Christmas 2010 was unusually busy. And memorable. After leading two Christmas Eve Candlelight Services on Friday night and not getting to sleep until after 1:00 a.m., my oldest son thought 6:45 a.m. on Christmas morning was the perfect time to start opening presents! And, because December 25th fell on a Saturday this year, the day after Christmas was Sunday. While some of our church members might have been tempted to miss Sunday services, it would have been a bit strange for their pastor to play hooky. So I didn’t.
After watching the abysmal first-half of the Denver Broncos/Houston Texans game, I traveled to the home of one of our church members to officiate at the wedding of her daughter. I came home to watch Tim Tebow lead the Denver Broncos to his first 4th Quarter comeback win in Mile High Stadium, no doubt causing fresh break-outs of Tebow Derangement Syndrome in the likes of Mel Kiper. What a way to end the long Christmas weekend! Or, so I thought.
My brother-in-law and I were discussing Tebow’s outstanding rookie performance when my cell phone rang. It was about 10:15 p.m. The Caller ID showed that the incoming call was from Gary, my Music and Worship Pastor. As our church office would be closed on Monday, I thought he was calling to update me on his planned trip to visit his parents in Belen, NM. I so wish that was the reason for his call. Unfortunately, it was not.
Gary called to tell me that two Marines had just arrived to deliver the news — the news that too many moms and dads, husbands and wives, sons and daughters have received since the beginning of the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — that his son, Garrett, a sergeant in the U.S. Marines, was killed in action in Afghanistan late Sunday night (Afghan time) while on foot patrol (see here and here for news stories covering Garrett’s death).
As a lawyer-turned-pastor, I am rarely at a loss for words. Sunday night proved to be one of those rare moments. I told Gary that I was so sorry and that I would be over shortly. My wife and I got in the van and began the 10 minute drive to Gary and Susan’s home. On our brief journey, we prayed for God to surround the Misener family with His love and grace and for God to help us comfort the family during this incredible time of grief.
I have been around death all my life. As a kid, I grew up with parents who owned and operated a funeral home in the small town of Lake Placid, FL. As an adult, I have ministered to hundreds of families during their time of grief by officiating at their loved ones’ funerals. I even gave the eulogy at my own father’s funeral. Being able to minister to folks as they “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” has been a “gift” that God has blessed me with. But, exercising that gift is never easy.
Many pastors have that same gift. But sometimes, in exercising that gift of comfort, we begin to think that we know all the “right” things to say to a family who has suffered an unexpected and devastating loss. In our zeal to help a family who is struggling with the death of a loved one, we often want to offer neat and tidy reasons why God has “taken” their son or daughter, husband or wife, dad or mom. But, because we are not God, we simply cannot know — this side of heaven — why God allows people to die when and how they do.
I know. I know. Death is the result of Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden and the subsequent Fall. Pastors (and others) can know theology and the Bible backwards and forwards, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we can make it all better by just quoting Scripture.
Now, don’t misunderstand. As a pastor, I believe that Scripture is paramount and continues to speak God’s very own Words of comfort to grieving hearts. But, when we are trying to comfort families during their time of grief, it’s often better to let your presence — and not your words — do all the talking, at least at first. The ministry of presence and the ministry of the Word are both important, but sometimes a hug — exchanged without any words — is how God wants us to comfort others during their time of grief.
There will be a time for words — most importantly God’s Words — in the days ahead. Right now is a time for hugs. And for just being there. Don’t underestimate the ministry of your presence to someone else. You never know when you will need it in return.