I have been a part-time preacher and pastor since 1975. During these forty-one years, I’ve lost track of the times I’ve been called with bad news. Sometimes it’s a dreaded diagnosis, sometimes the mingled loss and relief of the ending of an elderly loved one’s long, slow demise. Sometimes it’s the shock of sudden tragedy like the bizarreness of a tree falling on a calm day, crushing a passing car and killing a young mother in Colorado.
I’ve grown accustomed to comforting, listening, consoling and sometimes—being consoled.
The very first such call came in my first year of preaching and involved a guy with whom I’d gone to school a few years earlier. A member of our small congregation in Drakesboro, Kentucky, he cut into a 600v power line in a west Kentucky coal mine and left behind a widow and baby. Like Herb’s death, many of those losses involved people that I also loved. Through all of them, we’d sit together in small funeral homes, talk in families’ living rooms and share pain and laughter, tears and prayers.
I’ve come to appreciate my smallness, my weakness, my powerlessness in these situations. I convey caring, offer the hope of resurrection and acknowledge that these losses often leave deep wounds. In the aftermath of murder and the excruciating torture of a loved one’s suicide, there are complex weavings of anger and anguish. At the end of the day, I hope that I have managed to convey some significant degree of caring and that’s about as much as I can manage. Healing and comfort, if they come at all, will come from others’ choices and larger voices.
What I had not really appreciated until yesterday was what it was like to be on the other end of those calls.
When I got to work, I learned that one of our students had been killed in a car crash as he drove home from working in our college library late Sunday night. He lived in Winfield, only fifteen or twenty minutes away. On a four-lane highway with a fifty-foot wide dividing median, he’d been hit head-on by a driver going the wrong way in a car reported to have no functioning headlights. The other driver survived the crash; Garrett was killed “instantly.”
Instead of sending out an email, I tried to find each of his teachers and tell them in person. Most of them had no idea; one or two had seen it on early morning news. All were stunned, one or two wept, some shook their head in disbelief. In every case, I felt clumsy and horribly inadequate.
I’ve come to the conclusion that there are some things that simply cannot be done well. Even with gentleness and caring, the impact of such news reminds us of our inadequacy. Yet, too, it can remind us that we care for one another, that we are here together through bad times and good. Through our mistakes and bad choices, our involuntary involvement in the mistakes and bad choices of others, and the unflinching laws of physics, we share a world that is both wonderful and horrific.
It is our sharing that makes us human, our tears and prayers that make us more.