27. WHEN IT IS OUR TURN TO HELP
A. Lift the Burden
At the end of His ministry, Jesus indicted the leadership of the Jewish people. This was in Jerusalem, where His enemies—the same people He was attacking—were plotting His death. The following is the beginning of His accusation:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”
I have presented a lengthy description of a world view and “philosophy of life.” It will be construed by many to be the kind of approach to the world that perpetuates human misery rather than alleviating it. I do not think that is necessarily true. I know that many people would use such a view to justify a selfish and uncaring attitude. But I do not believe that such an attitude should reflect a person who has entered into the victory of Jesus Christ.
I do not believe that we can “save the world.” Nor do I believe that we can “bring in the Kingdom of God.” I believe that God’s ultimate solution is the resurrection. But, I do believe that, through the Holy Spirit, we already experience some of that resurrection. And if the Holy Spirit is active in our lives, then we will bring some resurrection victory to other people.
I believe that the main thrust of our mission is the spreading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But the love that fills our heart must be expressed and bubble over into the lives of others. If our hearts are filled with God’s love, then we cannot view another human who is in misery without giving some aid.
I have given an extensive description of the causes of our suffering. Much of that suffering can be prevented. Most of us have some means at our disposal to do something to alleviate that suffering. One of our great privileges is to do just that.
Three important sources of suffering are poverty, racism, and class distinctions. We can each find ways to lift some of those burdens.
One of the attitudes that I see in many church people that especially distresses me is a rejection of poor people. The idea is that such people have not worked hard enough, have not been prudent with their money, and have habits and lifestyles that waste their money. Therefore, such people never deserve any help. This attitude can harden into an anger toward such people. The only thing that I can say is, “Walk a mile in that man’s shoes.” I have been on the losing end. I have known what it is to be poor. I recognize my own mistakes. When you’re hurting, you don’t need a lecture. When you’re hurting, you don’t need a “spiritual” blessing. What you need is something to eat and a warm place to be. We’re not going to claim to know Jesus unless we can respond to such needs with generosity.
Jesus advocated that the right hand should not know what the left hand is doing. In other words, don’t give in a way that keeps score. Give carelessly, joyfully, glad to have the opportunity to lift a burden.
Racism continues to be strong in America. It is often quiet and underground, but it is there. It tends to be directed more toward Hispanics in my part of the country, but it is there. Christians should reject racism and racist attitudes out of hand. That takes courage sometimes, but we have to work at it. The goal is not just to change our attitudes. We have to work at crossing racial barriers and finding ways to reconcile with others.
Both poverty and race are connected with a construction of social classes. We all grow up having some idea of classes. We’re at the top or in the middle or on the bottom. We resent and fear and hate and avoid people of other classes. Yet such distinctions are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus. (See Galatians 3:26-28.)
I believe that the church should be a place where these ideals can be put into practice. We should not limit our actions to the church, but certainly the church should be a place where we can lift the burdens of poverty, racism, and class distinctions.
B. Comfort the Hurting
When I was a sophomore in high school, a friend of mine was killed in an car wreck. I was asked to be a pall bearer. It was a very difficult experience for me. We pall bearers were kept separate from the family until after the funeral, so I had not spoken to Freddie’s parents until then. I can remember talking to the mother. I just broke down and cried. I said to her, more than once, “I just don’t know what to say.” Today, I am a pastor. Again and again, I must be with families that are mourning. I don’t say it, but what I want to say to them is, “I just don’t know what to say.” The truth is there is little that can be said that is very helpful.
My advice is that you learn to hug. I think that physical touch is extremely important at these moments. A hug, grip of the hand, squeezing the shoulder gently—various gentle reminders of your presence—are important. Be tasteful and mildly reserved and cautious. Especially when a man hugs a woman, it is important to know your territory. A lighthearted “How about a hug?” is asking for permission. That is not always necessary—it depends on your history with the person. If you are a relative stranger, hugs are probably out. A warm handshake, with both hands, can convey much.
