Snaking its way down the long driveway, the fire hose looked like a gigantic python ready to strike. The squish of the firemen's boots on the soggy entryway carpet was proof enough that something had indeed struck. The water, heat, and smoke damage from the early-morning chimney fire would take weeks to clean up. The shell of the house was intact, but much of its contents would need replacing.
I sat shivering with Susan on her lawn as our husbands talked to the firemen preparing to leave. The misty dawn fog, mixed with the lingering low-hanging smoke, made me feel that it had all been a bad dream.
"I just can't believe it. I just can't." Susan's smudged face had clean little trails where tears had washed a clear path.
My own words choked in my throat. I could make them understood only by strengthening my grip around her shoulders. She understood my silent words.
A few days later I stopped by Ann's to return a pattern I had borrowed. It wasn't long before the conversation turned to our children and the challenges of character-building. Mothers have such high ideals for their children. But Ann's frustration with her only son, the same age as mine, made her ready to turn in her Mother badge. We talked of accomplishments and failures, comparing notes about what worked here and what didn't work there. By the time I left, her tears were dry—sealed with the promise that we would pray more for each other.
I had been home from Ann's only 15 minutes when the phone rang. As I answered it I recognized the sob at the other end of the line. I had heard it enough times to know to whom it belonged. Sharon was having marital problems, and I had been applying emotional band-aids. Either they were not doing any good or she liked my brand.
Ten minutes later I laid the phone in its cradle and stared blankly ahead. My emotions rose and fell like a yo-yo. On each upward swing another distressing situation would come to mind. There seemed to be an ever-flowing river of tears out there. Jeremiah's statement "Mine eye runneth down with rivers of water" (Lam. 3:48) applied to so many. I sighed, wishing that I could do more to ease the hurts of others.
The box on the table
I stared at the bookcase in front of me without seeing it. A dog barked outside, drawing my gaze to the window, then to the lamp table. There my eyes fell on a flowered box of soft tissues. Tissues. I had given away so many lately that I almost felt I had stock in the company. My ministry was full of tears. Happy tears, sad tears, tears of joy, sorrow, frustration, and devastation.
But tissues—tissues! No, surely not. Yes, maybe it could be. There are many ministries: singing, radio, TV, tape, and more. My husband's is a pastoral ministry. Could mine be a tissue ministry? I sat amused at the thought. The more I reflected on it, the more it fit. Maybe that was a ministry—handing out tissues, catching tears.
No, I argued with myself, anyone is capable of getting his own tissue from a box. I doubted that there was even any merit in the idea of such a ministry. Yet something down underneath nudged, "But isn't it better to have a caring hand than a stiff cardboard box on the other side of the tissue?"
Weeks went by, and every time I saw a tissue box, the idea of my tissue ministry surfaced. I tried to forget it, but somehow the thought wouldn't leave. Finally one evening I sat down, determined to study, to see if there were any proper grounds for those persistent urgings within me.
Not knowing exactly where to begin (since neither the Bible concordance nor the E. G. White Index lists tissue!), I decided to look up the words compassion and sympathy. They proved to be the key I needed.
The first statement I found jumped right out at me. "The tender sympathies of our Saviour were aroused for fallen and suffering humanity. If you would be His followers, you must cultivate compassion and sympathy. Indifference to human woes must give place to lively interest in the sufferings of others. ... If you are looking to Jesus, and drawing from Him knowledge and strength and grace, you can impart His consolation to others, because the Comforter is with you." 1
The hours of study that followed confirmed in my mind that there is truly a need for a tissue ministry.
Tears punctuate the Bible from cover to cover. Eve shed tears at the death of Abel, David wept over Absalom, and Jesus cried over Jerusalem. Tears of mourning, of joy, of fear, and of helplessness are sprinkled throughout Scripture.
Every tribe, every culture, has tears. Through the ages tears have been acknowledged as the universal language of the soul. Tears seem so simple—yet they are controlled by one of the most intricate mechanisms of the body. Obviously our Creator designed us with the ability to cry. God in His wisdom knew that people would need a means of release from the emotional traumas of life. Tears are a natural safety valve.
How to be a tissue minister
As I thought about the tissue ministry idea, I decided that a tissue minister is an individual who can communicate loving concern to someone undergoing emotional stress. The ministry involves caring enough to listen. It involves not only the ears but the heart. A person who can share encouragement and concern without intimidating or interfering with the tear-shedding process can be a real help. Tears have amazing healing power.
The objective of a tissue ministry is to help the walking wounded. People all around us long to share their hurts, to be heard, to be loved in spite of their circumstances. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who was executed just before the end of World War II, said it nicely in his book Life Together; "The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists of listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to the Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them." 2
As I analyzed closely the business of passing out tissues in my role as a pastor's wife, I realized there were some things that would be required of me. Even though my husband and I are united in a team ministry, there are certain areas of service that I can best perform alone. The ladies of the church sometimes prefer to share their hurts with me, woman to woman, before seeking more professional help from my husband. I don't always have him at my side filling in, picking up the conversation when my words become sparse. It is my responsibility to learn how to be most effective in helping those who come to me.
