We were not prepared for the tragic news. Because our friends did not know how to tell us over the phone, they waited until our visit last week to share with us their great loss.
The grandmother welcomed us into their home, unable to hold back her tears. We had no idea what was wrong as we followed her to the table and sat down while they poured us tea and set out snacks for us to eat. The mother then explained to us why her mother-in-law was crying. “It’s because our son died in March.” She quickly left the room to prepare more food for us, and the grandmother returned to her bed at the end of the hall. We silently sipped our tea and let this news sink in; our hearts filled with grief.
One of the friends traveling with us encouraged me to go comfort the grandmother whose muffled sobs echoed softly in the hallway. I reluctantly stood up, thinking “I really don’t know what to say.” But as I slowly walked down the hall, I was reminded of Job’s friends who simply sat with him in his grief to comfort him “because his suffering was too great for words.” (Job ). “God, please help my presence be a comfort to her.” She graciously patted the spot next to her on the bed for me to sit down and I took her hands. We cried together and she told me the story of her grandson’s death.
She pointed to the majestic mountains behind their house and said, “Every day we have to look at these mountains where he died. It was snowing. Five boys climbed the mountain together one Saturday. Only three of them returned. My grandson reached out his hand to save his friend who started to slide. But he was pulled down too, and they both died. They were 13 years old.”
As we were talking, the grandmother’s son (the boy’s father) came home and seemed uncomfortable as he approached and saw us crying. He urged us to stop, by repeating “It’s already passed. It’s already passed.”
Later that evening, I had opportunity to talk with the mother, and was encouraged by the depth of our sharing. But later, I felt concerned that, in my desire to “minister” to her, I may have said too much or the wrong thing. I hope that some of my words will bear fruit in her life. Others may need to be forgotten. I was greatly impacted though by what she shared with me and with what I am beginning to learn about how this culture experiences death and its accompanying grief. Grief seems to be very private and emotions are best suppressed. The mother told me that her tears have had to fall inside because tears would make Allah angry.
How can we enter into the grief of this culture? How can we speak a word of hope?
I love the writings of Henri Nouwen, and I can identify with what he says about ministry in weakness:
“One of the most rewarding experiences of living in a strange land is the experience of being loved not for what we can do, but for who we are. When we become aware that our stuttering, failing, vulnerable selves are loved even when we hardly progress, we can let go of our compulsion to prove ourselves and be free to live with others in a fellowship of the weak. This is a true healing.”
Ministry is entering with our human brokenness into communion with others and speaking a word of hope. This hope is not based on any power to solve the problems of those with whom we live, but on the love of God, which becomes visible when we let go of out fears of being out of control and enter into his presence in a shared confession of weakness.” (circles of love p. 50)
He also says that our compassionate presence can be one of the greatest gifts we can offer those who suffer:
“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it. As busy, active, relevant ministers, we want to earn our bread by making a real contribution. This means first and foremost doing something to show that our presence makes a difference. And so we ignore our greatest gift, which is our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer.” (The Way of the Heart p. 24-25)
As we cannot offer other what we have not experienced ourselves, how important it is for us to first meet with God in silence and solitude and experience healing in our own hearts:
“We enter into solitude first of all to meet our Lord and to be with him and him alone…to keep the eyes of our mind and heart on him who is our divine savior. Only in the context of grace can we face our sin; only in the place of healing do we dare to show our wounds; only with single-minded attention to Christ can we give up our clinging fears and face our own true nature. As we come to realize that it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us, that he is our true self, we can slowly let our compulsions melt away and begin to experience the freedom of the children of God.” (The Way of the Heart p. 20)
Then we are able to invite others to enter into the free space of our hearts to experience God’s healing presence:
“I must create some free space in my innermost self so that I may invite others to enter and be healed. To pray for others means to offer others a hospitable place where I can really listen to their needs and pains. Compassion, therefore, calls for a self-scrutiny that can lead to inner gentleness.
If I could have a gentle ‘interiority”—a heart of flesh and not of stone, a room with some spots on which one might walk barefooted—then God and my fellow humans could meet each other there. Then the center of my heart can become the place where God can hear the prayer for my neighbors and embrace them with his love.” (circles of love p. 22)
He says of silence:
“One of our main problems is that in this chatty society, silence has become a very fearful thing. For most people, silence creates itchiness and nervousness. Many experience silence not as full and rich, but as empty and hollow. For them silence is like a gaping abyss which can swallow them up.” (The Way of the Heart p. 52)
But we can learn to see the power of silence and the fruitful words that are born from it and then return to it:
“A word with power is a word that comes out of silence. A word that bears fruit is a word that emerges from the silence and returns to it. It is a word that reminds us of the silence from which it comes and leads us back to that silence.” (The Way of the Heart p. 48-49)
“All this is true only when the silence from which the word comes forth is not emptiness and absence, but fullness and presence, not the human silence of embarrassment, shame, or guilt, but the divine silence in which love rests secure.” (The Way of the Heart p. 49)
“…silence is above all a quality of the heart that can stay with us even in our conversation with others. It is a portable cell that we carry with us wherever we go. From it we speak to those in need and to it we return after our words have borne fruit.” (The Way of the Heart p. 60)
These are all lessons that I want to apply to my life, and I am aware of how far I have to go! My natural tendency, with God and with people, is to fill up silence with words. I want to know the fullness and the presence of silence.
God, please help me to find rest in the silence of your healing presence and to create space in my heart for others to find rest and healing there.
And God, bless this family in their grief; cover them with your comfort and embrace them in your love. Help them to know your hope.