There are extensions of physical touch. Sometimes, a small gift can be helpful. Some women or teenage girls can enjoy receiving a stuffed animal—which can be hugged. Food speaks a lot: it says, “I love you and I am concerned for your welfare.” It also is direct connection to the body, much like a physical touch. The person who is grieving has been deprived of connection with the physical body of the person who died. So, they need that physical connection immediately.
Beside physical touch, there is the power of being there. If you are a “significant other,” then your presence is needed. I am not using the term “significant other” in the way it is commonly used these days. I mean by the term a person who has positive significance. So, if you are a friend, a relative, a fellow church member with close ties, then you need to be there.
How much you need to be there is another question. You need to be sensitive to numerous issues. How crowded is the room? How tired is the person you are visiting? How well do you know this person? How busy is the person? Are there personal issues or issues of business or arrangements that need to be made? Are you in the way? Would the person be better off lying down than visiting you?
Assuming you have good sense and are not obnoxious, then your visit or even prolonged stay may be very important to the mourner. Much like physical touch, your presence helps this person be reassured of what still remains of his or her present order of existence. A loved one is gone, and nothing and no one can replace that person. But, she or he still has friends, cousins, brothers, grandsons, fellow church members, and so on who are there, who give love and can be leaned on. Your presence is your statement. There is nothing that you are required to say. You simply are there, and that speaks volumes.
Besides physical touch and being there, your verbal communication needs to be centered more on the person you are visiting than on yourself. Rather than focusing on what you might say, focus on what the person needs to say. That begins with listening. Relax about what you will say next and focus on what the person is telling you. She or he wants to tell you some things, not get answers. Even when they express the “Why?” it is not in order to get an answer. Our cry of complaint and sadness often begins with “Why?” So, if we take the “why” off, we hear what the person is saying, as follows:
I’m asking I’m telling you
“Why is this happening to me?” “This is happening to me.”
“Why did he die so soon?” “He died so soon.”
“What will I do without her?” “I am going to be without her.”
Some folks have difficulty talking. Sometimes a question will help. “Did his heart just give out?” “Where were you when you got the call?” Some sort of question about details or the circumstances can help the person tell the story of the death. You can also ask questions about the history of the person and the deceased. “Now when did you guys first meet?” “Didn’t Dad work on a dairy before he came here?” “Was Grandpa in the war?” These questions focus the mind of the mourner and help him or her to begin to put the life of the deceased in perspective.
It should not be a matter that you are trying to steer away from the death. That issue should be faced squarely. For example, do not avoid the word “die.” “When did she die?” is OK to ask. I think it is better to use the term “die” than some euphemism like “pass on” or “left this world.” Comforting, I believe, is not a matter of escape from reality (though that may be occasionally a temporary necessity). Comforting, it seems to me, should be an effort to soften the blow and to support the process of dealing with the reality.
As far as the talking, asking, and listening process is concerned, I think memories are important, as I have said, to help put things in perspective. If a person has died on Friday, then by Sunday, hopefully, the mourner is going to be able to remember that this person has lived a life and that this death is a part of a more complete picture of the story of this life. Your asking and listening can help the person to do that.
Incidentally, some of the other activities surrounding death and the funeral also have their value in putting things in perspective. There usually is an obituary, written with the help of the funeral director. There are funeral arrangements, which involve naming pallbearers, selecting the pastor, naming the soloist and organist (who may have historical family connections). In doing these things, the family is connecting to at least part of the context of the life of the deceased. I believe this helps them to get past the shock of the death.
C. Help to Understand
Part of being helpful is helping to understand. I am thinking of the widest possible application of that idea. We help to understand when we spend a few minutes with a child who cannot understan Sch d why he must go to school. We help to understand when we teach a youth Sunday School class and lay a strong foundation of knowledge about God and the world and the Bible. We help to understand when we have coffee with a neighbor who is confused about whether she should move in with her boyfriend. We help to understand when we spend time with a friend who has lost a loved one and, over weeks and months, help that one to understand God’s Big Picture.