To even listen to others, one needs to be sensitive to those who are hurting. The first step in administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation is to ask a person in apparent need, "Are you OK?" The first step in the tissue ministry is the same. It is sometimes necessary to let sharers know you notice their pained expression. This opening question allows them to choose whether or not they care to share. Some seeking comfort will not need to be asked the question, but others may need to be drawn out a bit.
At times, just your presence or some gracious act to show your love is all a person needs to lift his head again. Some situations call for few words, just an "I Care" sign.
Helping people share
The tissue ministry is built on trust. Like a tiny glowing ember, trust must be carefully nurtured to ignite the fire that will bring warmth and light.
Coupled with trust is confidence. Our very being should declare confidentiality. Tissuing is a closed-mouth ministry, to be shared with no one except your husband, so that together you may work toward healing. Proverbs 11:13 says: "A talebearer revealeth secrets: but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter." After you lend an ear, a reassuring promise of silence is appropriate.
People are often afraid of sharing their hurts. They are afraid of rejection, or of having judgment passed upon them, or of being given a solution that they may not appreciate or be ready for. Being aware of these fears can help you exercise tact and proceed cautiously. Often, just letting people talk, letting them flush out their cisterns, so to speak, helps them discover a solution on their own.
It takes time to be a tissue minister, time to be patient, time to wait for the sobs to stop so the hurting one can talk. We live in a time-conscious society. But some things cannot be rushed, and if you give the impression that you are in a hurry, the desire of the sharer to share will be greatly reduced.
As a pastor's wife I have to discipline myself to stop and listen, whether in the Friday dash to the grocery store or in my hurry to meet an appointment. If I don't help when help is needed, what good am I? Any ministry costs time and energy. I cannot minister only when it fits my schedule. I need to be available while the tears are still warm.
To be willing to be inconvenienced, to have some of your own plans interrupted, is another requirement for carrying on an effective tissue ministry. Interruptions should be looked at not as irritations but as opportunities. A determination not to be annoyed at a prolonged phone call when your hands are gooey with bread dough will take discipline and help from heaven. To be willing to lay down your dustcloth on preparation day and go visit the mother who is ready to send her kids to Siberia and put the dog in the food processor is to give real-life service. Bonhoeffer put it so aptly: "We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our path and cancelling our plans by sending us people." 3 True service places the needs of others before our own. "Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine must leave self behind" (Mark 8:34, NEB).
As a tissuer you will need to become comfortable with your own and others' tears. Tears are the lowest common denominator of humanity. Helmuth Pleser says, "More forcefully than any other expression pattern or emotion, the crying of our fellow men grips and makes us partners of his moment, often without even knowing why." 4 More than once I have attempted to pray with someone after a dilemma has been shared, only to have my own tears choke out my words. In response I've heard the words "It only lets me know how much you must care." People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. God reads our hearts and understands the language of tears.
There are risks involved in a tissue ministry. You may encounter rejection and misunderstanding. Some will question your motives. If your efforts are rejected, remember it is not you as a person that was not accepted, only your offer to listen. The walking wounded are often so frustrated and crushed inside that they shout "Get lost" or "Mind your own business" without realizing how it may affect others.
In our desire to encourage others, it is also important to remember that Jesus did not tell us to change people, but to love them. We are not in the business of making people over in our own image. Remaking people is God's responsibility.
Many of us have what psychologists call the "rescue fantasy." We try to rearrange people's lives and provide them with a happy ending. But that is not our job. The best help a tissue minister can give, beyond listening to and weeping with those who weep, is to point the one in need to the One who can help.
When faced with suffering and tragedy, people have two choices: to with draw, become embittered, and die inwardly, or to reach out to God in whatever way they are comfortable with and grow inwardly. Our purpose is to direct them to the Specialist, assuring them that "there hath not failed one word of all his good promise" (1 Kings 8:56).
We cannot be true servants of Jesus Christ without sacrificing our time and energies on behalf of others. However, "there is a priceless reward for those who devote their life to His service." 5
"Every kind and sympathizing word spoken to the sorrowful, every act to relieve the oppressed, . . . given or done with an eye to God's glory, will result in blessings to the giver." 6
Some of the "blessings to the giver," to the tissue minister, are tangible even in this present life. We may know the meaning of true happiness by helping others. True joy comes from knowing we are appreciated for just being available to care and listen. While we are not to concern ourselves with rewards here on this earth, it is encouraging to know that others have benefited from our efforts. "The pleasure of doing good to others imparts, a glow to the feelings which flashes through the nerves, quickens the circulation of the blood, and induces mental and physical strength." 7
There comes a warm satisfaction, an inward peace that is in itself reward enough for any effort we put forth in service. However, our Father promises an even greater reward: "He [the true Christian] may lose his life in service; but when Christ comes to gather His jewels to Himself, he will find it again." 8
1 E. G. White, Welfare Ministry (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1952), p.
2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New
York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1954), p. 97.
4 Helmuth Pleser, Laughing and Crying (Evanston,
111.: Northwestern University Press, 1970),
5 E. G. White, Testimonies for the Church
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1948), vol. 4, p. 107.
6 Ibid., p. 56.
8 bid., vol. 9, p. 56.