In face of human tragedy, what’s a pastor to say?
From the Christian Science Monitor:
Warm waves lapped a Cape Cod beach just a few blocks away, but pastor Liz Magill spent much of a July day in a dining hall among the staples of her unusual week off: a laptop computer and a group discussion about suffering.
"This is supposed to be a vacation," laughed Ms. Magill, pastor of Worcester Fellowship, a ministry among homeless people in Worcester, Mass. "I'm going to go home exhausted."
In her uncommon reprieve, Magill had plenty of company – about 80 preachers, lay people, and theologians from at least five denominations. Together, they grappled with a problem facing modern American churches: People in the pews want to know why, if God is loving, the innocent suffer – and they aren't always happy with the answers from the pulpit.
The occasion was the annual Craigville Colloquy, a theological conference of Christians. Attendance this year was unusually high, organizers said, because the collective effect of tragic events – from 9/11 to hurricane Katrina to April's massacre at Virginia Tech – has made the issue more urgent in the faith community.
"It's getting harder to give answers that do in fact satisfy," says Richard Coleman, a United Church of Christ minister from Pembroke, Mass. Events are producing "a whole rash of dying, killing, and suffering that for us just doesn't add up. That makes the old question more intense because we want someone's life, when it ends in death, to have some meaning" and not simply succumb to the inexplicable.
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Filed under: * Christian Life / Church Life
Preaching / Homiletics
Posted July 26, 2007 at 11:27 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]
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1. Northern Plains Anglicans wrote:
I know that this is a wrenching pastoral question, but even as one shows kindness to the bereaved, one must maintain the objectivity to know that the real Christian issue is, “Did the person die as a citizen of God’s kingdom?” That is, did the person have faith in Christ Jesus?
July 26, 11:51 am | [comment link]
That hard reading from Luke 13:1 ff came up in the ‘28 daily lessons recently. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?book_id=49&chapter=13&version=31&context=chapter
We will all die, but will we be just one more name in the obituaries? Or have we repented so that our death is not like any other fleshly demise? Do we belong to Christ, so that those we leave behind “do not grieve as those without hope”, as Paul wrote to the Thessalonians? Is there real resurrection hope, found only in Christ?
2. Br. Michael wrote:
And we live in the “already, but not yet”. The kingdom is her but not in its fullness. This is still a fallen world and bad things happen. This problem is as old as the OT. If God is all powerful why doesn’t He make it all right for us? Well He could, but the price is our humanity. The problem is that we want the world on our terms.
July 26, 12:14 pm | [comment link]
3. Northern Plains Anglicans wrote:
I wasn’t all that bowled over by The Big Chill , but that funeral scene at the start of the movie was a brutal put down of the LibProt approach. The minister is intoning (in that all too familiar “pastoral” voice) all the platitudes about having no answers in the face of death - and one of the pew sitters is rolling her eyes and mouthing the words just before he speaks them.
July 26, 12:20 pm | [comment link]
4. Ross wrote:
I don’t know whether anyone is interested, but my thoughts on the whole “problem of evil” question are here.
July 26, 12:42 pm | [comment link]
5. Nikolaus wrote:
“It’s getting harder to give answers that do in fact satisfy,” says Richard Coleman, a United Church of Christ minister from Pembroke, Mass. Events are producing “a whole rash of dying, killing, and suffering that for us just doesn’t add up.”
While I certainly sympthize with the difficulty of the issue, I don’t think that there are any more events that centuries past. A case could be made that, given our current knowledge of the sciences, there are fewer unexplained tragedies than in biblical times. However, I’ve always found the “how could God allow this” to be off base. It is certainly not our means of death that should have meaning, nor simply our life (as in grand civic accomplishments). The only thing that has real meaning is our life in Christ.
July 26, 1:40 pm | [comment link]
6. StayinAnglican wrote:
There is always a danger of sounding glib when this discussion comes up. It can seem like the person trying to answer the problem has no real sense of the tragedy of the early or terrible loss of a life. So I want to say up front that I lost an uncle at a too young an age. He was struck by a hit and run driver as he walked. The driver left him on the side of the road like he was nothing. So I think I know a little something about being angry, very angry, about an untimely or terrible death. Our family experiened both in one.
Am I still angry about it? When I focus on how he died, you bet. But I think that is the problem right there. Br Michael hit the nail on the head when he said that we want the world on our terms. We loved my uncle. We were proud of him. He served his country in the Navy for almost 20 years. He was the smart one, funny, dutiful and talented. Of course, we wanted, and still do want, more time with him.