People vary over the course of their lives in how teachable they are. A sixteen-year-old boy may not want to hear much about building a strong retirement program. An eighty-five year old lady may not want to learn about internal combustion engines. It seems especially difficult to find a time in a person’s life when they are ready for learning about The Big Picture. I do not think that funeral time is a good time to lay too much of the contents of this book on a person.
I think that The Big Picture should be developed over a long time, through the Christian education process. Most of the contents of this book are standard Christian teaching that should be taught in every church. The somewhat unique emphasis of this book is the idea that God has done something about human suffering. However, in order to recognize that, we must accept that our resurrection future is God’s solution.
Such a viewpoint is more a matter of emphasis than of content. I think it is a somewhat radical idea. It is radical because it calls upon people to embrace God’s solution and to recognize that their “little pictures” are embedded in this present order of existence. Therefore, those little pictures are subject to The Law of Sin and Death and will be limited in capacity to bring us joy and fulfillment. Therefore, we must re-order our motivations and value-system and seek joy and fulfillment as part of The A Team.
This understanding is not developed instantly, generally. It requires that we develop the whole system of thought over a period of time. Christian education seems to me to be the best setting to develop such motivations and values (with the worship service and preaching reinforcing the ideas).
What about the person who is in the midst of grief? How do we help that person to understand? I personally think that it is very difficult. Some pastors do better than I. I do not think that people who are in “hard grief” (the grief of the first few weeks, especially) are able to receive much in the way of understanding. In that time, they more want to hear you say “I understand your grief” than they want to say themselves “I understand what has happened.”
After that period of “hard grief,” as the shock and time of extreme emotions is past, in the proper setting, the mourner may be ready to receive instruction. I have created below a series of cautions.
a. Be cautious about saying “It was God’s will.” “It was God’s will” is not an explanation. To the mourner, it sounds like an indictment against God. In a sense, any death is God’s will, but only “in a sense.” God did not will evil into existence. Therefore, God is not responsible for death. God did punish sinful humanity with a sentence of death. God did plunge the world under The Law of Sin and Death. This has led to physical death. That is the ultimate reason for the person’s death. The exact cause of death may be such things as the act of an evil murderer, a deadly virus, a heart attack brought on by cigarettes and overeating. Was it God’s will that any of these causes exist? I do not believe so. Thus, talk of God’s will is not helpful and is vague and confusing.
b. Be cautious in saying, “It’s because of sin.” Again, this is a vague statement that is not very helpful and could be confusing. A person might believe that you are accusing his or her loved one of sin and that God punished the sin with death. I think that sometimes God does bring about death or sickness or various kinds of trouble because of a person’s sin. But there are also cases where people are in the center of God’s will and they experience death, sickness, or other trouble.
c. Be cautious about being too complete and rigorous in your teaching. Not everyone is interested in intellectual approaches to life. If a person is not intellectually inclined, it does not mean he or she is stupid. It simply means that he or she approaches learning differently. Some people need a personal testimony. Some people need a brief outline or overview.
d. Be cautious about being too compact or glib in your teaching. This is the opposite caution from the previous. Some people are prone to what I call “sound bite” theology. These are brief statements that sum up complex issues in a few words. The trouble is that such statements may leave a lot of issues unresolved. For example, it may be that when a person says, “It’s God’s will,” the person is meaning something like what I have presented and called The Big Picture. But I would not summarize my teaching under such a heading. I do not think that it comes close to describing The Big Picture. In fact, I have used The Big Picture in conversations to refer to the set of ideas of this book. In doing so, I have given people a pretty inadequate idea of what I am talking about, and I regret using the term in such a glib way.
e. Recognize that you may be leading a person toward repentance. As I have already stated, The Big Picture is more than an intellectual description of Christian theology. It is more than simply a world view. It is, in fact, a mind-set, an orientation toward life that is radically different from our culture. Many Christians, I believe, have not fully understood the implications of The Big Picture. To do so may require some repentance. If a person has tied all of her aspirations and motivations to this present order of existence (or has largely done so), then to accept The Big Picture will require her to let go of some things. That is repentance.
