It was wonderful to meet you the other night— 35 years since youth group, where does time go!? And it was good to meet David. You've done well for yourself there; he's a really nice bloke. Don't worry about his "outburst," as you've called it. Part of the job as a minister is to stand in for God sometimes, and bear people's rage and pain, even at someone else's birthday party. Jannie's story is more than enough reason for David to be furious at God.
I must say that his being angry strikes me as a basically healthy reaction. The people who I worry for are those who are full of all the right language about God's love etc., but seem to feel no pain or anger at all. That seems to me to be a bit unnatural, and quite unhealthy. I know it's five years now, as you said, but the grief for the loss of a child... well, I don't think it ever quite goes away. My Dad's been dead ten years now, and that was a timely death in the best of circumstances really, but some days the grief pops back up as fresh as yesterday.
It's fine to be angry with God. The Psalms are full of human anger and lament. I'm sure I'd shock a few folk in my congregation by saying this but, frankly, God has a lot to answer for: Jannie is one more innocent among a countless number of innocent and unfair deaths. If the God we imagine can't handle our anger at her suffering, and the suffering of those who are left grieving her, then that God is not worthy of being God.
I put it like that because you have asked me how I live with, and answer, the kind of things David said to me the other night about how God doesn't exist, and if he did he, is a bastard. I wonder, reading between the lines a bit, if you are also asking me how you can live with his anger, and what you can do to help him, and yourself, as the pain of Jannie's death continues.
The good news about the atheism that David holds onto is that it cuts through the crap, if you'll pardon the term, of the kind of Christianity which imagines a God who doesn't exist. As you well know, there is not a God who just answers prayers if there are enough people praying. Despite what your pastor implied, it is not the case that you did not have enough faith— there is a word for that; it's called blaming the victim rather than facing up to the fact that maybe the way he imagined God doesn't work! So the pastor has blamed you, and little Jannie, and now ignores you. David is the one who has the courage and who really has a faith (I'm not sure if he'd see it this way) because he is brave enough to say that this naïve Sunday school idea of a God doesn't work, and still go on living. Your pastor at that time simply ran away from you, and from God, and from a richer life and faith.
That's the good news. The harder news is that being able to articulate a deeper faith and find a reality in it, can take a very long time. We can't give someone the facts (as we see them) and expect that everything will just suddenly make sense to them. And neither can we do our own thinking through of an issue, and expect a quick resolution— sometimes that happens, but often things take years to work out. Around the time I was in your congregation all those years ago, a spiritual advisor gave me one of the most cogent pieces of advice about myself that I've ever heard. He gave me perhaps the key insight to the problems that snarl my life up, and I could see he was right. I still haven't managed to get to the point where I can live that advice out fully. That's how we odd things called people work and how long it sometimes takes for healing.
The thing about me and my imperfect living, and about David and his anger, is that God is delighted in us that we care. Delighted that I keep trying instead of giving up. Delighted that David is enough of a man to be angry; that he is human enough to see the injustice of Jannie's death, rather than deny it with pious phrases; that he is loving enough to carry the pain instead of trying to wipe it out with booze or, as you point out, by blaming you or being angry with you. Even man enough to take God on.
So let me try to sketch out a map of what I understand about God, and what that means about how we can live and, then, how that seems to change and heal us. Of course, I'm now going to give you lots of facts! But I'm not expecting you to then adopt my point of view. I'm hoping that, long as this will be, you can see another way of looking at things which may be helpful. Please feel free to talk some of this stuff through with me; I'd suggest via coffee rather than email!
And I'm also wanting to say that the key thing in all this is not that you can tell David there is a better way to live through all this, but that the key thing is that you can show him by continuing to live the Faith, and by opening yourself to deeper understandings and to further healing.
There is no neat intellectual answer to the problem of our existence. It's very easy for Professor Dawkins and others to set up a "straw God" which they then show to be ridiculous and impossible. Or which they declare to be an ethical monster for allowing Jannie and countless others to die. That approach does us a favour, really. It shows us, very clearly, the shallowness of some imaginings of God: God is not someone we can buy off or manipulate with the right kind of prayers, or by having a certain kind of faith. That's the "magic" God who is moved by the correct spells (aka prayers) said in just the right way; it's the world of Harry Potter, but not the world we live in.
But once we neatly dispose of that kind of God— and good riddance, we still face the issue of why there is anything at all, why there is life, what it all means, and how we should live. To say there is no God, and that it all just happens, or is down to physics is... really no answer at all.
Sometimes people do say this, and truly seek to live with the struggle and pain that comes with it. They are humble in the sense that they have recognised they have no answers to the problem of existence, and yet continue on as well as they can.
