What would you say to a young husband and father who suddenly fears his wife and children are dead? Jonathan McComb and his wife, Laura, and their two children, were at a cabin in Wimberley when flood-waters unexpectedly swept their cabin downstream. Jonathan was the only one found alive. All of us in the Texas Hill Country were shocked and saddened. We wanted to help, to do something. If you were going to visit Jonathan, what would you say? Or should you remain silent?
Minutes after my sweet mother passed away, her pastor called to let me know Mama unexpectedly died from a stroke. I caught the first plane home. A large crowd had gathered in Mama’s living room. As I was about to enter, I remember thinking, “The last thing I need right now is an avalanche of well-intended, religious words people say in times like these.” What I wanted and needed was to be alone and quiet in Mama’s house.
The Healing Power of Silence
From that experience and from years of being with people in the emergency room, the funeral home, and other places filled with sorrow and grief, I learned the importance and healing power of silence. Henri Nouwen calls silence the place where “the inner fire of God is tended and kept alive” (The Way of the Heart).
Whether you’re trying to figure out what to say when you visit Jonathan McComb or someone else who’s suffering from a tragedy, consider the value of silence. People with a healthy faith are comfortable with silence and see its advantages. In some ways, could it be that your silent presence, a tender hug, a kiss-on-the-cheek, or a compassionate pat-on-the-back is your greatest gift after all?
How can that be?
First, your silence gives God a chance to be heard. No matter how horrible the crisis, our God is always present for his wounded children. The Bible reminds us of our Father’s words of comfort, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you (Joshua 1:5, NIV). Sometimes people can’t hear our Lord’s gentle, quiet voice because it is overpowered by too many competing voices. Your caring, silent hug may be just the opening God is looking for to whisper his words of encouragement.
Second, your silence puts presence above words. Never forget. Your presence is worth more than your words. When Mama died, my wife, Phyllis, stayed close by my side through it all. Her presence meant more than anything she could have said. The day after the funeral, I could not remember a single word anyone said, including the preacher. But I remembered our friends’ faces, whether they came from across the community or the country. They went out of their way to be with me and my family. Their presence meant more than words can express.
Jacque Watkins is a nurse who works with newborns and their parents. Daily she experiences the highest highs of a healthy newborn and the lowest lows when a baby dies. Over the years, Jacque has learned the wonder of silence in the lives of hurting parents, “To grieve with another in the silence of their presence, THIS is holy work.”
Third, your silence says I am suffering with you. Your silent presence is a clear sign of your compassion. The word com-passion literally means to suffer (passion), with (com). Hurting people flocked to Jesus because he not only suffered for them; he also suffered with them. He shared their pain. In a way, your silence says, like you, I don’t know what to say, I just want you to know I am with you no matter what.
Jesus Practiced the Discipline of Silence
At one point during his public teaching, some religious leaders interrupted Jesus and pushed him to answer their questions, but he wouldn’t. In frustration, they barked, “Are you going to answer?” The Bible reports, “Jesus remained silent” (Mt. 26:63, NIV). His response shows us that sometimes, our faithful silence speaks louder and more effectively than our finely crafted words.
In the incident I mentioned above, Jesus was silent. But not long after that he spoke out. Do you know when it’s appropriate to be silent and when it is time to say something to those who suffer? What should we say? What should we never say? Join me in exploring this idea further in my next post.
For now, what do you think about the value of your silent presence? When is it wrong to stay silent? Give me your ideas.
Image: CC Flickr Georgie Pauwels