rather than rushing off to your 46th commitment for church, you could just take some time out of the rest of your life to sit with someone and listen. Rather than trying to suggest a quick fix, learn about their condition from them. Instead of judging her and assuming she brought it on herself, maybe you could ask questions to make her feel comfortable opening up to you.
Be the person in someone's life who says "How are you?" and stays to hear the answer--no matter how ugly the answer is going to be. Be the person who goes out of their way to make people comfortable enough to talk on a deep level. There's a lot of talk about being the hands and feet of Jesus these days. Maybe it's time he had a few more ears.