Dealing with tragedy is an all too common experience for pastors. During such times, a pastor may feel overwhelmed at the senseless nature of the event, or at a loss to give a word of comfort that might speak to the depth of grief.
On April 7, our mid-week prayer group interceded for those involved in the mine explosion that devastated Montcoal, West Virginia. We were visited and interviewed by a TV news team, since we are in a county where coal mining has a long history. Many in our congregation have friends or family connected with the industry.
"Do you have any pastoral word for these families?" I was asked during the interview. My response was simply to point people to Jesus. If we believe that Jesus was and is God, His coming into the world says that God has placed Himself—literally and physically—in our situation, and has come alongside us. Jesus is not just "out there" somewhere. He is here, in the middle of our sorrows, sharing in our tears, offering comfort and refuge.
Well, yes, you say, but how exactly is He here?
Many years ago, Frank Carver stood at the bedside of a dying college student and said "Jesus comes to you in the persons who come to you."
This statement has often strengthened me as I have tried to comfort those who weep. It is pretty obvious that silence is at times better than the clumsy words many of us have offered to families or friends who mourn. To be sure, we would offer our prayers, and well we should. Yet in spite of the fact that prayer is the greatest gift we might ever extend to those stricken by grief, it may mean very little apart from our presence.
In my fairly short time as a pastor, I have officiated dozens of funerals. The most poignant are those involving children. One of my first funerals was a graveside-only ceremony for stillborn triplets. I felt hollow, as though I had nothing, really, to say. That feeling never quite goes away. A young man in the prime of life commits suicide. A vivacious teenage girl is killed in an auto accident. Are there any adequate words? I don't know, honestly. And my introverted nature complicates it further. But we offer our presence, and try in our own way to bring Jesus to people.
I once received a note after a funeral that read, "You were there when I really needed you." I hope, then, they sensed that Jesus was there, too.
John Poling is pastor of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, Church of the Nazarene.
Holiness Today, May/June 2010