But when I focus on how we don’t have him around anymore, I see how I lose sight of the fact that we were lucky to have him at all for as long as we did. He might never have been born. We might never have known him at all.
I think when terrible things happen, it is only natural to see only that and lose sight of everything else. Its only natural to feel cheated of more time with a person, or to feel angry that anyone would dare to mistreat them. Its natural to want to go on the warpath against someone for the sake of that loved one. I know I wanted to do some serious harm to that driver. I could feel my blood boil at the thought of him. Some people, without a human villian to hunt down like a dog, naturally want to go on the warpath with the next best thing, the God who allowed such a terrible thing to happen.
But these people forget in their grief that it was God who gave that person to them in the first place. He is the one who gave them all the other good things in their lives.
I think that Chesterton’s was right to say that what he called “the problem of pleasure” is as much a problem for the athiest and the doubter as the problems of theism are for us believers.
So maybe there is a way to answer the problem of suffering by pointing out, at the right time in most sensitive and thoughful way possible, that the world is good and that we are richly blessed in spite of our experience of suffering. It doesnt have to be as good to be here as it is. We could survive on much less than the abundance and wonders of the universe. But because we have a good God, we have thiese things and we are promised something even better. The days of suffering are numbered.
Ultimately, I think a comprehensive approach is the best answer. The world is better than it has to be. We don’t get to have the world on our own terms and have no right to throw a tantrum when we don’t get our way. There is a price to be paid for human freedom and this allows for evil to occur. But God has promised out of his love and goodness to end suffering and to judge the unrepentant sinner once his plan is accomplished. I find all of these ideas to comforting and it doesnt cause me to hate evil and suffering one iota less.
July 26, 2:13 pm | [comment link]
7. StayinAnglican wrote:
PS. Just to clarify my last sentence a bit.
What I mean by comfort is not the comfort of a narcotic that causes a person to stop caring about the evil in the world or to stop being angry about it. What I mean by comfort is support, something to lean on while confronting the reality of evil and dealing with our anger at it. I think there are people who don’t understand the difference, and so a willingness to be comforted by the Church’s answers seems like a cop-out or a betrayal. Its not.
July 26, 2:22 pm | [comment link]
8. MattJP wrote:
Ross - I read your article and although I didn’t agree with everything, I really liked your “three desirable qualities of a universe.” I took a wonderful class on theodicy last year and we discussed many of the themes in your paper. It’s good to see people seriously wrestle with the problem of evil.
July 26, 2:55 pm | [comment link]
9. Philip Snyder wrote:
While it is glib, there is no “why” - or why can’t always be discerned. Why does God allow evil? I think it comes down to choice. God allows all His creatures choice and we often choose for ourselves and not for God. This results in evil and death because it takes us further from God - the author and source of Life. Why did this particular evil (in my case, my younger brother dying of a long (15+ year) bout with a particularly nasty form of Lupus)? I don’t know. I do know that God was there in Paul’s suffering and in our suffering with Paul and in our questions and anger. I do know that because my dad led us to draw close to God in our situation that I am now much closer to God than I probably would be otherwise.
While suffering and death are evil, they are not the worst evil. Turning from God is worse than suffering in this life or even worse than death.
July 26, 3:16 pm | [comment link]
10. Milton wrote:
StayinAnglican, great testimony and personally honest and theologically sound! KTF!
July 26, 7:03 pm | [comment link]
11. Larry Morse wrote:
#9: With all respect, suffering and death are not evil. Evil is a moral judgment and not germane to the case at hand. Moreover, suffering and death are intrinsic to life; that harm comes to those we care about has very real connections to what we make of our own lives, what insight we develop, what determination we make about what we wish for and what we will. Without grief and suffering, we would remain shallow as a rain puddle. As you know, happiness and contentment do not lead to insight; quite the reverse.
July 27, 12:19 am | [comment link]
For those of us who live close to the natural world, we see that pain and suffering are the standard, and their value is a matter of point of view. The coyotes who drag down a fawn and proceed to eat it alive are causing pain and suffering. I assume the dawn finds it that way. The coyotes find it delicious. It is often so with humans. The autistic boy who dies as an adolescent has just relieved his parents on an often unendurable misery. The long term illness find death a relief. This is common. For the natural world, pain and suffering are obviously meaningless. For us, pain, suffering and death give life its third dimension and love its fourth. LM