A number of times in my life as a pastor I have received phone calls that are terrifying and never desired. One night in Clinton, IA I received one of those calls.
A family in our church had just received the tragic news that a loved family member – a teenage boy – had died unexpectedly. The family called me and asked me to come over.
I remember the drive, the walk to the door, ringing the doorbell, and all the other mundane events that go along with entering someone’s home. This time it all felt different. Every ordinary event and every movement felt full with potential for sacredness or profanity. I was terrified with the weight of all this from the moment I left my house.
When I entered the home I didn’t know what to do. I hugged people. I cried a bit. I don’t remember if we prayed. I probably should have but I don’t think I did.
We then sat on couches. Occasionally someone would cry or ask why this happened. One person expressed anger with some bullies who picked on this child regularly. For the most part we just sat in silence. We soaked in the tragedy and sadness.
As we sat, I was hoping for some profound words to share or some Bible verse about comfort for the afflicted. Nothing came. I simply sat with them.
I sat there for an hour or two. The night was late and I eventually dismissed myself.
I felt like a failure. I felt as if I had let this family down. I was the pastor, the spiritual one and I had nothing to say or value to add.
Freedom from Knowing
That night I didn’t have anything to say because I simply didn’t know. I didn’t know why a kid died. I didn’t know why this family would have to walk through this suffering. I didn’t see some cosmic plan.
I didn’t know because there was nothing to know. A kid died. It was awful and pointless. It was not part of God’s plan.
My lack of knowledge, words, and theological insight made me feel like a failure. However, looking back on this night years later I now count it as one of the best moments in my life as a pastor.
This family didn’t need words or inspiration. They needed a person to be present and to mourn. They needed to know they weren’t alone in this mess. They needed presence.
Being present and quiet with people in the midst of suffering is often the best we have to offer. In fact, our well intentioned words usually cause more harm than good. And if we’re honest, we often speak to relieve awkward tension or out of fear.
There is freedom in not knowing and not speaking
. I was free to be present and keep silent. I was free to weep without having answers. I was free from the pressure to inspire. I was free to feel and be wounded.
That night we rested in Jesus. We didn’t rest in written or spoken words. We rested in the Living Word. The Word that was made flesh, the one who knows suffering and loneliness, was present with us. If words had been spoken we would have missed it. He would have still been there but we would not have discerned his presence then or years later as we reflect on that night. The freedom of not knowing helped this family experience the Word that knows suffering.
May we be a people who learn how to practice silence. May we be present with the afflicted and find peace in the freedom of not knowing.