When words get in the way

He told me about his wife, about her kidneys not behaving, her liver calling it quits and her heart not being strong. Mostly, though, he told positive news and trends for the better.

Yet, they had dared to throw out the word ‘hospice’ in one of those foggy discussions with doctors where you’re hearing them and you’re nodding your head, but really the words don’t make sense.

On the phone, I heard how ‘hospice’ made him stumble.  He sucked in his breath, cleared his throat and told me the rest.  His brother is already there, in hospice–(there he said it again; that word never seems to come out easy)– 5-1/2 hours away.

As my grandfather talked, I though of my grandmother, spunky and life-filled, always in tennis shoes so she could speed-walk to everywhere, always talking about trips to Haw-a-ii and cruises to Alaska and more adventures.

Then I thought of her in the hospital, under 100 pounds, fragile and so easily broken.

Two irreconcilable images, surely not the same person.  And yet there it was, unreal but real.

My grandfather said, “I’m fixin’ to be an orphan here soon” and laughed a kind of nervous giggle when you make a joke that isn’t truly funny.

What to say to that?

After years of women’s ministry, I’ll tell you what never gets easy—knowing what to say when it’s all spilling out of someone and you just want to rescue and protect and bandage it all up.  But you’re powerless to do little more than hug and slip on a few Band-aids, then pray with desperate cries that God will heal in the deep-down ways we can’t.

Lost jobs, unfaithful husbands, abusive spouses, alcoholism and pornography, runaway kids, bankruptcy, rape, homelessness, pregnancy unplanned and unwanted, pregnancy wanted so bad it hurts every month with that negative test, abortion, custody battles gone wrong, parents not talking to kids and kids not talking to parents, divorce, fatigue, dying moms and dads, babies in caskets, surgeries failing and car accidents turned tragic…

This…. never…. gets …..easy.

How can there be the right words for so much that is wrong?

Maybe that’s exactly the point.  Maybe even a lover-of-words like me has to fess up that sometimes words don’t just fall short, they actually get in the way.

Like for Job, sitting heaped in ashes and wearing torn rags, scraping at the burning blisters on his flesh with broken pottery, mourning his servants, grieving his children.

Scripture tells us:

When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads.  Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him because they saw how great his suffering was (Job 2:11-13).

They spent a week in silence with Job, just sitting next to him without speaking or offering hollow words of fake comfort.  For guys who turned out to be so chatty (okay, verbose), this was a big deal!

They seemed to get this right, this friendship without words.  Just mourning with those who mourn and leaving it at that.

Unfortunately, Eliphaz finally asked the question: “But who can keep from speaking?” (Job 4:2) and that’s when it all went awry.

The moment he erupted with spiritual cliches, the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” speeches, theological debates and judgmental accusation…that’s when he felt more impressed with his oratory skills than concerned about loving a friend.

Ezekiel, on the other hand, “came to the exiles who lived at Tel Aviv near the Kebar River.  And there, where they were living, I sat among them for seven days–deeply distressed” (Ezekiel 3:15).

For a week, the prophet crouched in the dust with the exiles from Jerusalem, those who had been carried off after years of starvation and the siege by the Babylonian empire.

And he stayed there until God told him to get up and move on (Ezekiel 3).

Sometimes we back away in fear from those in pain, not really knowing what to do.  After all, we can easily say the wrong thing.

But you really can’t mess up listening.

God brings hurting people to us not so we can fix life for them or speak some magical words that make it all better.

He wants us to get down in the dirt where they’ve fallen, love them, pray with them, serve them, and practice the power of presence, and so often presence without words.

*************************************

May I recommend this book if you are grieving the loss of someone or ministering to another who is mourning?  It is lovely and full of practical advice and spiritual encouragement. Grieving God’s Way: The Path to Lasting Hope and Healing by Margaret Brownley

Heather King is a wife, mom, Bible Study teacher, writer and worship leader.  Most importantly, she is a Christ follower with a desire to help others apply the Bible to everyday life with all its mess, noise, and busyness.  Her upcoming book, Ask Me Anything, Lord: Opening Our Hearts to God’s Questions, will be released in the Fall of 2013!  To read more devotionals by Heather King, click here.

Copyright © 2012 Heather King

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