PRINCIPLE: “When you have nothing to say, say nothing.”
Thought it was back in 1975, I still remember it well. We were living in Sioux Center, Iowa. Out of seminary a little over a year I had quite the week. Since the Sr. Pastor was on vacation I wound up with my first wedding and first funeral on the same weekend – and then had my second wedding and second funeral the next weekend. Both funerals were of relatively young parents who died of cancer and left behind spouses and elementary school-age children. But it’s the second funeral that is especially memorable – in fact not even so much the funereal as what preceded it. Since this young father died at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where his wife was at his bedside, his brother and sister-in-law called me in the dead of night and asked me to join them when they broke the news to the children. What could I say? I quickly dressed, said a quick prayer, and nervously drove to the farmhouse.
All the way there I kept wondering what I would say to these now fatherless children – who deeply loved their dad. God just didn’t seem to give my anything. Unfortunately it was a short drive and I arrived before anything developed in my mind. When I got there, the brother and sister-in-law roused the children and sat them around the kitchen table. The children already knew something was wrong – I mean, why would the minister be there in the middle of the night? Suddenly everyone was there and my mind was still blank – I, for one of the few times in my life, was at a loss for words.
And that’s when God’s grace kicked in. No – he didn’t give me wonderful words to say. He used the brother and sister-in-law who beautifully spoke to the children and explained what had happened. They carried the conversation with their nieces and nephews. Occasionally I chipped in. When they asked me to pray, the words were not many but they were God-given and adequate. I left, feeling somewhat embarrassed and let down that I said so little. Yet sometime later the brother and sister-in-law expressed their deepest thanks to me for ‘all you did for us and the children’ as they shared the time together. I guess that’s when I first began to learn about the ministry of presence. “When you have nothing to say, say nothing.” Sometimes our mere presence is enough.
Sometime later I was directed to the book of Job. When were Jobs’ friends the most helpful? When they sat there in silence with him. Their ministry of presence gave him comfort and support. It’s when they began to offer their ‘wisdom’ and advice that the heated discussions arose. “When you have nothing to say, say nothing.” Still today, in tough situations, I recall that night, or I see Job sitting on his ash heap surrounded by his silent friends. It helps me realize I don’t always have to have great words to say. Sometimes just sitting there with someone in the silence with no advice, no pearls of wisdom, or no answers is all they need and all God wants us to do.
It’s been a life-long journey unpacking all that this ministry of presence means – and in our age of communication technology some new possibilities have entered the discussion and made possible some new dynamics in having a presence (although face-to-face is still the #1 was to be present when possible.) So I’m still learning. And I haven’t always gotten it right. But I like to think I’ve made some progress.
As leaders, and wonderful Christian people, you often end up in places and situations where it’s tough to know what to say. If God gives you the words – and you’re sure they’re from God – speak them. But remember that it’s okay sometimes to have nothing to say. And, “When you have nothing to say, say nothing.” “When three of Job’s friends heard of the tragedy he had suffered, they got together and traveled from their homes to comfort and console him. Their names were Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. When they saw Job from a distance, they scarcely recognized him. Wailing loudly, they tore their robes and threw dust into the air over their heads to show their grief. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and nights. No one said a word to Job, for they saw that his suffering was too great for words.” (Job 2:11-13) “When you have nothing to say, say nothing.”