Pastor of Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church
You have probably heard this old saying before, often introduced with the words; “My grandmother used to say, if you don’t have anything good to say about someone, then don’t say anything at all.”
Of course we know the damage that gossip, slander and insinuations cause, how careless spiteful words can assassinate a person’s character and ruin their reputation.
These days, it seems that if a person wants to destroy someone publicly, then just an accusation is enough. There does not have to be evidence of failure or proof of wrongdoing, just make the accusation and people will listen and jump to condemnation. The results are a lost reputation, broken relationships and even lost jobs.
Words can be like seeds — what is planted, grows. If words of accusation, slander or gossip are sewn, then the fruit that grows will be suspicion, resentment and heartache. On the other hand, if kind words, encouraging words, healing words are spoken then the harvest will be much different. Esteem, respect and tolerance will be the fruit that is grown.
When it comes to controlling the tongue, it would be wonderful to bring in a harvest of words that build up, comfort and strengthen others. This is something to aspire to.
Yet what about the time when you want to have something good to say, something helpful and uplifting but you just can’t come up with the words.
For instance, when you reach the head of the line at the funeral home?
When you walk into a hospital room?
When there has been an accident?
When a divorce is impending?
When the news of a terminal illness is made known?
These are just some of the times when a person wants to say the right thing but the words are not there. At times like this, a person will sometimes rely on sayings such as:
They have gone to a better place.
It is God’s will.
There must be a reason for this.
Time heals all wounds.
All things work together for good.
Oftentimes, a person who is suffering or grieving does not want to hear these words. In fact, such words may even make things worse.
We have lived in a society where saying the right thing and being articulate and relevant is prized highly. So, it can be difficult to be silent and not to say anything. If the truth be told, clergy are particularly susceptible to this. There are pastors I know who feel that they have something relevant to say about every situation and every occasion.
When people are in distress, what they need from others most is a ministry of presence. They need to know that they are not going through this alone, that someone cares for them and will be there for them.
In times of trouble, we do not always have to come up with some profound words. Consider these suggestions.
When comforting the bereaved, simply say, “I don’t have the words,” and give them a hug.
When making a hospital visit, it is OK to say, “how about if I just sit for awhile and keep you company.” If the conversation lags, there can be silent prayer.
When you hear bad news you might say, “I wish I could say something to make it better,” and then simply listen and maybe hold a hand.
There is no guaranteed recipe or game plan for coming up with the right words in difficult situations. The thing to remember is that the other person needs you more than they need your words. You can convey your love, support and concern to others with words if you have them, but even more so by your presence. With friends or family members or acquaintances, it comes down to sharing their pain, walking with them in their distress and helping them to carry their burden.
The following story illustrates this.
There was a couple who lived in a trailer park with their baby. They lived a rough life and ran with a rough crowd. One night while drinking beer and watching TV, a lighted cigarette was left burning when the couple went to bed. The resulting fire was put out by the fire company. The couple was rescued but their baby died from smoke inhalation.
The next day they were staying at a neighbor’s trailer. Already there was a lot of talk around the community, some of it sympathetic, some of it not. A local pastor along with his seminary intern knocked on the door of the trailer. When the couple opened the door, the pastor said, “We don’t have anything to say, we just came to cry with you.”
It is important to remember that we cannot fix everything that is broken or heal every injury — only God can do that. Our words can be helpful and useful but it is our presence that can make all the difference.
At this time, the church is celebrating the season of Epiphany. The focus is on Jesus being revealed to all the nations as the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
The Epiphany season highlights how Jesus came among us; one might say he pitched his tent among us. We look at his life and his ministry and know his presence is among us. We can contemplate his words and actions and see his life-giving work among us.
In another four days, we will see the beginning of Lent. Then we will contemplate Christ’s saving work which took him to the cross. There on the cross, he endured God’s silence. There on the cross, Jesus was in solidarity with us, he took our sins upon himself. There on the cross, with a few words spoken, he gave his life for all people.
So, when we find ourselves in those situations where we are struggling to find the right words to say, remember Jesus, and know that our presence speaks without words.
(Editor’s Note: The opinions of this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Inter-Mountain, the Randolph County Ministerial Association or the author’s church affiliation.)