By Paul Koch –
I have been aware for quite some time now that I am a man with many opinions.
It’s not just that I have opinions, of course, but I enjoy sharing them with whoever happens to be around when I’m ready to launch into some sort of rant. At times I feel like Dennis Leary, always ready to explode with a long list of ideas and half worked through thoughts about almost any and every topic. It doesn’t matter if the topic is automotive repair, the political landscape of our country, the state of preaching in the church, the role of collegiate sports, or what you should name your first born.
Some opinions are driven by passion, some by disgust, and some by anger and confusion. Truth be told, I often will get going simply because I like to argue. And this proclivity was only encouraged by academic study. The more I learned, the more I found things to argue about, and the more my opinions began to take shape. By the time I began my studies at the seminary, I was well on my way to becoming a full blown asshole. There I dove into the study of theology, searching for answers to questions that really mattered: arming myself with the ability to establish my opinions not only on a whim but now on the rhetoric of Luther, the systematics of Chemnitz, and the finality of Franz Pieper.
Not long after beginning my vocation as a pastor, I found myself driving from southeast Georgia down a small county road in north Florida. I was going to see my first “shut in,” a very sick and weak little lady named Jan. I turned off the paved country road down a small dirt road, and then I continued on to another dirt road until I reached a dilapidated doublewide that had been added to over the years. I worked my way through the dogs barking at me on the porch to be greeted by a short and overweight lady who walked with the slow shuffle of one who was in constant pain. Her list of ailments was too extensive to list. Inside her home there was that unsettling smell of a place that not only needed to be aired out but probably had mold from leaks in the roof and dry rot in the walls.
Jan settled into her usual chair and I sat on a small stool near her. She was sweet, kind, and worn out. The longer we talked the more I fell in love with her story. It wasn’t one of ease and joy but of constant hardship and obstacles. It wasn’t just illness either; tragedies and regrets marked her life. Her faith wasn’t a strong bulwark getting her through all things but rather a nagging challenge that filled her with doubt and discontent. Even as it convicted her of her sin, it also kept her from just giving up and throwing in the towel. So, the longer she talked the more the tears began to roll down her plump cheeks. Out of her pain and frustration she reached for my hand and asked, “Why?”
My mind raced. Every opinion, everything I had learned, seemed to fall short.
In the abstract I could suggest how this moment, these tragedies of her life, could have been avoided. I might even be able to have a discussion of the hope born of Word and Sacrament and whisper the promise of better days to come. But this wasn’t the abstract, this wasn’t a theoretical exercise, this wasn’t arguing with my friends in a smoke filled room after a class on Christology. This wasn’t a discussion about God’s use of suffering or working under the form of opposites. This was Jan. She needed more than a theory, more than an opinion – no matter how clever.
I had nothing.
Then in that silence I remembered something outside of myself and my opinions, outside of Jan, outside of that little home on wheels in the woods of north Florida. I squeezed her hand took a breath and asked, “Jan, do you believe that the forgiveness I speak to you is God’s forgiveness?”
She looked at me for what felt like hours with new tears welling up, ready to spill over. For a moment I thought, perhaps, I had just made a huge mistake. But then she said, “Yes.” With renewed conviction I leaned toward her and said, “Let it be done for you according to your faith. In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
I wasn’t imparting knowledge, or swaying opinion, or encouraging toward a new pious practice. I was speaking words that actually kill and make alive. All she could do was either refuse what I said or respond. She replied by softly saying, “Amen.” Now in her saying of “Amen,” her situation didn’t change; her trailer was still falling apart around her, her legs still hurt and her asthma didn’t go away. She still felt remorse and regret for her past and she would still know tears in her life. But in that “Amen” she confessed that something had happened. In that moment and in that place, God took a hold of her and called her His own. There she was set free from the bondage of sin and embraced in the love of Christ. There in that dimly lit room, God embraced His daughter and promised not to let her go.
We often think of the theological study as one where we are taught the right words, the right questions, the right categories, or the right system by which to make and defend our case. But perhaps, the great teachers of the faith are also trying to teach us to shut up. That is, from time to time, when the abstract meets the concrete reality of a broken life our opinions and advice will not measure up. At such times we are called, instead, to shut up: to allow the silence, to halt our cleverness and schemes. Then when we open our mouths we speak words that are not our own. Words that are not opinion but the actual doing of God.
Until the day she died, I continued to visit Jan. Over and again words outside of our wisdom or strength were spoken. From her home, to the hospital bed, to hospice God was doing His work while I was learning to shut up.