21. "I am sending you a hankie that has been prayed over by (a certain South American faith healer), who has been known to raise the dead!"

Another said, "I saw your story on the web site and I am sending you a special 1-inch square of fabric to put under his pillow, which will heal him. I'll get back in touch with you in a couple of weeks to hear about all the improvements."

The gullibility of some people knows no bounds.

***

Now... Having said all that, Holly notes that many people were wonderful and said things that genuinely did bless and encourage them:

  • "I'm so sorry." When in doubt, that's the best thing to say.
  • "Can I pray with you?" Prayer is always welcome.
  • "Here are some meals to put in your freezer and use when you need them."

Holly suggests, "Rather than asking 'Let me know if there is anything I can do to help'--which will likely be turned down, as no one ever wants to trouble another person--why not say: 'I am going to _______ for you.' Perhaps it's to bring a meal, give you a gas card for all those trips to the hospital, or harvest your garden." She adds, "I've been guilty of it myself. It's a way to sound like you care without really having to do anything, because you know they probably won't take you up on it."

I suspect we're all guilty of this "If there is anything I can do" routine. Holly's parents--and so many in their situation--will almost never call someone and say, "Okay, you said to call you if you could do anything, so we need you."

One young man who knew that Pastor Esvelt's church service ended later and was farther away than his, took it upon himself every Sunday to drive to the care center and sit with Seth until the family arrived. He held Seth's hand, prayed aloud for him, and talked with him. Holly says, "We will never forget that kindness."

  • "I would like to offer to stay with your son for an afternoon so you can get out for a few hours."

Holly notes that Seth's longtime best friend comes by every time he's in town. He helps with projects around the house. Another friend, a firefighter, regularly stops to chat with Seth and exchange theological ideas with Pastor Esvelt. "Both are others-centered," Holly notes, "and are true ministers to us."

She adds, "It was amazing how God prompted so many of His people to meet specific needs at just the right time, over and over again."

A final observation or two

Let me say again that I had to ask Holly and her mother Mary to write these down for me so I could share them here. They are not negative people who go around keeping account of wrongs. Quite the opposite, in fact. When you meet this family for the first time, you are blown away by the victory in Christ that radiates from them. You like them and want to know them better. They are incredible witnesses for the Lord and wonderful examples of what His Spirit can do in the hearts and lives of believers enduring difficult times.

So, why did I ask for this list? Because you and I are like their friends. We are the ones going into hospital rooms, nursing homes, rehab centers, and funeral homes. We greet families whose hearts are breaking and whose lives are reeling from the blow they have just taken. And we hope to have a word of comfort for them.

A word of comfort. That's our goal. To say something or do something that will lift their spirits and bless their hearts and ease their pain.

Sometimes we learn more from seeing the wrong way someone did a thing than by all the instruction in the world on how to do it right. That's the reason for this article today.

We welcome your comments at the end. And since we seem to be making a collection of "how not to comfort," if someone used a memorable line on you during a trying time, tell us what it was.

We'll try not to say it to someone else.

Let's conclude with the single best thing to say in almost all situations--a house fire, a job loss, the death of a friend, whatever. No one has ever improved on this line:

"I'm so sorry."

Administered with a hug.

Repeat that line if you wish. You can even add, "My heart is so sad for you." But then stop. You said enough. Quit talking, even though the urge is welling up inside you. Squelch it. You have gotten it perfect.

Now, be quiet.

Dr. Joe McKeever is a Preacher, Cartoonist, and the Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Visit him at joemckeever.com/mt. Used with permission.

Publication date: April 26, 2011