When Words Aren't Enough
by Jim L. Wilson (March / April 2000 — Volume 16, Number 2)
When our presence and time are more comforting than words.
On the door, in big red letters was the warning "Infectious disease precautions." In smaller letters the words, "Wear gloves and a mask." Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome was just beginning to make the headlines. Before then, "aids" were people who helped teachers, not a disease.
Inside, I saw an man with sores all over his shriveled body. His eyes were half glazed. He habitually licked his lips, and spoke with a soft, cracking voice.
I was surprised at how much I liked him. Though I didn't know much about AIDS, I never asked "Roy" how he got it. The question seemed inappropriate and irrelevant.
He complained about the sores in his mouth and the pain — it was with him constantly. He knew he would die sooner or later, and preferred it to be sooner.
I listened to him, read Scripture, prayed, and gave him my card. As I was leaving, I bent down and kissed him on his forehead and assured him of my continued prayer.
Why did I kiss his forehead? I don't think kissing a person with AIDS is prudent medically, or ordinary pastoral care. I've never kissed a patient before or since, but at the time I acted instinctively.
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with saying: "Go into all the world and preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words." Are there other ways to minister to people without speaking? If we can preach the gospel without words, we can also minister to people without them? Are there times when words are not enough?
What Do You Say?
What do you say when you don't know what to say? Saying nothing is better than saying the wrong thing. The most effective ministry Job's friends gave to him was when they silently sat with him. They didn't blow it until they started talking. Immersed in the frustration of their poor ministry, Job said to them: "Listen closely to what I am saying. You can console me by listening to me" (Job 21:2, New Living Translation).
Two years ago, my little sister Lori died of lupus. She was too sweet and too young to die. My father summed up the tragedy when he said, "Our children are supposed to bury us; we're not supposed to bury them." I'd never been on that side of the casket. Sure, I'd preached a lot of funerals, but I'd never buried a close family member. It hurt.
|If I could turn back the hands of time, I would return to her side, sit quietly and weep with her.|
Through a forced smile, I listened to people say the very things I'd said so many times. "She's in a better place," or "At least she isn't suffering any more." I controlled the urge to snap back. They didn't understand my grief. My tears didn't flow because of where she was; I cried because of where she wasn't. The thought of heaven comforts me now, but not then. I was too numb and too mad at God for taking her.
When people are hurting, our cute, religious cliches don't help. Our words keep us at a distance from the hurting person and keep us from ministering to them.
Our minister of music ministered to me as I was preparing to leave to go to Lori's funeral. She stuck her head through my open door and said, "Pastor I love you and will be praying for you." She didn't say anything else. She didn't need to say anything else — the tear rolling down her cheek meant more to me than her words.
First Counseling Call
In the past, when I didn't know what to do or say, I put on my "cleric collar" and started preaching. I began wrestling with this issue as a green pastor about to make my first grief counseling call.
She was in her early twenties, about my age at the time, when her new husband died in a tragic automobile accident. I was still in seminary and had absolutely no training in what I was about to do, but I was the pastor, so off I went with my pocket New Testament in hand.
Her tears made me feel uncomfortable.
Intuitively, I knew I needed to comfort her. "Mam, was your husband a Christian?" "Well...no, he wasn't." Now what? What could I possibly say now?
At the time, I thought I was being bold when I talked to her about eternity and salvation. Today, I just think I was rude.
If I could turn back the hands of time, I would return to her side, sit quietly and weep with her. Today, all I can do is pray that her memory isn't as good as mine and that my attempt to preach to her won't hinder her from the saving ministry of Christ on another occasion.
Sometimes our presence is more comforting than our words. Recently, I spoke with the chairman of the deacons from a church I served six or seven years ago. During the conversation, he asked me, "Pastor, do you remember the time you fell asleep in Lottie's hospital room?"
I did remember it, but I didn't think he knew about it. Lottie was in intensive care with heart problems. I didn't want her to try to entertain me; I knew she didn't have the strength, but I did want to spend some time with her.
After praying for her, I told her I was going to sit with her for a little while, but wanted her to go ahead and rest. A couple of times she asked me something and after answering her, I said, "Now Lottie, you need to get your rest, let me just sit with you for a while." Apparently, I needed to get some rest too. It was Sunday afternoon, I'd already preached twice and I was pretty tired.
The next thing I remembered was waking up, seeing that Lottie was asleep, and going back to the church for the evening service.
"Lottie still talks about it" Tiny said. "She so appreciated your visit. She says that's the day she really began to love you the way she does, because you were willing to spend time with her, not just pop in and then pop out." I really thought I blew it that day, after all, I fell asleep on the job, but I didn't think she knew. My time is what ministered to her, not my words.
Why did I kiss Roy on the forehead when I visited him? In retrospect, I think it was in response to that sign on the door. It was my way of acknowledging his humanity. I never spoke to him again. A few weeks later, his parents sent me a note. They found my card in his belongings after he died and they wrote to thank me for ministering to him.
Last year, I thought about this event as I entered another hospital room with a warning sign on the door. This time I walked into the room with my suitcase in hand. I was about to drink radioactive iodine as treatment for papillary cancer, which would result in my isolation for one week.
Suddenly, like Roy, I was untouchable — literally. My doctor spoke to me from the door behind a lead barrier; the nurses wore protective suits when they walked in the room. My family and friends were prohibited from visiting me.
A week later, for the first time since the treatment, my wife gave me a big hug as I left for work. I felt human again.
I wonder how the leper felt when Jesus reached out his hand and touched him?
James L. Wilson is a pastor and writer from Albuquerque, New Mexico.