Monday, August 6, 2012

Things People Say (Conundrums of Ministry II)

A young man in our church town, a husband and father of two very young children, one an infant, was killed in an accident at work this past week.  I am about to head to the funeral, which is being conducted at the church to which one of his brothers belongs.  Our church hosted a dinner for the extended family and their guests after the funeral home visitation yesterday.  Their terrible loss has been much on everyone's mind, as this is a small place and the family operates a business that has served everyone at one time or another.

"I just don't understand why God would take someone who . . .".

"I guess God needed him more than we do."

And other things.

Honestly, it would not be possible for me to believe in a God who "takes" people because God "needs" them.

How is it that people find comfort in these kinds of statements?

Maybe because there is no comfort to be had, and so we flail around and grasp helplessly at whatever comes to mind.


  1. So many things that people say are not reflective of our loving God but people feel they need to say something. There is very little that can be said in such circumstances but our presence needs to be felt rather than heard. God be with you as you respond to this sadness by your presence. The family will be in my prayers.

  2. Definitely not comforting words...and a sad theology. May God be with this family in their grief, like a mantle around their shoulders, a love that sustains them through the grief.

  3. Did you study faith developmental theory? I think it is oddly comforting for people who need God to be in charge, although it is repellent to me. One of the great challenges of CPE for me was the instruction to not "correct" the theology of a patient or family member *as long as it was working for them.* I managed to hold to it, but that was not easy.
    May God's love and light break through for this family, somehow, despite the things people say.

    1. Yes to all of the above, except I did not quite hold on last night. And I should have, because the little card supplied at the funeral today contained a poem about God needing an angel in heaven and therefore choosing our child. Obviously it was a source of comfort for many people. Whereas if anyone had suggested that to me as a point of reference four years ago, it would have been bye-bye church forever.

    2. Yeah, f*@% that. I can't stand that. The closest I came to losing it was sitting in the room of a Baptist minister's wife with cancer, thinking about my mom and her screwed-up theology that taught God was teaching her a lesson with melanoma. In my mother's case I (not a pastor) said, "No!" With the minister's wife, eight years later, I had to I listened for any opening that would suggest I could move in with a different perspective, but I never heard one. She was such a nice lady.

  4. I'll never forget the chaplain (whose visit I REQUESTED) when Ken was in the hospital in Dec. Ken started telling his story and the man chuckled and said, "well, you know, God never gives us more than we can handle."

    I said, "I'm sorry, sir, but I absolutely do not buy that God gave my husband this cancer or the misery that's come of the treatment. If you do, then we have different Gods."

    Backpedal, backpedal, backpedal. I think I knew for sure that I was a grownup on that day...

    then the marvelous RevGal Rev. Amy Haynie came to us a few days later and, oh, she sat with him and listened to his despair and really heard him. She was able to do so because she had lived through insurmountable illness and trouble. God was there in that room.

    1. Long before suicide was part of my most personal life experience, I wondered how anyone could say "God never gives us more than we can handle." Now I see that statement as cruel and thoughtless, but I suppose maybe it depends upon the definition of "God gives." Regardless, it's a terrible thing to say to anyone. And yet, people say it to me all the time with reference to themselves and the predicaments of their lives.

    2. I think it's one thing to say it about yourself, because I've heard people say it and use it to gather their strength, and quite another to spout it at a person who is bereaved.

  5. There is a psalm that I can't bring up perfectly right now but it goes something like as far as east is from west so are the thoughts of God from the thoughts of man.

    Probably the psalmist was trying to say 'you can't understand God' and was trying to give comfort to someone. Maybe it helped.

    I love that psalm because it provides me with a gateway to develop some compassion and patience for the person who makes such ridiculous statements. Honestly, it is just a gateway. My hope is that with enough spiritual maturity I can walk through it.

    In my 12 step practice there is step 2 - came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Over time I see how true that is. Many people associate that phrase with 'god will make it all better.' No, he will restore us to sanity. And if I am overwhelmed with grief at the loss of life then that is probably a sane place to be. I don't need to "feel better" right then. I need to know that it is sane to feel overwhelmed and sad.

