The call came on my day off. It was not a good time. Christmas was barely past. I was considering a tantalizing job opportunity, and my days had been filled with intense family conversations.
It was a friend and former church staffer on the phone. “Couldn’t it wait?” I thought. My reaction signaled inner spiritual malaise and a flunking grade at clergy balance.
“I’m so sorry to bother you on your day off,” she said.
“This had better be good,” I thought.
“But my friend’s 3-month-old granddaughter died last night. They don’t know what to do and don’t have a church. Is there any chance you could visit them?”
Even a weary pastor recognizes a holy moment. “I’ll be right there,” I said.
As I drove, I found myself thinking the ageless pastoral question, “What do you say at a time like this?” Where do you find words for a family that has just lost a child? What seminary, what therapeutic training, gives wisdom for such a moment?”
The family was scattered through the house. The jittery, 20-something father bounced between rooms. Dialing friends and family, he tried to answer the unanswerable: What happened? The grieving mother was in despair. She replayed her nightmare morning. Her daughter had been healthy the night before. But at her pre-dawn feeding, the child was too still, breathless. They called 911. Firefighters charged to their home. City police arrived moments later, sealing off the bedroom as a possible crime scene. Each team of rescuers brought help. But they also came with questions that felt like an interrogation to a family stunned by grief.
We sat around the kitchen table: anguished young mother, grieving grandmother, loyal friend and unknown pastor. The step-grandfather shifted positions. Sometimes he sat listening from a nearby couch, other times he stepped outside for a smoke. What do you say?
“Tell me about your daughter,” I said to the mom. This seemed to refocus her angst. Delights poured out, favorite words and phrases, the child’s winning smile and laugh. But even holy remembering didn’t bury her question: “What did I do wrong?”
Biblically unschooled, she frantically searched her smorgasbord of spiritual ideas for comfort. “Maybe God needed an angel to share joy with more people?” She tried again: “Maybe God took her so she can help Jesus save people?” Then guilt gushed out: “Every night I prayed with her, ‘Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my soul to keep…’ But last night was the first time I didn’t pray with her. Is it my fault?” Our collective “No” was deep enough to fend off her spiritual formula gone bad.
After a time, I sensed the conversation winding to a close. After 20 years, a pastor knows when it is time to move on. But the familiar litany of conversation, Bible reading and prayer would not do for such restless, irreligious folks. What could I say?
I turned to an ancient guide. I had been prepared for this moment by a discipline that our congregation had undertaken that year. As a community, we had been studying the psalms -- engaging even those psalms overflowing with vengeance or questions.
Even in less tragic situations, we often struggle for words. But the psalms taught us to pray our inner tangles. We’ve prayed Psalm 123 with a man whose young wife was in cancer surgery and Psalm 27 with a woman wondering whether to leave her addictive husband. We’ve spoken Psalm 136 to prepare us for Communion. Even psalms can be clipped into formulaic clichés, but taken as a whole they make us wiser than our teachers (as Psalm 119 says).
During that year, which ended in August, each sermon was based on a psalm. The project, which we called “Psalms in the Suburbs,” was funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. through the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship. Small groups studied, prayed and memorized psalms. Individuals designed custom studies. Some invented litanies, praying a favorite psalm each evening. Some read the entire Psalter in a month. Families taught psalms to their children. An English-speaking college student read the Psalter in Spanish. One young mother reflected, “I was surprised by the honesty.” Hearing some yell at God and others sound self-righteous she wondered, “Is that really OK?”
The ageless words speak to many kinds of people. They help us dodge the pious clichés of a religious subculture. They steady new believers, who in the face of grief can be tempted to walk away. They have given us words to express our grief, longing, lament, anguish, confusion, even revenge. No wonder generations of ministry leaders considered them essential tools for ministry. In the early church, ordinary Christians often memorized “the entire David.” In certain Orthodox traditions, it is a prerequisite for pastoral ministry. Luther celebrated their “juice, the strength, the passion, the fire.” Basil said they “trained our souls.” Athanasius called them “a very special grace.”
As I pondered what to say that day in the kitchen, I asked the family to join me in prayer. “I’d like to use an ancient prayer used when no one knows what to say,” I said. “If you know it, you can say it, too. If not, it’s OK.”
We held hands and prayed Psalm 23, the familiar, iconic words used so often in moments of overwhelming grief. We begged God to lead us in green pastures and through the “valley of the shadow of death.” We asked to “to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” When the psalm ended, I went on praying. We thanked God for the gift of Gabrielle. We asked him to help her parents love each other in such tragedy. And then we thanked God for friends and grandparents.
After parting handshakes to the father and hugs to the mom and grandma, I walked to the door. The step-granddad had disappeared. I found myself wondering if I had misjudged the situation. Was I too religious? As I pulled the front door open to leave, he rushed toward me. Tears flowing, he pumped my hand. “Thank you,” he said. Then he hugged me.
My friend called later that day. “I’m filled with hope,” she said. “It’s hard to turn away from this mysterious God when he presents himself to you in the form of a pastor who speeds to sit with a young mother and her family who have lost a child... who doesn’t judge...who is filled with grace in a time of need.”
If only she knew. I don’t have words to say; I borrow them.
Questions to consider
Questions to consider:
- We often think of Bible study as an individual activity, but here a community organized its life for a year around the Psalter. Could your community do something similar?
- Have you ever learned Scripture so deeply that it was available when you needed it? How did you do it?
- Are there ways in which the psalms can provide words in other situations? Could they help leaders conducting meetings? A middle manager? The head of an institution worrying about making ends meet?
- In what ways is the whole of Christian life a matter of borrowing words when we don’t have them ourselves?