Scripture: Psalm 23
Saying the Wrong Things
It happens in an instant.
The phone rings. Death. Tragedy. Loss.
In a moment, the world turns upside down. Disorientation. Anger. Fear.
Your plans are meaningless. A funeral. An unexpected trip. An unforeseen expense.
It happens to all of us at some point in time or another.
And it certainly happens to our friends and family members, too.
What do we do when tragedy befalls a loved one? What do we say?
As a minster, I’ve heard it all—the good, the bad, and the ugly—as well-intentioned people attempt to fill the void in their friend, mother, son, brother, or other relative.
I stress “well-intentioned” because I believe that is true, regardless of how insensitive or presumptious our comments may be. We genuinely want to ease our loved one’s suffering.
We want to try to lift their spirits, so we say things like “Hey, it’s not so bad! Think of all those worse off than you!” or “Think of how much worse it could have been!”
The unintended result is that we invalidate their feelings and suggest they are overreacting to their circumstances. At a time when people are seeking comfort and peace, we infuse their troubled minds with guilt. Not helpful, to say the least.
Maybe other times we want to try to abolish their darkness—to affirm the light that is still there. Sometimes this means here as well we tell people to look on the bright side, but more often we speak insensitive slogans that do not stand up to any theological rigor. You know, things like: “I guess it was God’s plan.” Or, “God wanted your young daughter in heaven.” Or, “It’s hard to see from our perspective, but from God’s perspective it’s better this way.”
Woah. Let me say quite directly that there is nothing more insensitive and nothing more false that you can say to a person grieving death than to suggest that God has selfishly taken away their loved one without consideration for any other factor. Death is always tragic, often sudden, and quite frequently the product of the decisions human beings make in free will. When we say that “God made that drunk driver take out Aunt Susie because God needed her voice in the heavenly choir,” then what we speak is unkind, uncompassionate, unthoughtful, unChristian, and flat-out untrue.
We often say the wrong things, and when we do, we give power to the darkness that we are trying to abolish.
So what do we do? And how do we care for one another as our friends and family traverse their valleys of the shadow of death?
Psalm 23 (I believe) gives us an answer.
Psalm 23 Overview
We know this psalm. We use it in funerals. We read it in weddings. We recite it in worship. Along with the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23 is the longest scripture passage most Christians ever bother to memorize.
And it is a prayer. It is a song. It is a testimony of life, of provision, of protection, and of presence. It bears witness of God’s faithfulness and presence in times of blessing and plenty, and in times of starkness and danger, both when cups overflow and when enemies surround.
Where is God in Psalm 23?
God is “with me.” That is where God is in each and every moment of the Psalmist’s testimony.
- God is the shepherd, who is with the Psalmist in ensuring needs are met.
- God is the one present in leading to places of provision and protection.
- God is the one who dispels fear—why?—because of God’s presence, both literally and through the symbols of God’s power and strength.
- God is the one preparing celebration, even in the midst of threat.
- God is the one anointing and equipping for the challenges and mission of life with God.
- God is the one responsible for the goodness and mercy that the psalmist experiences.
Where is God? God is present.
And it is God’s presence that dispels the darkness the psalmist experiences, that allows him to depart that dark valley and return to the fertile plain, that makes him able to survive the threats and attacks of his enemies and come to a place of feasting and celebration again. It is God’s presence that does those things, for the psalmist and for us.
Now we call ourselves Christians, and what does that mean? It means we are “little Christs.” It means that we embody Christ’s presence and love in this world by shaping our walk and way of life to conform with that of our Savior. That’s what it means. And if you’re not willing to “walk as Jesus walked,” as the author of 1John puts it, you shouldn’t be calling yourself a Christian, no matter how many times you go to church.
So now if we are “little Christs,” and if Jesus is in fact the incarnation of God in the world (in other words, Jesus most fully shows us who God is and what God is like), then it follows that in seeking to be Christian, we are seeking to be God-like.
