There are few things more heartbreaking than meeting with people who have just been told their adult child is dead. There is heartbreak in dealing with a congregation whose children grew up with him and who are friends with the parents. Yesterday morning as we announced the news in church it sounded (from the collective sharp intake of breath) like we had all been punched in the stomach and were temporarily winded. Which is pretty close to the truth.
These are tricky moments because everyone wants you to say something amazing and immediately soothing. As you go from little group to little group everyone apologises for crying as if somehow we’re not supposed to feel the pain of death. There is a myth in christian circles that death has no power. It does. It can still wound us. But it does not have the last word unless we want it to. There is still much life to continue with and we grieve with hope.
John 11 describes Jesus standing at Lazarus’ tomb and weeping. He weeps in mourning for a friend. He weeps for the present where death seems to be invincible. Then he brings a taste of the future to the broken present and raises Lazarus from his tomb. He reminds everyone there, believers, non believers and death itself that Lazarus’ passing was only a temporary moment in the long timeline of eternity. Lazarus would die again sometime, but he and his family know that like the first time it will not be forever.
So yesterday, a harder than usual Sunday (thank God we only work one day a week!) meant finishing all my morning duties and dropping in on a grieving couple with eternity in mind. They are strong, generous people who have been anchors of support for so many people in illness and despair. Yet here I was in the midst of their shock, tears, bewilderment, strength, doubt and faith.
Can I let you into a secret about ministers? When we arrive in a scene like this, we may look serene and authoritative and ready to minister. However, inside, no matter how experienced we are, our first thought is, “What the hell can I do for these people? What can I say?” You may expect that we have a script for these moments that is soothing and instantly comforting. I’ve come to know that scripts and platitudes really mean you haven’t come with anything useful. I’ve had to accept that I have no answers, I don’t know how they feel and I don’t know what they need.
Now that might sound like we are frauds. Not frauds, just humans. The first duty is to listen and hear the truths that need supporting and the lies that need minimising so they can grieve properly. There is an honesty in the room that isn’t always present in the tea and cucumber sandwich visit which is full of best behaviour . In matters of life and death the truth comes out if you know how to recognise it. The truth here is that they love their son and will miss him. The truth is that through their tears their instinct is to give thanks for their time with him and the love of life that he shared with his friends and family.
The bible tells us that when we don’t have the words the holy spirit speaks for us. He pushes out what needs to be said and closes our lips to those words that can wait for a more appropriate time. This same spirit creates a diverse family who will grieve and hope with those in despair, offering both as divine gifts with eternal patience. At first I thought journeying with people like this might feel burdensome. With time I’ve discovered it is a blessing.