In the summer of 1975, I returned to South Africa after seven weeks of visiting democratic institutions in the United States, to the news that the spouse of a prominent pastor in our community had been killed in a tragic car accident. "Stanley," my mother said, "you must go and offer your condolences to the grieving husband." After some more gentle badgering, I finally said, "Do I have to go, really? I have only a few days at home and there is so much to do, and friends to see, before I return to seminary next week." I did not say "yes" or "no," but I was hoping my mother would relent and I could enjoy the small number of days I had at home.
Finally, I spoke my own fear and discomfort that was making it hard for me to imagine going to sympathize. "What can I say to him? I'm just a seminary student. He's walked so often with families in grief and pain in his almost two decades of ministry. What more can I say to him than what he already knows?" Her words, however, were clear as she made her final plea, "They're hurting. Just go be there. You don't have to say anything. They'll be glad you came."
By the end of the week, good judgment prevailed. I was still not happy, but I was persuaded. With great reticence, I stood at the front door of the bereaved abode wishing that no one was home. In the hesitation, before I could unleash my knuckles to knock on the door, I looked up and through the open door I saw the only daughter of the family who was understandably devastated by the unexpected loss of her mother. The sight of her deepened my dread.
Today, after more than 40 years, I am still struggling to make sense of what happened next. In those few moments of my overwhelming struggle, there came a "voice," which I knew to be God's. Incredibly, what God said was, "She will be your wife." Impossible, I thought. She was not of my tribe. We were mainstream Protestants. We cared about justice, equality, freedom. Her people accused us of being worldly, and too preoccupied with worldly affairs. She was Pentecostal. My people thought they were about "pie in the sky when you die, and of no earthly use." I was a "Philistine" (one of her aunts later said so!!). Outside of God, tribes were benign adversaries and, at best, strangers who avoided each other.
But on that evening, I was there. I listened as father and daughter recounted what happened. I attended to their pain. My mother was right. By being there I gave them the opportunity to talk about their wife and mother, and to process their grief and their appreciation for all she was to them. After that visit, I had a book to share with the daughter. I could hardly believe that I was reluctant to go in the first place. When it came time to return to classes, I promised I would write. Weekly letters followed. Several months later when I returned for the winter break, I was ready to begin the journey to make God's promise a reality.
Now, 42 years later, I am grateful for my mother's insistence on visiting the grieving family. Responding to her voice, I was able to hear the "voice" of God. For 40 years I have known the bliss and the blessing of reaching out to two hurting and desolate individuals. God's surprise turned my fearful struggles and self-focused interest into four decades of supportive companionship and friendship with that grieving young woman, who became my spouse as God had promised. I came away from the fateful evening with the unshakeable conviction that we need to pay attention to the call to reach beyond ourselves, for in so doing, we may connect with angels (Hebrews 13:30) and encounter the purposes of God for our lives.
Are you paying attention?
Stanley W. Green