    I really couldn't do step 3 - turned our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him ... if that God-as-I-understood-him picked and chose various smitings at a personal level ot inflict on people. But rather, I can turn my human will and life over to the care of a God who loves me and stays with me no matter what hurt and tribulation I will be going through during this temporal life.

    Anyway, I'm rambling. But Geeze, what a species, eh?

    1. Psalm 103:12: "As far as the east is from the west, so far God removes our transgressions from us." I think it's intended to say, in the context of the psalm as a whole, that's God's mercy is more abundant than we can imagine, no matter what we do.

      As far as God restoring sanity - well, see my comment to MB above. Is God abundantly merciful and compassionate to those who die of suicde? Of course. Does God always restore sanity? No.

      Once you have lived with the consequences of suicide, very little of what might in other situations be termed comforting or supportive retains its meaning. At least not in any ordinary or comprehensible sense.

    2. So I got the psalm confused with Isaiah 55:8-9 "For my thoughts are not your thoughts and My ways are not your ways says the Lord. For as far as the heavens are from the earth so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts."

      And to me, it is not about God knows what he is doing and we should be comforted it. It was more about how little comfort it is to put someone else's idea into God's mouth. For me.

      Of course I don't live in you situation Robin. I can't know what would be comforting to you, except to read your words and be grateful when you share some aspect of comfort or relief. Even very small.

      But I cannot say anything at all about the final moments of Josh's life or that of anyone who died by suicide. I can only pray for the courage to believe something different than what my mind and my culture wants to imagine. I choose to believe and to have a faith in a God that is incomprehensible to me. But every now and then I get a glimmer, a hint, of the vast love of divinity. But I cannot know how that love reaches others. I just choose to believe that it does.

      I do apologize for misspeaking if I intimated that everyone (or really anyone besides myself) was supposed to take comfort from the spiritual path that works for me. It was more a rambling attempt to convey how I feel. About me. Not really a dogma or something that anyone else should subscribe to. Even someone in a 12 step program.


    3. "And to me, it is not about God knows what he is doing and we should be comforted it. It was more about how little comfort it is to put someone else's idea into God's mouth. For me."

      Ah, now I get it.

      Precisely. I mean, what you say is exactly what I think as well. Especially since what people put forth as God's ideas seems to me to represent such a very small God. Such as, for instance, a God who would need or want our beloved children -- that would be the God Abraham mistakenly perceived God to be, a small God among many small gods. (And would explain why Sarah, who understood that, since her child was at stake, seems never to have spoken to either one of them again.)

      And if I sound harsh, well, September is approaching and I am acutely aware of that. I don't wonder too often what Paul meant in the passage we were discussing yesterday; I just figure he wasn't contemplating people who are depressed and suicidal. Context. Confusingly, I do think that God does give us what we need but that we are often unable to access it -- and that inability may be due to many reasons, but lack of capacity for sanity is one of them.

  6. I am a minister who isn't very articulate regarding God. Since Zach died I have been asked if I am angry at God. I am not, because my concept of God is so weak that God doesn't do anything, like "take" people. I guess I'd rather have a God who does nothing than bad things. I wonder how much it will all change for me. The things I was concerned about before June 28, 2012 seem so trite.

    1. My anger at God has been vast and wide and deep and long. Not because I believe that God "took," but because God didn't prevent.

      And yes, I have found that almost everything has changed. Four years later, I have yet to figure out how to express that and I wish desperately that I were an artist.

  7. I appreciate this conversation so much because it is honest. We don't have the answers but it is good when we can be honest about it. God speaks to us as individuals and we each need something different. We are not cookie-cutter people. It is so good when we can respect each other knowing that we are all children of God.

    Thank you, Robin, for providing this forum.

  8. You are so right. Those statements have irritated me as well.
    They do become teachable moments though. Sometimes I will gently lead away from such a statement and add that the God I have come to know suffers with us, etc. I don't always know if they get it - but I at least make an attempt to offer more solid and better theology.

  9. Last week I went to a friend's funeral. Her spiritual director read the prayers and talked a lot about the hurt we felt at the separation and how we missed Janice. The Rector also talked about both the 'smiles and sadness' we encountered. There was just the right balance, partly because it reflected Janice so well and partly because nobody tried "to make it alright" for anybody else.