Context Is Key

Written by: Thabiti Anyabwile

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I can’t seem to escape this week’s news cycle regarding Sgt. LaDavid T. Johnson, his wife, Myeshia, and the phone called placed by President Trump to this grieving widow. So I’ve turned the news off. But I can’t help thinking I should learn from this situation as a pastor.

I’ve attended and officiated my share of funerals. There’s one common factor in them all: I never know what to say. I make my way past the grieving family, shaking hands, exchanging looks--their’s longing, mine powerless, hugging some, extending condolences. There’s this palpable sense that those few moments should be filled with “a word from the Lord,” and I don’t have them. So I can identify with how difficult it is to say something that gives hope or comforts in the midst of grief.

As I’ve reflected on the last couple of days, it seems context may be the biggest key in being helpful--or at least not harmful.

First, the most important person(s) in the context or situation is the grieving family member--in this case the bereft spouse, Myeshia. I’m reminded to not lose sight of those experiencing the lost more deeply than anyone else. Add to the wife the young children, and the child on the way into the world without a father. They’re the most important persons. They’re the ones needing consolation. Their feelings and experiences deserve the most attention. I need to keep my eyes on them and work to serve them. The saddest result of all of this is these four families who lost loved ones are lost in the media and political swirl. Their grief gets compounded by all the other actors taking center stage and shoving them aside.

Second, context determines what can and should be said. Words one seasoned general offers to another seasoned general about the loss of a dedicated soldier son occur in a highly specific relational context. Everyone in that exchange shares the same life experiences, made the same commitments, lives by the same military order, and likely delivers the tragic news to other families. It’s easy to imagine things going well (or as best as could be expected) when one Marine receives a reminder from another long-term friend and fellow Marine of their code and risk. The relational context gives the words a valence that are surely lacking in other contexts. Things can be said marine-to-marine that likely won’t be appropriate President-to-civilian widow. For all intents and purposes, the President is at least a stranger to the grieving widow. He can’t speak as if there’s friendship and common calling. In the same way, I’m sometimes officiating or addressing people I know quite well and sometimes people I don’t know at all. I shouldn’t speak to strangers with the familiarity or frankness I might use with a long-term close friend who is also in the ministry. We need to observe the relational context of our message lest we become Job’s friends, aggravating grief rather than soothing it.

Third, context determines who may be important to those who grieve. As a pastor, it’s easy for me to assume I’m the most important person in the room speaking to those in grief. That’s because I’m proud and need to repent. It’s also because I’m usually the one with the longest or key speaking role. But this situation reminds me that in all likelihood I’m not the most important person sharing in this person’s grief. The context includes other family members, long-term family friends, and people from the community who have a much bigger investment than I do in the lives of those grieving. There may be a Congresswoman or a local shopkeeper or a parent involved. They have as much a right–actually, more–as I to be there. As a pastor, I need to recognize the other people important to the family and, where possible, become allies with them in serving those experiencing the loss.

Fourth, the context always includes onlookers. I really don’t like this point. But it’s true. A pastor holds a public office. Our actions and words become part of the public record. People form their opinions about us, our churches, and even our Lord based, in part, on what we say or do. Even in the intimate exchanges we hope retain appropriate privacy, we must speak and act on the assumption that others hear and watch. We must speak and act to serve others who may bring their own needs, hurts, and longings to our interaction with someone in grief. We may even have to speak and act in ways that protect us, our churches, and the name of Christ from people with agendas. I wish it were not the case. But it is and we must anticipate the audience.

Fifth, the context also includes my agenda. I’m not a neutral party in these solemn exchanges. At the least I bring my feeling of incompetence to the exchange. But I bring more–some of which is unknown to me at the time. Perhaps I’m tired from a long week of extraordinary pressures. Maybe I’m resentful because I’d rather be working on a sermon or I’ve had to cut a family vacation short. Maybe I’m in the grip of that awkwardness I feel meeting new people or inserting myself into family dynamics I’m unsure about. Maybe I’m too focused on “the gospel” and I don’t really see the persons before me. In whatever situation I’m in, there I am. And that makes every situation a little more complex and a little more challenging. So I need to be a little more circumspect–especially if I’m there to serve others rather than myself.

So, context is key. As a pastor, I’m reminded this week to pay closer attention to it.

Context Is Key is a post from: Pure Church by Thabiti Anyabwile



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