Last Week in Dallas

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Credit: Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press

Today Terry and I return to Texas after being briefly introduced yesterday at the LCMS convention in Milwaukee. Many decisions were made by convention delegates. Perhaps I’ll have some reports and observations regarding these decisions in future Perspectives articles.

For now, I draw your attention to yet another tragic shooting in a seemingly never ending stream of such horrific events. Last Thursday in downtown Dallas five police officers were killed and seven others injured by a sniper. The officers were providing security for a peaceful protest over alleged police violence in various parts of the nation. After a sustained shootout with police, the suspect was killed by a bomb delivered to the suspect’s location by a police robot.

The horrible result of this premeditated, racially motivated, cowardly attack is the traumatic grief experienced, by the spouses, children, parents, friends and co-workers of those who lost their lives in the line of duty. This is yet another episode that leaves law abiding citizens disappointed, distraught and deflated. While gun control measures are again on the minds of many, we all know that anyone bent on death and destruction will find ways to carry out their dastardly deeds.

One week ago today a Perspectives reader emailed to me a reminder that in July 1999, while serving as president of the Texas District LCMS, I had written an article in the Texas Messenger of The Lutheran Witness about the shooting in Littleton, Col. She stated that she still carries that article in her Bible and suggested I reprint it in Perspectives. Because of its length I’ve posted it below as an Addendum. I pray it will be helpful. Here’s one pertinent excerpt from that article:

In the face of such tragedy and trauma, what do we, who believe in the only true God, say to those of our constituency who wonder, question, doubt, search and seek to understand the place of our God at times like these? 

  • We say what we know to be the truth, namely, that the effects of the devil, the world and our flesh combine to produce death and destruction, in sometimes-unimaginable ways.
  • We say that events such as that in Littleton [and Dallas] are clearly outside the will of our gracious God and are the works of fallen humankind, urged and egged on by Satan himself.
  • And we draw people to the only hope for such fallen human beings, God’s grace, lovingly and selflessly given to the world in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the Savior and Lord of the universe.

Funeral/Memorial Service/Celebration of Life

Trinity Fedor

Funeral/Memorial Service/Celebration of Life

Those are all words that mean different things to different people. Essentially similar, they are events precipitated by death and usually take place in a church, a funeral home or a cemetery.

Early in my ministry I dreaded conducting a funeral service, which is the term we used in those days. Today, at a much different stage of life and ministry, I see these events as opportunities for heart to heart conversation with those in attendance about topics that truly matter to every person. So while I don’t look forward to funerals, neither do I dread conducting them.

When I attend a funeral or memorial service or celebration of life I listen closely for answers to questions about the nature of life, death, eternity, heaven, hell, sin, grace, hope, assurance and resurrection. And when I conduct one, I take great care to address these fundamental questions.

These days of my life, I’m more likely to attend than to conduct. When the service is nothing more than nice words about the nice guy in the large or little box that becomes the visual and emotional focal point for attendees, I leave the church or funeral home or cemetery with some emotions:

  • Sorrow for the loved ones of the deceased, who received little, if any, lasting comfort.
  • Regret that those in attendance left with as many questions as they had when they came.
  • Sadness that unbelievers in the audience didn’t hear the precious word of Christ’s love.
  • Anger at a wasted opportunity to influence eternally at an impressionable moment.
  • Frustration that the pastor didn’t comprehend the real needs of the people at his feet.
  • Concern that this might be the only opportunity for someone to hear the Gospel.

My words of encouragement to pastors who conduct a burial service are these:

  • Don’t be afraid to talk about death, including the inevitability of your own.
  • Remind attendees that they, like the deceased before them, will end up in a box.
  • Address from the crucible of experience the miracle of life and the mystery of death.
  • Freely quote from Scripture what God says about life after death.
  • Carefully distinguish Law and Gospel, using both to touch lives and hearts.
  • Pray fervently for the Spirit’s movement in those lives and hearts.

In so doing, a funeral or memorial service can truly become a celebration of life!

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you always!

What to Say when Trauma Hits

Comfort in HospitalIn the wake of two recent traumatic events in America—the Boston Marathon bombings and the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion—it seems appropriate to share some very helpful information I received several weeks ago from one of my former pastors, Rev. Dr. Scott Seidler.

Dr. Seidler, Senior Pastor at Concordia Lutheran Church in Kirkwood, Missouri, wrote:

As a pastor, this may be the most concise advice EVER on what to say and not say when dealing with some who is hurting, grieving, dying, etc. READ THIS ARTICLE! Seriously, it will make my ministry ONE BILLION times more impactful (since the body of Christ will be behaving in a comforting and supportive way).

The article he forwarded was written April 7, 2013, by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman:

When Susan had breast cancer, we heard a lot of lame remarks, but our favorite came from one of Susan’s colleagues. She wanted, she needed, to visit Susan after the surgery, but Susan didn’t feel like having visitors, and she said so. Her colleague’s response? “This isn’t just about you.”

“It’s not?” Susan wondered. “My breast cancer is not about me? It’s about you?”

The same theme came up again when our friend Katie had a brain aneurysm. She was in intensive care for a long time and finally got out and into a step-down unit. She was no longer covered with tubes and lines and monitors, but she was still in rough shape. A friend came and saw her and then stepped into the hall with Katie’s husband, Pat. “I wasn’t prepared for this,” she told him. “I don’t know if I can handle it.”

This woman loves Katie, and she said what she did because the sight of Katie in this condition moved her so deeply. But it was the wrong thing to say. And it was wrong in the same way Susan’s colleague’s remark was wrong.

Susan has since developed a simple technique to help people avoid this mistake. It works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential. She calls it the Ring Theory.

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat.

Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Put parents and children before more distant relatives, intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. One of Susan’s patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator.

Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it.

Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.”

If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.

Comfort IN, dump OUT.

There was nothing wrong with Katie’s friend saying she was not prepared for how horrible Katie looked, or even that she didn’t think she could handle it. The mistake was that she said those things to Pat. She dumped IN.

Complaining to someone in a smaller ring than yours doesn’t do either of you any good. On the other hand, being supportive to her principal caregiver may be the best thing you can do for the patient.

Most of us know this. Almost nobody would complain to the patient about how rotten she looks. Almost no one would say that looking at her makes them think of the fragility of life and their own closeness to death. In other words, we know enough not to dump into the center ring.

Ring Theory merely expands that intuition and makes it more concrete: Don’t just avoid dumping into the center ring. Avoid dumping into any ring smaller than your own. Remember, you can say whatever you want if you just wait until you’re talking to someone in a larger ring than yours.

And don’t worry. You’ll get your turn in the center ring. You can count on that.

Susan Silk is a clinical psychologist. Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator and the author of “The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators.”

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As a Christian pastor, I would not recommend cursing the heavens. Furthermore, as Christian people, you and I know how important it is to share a word of hope and comfort with people in smaller rings, closer to the center than our own ring. In most cases, it’s entirely appropriate also to offer a brief prayer of assurance of God’s love, care, providence and protection.

Having said that, I hasten to add my counsel that we all give serious consideration to the practical advice in the story above. It would have been very helpful to many who were close to people affected by the two crises mentioned above. And it just makes good old common sense!

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you always!