Rabbi Harold Kushner cites an old Chinese tale about a woman overwhelmed by grief after the death of her son. When she goes to the holy man for advice, he tells her, “Fetch me a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow.We will use it to drive the sorrow out of your life.” The tale recounts how the woman goes from house to house, asking if the home has known sorrow. Each one has, of course, and the woman lingers to comfort her hosts until at last the act of ministering to others drives the sorrow from her life.

I know personally of two small-scale ministries, run out of private homes, that put this principle into practice. The first came into being when a woman in California discovered her son, the apple of her eye, was homosexual and was dying of AIDS. She found almost no sympathy and support from her church and community. She felt so alone and needy that she decided to start a newsletter that now joins together a network of parents of gay people. She offers little professional help, and promises no magic cures, but I have read scores of letters from other parents who see this courageous woman as a lifesaver. Having been through the sorrow and grief herself, she now seeks to be available for someone else.

Another woman, in Wisconsin, lost her only son in a Marine Corps helicopter crash. For the first time, she began noticing how frequently helicopter crashes were reported in the news. Now, whenever a military helicopter crashes, she sends a packet of letters and helpful materials to an officer in the Defense Department, who forwards the packet on to the affected families.About half the families strike up a regular correspondence, and in her retirement this Wisconsin woman leads her own “community of suffering.” The activity has not solved the grief over her son, of course, but it has given her a sense of place, and she no longer feels helpless against that grief.

A wise sufferer will look not inward, but outward. There is no more effective healer than a wounded healer, and in the process the wounded healer’s own scars may fade away.

Philip Yancey, Where Is God When It Hurts? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010).

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