Called to Listen, Commissioned to Speak

By Justin Rossow

“What am I supposed to say?” For people who follow Jesus, that question can come up in all kinds of different circumstances. That question can turn a simple trip for groceries into an existential struggle as you try to discern if this is the right moment to bring your faith into a public space. That question can twist your guts with uncertainty as your friend—or worse, your child!—raises faith questions that feel settled to you, but clearly not to them.

It haunts conversations around grief and loss: In the face of that pain, what am I supposed to say? (But it sure seems like I’m supposed to say something…!)

A friend of mine recently share a situation where he asked himself, “What am I supposed to say?” I think I would have, too.

A Tragic Accident

He was sitting with a woman whose daughter was killed in a climbing accident out West. She told him about the tragedy, how her daughter had been one of three friends climbing together; how her daughter made a decision that saved the woman below her at the cost of her own life; how both of the surviving climbers brought their guilt and pain to the funeral.

My friend sat there listening, and thinking, “What am I supposed to say in the face of this tragedy?” He told me of his fear in that moment, fear of being trite or cliché; fear of offending by saying the wrong thing, or by not saying anything at all.

And, because he is a person of faith, he turned that fear into one of those flare prayers: “Lord, I don’t have the right words to speak!”

But my friend leaned in, and listened to more of the story.

The woman told how the family friend climbing above her daughter on the day of the fatal accident took her aside and said, “I was lead that day; it must have been my fault. I am so very sorry.” And of her own response: she took him by both arms, looked him in the eye, and said: “I just want you to know one thing: I love you.”

This grieving mother told my friend how the climber below her daughter also came to her after the funeral: “I am so sorry,” she said. “If it weren’t for me, your daughter would be alive today. She was my best friend. She saved my life.” And of her response: she took her daughter’s friend by both arms, looked her in the eye and said, “I just want you to know one thing: I love you.”

Amazed, my friend asked about her words of great care for these grieving friends of her daughter. She said, “I didn’t have it planned.  But it was what they needed to hear.”

A Flash of Insight

At that moment, my friend had an insight. He shared it with me. It probably wasn’t new to him, and it may not be new to you, either. But that understanding took on real significance sitting in the presence of tragic grief.

My friend shared his flash of insight:  “I’m not here to bring the right words. I am called to be present, and to listen. The words will be provided.”

And they were. He was open to the woman in front of him. He listened to her story, with the ears and heart of Jesus. He was aware of his own desperate need, and of the Spirit at work.

When she finished telling her story, he had some words to share.

“I have something to tell you, but it doesn’t just come from me. I want you to hear your Savior speaking: I just want you to know one thing; you are holy and dearly loved.

He didn’t tell her he was quoting the opening words Colossians 3:12. (At that moment, it wasn’t important if he even remembered it was Colossians 2 he was quoting.) But that Bible verse is part of his faith vocabulary, something he memorized years ago. Listening to her story reminded him of that verse; so that was the verse he shared.

It turns out, that verse was exactly what this woman needed to hear. Those words spoke to her in her grief. They assured her that Jesus was still with her, that Jesus still loved her. They gave her permission to grieve as one who has hope.

You don’t always get to see the result of speaking grace on behalf of Jesus, but this time, my friend experienced the impact of words he knew didn’t come from him.

Called to Listen

“What am I supposed to say?” That question makes us nervous. We don’t like that feeling of stepping into the unknown. It’s as if the teacher called on you to give an answer, even though you didn’t raise your hand, and now your mind is racing frantically to come up with something—anything—to say, just to get out of that uncomfortable moment.

But maybe you are called to lean into that uncomfortable moment. Having the right answer has never been a prerequisite for following Jesus.

When you find yourself in a conversation you didn’t see coming, and your initial panic is telling you to say something—anything—just to get out that uncomfortable moment, remember that flash of insight: I’m not here to bring the right words. I am called to be present and to listen. The words will be provided.

Listen. Listen to the person in front of you. Ask questions to help them tell their story, admit their doubts, share their pain. Don’t panic. Let them talk. You, listen.

Listen. Listen to the Spirit, already at work in the person in front of you, the Spirit at work in the words of Scripture you read this morning, or heard preached last weekend, the verses you have read before or memorized or sung.

Listen. You are called to listen, to be the presence of Jesus for the person in front of you. Look for the words the Spirit is giving you. And then, only then, speak. But don’t try to fix it. Don’t try to make it go away. Speak on behalf of Jesus.

Commissioned to Speak

In my faith tradition, the pastor will say in worship, at the time of Absolution: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord, Jesus Christ…” We are supposed to hear those words as if Jesus were speaking, because he is: through the voice of the pastor.

While not every follower of Jesus serves in the Office of Pastor, every baptized Christian is authorized to share words of comfort, and hope, and promise. In the stead and by the command of your Lord, Jesus Christ, you can say: “I have something to tell you, but it doesn’t just come from me. I want you to hear your Savior speaking…”

You are called to listen, on behalf of Jesus. And then you are commissioned, you are authorized to speak the words the Spirit gives you, also on behalf of Jesus.

Your calling as a Christian friend is not the same calling as a Pastor; but the Word you share with your hurting neighbor, or your struggling child, or the stranger in the grocery store is the same Word that authorizes the Pastor to speak forgiveness, to preach a sermon, to consecrate the elements for the Lord’s Supper. The same power is in that Word; the same Jesus is present in, with, and under your words to your friend, your child, the stranger you meet in the checkout line.

Take a Deep Breath

The next time you start to panic at the thought, “What am I supposed to say?” take a deep breath. (The Spirit is often connected to breathing in the Bible.) Take a deep Spirit breath, and lean into the uncomfortable moment.

Listen with the ears and heart of Jesus.

Listen for the words the Spirit is giving you.

Then speak the Word; speak words you know Jesus would say if he were sitting there. Because he is; Jesus is present with you and for you. Jesus is present by his Word in you and through you.

You don’t have to give the right answer.

You don’t have to cite the proper Bible verse.

You are not qualified to fix their life or circumstances. But you are authorized to speak on behalf of Jesus.

You don’t have to say, “As a called and ordained servant of the Word …” (In fact, you shouldn’t say that, unless you are actually called and ordained.) You don’t even have to say, “I have something to tell you, but it doesn’t just come from me. I want you to hear your Savior speaking.” But even if you don’t say it that way, it’s still true. Jesus is speaking through you.

Don’t panic. Listen for the Spirit. Speak for Jesus.

That’s how Jesus still works to comfort and encourage and save; through people like you and me.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this powerful story that is so encouraging to help me remember to be 100% present in my listening and to trust Jesus to provide a response at the needful time. It’s not about me. It’s about Him. That sure takes the pressure off!

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