Sometimes a Hug is Just not Enough

Remember the Beatles song: What goes on in your heart? What goes on in your mind? You are tearing me apart when you treat me so unkind. What goes on in your mind? When we are talking to people do we really know what’s going on in the minds and in their hearts? Do really know if there is something bothering them, maybe tearing them apart? Can we identify with them? Can we feel their pain?

Sometimes the way we understand other people is by trying to “walk in their shoes”; to take the time and intentionally focus and listen. You can’t have love without empathy. You cannot have care for someone if you’re truly not listening to them and not going beyond the small talk about the weather, the house, the poor play of the Padres or the disappointing Chargers.

We need to try to get beyond that, to dig a little bit deeper…maybe get to this question:

How are you doing? That’s a loaded question, and it can mean a lot of things.  It’s easy to answer that question by simply saying “I’m fine. How are you?” …Without even thinking about it. Other phrases like nice day. Yes, it is. I hope it doesn’t rain. We have all these phrases memorized, and that’s okay were just being friendly.

It reminds me about the guy that gets to the state prison and in the evening, he hears someone yell out: Number 16, and everybody laughs. He asks the guy in the cell next to his: Why do they yell out a number and everybody laughs. That’s what we do here. We’ve heard the jokes so many times that we have them memorized and we assign a number to each joke. So the new guy yells out: Number 6 and nobody laughs. Number 13, and nobody laughs. He asks the guy in the cell next to him: Why don’t they laugh when I yell out the numbers. His new-found friend says to him: Some people know how to tell them, and some people don’t.

One of the things that Good morning, how are you can mean is this: I’m concerned about you, and I want to know how you are doing. That’s powerful. That’s more powerful than a hug.

To walk with someone, to be present with someone when they are going through troubled times, times of hardship, to walk beside them. To let them know they are not alone. Next week is Mother’s Day, and every mother know what this means, to let your children know they are not alone.

Even when they are grown they are still your children and you’re concerned about what is going on in their mind and in their hearts. My youngest son Joshua is now 40 years old, but in Naomi’s mind he will always be her baby.

That bond between mother and child is so great and so marvelous, the love that is shared. That’s how we should care for one another as well. That’s what all of our scripture readings today are about.

I have a friend that Naomi and I used to go to church with in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was professor of religion and philosophy at Yale, Nick Wolterstoff. Nick wrote a book called Lament for a Son. When his son was 19 years old, he went to the Swiss Alps on Spring break with some friends. He was climbing in the mountains, fell off a mountain and died.

It devastated Nick and his wife Clare. Nick knew all the right answers for people facing tragic situations. He counsels ministers and clergy about how to deal with life’s greatest questions, how to deal with grief and tragedy.

Nick said that when he experienced this tremendous loss, none of his insights meant anything to him, because emotionally he was devastated. It didn’t matter that he knew all the right words to say. His heart was broken. He was no longer the counselor, but he was the one experiencing pain, sorrow and loss.

You can’t do anything about that. It doesn’t matter how much you know in your mind. He said that after his son’s tragic death, people would say to him and say dumb things, because that’s what we do sometimes. We say dumb things, things like: This is God’s will, or your son is in a better place now or I know what you’re going through, or don’t question God’s will or it was his time and God took him.

Nick said that bothered him sometimes, but what really hurt him was the people that avoided him because perhaps they did not know what to say or they wanted to avoid an unpleasant encounter. He would notice things like people crossing the street when they saw him coming to avoid him. What he did appreciate is when people would come to just sit with him. He said it didn’t really matter to him what they said with their voice.

Because people do often say dumb things, and we don’t always know the right thing to say, but that did not bother Nick. What people say with their mouth is one thing, but what they say with their heart goes deeper. And, he was listening at a deeper level than just what was being voiced. He could tell when people were saying things by their actions of just being present with him, walking beside him in his grief.

That’s what pastoral care is all about. It’s all about how we care for one another. I know that every single person in this church, each one of you, needs pastoral care. Yes, the people in the hospitals, nursing homes and the home-bound need our care, but so do you. So, do I. All of us are soft-skinned human beings, that’s the way we are made; soft skinned and soft-headed.

Well some of us are more hard-headed than others, but to care for each other means that I am here for you. And you are here for me. I may not be able to change your situation. But, I want you to know that I am here for you, and you are in my thoughts and in my prayers. You are not alone.

Love means more than just a hug, but just because you need a hug, I’m going to give you a hug. Hugs are okay too. But, let’s get a perspective. This is practical stuff we are talking about. It’s not easy to do. The simplest things are hardest to do; those two simple commands to love God and to love others.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. (1 John 5:1-4)

We are told (1) that we are all Children of God; (2) For the love of God is this: that we obey his commandments. And, what are the commandments? (3) If you love the parent, you will love the children. God is both father and mother, and you and I are the children.

I think that sometimes we are so caught up thinking about our own situation, that we become blind-sighted and we really find it difficult to think about the situations of those we are closest too, and those we meet every day.

We do need other people in our lives. We need that for proper health and proper healing, just as when we come to church we do our public confession of our faults that we have treated God and others unfairly.

Love is more than a handshake or a hug. Love is also asking someone about what is going on in their lives, their work, their family and health, the things that keep us from sleeping at night, and just by taking time to let others know you are thinking about them.

Being present for each other is an act of love.

Beloved let us love one another. For love is of god and everyone that loves is born of god and knows God. He that does not love does not love God, for God is love. Beloved, let us love one another. (1 John 4:7-8)



The Reverend Dr. David Madsen