Platitudes are the worst. Like, the absolute worst. Silence gets a bad rap, but showing up in silence and quietly being about the work of sitting and holding on is the most important thing of all the things. It’s by far the most awkward. It’s infuriating and disarming, but it’s what helps if anything ever could.
Every memoir I’ve ever read about someone suffering, every friend in crisis, every personal experience of a horrible, terrible, awful, no good, very bad day has reiterated this simple truth. Platitudes do not help. Quite often, they only make the recipient they are pointed at feel worse. Less understood. Less heard. Less tolerated in their current state of decidedly un-platonic suckiness.
I would very much like to learn to bite my tongue more often and to sit and feel very fidgety and weird for as long as someone might need me to. In my experience, when you’re going through something devastating, the time passes both quickly and slowly and the freedom to simply be without the pressure of doing or fixing or pretending is sacred space. There is much we can’t get out of, obligations we have to find a way to pull ourselves together enough to honor if we’re going to pay the rent and maintain some semblance of a relationship with the world outside the fragile borders of our own skin. To find someone who doesn’t mind that going to class for 45 minutes this afternoon or making it to your lunch break at work took all of the emotional energy you had stored for today, someone who will politely overlook that you couldn’t manage a shower and clean outfit or a simple hello, well, that is to capture starlight my friends.
When we lived together, my bestie Amy and I adopted a policy of “the implied ‘I love you’.” Because we had been friends for quite a while and because we’d spent hours upon hours sharing our deepest darkest secrets and dumbest confessions on the landing between our bedrooms and because we had that “one look conveys a whole book” thing going on, we decided to do away with any expectation about tiptoeing around each other. If it was a day for shutting the door and not getting out of bed, that was allowed. If it was a day for one word answers and going shopping alone to get away for a bit, that was okay, too. If it was a day for a midnight Walmart run and TV marathon of One Tree Hill with exactly zero conversation about real life allowed, all was well. Because, we agreed, beneath every interaction always we listened for the implied I love you. That was a constant. And by our behavior of lovingly accepting one another however we found ourselves in the moment, we said it without the need for words.
Because here’s the thing about words. They are so profoundly powerful, but only if they mean something. Without the gold bullion of behind-the-scenes actions propping them up, the whole economy collapses. With trite overused phrases, inflation goes into effect and the more we talk at each other the less it means. The less it’s worth.
When I first entered the whole long process of ordination in the United Methodist Church, I was assigned a mentor to walk with me and help me fill out all the paperwork and work through some of my big questions. We met in her office one afternoon and she said, “You know, most pastors tend to preach one sermon their whole lives in one way or another. Everything they do comes back to that one sermon. What is yours?”
I have revisited this question regularly as I preach, but especially as I do the million other unexpected things that pastors do. Things like planning out the lessons for Vacation Bible School, teaching songs to children at the daycare during chapel, calling out names for people to come through the serving line at Grace Place, making a cardboard dinosaur for Parents’ Night Out, teaching yoga class, researching Sunday school curriculum, chatting with people in the hallway when they stop by the church on weekdays, tracking down the paperwork needed to help a homeless neighbor get his state ID, buying volunteer appreciation gifts, giggling with the girls serving as acolytes in the back of the sanctuary before worship starts, dressing up as Amy Poehler to host the Oscars themed youth auction, writing birthday cards to kids in the children’s ministry. All of these things are part of my job description. All of them are little sermons that I preach as St. Francis taught me to, using words only when necessary. So what is it that I am preaching? What is my one sermon?
You are safe. You are loved.
That’s it. It’s not that I want to go around holding folks by the shoulders, looking meaningfully into their eyes, and saying slowly and deliberately, “Sweet Maggie, you are safe and you are loved. Matthew, you are safe and you are loved. Lily, you are safe and you are loved…” My prayer is that from every interaction with me people walk away knowing these truths in the depths of who they are not because I told them, but because I held a little space open for God to tell them. When we bond over my sparkly pink TOMS or red Converse poking out from beneath my black robe and a young girl looks at me and says, “I would totally do that!” she knows that she is safe and she is loved. She can grow up to be a pastor if that’s where God calls her. Let there be no doubt about it. When someone tells me how embarrassed he is to be drunk again this morning, and I am able to tell him instead that I’m proud of him for his honesty, proud that he came in and told the truth and asked about AA meetings, I hope he knows deep in his heart that at church he is safe and he is loved. When folks in a discussion where everyone is affirming same-sex marriage confess that they are having a really hard time getting there and are met with understanding compassion rather than judgment, then they know for sure that they are safe and they are loved. Words are only paper and pen until we test them against our lives.
It does no good to put them on a t-shirt or hang them on my wall if I am not already embodying them. My hysterically witty cousin Ariel was describing a certain store once, and she said with a crinkle in her nose, “It’s the kind of place that’s full of pillows and crap with glittery inspirational phrases telling you how to live you life.” I laughed so hard I cried, and I haven’t been able to get that description of my head. Lord, have mercy, I hope it never becomes a description of me. Useless clutter with a sweet saying slapped on top.
With that in mind, I’ll leave you with these wise words about how to preach your sermon without platitudes (especially in a crisis) from Glennon Doyle Melton’s brilliant book Carry On, Warrior :
If you are blessed enough to be someone’s In Case of Emergency and you are called upon, keep being who you have always been. Do what you’ve always done. There is a reason your friend chose you for that role, so don’t freeze. Keep moving. Trust your instincts.
Go to her. Don’t call first, because she won’t know she wants you there until you arrive and sit down. Don’t ask, “What can I do?” She doesn’t know. Just do something. When you go to her house, bring a movie in case she doesn’t want to talk. If she does want to talk, avoid saying things that diminish or explain away her pain, like, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “Time heals all wounds,” or “God gives us only what we can handle.” These are things people say when they don’t know what else to say, and even if they’re true, they’re better left unsaid because they can be discovered only in retrospect. When her pain is fresh and new, let her have it. Don’t try to take it away. Forgive yourself for not having that power. Grief and pain are like joy and peace; they are not things we should try to snatch from each other. They’re sacred. They are part of each person’s journey. All we can do is offer relief from this fear: I am all alone. That’s the one fear you can alleviate… That is always enough to offer, Thank God.