There are times when the “right” thing to say evades me. This used to bother me a lot when I was a new pastor. Even before I was ordained and spent a summer doing a chaplaincy internship at a VA hospital, I used to dread the “on call” pager. I probably prayed more for myself that summer and how I would respond when that pager went off than I ever prayed for my patients. But, I had enough wherewithal to realize that no matter how hard I prayed for the right words, there would be times when no words would suffice.
A few days ago, I got one of those phone calls. When deployed, the official way to notify a service member of either a death or serious injury in the family is through the Red Cross. The message filters through a couple of channels and along the way, the chaplain is typically called to be a part of the notification process. Having to deliver a Red Cross message is never an easy thing. It is an occasion where there really is no “right” thing to say.
Because the information is guarded and private, details rarely come through over the phone. Once I get the call that there is a Red Cross message, I have to wait at least as long as it takes me to walk to the company area, before I know who I will be seeing and what exactly has happened. Those are excruciating minutes. Perhaps my coping is extreme, but I tend to picture the worst possible case scenario, and then start imagining myself as a part of a support team for a soldier who has just received this devastating news. I inevitably have a moment when I wish I could just disappear, but then something draws me back into the present moment. I realize that this, more than anything else I may do, is what being a pastor is all about.
Back when I was a hospital chaplain and concerned that I would fail as a spiritual presence for a person or a family, a wise friend reminded me that I wasn’t bringing God into the room with me. God was already there. I was just illuminating where God had been all along. I think of this often, especially when I am not sure what it means to offer spiritual support when I am unsure of what kind of faith or spirituality I am dealing with. Do I offer to pray when I don’t know whether or not the person is interested in prayer or even God, for that matter? I continue to struggle with this question in the pluralistic environment in which I find myself. Prayer is not something to force upon another person. But, there are times when a person wants prayer, but doesn’t know how to ask for it. There is no formula. Often it is awkward and less than seamless. Always, I realize how small I am, and more, what a privilege is it to be with any person in the midst of a valley of darkness. I wait for the Holy Spirit to guide me. At least, every once in a while, I am still enough to hear.
As I journeyed with my soldier in the aftermath of his bad news, hanging out with him as he packed, helping to carry his bags to the air terminal, and then waiting with him as he prepared leave, I realized the significance of presence. After a while, it was time for him to board his plane. We gathered around him, creating a circle of support, offering hugs and handshakes. I will be the first to admit, I had nothing “right” to say. But, he left us to face whatever grief or difficulty that waited for him, knowing that he was not alone. I can’t think of what I would want said if I faced a similar tragedy, but I do know that a memory of friends standing with me, helping me to face my darkness, might go a long way.