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How many times has it happened to you?

The phone rings, and on the other line is a longtime friend in so much emotional or physical pain she can barely speak. Your email server blinks “incoming,” and you read with disbelief of an accident that has befallen a family you care about. A colleague stops by your desk at work and says quietly, “Will you pray for me? Things are bad at home.”

And you don’t know what to do.

If you’re a woman of faith, you pray – of course you do. But as the words fly upward your mind is already racing. How can I help? What should I say? My days have no margins; when can I reach out?

Scripture tells that we learn to comfort others by remembering how we ourselves have been comforted (2 Cor. 1:3-4). I testify this is true.

Fifteen years ago, my husband had emergency abdominal surgery that saved his life. During the preceding nine months Mike had grown increasingly ill due to a mistaken diagnosis and we were often in despair. I was serving at the time on the staff of a regional Christian organization based near Boston, and on the way to a staff meeting one day I wept in fear and exhaustion during the entire 90 minute drive from our home on Cape Cod. When I arrived, my co-worker Mark took one look at my swollen face and said, “You need to go see my mother.”

Mark’s mother is Gail MacDonald, who has been a mentor to countless women in ministry. Mark had called ahead and Gail was waiting for me when I arrived. I don’t recall all she said that day but I vividly recall what she did. Gail listened empathetically. She pressed tissues into my hand. And she gave me a cassette tape on which she had recorded a mix of her favorite psalms and hymns.

“Listen to this on your way home,” Gail said quietly. “Don’t try to figure out what is impossible to understand right now. The Lord has Mike in His hands, and He is holding you, too. You’re thinking straight, Maggie, and you will come through this. Only pagans waste their pain.”

I thought of this incident when I read Gail’s chapter in Cindy Secrest McDowell’s new book 30 Ways to Embrace Life: Wise Women Share Their Secrets (©2010 from Quiet Waters Publications.)

“Each person’s needs, how we express them, and how we wish to be comforted, all differ,” Gail writes. “I’m the kind who would like a few friends to walk through my dark times with me, but it’s important to me that they not offer pity. I want them to challenge me to face the pain and encourage me to persevere.”

Gail’s example reminds me again that the most important thing we can do is to be there for others in their pain.

 “It’s impressive that when Jesus was headed for the awful hours on the cross, He made no move to generate sympathy from the disciples,” Gail comments. “He did, however, want them close by: ‘Watch with Me,’ and ‘Pray with Me.’

So how do we genuinely offer comfort to others?

SHOW UP. Maybe you can’t be with your hurting friend in person, but pick up the phone or a pen. Don’t avoid her simply because you don’t know what to say. A recent radio broadcast reported that researchers have documented the fact that when a hospital patient is visited by loved ones, the regions of the brain that promote healing are stimulated. Calling or writing a hurting friend can have a similar benefit.

 • LISTEN. Refrain from spouting scripture. Yes, “all things work together for good” but the one who is suffering may not need this reminder right now. Job’s so-called comforters blew it when they started to lecture him.

ASK GOD HOW YOU CAN HELP. Seems obvious, but remember that one of the names for the Holy Spirit is the Comforter. When we listen for His instructions, He is faithful to bring to mind ideas for helping others that might never have occurred to us otherwise.

Remember what Jesus requested when He was in need of comfort. If I had been nearby on that fateful night in the garden, I might have felt I should bring in a meal (stewed lamb, anyone?) or done battle with his enemies (Peter tried that.) But all Jesus asked of His disciples was for them to watch and pray with Him.

Can we do less?