When you don’t know what to say

Psalm 147

He told me about his wife, about her kidneys not behaving, her liver calling it quits and her heart not being strong.

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 and cleared his throat. Then he said how his brother is already there, in hospice–(there he said it again; that word never seems to come out easy).

I had this conversation with my grandfather years ago, and as I listened I thought of my grandmother, spunky and life-filled, always in tennis shoes so she could speed-walk everywhere, always talking about trips to Haw-a-ii and cruises to Alaska and other adventures.

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

Two irreconcilable images, surely not the same person.  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 them, 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 among ashes, 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… 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.  For guys who turned out to be so chatty (okay, verbose), this was actually a promising start!

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

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

He erupted with spiritual cliches, the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” speeches, theological debates and judgmental accusation…and the other friends joined in.

Ezekiel the prophet, 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 (maybe even 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

Remembering: Even If He Does Not

 

Originally posted on February 20, 2011

 

Today, the sermon at our church was on miracles and how God uses them to bring glory to Himself and to grow faith in us.  It is always exciting to recount what God has done and give testimony, both Biblical and current, to His might and majesty.

But, today was a hard day for me to talk about miracles.  I’ve been praying for two years for a sweet baby girl, born terribly premature.  She’s fought so hard for so long, receiving a liver transplant, undergoing open heart surgery, and more.  Yesterday, though, I got the phone call saying she had passed away in the night.

Yes, it’s a hard day to think about miracles.

It’s not that I think this was too much for God or that He didn’t love this little girl enough to give her another miracle in her already miraculous life.

The hard thing for me is that I’m a question-asker.  In any room at any time, I am usually the one asking the most questions.  I am willing, sometimes even with people I hardly know, to ask them far more than the superficial sanctioned small-talk.  I’m not a “How are you doing?  Where do you live?  How’s the weather been?” kind of person.

Thus, as I’m praying for the family of this tiny girl, I’m bold enough to ask God some tough questions.  It’s at times like these I’m thankful that He is such a big God, that He allows us to lift our pain-filled faces up to His, look straight into His eyes, and ask Him, “Lord, why?  What are you doing in this situation?”

When one of Jesus’s closest friends fell sick, his sisters, Mary and Martha, sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick” (John 11:3, NIV).  Surprisingly, Jesus didn’t rush to their home to heal Lazarus.  In fact, by the time Jesus arrived, Martha greeted him along the path:  “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Then Mary went out, fell at His feet and said exactly the same thing,  “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32, NIV). Some of the bystanders even bluntly asked, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (Luke 11:37, NIV).

These sisters didn’t hide their confusion and hurt and Jesus didn’t rebuke them for confronting Him.  In this case, Jesus quickly answered their questions.  He called Lazarus up from the tomb and displayed His power over life and death.  He asked a question in return ,“Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (John 11:40, NIV).

The prophet, Habakkuk, wasn’t like most of the other Old Testament prophets, who delivered messages from God.  Instead, much of what Habakkuk wrote is full of questions for God, just as Mary and Martha asked questions of Jesus. In his brief book, Habakkuk asked:

  • How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?  Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? (Habakkuk 1:2-3)
  • Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves? (Habakkuk 1:13)

After presenting a chapter-long list of complaints to God, Habakkuk says, “I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint” (Habakkuk 2:1).  And God answered Him.

For us, sometimes it does become clear why God chooses to answer “no” or “wait” to our heartfelt pleas for a miracle.  I can look back now and see how God used my husband’s job loss and temporary unemployment not just for God’s glory, but ultimately for our blessing and benefit.  What seemed like harm, was actually salvation for us!

In other cases, though, our questions remain unanswered this side of heaven.

When the three Hebrew men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down to and worship King Nebuchadnezzar, they faced instant death in the fiery furnace.  The king offered them one last chance to deny their faith and worship him instead.  To this, they replied:

“King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand.  But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

What faith!  The miracles aren’t what we should be seeking; we should be seeking God and hoping for whatever brings Him glory.  If He rescues us, then we praise Him.  Even if God doesn’t give us the miracle we’re looking for or provide for us in the way we expect, we can, like the three men in the fiery furnace, still worship God alone.  We can trust His hand.  We can know that somehow He will be glorified even in our tragedies.

When God answered Habakkuk’s tough questions, the prophet was moved to write what my Bible notes is a “hymn of faith” (Habakkuk 3:17-19, NIV).  It’s one of my favorites:

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign LORD is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

Habakkuk says, “Even when we’re starving and we have no hope of a harvest, we’ll choose to praise God.”  The Message translates verse 18 as: “Counting on God’s Rule to prevail, I take heart and gain strength.” It’s when we walk through the hard times with God, counting on His rule to prevail, pouring out our questions to Him and learning to trust Him, that He gives us the toughened, sure “feet of deer” and trains us how to “tread on the heights.”

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

Heather King is a wife, mom, Bible Study teacher, writer for www.myfrienddebbie.com 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.  To read more devotionals by Heather King, click here.

Copyright © 2012 Heather King