Thinking Anew: ‘We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load’

Serious illness can also bring a dreadful isolation and loneliness but the gospels remind us that we aren’t ever alone

Jeremy Paxman’s final presentation of the BBC programme University Challenge was a sad affair because his final “good night” was in fact goodbye as he steps down, burdened with Parkinson’s disease. It was a sad moment for him because illness can be an isolating experience and no matter how close and supportive family and friends want to be, no one can ever fully enter another’s pain or anguish.

To say to someone who is ill or grieving “I know how you feel” is mistaken. The former bishop of Oxford John Pritchard tells how a friend reacted to a troubling diagnosis: “When the universe is shuttered and silent, when the light appears to have been extinguished and one finds oneself trapped in darkness and emptiness, the worst fears – real and imagined – emerge …feelings of nothingness, meaninglessness, and worthlessness. Do I matter? Does anyone care?”

Tomorrow’s gospel reading is about caring. An important man, “a leader of the synagogue”, is caught up in any parent’s worst nightmare. He fears his child has died, yet begs Jesus to help. As Jesus heads for the man’s home, he pauses when a woman “who had been suffering from haemorrhages for 12 years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak”. Sensing her presence, Jesus responds and helps her before continuing to the child. Both are made well.

An important detail is that the woman is an outcast – “unclean” – because of her condition. She is almost everything the child is not – alone, an older woman, with no one to speak up for her. Totally different except for one thing: despite the child’s privileged background, she too was considered “unclean” because she was reported as dead, and touching a dead body was discouraged. In both cases Jesus responded because there were needs to be met even though rules/conventions would be broken. The two represent the “no go, no hope” areas of life but the response of Jesus tells us that no one is beyond the reach of his love and compassion, the answer to the question – does anyone care?


Those who care for others are living the Jesus way whether they know it or not

We may ask why the healing gifts associated with Jesus are not so widely seen in the church today. In St John’s Gospel they are referred to as signs, given to confirm his power and authority and the integrity of promises such as this: “These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

That does not mean that we must be mere onlookers where sickness and suffering are concerned. Those who care for others are living the Jesus way whether they know it or not.

People like Kevin Sinfield, the defence coach of the English rugby team, who in a previous life was a professional rugby league player in Leeds. He has been in the news recently for the support and care he has given to his former Leeds clubmate Rob Burrow who has motor neuron disease and is seriously disabled. In 2020 Sinfield ran seven marathons in seven days to raise money for Burrow and his wife Lindsey and their three young children. More recently, the love and warmth of this man for his friend was movingly illustrated in yet another marathon, with Sinfield pushing Rob Burrow in his wheelchair. And just as they neared the finish, Sinfield lifted his friend out of the wheelchair and carried him across the finish line. How beautiful is that?

Richard Gillard’s hymn captures the spirit of what people such as Kevin Sinfield do every day in a world where it is not all bad news: “We are pilgrims on a journey/ and companions on the road;/ we are here to help each other/ walk the mile and bear the load./ I will hold the Christ-light for you/ in the night-time of your fear;/ I will hold my hand out to you,/ speak the peace you long to hear.”