When a person begins to sense a need for repentance, the person often resists that conviction. Defenses go up. As you lead a person in this direction, be in prayer and recognize that the road may get bumpy. Be gentle, but do not back off of the implications for this person. The truth is, there is a great liberation if the person can reach a point of acceptance of God’s complete solution for the pain and suffering of the world. If a person becomes committed to that and gets involved in A-Team ministry, he or she will be able to put grief and trouble into a proper, healthy perspective. Moreover, there is the victory of the full joy of the Lord in such an orientation.
The teaching role is more than the conveying of information. Teaching is the process of imparting meaning to another person’s world. I sat under the ministry of my father for the first eighteen years of my life. He was an excellent teacher of Biblical truth. For all of my days since then, my eyes have looked at the world through the framework of meaning that his teaching created. I believe that the overwhelming majority of that teaching was solidly Biblical truth. I have lived in the world long enough now to realize that many people do not see the world the way the Bible sees it. I reject cultural relativism that says each culture or each person can have a truth. I believe that it is a central role of the church to impart Biblical truth and meaning to people.
D. Be a Prayer Warrior
A central Christian activity is prayer. It is an essential in our own relationship with God. It is also an essential in our ministry to others. We should help to lift the burdens and comfort those who are hurting and should help people understand and put into perspective their loss. Added to these duties is the duty to pray.
Prayer is rooted in the grace of God. Jesus, in His teachings on prayer, emphasized the Father as a loving, generous parent. “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11) God, who owes us nothing, gives an open invitation to prayer. God, who owes us nothing, gives us good things when we ask. God, who owes us nothing, allows us to use Jesus’ name. That means that we have “power of attorney” in Jesus’ stead. (John 14:13-14, 15:16, 16:26) This is God’s gracious gift to us as we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.
If we understand prayer as an extension of—or special case of—grace, then we can understand prayer in The Big Picture. The gift of salvation and all of its benefits is from the grace of God—undeserved favor from God through faith in Jesus. Prayer is an avenue or means by which that salvation becomes manifested in our individual lives. When we pray, we live in the grace of God. We ask for God’s blessing and help to come to us as concrete evidence of God’s favor in our lives. We ask these things with an understanding of The Big Picture. We recognize that we live in this present order, a creation that has been affected by The Law of Sin and Death. We recognize that the ultimate victory will not be experienced until the resurrection. But we also know that God extends that victory into our lives in this present time. And so we ask God for His help in our times of need.
We extend that beyond ourselves and pray for others. In the same context of grace, we ask God to lift up the broken-hearted, to heal the sick, to bring peace to those afflicted by violence. We understand that grace manifested through prayer extends to our little picture, which includes the people we know. So, we gratefully pray for others. Jesus included even our enemies. (Matthew 5:43-44)
It should become a matter of practice, as well as a matter of faith, that we understand prayer not as a last resort, but as a first line of offense and defense. “Well, all we can do is pray,” is not a very faith-filled statement. Our reflex should be first to pray and then to do what other things wisdom and the direction of the Holy Spirit might lead to. In fact, prayer is a powerful weapon that can do marvelous things, if only we will practice it.
We should also understand the words “I’ll be praying for you” or “I’ll pray for you” to be a definite commitment. I heard Charles Stanley say once that, whenever he would make the promise to pray, he would do it immediately (perhaps silently in some cases) so he would be sure not to forget. That says he took his promise very seriously. So should we.
And if you mean to pray, then don’t say “I’ll be thinking about you.” Of course, if you don’t plan to pray, then by all means commit to think about that person. But do not think that such a statement—a promise to think about someone—is a Christian thing to do. It borders on New Age. It is usually a way of avoiding the word “pray,” which many people find offensive.
