I was reminded recently just how vast the spectrum of ministry can be in any given day. One minute, life is clipping along as expected, and the next, in a breath, everything changes. I have come to dread any surprise knock at my door, though, most often, it is only a friendly face wanting to say hello. The few times it has been a real emergency ensure that any knock, because of its potential for seriousness, makes my heart beat a little faster as I walk toward the door. Even though our camp is small, and there are not many places where I could stay hidden for long, I still worry that people may be looking for me if I have been away from my office for a few hours. It would help if my cell phone worked. Sadly, Afghanistan’s cellular network is not the most reliable.
I have come to anticipate the worst, particularly, when my assistant shows up in an unexpected place looking for me. This past week, I was in the gym, about ten minutes into my run. We had a Red Cross message and, according to the news relayed to me, it was extremely serious. As I grabbed my IPOD and keys from the cubby holes, I started to pray. Those few minutes of waiting to know who the message is for and how devastating the message is are some of the worst. Delivering bad news is never easy in any circumstance, and in hopes of being at least a little prepared, I have tucked away in my mind some of the worse possibilities, bracing myself for what could happen. Of course, I hope that they never come true.
I go back and forth on what I think is more difficult, delivering a red cross message to a stranger or to someone I know well. This past week, I had only ever seen the young man in passing. As I waited with his chain of command, I wished that I knew at least something about him, that we had some encounter or memory which would have connected us before this tragic moment. This was wishful thinking.
It was the worst kind of news we delivered that day-- death, by suicide. There is really nothing to say which can soften the blow. Despite the fact that I know it was an impossible situation, I still felt like a monumental failure. As we stood around, waiting for him to call home, not wanting to invade his privacy as he cried into the phone, I wracked my brain for some kind of strategy for what would come next once he hung up the receiver. It was going so badly. I was just wanted to escape, knowing that if I, myself, had heard similar news, I probably wouldn’t want an awkward stranger trying to talk to me.
To my surprise, something unbelievable happened. One of his friends showed up. Pushing all the leadership and superfluous people through the door, the three of us sat down on the floor. As much as I didn’t want to intrude in this moment with his friend, I also didn’t think I should leave them alone. I didn't want her to bear the burden of his grief, not if I could carry some, too. I knew this was where I was supposed to be. We sat there-- crying and laughing and cursing-- simply absorbing the news and letting it settle around us. I couldn’t help but think about Job and his friends.
What did they do right when they came to his side after he had endured such loss? Had they listened, expressed their care and sadness? Had they helped him feel less alone? What had they done wrong? The details escaped me, but I knew that this moment was not a time for trite platitudes or empty explanations of why this had happened. It was a time to be quiet and responsive. It was a time to be present.
I have no idea how much time passed, but at some point, our pow-wow was over, and he was ready to go to his room and pack his bag for the journey home. When I looked at my watch, I realized I had twenty-five minutes to shower and change and be ready to lead the Mother’s Day worship service. I was in charge, and everyone was waiting for me. It was the last thing I wanted to do, not then, not after my morning. How could I lead praise and prayer when I had spent the last few hours sitting with Job? It was jarring and unfathomable.
But, this is what it means to minister to others-- whether one’s flock is a congregation, a classroom, or a household. Life doesn’t ever stop, even when we have the breath knocked out of us. We don’t have much of a choice but to pick up whatever pieces are left over. We go on, though sometimes with our eyes still wet with tears.