By Kathy Berken
I’ve been haunted by this story for some time now. A couple of years ago, I had a heart-to-heart talk with a friend I knew in college. (He gave me permission to tell this.) He told me about a neighbor that he had a falling-out with, which was causing him a lot of pain. I asked him if he had ever talked with his pastor about this. He looked at me oddly, didn’t answer, and changed the subject. We went our separate ways and that was that. I left feeling rather unsettled.
I discovered later that he had been in an accident and had moved to a different city. After not hearing from him for several months, I decided to contact him. I wrote to say that I was thinking about him, hoping that he was doing well.
I received a short note saying simply, “Thanks for thinking of me.” I replied that I get to his town every now and then and that maybe we could get together for coffee sometime. Surprisingly, he said yes. We met at a coffee shop and talked. We hugged, but our conversation was stilted and awkward. He told me that he was recovering from the accident, but still suffered from some immobility and dizziness. Yet it was what he said about an hour into our conversation that stunned me. Out of the blue he said he was angry with me for something I said the last time we met, that’s why he didn’t want to communicate with me anymore. What had I said?
When he had told me about his neighbor, I had asked him if he might talk with his pastor about it. The question made him feel indignant. He said, “I don’t have a pastor.” He hadn’t gone to church in years, so when I asked him that question he wondered if I even knew him. He said I must have been thinking he was somebody else, somebody who goes to church and has a pastor. He didn’t like the feeling of being confused with someone else and admitted he was hurt and angry. As if he was nobody.
Wow, my intention with that question was only to be helpful. Instead, my comment made him feel like nobody. Subsequently, his anger and resentment kept building and he felt sick about it, but said he had too much pride to come to me to try to reconcile. Until I reached out to him. Then he thought it might be a chance to clear the air.
We want to be known. We do not want to be invisible, especially to our friends, to the people we trust, the people we feel safe with, the people we believe know us.
Didn’t God tell us that we are known? “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine,” God says (Is. 43:1). Jesus tells us, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14). The psalmist writes, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me!” (Ps. 139:1).
But look, one misunderstood phrase, and it all goes away. I wonder if this happens when we feel lost or abandoned or invisible to God when we hear a message — in church, in a book, from a friend — that we interpret one way, but which might have a different meaning.
Lent is a time to reflect on these feelings of loss, of invisibility, of the perception of not being known. It’s a time to stop along the path and perhaps give the message a second look to see if the words might have a different meaning, one that says to us loudly and clearly, “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Is. 49:16).
Then go and be reconciled.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)