Monday, October 16, 2006

Silenced

I sometimes talk too much. I could benefit from hearing and heeding the words of James 1:19: "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry." I'm not there yet.
But from time to time, I am silenced. It's not that I don't have things to say. That's a rarity. It's that the words I have seem so inadequate. I'm forced to recognize that there are situations that exceed my verbal prowess. Hospital visitations is where it happens most often.

Visit 1
I remember the lady who called the church asking if someone could visit her, bring her a Bible, and help her find a place to live. She said she was a Christian, was new to the city, and had hit a patch of bad luck. Her calls were persistent, and she sounded desperate. In God's inscrutable wisdom, I was the only pastor able to visit her. So, I grabbed an intern and headed over.

She neglected to mention in her many calls that she was in the psychiatric ward of the hospital. That tiny omission coupled with the layers of security and strict protocol had me wishing for an easy out... an unexpected visit from the doctor, an end to visiting hours, a fire drill, power outage... anything.

We make it to the floor, are escorted to a private meeting room, and left waiting for our friend. She clearly had "issues." Her story checked out as best I could tell. She recounted the robbery that left her penniless, the boyfriend who abused then abandoned her, joblessness, medications above her pay grade, and homelessness awaiting her at discharge (2 days) in a new city with no friends or family. In all of that, she was deeply grateful for the Bible... and deeply saddened that she had called tons of churches (including her old church back home) and only we had visited her or returned her calls. "Christian people ought to love better than that." Speechless. Well... not exactly speechless, but what I thought to say sounded hollow, rehearsed until automatic, almost robotic, and useless. As best I recall, what I said was true... factually accurate. But looking at this disheveled heap of a woman with the wild eyes and matching hair, with the broken life and heart, I knew before the words escaped this wind tunnel of a mouth that they would miss their target.

Visit 2
On another occasion, there was the visit to the elderly mother of seven who was losing her battle with cancer. She called for a minister because she wanted to "get right with God." No one told her she was losing her bout with the disease... but I don't think they had to. She bore all the marks... clean shaven, frail from weight loss, weakness, IV drips, and flower baskets that hardly passed for still lifes.

An awkward introduction, followed by a clumsy greeting, "How are you doing?" (Wish I hadn't said that! Goofus!)

"I'm okay" was the gracious reply. She wasn't. Or at least whether she was or wasn't depended on her answers to my questions.

We talked almost an hour. There were her wishes and regrets. There were unlikely hopes for leaving the hospital and recovering. She spoke of sudden unexpected deaths in the family... young people who according to the averages had 5 decades of life left but were suddenly gone. I was reminded again of how wrong it seems for a parent to outlive their children, and in this case, their grandchildren.

She had been "raised in the church," though she readily confessed that she didn't understand the Bible. She agonized over praying and not being able to remember her prayers. She doubted that she was right with God. Though she wasn't a Bible reader, she knew the rudiments of the gospel. She asked for a primer on the whole Bible; she wanted to understand it. I gave her an overview with what I hoped were enough hooks on which to hang sections of the Bible and key stories. She was appreciative but still in need.

"Why does God let all of this happen? Why do people die?" She wanted a good answer. She wasn't antagonistic or skeptical... just earnest and scared. "Sin," I explained, adding details whenever I sensed more questioning on her face. I slowly presented the gospel again. She understood and said she believed before asking me, "How about my forgetting? Why do I keep forgetting what I pray? Can you help me with my doubts?" Silence. Again, not the silence of a closed mouth... but the silence of words that, though true, seem so far from anything actually happening in the person's life. I don't know if I'll ever get accustomed to that look that overtakes the face and says, "I really wish you had more to offer."

I gave her theologically sound answers, read appropriate sections of the Scripture, and finally spent some time in prayer with her. My prayers did seem to escape the ceiling. They were offered in faith I trust. But all my words to her bumbled and stumbled against the back of my teeth. They grew roots on the tip of my tongue.

Sometimes a person simply needs some company, someone to listen and empathize. I think I do that pretty well. But sometimes a person needs a response, an answer. And many times, the answer needs to come from somewhere other than me. It needs to come from God himself.

I agree with Tripp in War of Words when he says that it's our words that are normally the tools God uses to encourage and help others. We should speak to edify and to administer grace. However, there are bruises and doubts, pains and fears that are not easily massaged, consoled and healed by the pastor. In these situations, people need to hear from God himself. It's not our words that minister; it's His words spoken in His Word and/or whispered in a way that only He can, directly to the soul. That last clause may get me in trouble with some cessationists or folks who are shy about anything that sounds remotely charismatic. My guess is that many of them have not been in enough hospital rooms or visited enough deathbeds to speak with folks whose questions and longings require the Voice of All Authority.

Self Assessment
I think I may be far too dependent in the wrong ways on my insight and eloquence. Too often, genuine faith trods along too far behind my actual speaking. I hope, pray and trust... usually in the car ride home... that the words left back there are tilling the soil or were sprouting beneath my sight at the time. Of course, I pray before the visit. But during the visit... perhaps it's too much self-effort and self-reliance. I'm learning that my focus is on me too often.

How dreadful! To meet with a soul that will soon face its Maker... and to be thinking about myself... my words! Is there a more gross vanity than to concern yourself with yourself while the light of life is being extinguished before you?! Uuugh! I should be silenced.

In these moments of being silenced, I'm also learning to pray more fervently. Perhaps the silence is meant to provoke exactly that, a closed mouth with my fellow man and an open mouth in prayer with the God who speaks best.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Brother,

Many months back my mother lay dieing in a hospital bed. All my scripture studies, all my metiditations, all my theology sessions with the Elders of the church, felt the same way you describe. As if my words were hollow porcelain cliches. As if God Himself was simply something I made up and kept myself busy with. No matter what I said, or hard it was to say it, she never seemed to understand...worse yet, I felt somehow....wholly inadequate to represent the One True God to anyone, let alone my dying mother.
She died, but I learned a valuable lesson: God is WHOLLY SOVERIEGN. and for that, I love Him in Christ Jesus so even more. Amen brother for your sobering look at the difficult aspects of ministry. Let us exalt Christ,
Steven

Bookpress said...

Thank you for being so open with these examples. It is heartening to know that even those, like yourself, with greater gifts have these same difficulties. It also reminds me to pray faithfully for you and other pastors who more regularly find yourselves in these situations.

Matthew R. Perry said...

Thabiti:

Thank you for being so candid! As a pastor in the States, I feel the inadequacy of my words when helping others deal with issues along this line.

My sister lost her only son when he was only 18. I said the right things, but then she told me that sometimes she just needs me to listen. And I was reminded of my 10th grade teacher's admonition: we have two ears, two eyes, two shoulders, and one mouth for a reason.

May God grant us the wisdom to say what we should --- and shouldn't.

Matt Perry
Matt Perry Dot Com

Nick Hill said...

Thabiti,

Thanks for your honesty and for sharing. I too find a self focus comes in at the worst of times (like corporate prayer)...lately my prayer has been that God would deliver me from myself and that I would not use ministry to glorify myself in any way, shape, or form, but that God would be glorified, that he would become more, and I would come less. May God richly bless you in your ministry as you continue to point people to Jesus Christ,

Nick

Carolyn said...

Well-written and painfully true...