Here’s what I’m trying to say. As we read in Psalm 23, we see God ministering to the psalmist in a time of tragedy and great need. But God doesn’t say: “Look on the bright side; it could be worse!” Nor does God suggest that the psalmist’s perspective is too small or his faith is too weak by claiming that “It’s all part of God’s plan.”
What does God do? God walks with the psalmist. God is presence—beside the still waters and in the valley of the shadow of death, in the presence of enemies and in the house of God. God is present—always, completely, fully present.
Now I can’t tell you how or why presence works so effectively for us (I have some theories, but they are all incomplete pictures at best), but I can certainly state with confidence that there is nothing so powerful as the presence of a friend. There is nothing so caring that we can do for each other than to be present with them and for them, in times of joy and in times of sorrow.
The truth is, we have nothing that we can say. No words will take away the pain. No explanation will somehow remove the sting of suffering. And we should exercise far more caution before presuming to speak for God.
But there is something we each have to offer, regardless of our circumstance. And that is our presence. And offering our presence is a very godly thing to do.
Now there are two sides to this.
There’s the caregiver side. You are the one who wants to care for your friend that has experienced tragedy. Your mere presence—even a silent presence—dispels more darkness than all the words you could say and all the casseroles you can bake.
But there’s also the care-receiver side. You are the one who is experiencing tragedy and loss. And more and more, I see people who insist on going through these things alone. That breaks my heart. So-and-so has cancer, but doesn’t tell anyone until it’s in remission. Him-or-her lost her job, but won’t tell anyone because she feels shame. This person’s son is being bullied. That person’s sister is being abused.
And they do it alone. I don’t know, maybe your’re just stronger than I am—I just know that my instinct is to close out the world as well.
What I am learning is that we are preventing our own healing by shutting out each other. We are prolonging our suffering by isolating ourselves. We are blocking the light from dispelling the darkness that we are in.
As Christians—the presence of Christ—the presence of God in the world—we have the ability to be a healing presence in the lives of those we know. But it cannot happen if we are not willing to be cared for.
Being Cared For
Let me tell you a story. I’d been a minister for about three years. I’d been in-and-out of hospitals more times than I could count. I’d sat with families in surgical waiting rooms. I’d held hands with people while they breathed their last breath in earthly life. Weddings. Funerals. Baby dedications.
Though it had only been three years, I had really walked with a lot of people through a lot of dark valleys and even along some fertile plains beside still waters.
But then I had my own surgery—a hernia repair. And six weeks later, my appendix burst.
My instinct—despite what I knew, preached, and attempted to live out in that community of faith—was to close myself off. Show no weakness. Get better before revealing how bad I was.
But you know what? No one listened.
I was inundated by friends and members of that congreagation who insisted on visiting and being with me. With many of them, it was a complete role reversal, as I had been visiting them in the hospital just weeks or months prior.
No one offered empty platitudes, trying to make sense of my suffering for me. No one suggested God caused my appendix to burst (though many of us recognized God’s provision in getting me safely and quickly to where I could receive treatment).
These people came to sit with me. They came to be a healing presence when I was broken.
And I have never forgotten that. Because it worked. Being cared for by the ministry of presence healed and strengthened me in ways that I cannot explain. The Lord, it was clear, was with me through them, shepherding me, leading me to green pastures, walking with me through the darkest valleys, standing with me in the presence of my enemies. Ever present, overflowing the cup of my life.
Ministry of Presence
Many churches say that “every member is a minister.” I used to be a member of a congregation that printed that above the pastor’s name on the bulletin each Sunday.
And I believe it. Every member is a minister, and each of us has the responsibility of caring for one another. We probably don’t do a good enough job equipping our members for their ministry of being caregivers. But please remember that the best, most powerful, and often only thing we have to offer is the same presence that God graces to us—in the good and the bad, when things are easy and when things are uncomfortable, in times of plenty and in times of desperation.
It is in God’s image that we are made, and it is our gift of presence—when everyone else runs away—that makes us more fully like God.
Be willing to be cared for—it truly will change your life.
And care for each other, just as God cares for you.