Summary: What to say to the discouraged.
The letter came in the mail last week along with a magazine, 2 or 3 bills, and an advertisement circular from Radio Shack.
Noticing the return address on the envelope was from a close friend, I put the other mail aside and tore into the envelope, settling back to enjoy what I expected to be a pleasant visit with a good friend.
But the news was not good.
There were five pages filled with information about my friend’s doctors, tests that had been made, a diagnosis that had been reached and a prognosis that was not hopeful.
Sprinkled here and there were medical terms that were unfamiliar. Even the familiar terms were meaningless.
Toward the end of the letter were the all too open and frank words of the inevitability of death.
The letter concluded with remarks about how my friend wanted me to know about the situation, but that if I felt uncomfortable, nothing else need be said.
From somewhere within my mind came the silent urging, "Pick up the phone and call. Sit down and write a letter. Say something. Comfort the people. Proclaim a message."
And in response to myself, I wondered, "What message do I proclaim?" What can one say?
It is an old question. It was asked by Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson thousands of years ago.
As long as there have been human relationships, there has been the demand, "Comfort them, encourage them, proclaim a message."
With that demand there has also been that crippling and paralyzing question, "What can I say?"
At the dawn of time, two parents sit quietly. They wonder why their two sons have fought and why they could not have loved one another. Now word has come that Cain has killed his brother Able and the two parents sit and wonder.
Each wants to say something of comfort, but both are crippled by the question, "What can I say?"
Years pass. Not just centuries, but millennia passes by as nations and empires rise and fall, wars are fought, and discoveries are made, and the question still remains "What can I say?"
It is a question you have lived out in your own lives.
A relative is fired from a job. What can I say?
The fabric of a marriage is ripped apart and your two best friends become enemies with each other. What can I say?
A neighbor’s child has died. What can I say?
And a friend writes a letter about illness and death.
What can I say?
The question in Isaiah is a living question and a haunting question. "Proclaim a message," declares the Voice.
"What message shall I proclaim," replies Isaiah.
We see the situation. We hear the voice within telling us to say something comforting and encouraging. And we feel our own inability as we think to ourselves about what we should say. What do you say to someone who is dieing and suffering?
A lot of us helplessly and hopelessly grope for clichés and platitudes that we’ve heard all too many times before.
It’ll be alright.
It’ll turn out for the best.
It’s God’s will.
But those clichés have never worked.
Sometime ago, Dear Abby’s column ran a letter from a woman who wrote to complain about some of the routine phrases of comfort that people spoke to her in an unsuccessful attempt to console her in the death of her 14 year old son.
"I know how you feel."
“It was God’s will."
"Don’t worry you can have other children."
"God needed him more than you did."
Each phrase was inadequate. In some cases they added to the pain. I suspect that we know from our own experiences how useless some of these clichés are. Search your own memory and you will find a time of loss or tragedy when someone came up to you and used those same words of comfort. But they did not comfort.
And now, as we try to comfort others, we find ourselves wanting to say SOMETHING. Not knowing what else to say, we lean on the same time worn phrases, even though they do not comfort.
We see our friend in the hospital bed, tubes running up his nose and an I.V. needle stuck in his arm.
Death is near.
There is no denying it.
What comfort can there be in hearing us say, "It’ll be alright," when everyone knows that it won’t be.
A mother and father sit in chairs under a mortuary’s tent. They sit facing the tiny casket that is waiting to be lowered into the grave. Silently and bravely they endure the pain of hearing us say, "It was all for the best."
A lonely man faces the hardship of unemployment. He hears us say, "Trust in God," while he wonders if God even cares.