As a pastor I am often invited to shed light on life situations covered by dark shadows. What do you say to a husband whose most recent guest is the hospice nurse checking the vitals of his dying wife? A year ago she was healthy. Now, still in her thirties, she is dying. What do you say to an angry husband whose wife chooses the selfish life of independence over the responsibility of caring for a home that includes three wonderful sons, and a daughter?
Words can be so hollow!
I recently received the following from a family member:
“ Here’s a topic I’d love to have you explore (in one of your blogs) if you feel like it: A beloved friend of mine at school lost her father a few days before Thanksgiving. She and her dad were best friends, close and caring, each a vital part of the other’s life and dedicated to one another’s welfare. She doesn’t understand why God called her father home. It was a sudden, unexpected death, a hypertensive brain hemorrhage. Any thoughts?”
Not really. I try, but they are mostly empty cliches.
When I dare to join a thread of comments, attempting to encourage a Facebook friend recently diagnosed with cancer, I brace myself to be un-liked, a solitary voice that says something like, “That really sucks,” or “Man, I hate cancer,” or “I am so sorry. That is so wrong.” Interestingly, such brutal honesty matters to the hurting, crying soul, tired of empty religious cliches handed out like candy at a parade.
Our oldest son was diagnosed with terminal cancer seventeen years ago. I was thankful for so many who called and wrote. Honestly, they all meant so much to me. I remember one call of the hundreds, though. A good friend from England had been traveling and heard the news of my son’s diagnosis a few days later than most. It was 10 p.m. when he called. I remember exactly where I was standing when the phone rang, and I welcomed his broken voice. I remember these details simply because what he said stood apart from the caring, and I know genuinely meaningful other conversations I had that day. He said, “Mitch, that stinks!” There was anger in his voice. That was it. One Christian brother to another, offering nothing more than a brutally honest reaction to devastating news. His words matched the agony in my soul. It gave me permission to stay where I was, not forced to enter a place I had no desire to be. Typical responses to crisis are invitations to deny and run from the harsh reality of what Elaine and I were going through.
I try to be careful with my words, particularly when someone is really hurting; words alone will not change what he is experiencing. I am reminded nearly every time I enter the brokeness and agony of another’s life how Jesus did something for us that words alone cannot reproduce. He entered fully into it and took on himself our sin. He did not speak to our pain: he joined it. Took it as his own. As one person said, “He always carries the heavier end of our cross.” He looked over Jerusalem and wept. He stood before Lazarus’ tomb and wept again. He received beggars, and lepers and said little, but reached out and touched them. He felt their pain. Literally.
I don’t see many silver linings framing tragedies I am often asked to speak to. Saying little keeps it what it is. It’s wrong. Horrible.
If I try to explain away cancer, or a spouse’s infidelity with hollow, empty words, I undermine the pain.
By calling it what it is, by saying something like cancer, or the impact of immorality on a family is really wrong allows me to, in time, speak about something else, something better that brings hope. So, I can say to the husband watching his wife face the last days of her life, “Yes… this is so wrong; this sucks … but…” And it is this “but” that invites us together to consider in time the alternative to this devastation. We agree together that this loss is devastating, it hurts … but we know, deep in our gut there is something else that transcends cancer. It is different. It’s the new, the resurrected life that helps us begin walking away from the agony to look to a new world full of love and joy and the complete absence of death and sickness.
So to answer my family member’s request to say something to the friend who doesn’t understand why God called her father home, very simply, I can’t. I won’t. I can’t explain it. Even if I could it would not change what has happened. Words do not replace what is lost. But, I can speak to something else. Something better. Something new. About a restored life for her friend and for all of us, made possible by a loving God who cared so much he did more than speak about our pain, he entered it. He entered it, died because of it, but literally rose above it and now invites us to experience more than answers to our questions. He offers new life! He gives us hope that one day it will not be like this. Never … ever…!
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away: behold, the new has come.” 2 Cor. 5:17-18
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Rev. 21:3-4
Several years ago I wrote a booklet addressing how best to speak to those who are suffering loss. This booklet, DID I SAY THE RIGHT THING? has been a valuable tool for helping Christians speak intentionally to those grieving loss.