What do you say?
I ask about condolences.
"I'm so sorry for your loss" keeps it succinct.
We tell others we have prayed for them, and will keep doing so. We do not want to sound preachy.
Yet ... I'm a preacher, and this death is different.
By the time you read this I will be in rural Nigeria, teaching 11 future pastors for three weeks at a seminary under less-than-ideal conditions.
For safety, off-duty policemen will guard our teaching team. We will sleep under mosquito netting. Temperatures and humidity will be Florida-like, but we will have no air conditioning. Mostly we will have no electricity. To power laptops and fans, we will run a generator for two hours, starting at dusk.
After it shuts off? Cribbage by candlelight.
The seminarians I will instruct are the same men I had the privilege of teaching for three weeks last October.
But on Sept. 21, after extended respiratory illness, one of the students, Happiness Emmanuel Uko, died in the seminary's spartan dormitory.
Yes, that is his real name. Happiness was in his late 20s.
I will remember him as perhaps the handsomest of the seminarians, and one of the most inquisitive.
He rode a motorcycle to class over dirt roads.
Like all the students, Happiness was bilingual.
He spoke English fluently to me, but Efik to friends and family.
Happiness leaves behind his wife, Emem, and their four young children, Emana-Obong Happiness, Ema-Ediong Happiness, Prince Happiness Uko, and Mmen Abasi.
Due to his Sept. 25 funeral, I will take along $315 as a gift from our Lutheran church body to reimburse his family for the cost of his coffin, burial plot and burial.
Yes, $315. That is all it costs.
But when the other pastor I will travel with and I go one afternoon to see Emem, the young widow -- likely by the time you read this -- what do I say?
How do you adequately express love and support when you just met someone, and you are a brief guest in the area, barely acquainted with how things work there? (In her culture, may I shake hands with a grieving woman? Offer a hug? Cry?)
1) Pray in advance. The Bible says, "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him" (James 1:5).
2) Go with others. I will ask Aniedi, the part-time seminary director, to accompany us, as well as Michael, the elected leader of the students. I will seek their advice.
3) Speak simply from God's holy Word. I will ask Emem and her children questions, and listen. I will share the hope we have in Jesus. He who died in place of us all now lives. He reigns. I heard Happiness confess this repeatedly. Jesus has destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through his good news (2 Timothy 1:10).
What grace! What happiness!
The Rev. Daniel A. Witte, pastor of Risen Savior Lutheran Church, can be reached at 941-747-5564. For more information, see rsavior.com. Faith Matters is a regular feature of Saturday's Herald, written by local clergy members.