Prayer for people should be in public, one-on-one, and in private. Each of these ways of praying prays to God for the person’s welfare, but each also accomplishes a different psychological and spiritual goal.
Public prayer pulls together the believers who are present into unity of prayer. As one leads in prayer for a person, all agree in their hearts and join together in praying. If the person is present, he or she is made deeply aware of his or her unity with the body of Christ.
One-on-one prayer (your praying in private with the person) implants in the person’s heart that you have prayed for her or him. If her faith is weak at the time, she has the encouragement that someone is interceding on her behalf to God.
Private prayer (praying in the “prayer closet” where no one, even the object of our prayer, sees or knows—see Matthew 6:5-6) for another person accomplishes something in you. Private prayer is a powerful reinforcement of our belief. When I am in private and I am in prayer, I am going to have a hard time being a hypocrite. I recognize that I can fool myself, and I do not rule that out, but generally private prayer is a good test of our faith that we really believe that there is a God who hears us. When we pray for another in private, we have the added accomplishment of praying for another who does not know that we are doing it. We are not trying to impress that person or to bring about some temporary psychological benefit for that person. We believe God can do something for that person, and we sincerely want the best for that person, and so, with no one looking, we pray.
E. Be a Part of the Solution
This book is about trouble—its causes and what God has done about it. God’s solution is salvation in Jesus Christ. That salvation means that, by believing in Jesus Christ, we can experience the victory of His resurrection. That resurrection is our future, but IT IS ALSO OUR PRESENT. Through the Holy Spirit, we experience in our lives a new kind of victorious living. That means that we share in our lives today God’s victory over trouble.
Therefore, it only makes sense that we have a calling to be a solution to trouble and not a cause of trouble. The old saying was, “Be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem.” That applies especially to the Christian.
John Wesley, in his Rules[i], described and analyzed the ideals of Christian living in negative and positive terms. We should, first of all, do no harm. Our behavior should avoid destructive lifestyle choices. Then, we should seek to do good, including doing acts of mercy to our neighbors.
We would be deceived if we understood the Christian message to be that we should simply wait for God’s great final solution. To do that is to fail to recognize the greatness of God’s saving work in our lives. God is interested in overthrowing evil in our
lives, and, through our activity in the world, He wants to overthrow evil in the lives of others.
I believe that the results of our activity will be limited. Not because God is limited, but because God’s program includes allowing this present order of existence to continue until the last days. But, in the meantime, we have great opportunities to lift the burdens of those around us. Is it your turn to help?
28. A FINAL WORD ON THE BIG PICTURE
I have come to the end of my writing. I have not written all that could be written on this subject. I have not even written all that I want to write, but I have written all that I am going to write. At the beginning I wrote of one of my early pastoral encounters with grief, of talking with a young girl whose brother had died. She asked that all-important question: “Why does something like this happen?” I did not do a very good job of pastoral counseling with her. I have encountered many grieving families since then. I am not sure I have done much better in the roughly ten years since that early experience.
Today, I am currently involved with four families who have loved ones close to death. I am acutely aware that the subject of this lengthy essay is ever with us. I am aware that Christians need to build into their lives a deep understanding of The Big Picture so that they can go through these experiences and not be totally devastated.
I believe that to follow Jesus is to embrace The Big Picture. To follow Jesus is to commit ourselves to God’s solution to sin, death, and suffering in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To follow Jesus is to reject the world’s values that are wrapped up in Little Pictures that are ultimately selfish and tied to the present order of existence. Therefore, to follow Jesus calls for repentance, a turning from the course of this world and a turning to the walk of victorious, resurrection living with Jesus.
When we have embraced The Big Picture, we are not destroyed by trouble. We acknowledge the pain, but we do not allow our lives to be defined by the pain. “Why does something like this happen?” It happens because sin has brought death into the world. But “something like this” is not God’s final word. His final word is resurrection.