But others respond differently. The anger that David has, and which I have, about the impossibility of our existence gives us away. I say God has a lot to answer for— there is a part of me which is furious. David is, on the surface, furiously denying the existence of God, but looking at it another way, I wonder if he is actually also, like me, furious at the God which he still intuits does in some way exist. He and I demand that the universe makes sense; we find it complete nonsense to say there is nothing behind it. So of course we are angry: What is the thing behind the universe doing?? Why has it put us in this mess?
I see several places we human beings can end up when we face the problem of existence. There are folk who intuit— I say intuit because no one can prove any of this— who intuit that there is nothing behind it all but physics, or at least nothing we can know. And there are folk who intuit that there must be something behind it all, who feel in their bones, if you like, that something holds it all together for a reason.
In either case, there is a naïve intuition and a more mature understanding; in fact, I suspect that if we are fortunate we able to move along a progression of understanding throughout our lives. Sometimes the progression works like this:
When we first begin to think about the issues we can decide we have the problem sorted. We have it worked out to our satisfaction. And it does work for us until there is a huge crisis such as a bereavement, or when theological college, or a university course, makes it undeniable that our idea of God does not work. Or, if we are an atheist, when a bereavement, or even a religious experience, destroys our intuition that there is nothing behind it all.
At that point we can become very defensive. We attack the other side. We imagine them as idiots. We point out all the faults in their understanding of the universe and of God. We malign them; they become dishonest, dangerous, and even evil. I have to put my hand up for this. But other folk are less abrasive than I was, and seem to move through life slowly working out for themselves what is going on.
Hopefully, we end up somewhere that lets us say, and lets us feel very keenly, that the world is full of pain and injustice. And where we are completely aware that we cannot understand, let alone prove, what the origin of things is. But it is a place where we can say, on the one hand, that we cannot imagine there is anything behind it at all, but we will live as best we can. Or, on the other hand, that we can only imagine that, despite all the pain there is a loving power behind it all, or underpinning it, which we call God.
There is a certain peacefulness and wholeness about folk in this place. They don't need to condemn. They are able to live with people of different opinions, and to respect and value them. And, quite often, I think, they also find there is a great joy and goodness in life, despite the terrible things which happen.
(I've left out, here, the folk who find there is a God, but who can only see that God is a bastard of supreme proportions. And the folk who say God is loving, but who are in some way still very afraid of God. Both these views of God are present in the Bible, but the internal debates the biblical books have between each other— and even within themselves— conclude that such understandings of God do not line up with the God Jesus reveals to us.)
The huge question, of course, is how we get to a place where all this stuff I've said feels real. The sort of place where we can say that what happened to Jannie was appalling and unjust, but despite that we sense there is a God who loves us, and who even loves Jannie. Not a "whistling in the dark" kind of saying that, but a deep peaceful knowing or trust.
Understand... I've not lost a daughter and can't talk from that experience. I have lived with other trauma, and I can tell you what seems to have happened in my life so that I am in a place where I can look at my own pain, and also feel the pain of Jannie's dying at a distance, and say, "Yes, God has no excuse here, but there is still God. And God still loves me."
The short answer to how it becomes real is starkly illustrated by Ellie Wiesel. He wrote a play called "The Trial of God." It's set in the 1600s, but it came from his experience (https://www.thejc.com/news/uk/wiesel-yes-we-really-did-put-god-on-trial-1.5056) in a concentration camp at the age of 15, when three Rabbis put God on trial. They concluded that God was guilty of abandoning his people. And then, anyway, said the evening prayers. That is the secret of Faith: we are blunt, angry, and impertinent with God. We hold God accountable, we even blame God, and then we say our prayers. Because who else is there? What else can we do?
It is the living out of this faith which changes us, and heals us, and helps us make our peace with God. Even if we have huge doubts along the way.
I don't know what you made of me in the youth group all those years ago. Did you notice how, under the casual good natured act, I was pretty narrow minded and judgmental— condemnatory even? That came out of my past, not least because one day as a very little boy, three of the big girls began to pick on me at the school bus stop. And, it seemed to me, that set me up to be that kid who would forever be the one to be bullied, and to be the scapegoat. One of them, in her dark winter tunic, was sharp faced, with very white skin and jet black hair. Her face became the thing I imagined when I thought of the word evil. I survived by being "a good person who was not like her," or her friends, and became an even nastier person than them underneath the persona of the cool theological student who ran your youth group for a while. I knew how angry I was, and how inappropriate it was, and why it was, but I couldn't seem to shake it. So I did the best I could to live like Jesus and to accept people and not judge them, and to forgive them and be gentle with them and not just write them off. And sometimes, I did that because it was what a minister was supposed to do, rather than because my heart was in it. And, often, I did it poorly.
At one level I sometimes thought I was living a lie, but one day I realised something had changed. My daughter was pouring her heart out about someone who was making life really hard for her, and I said, "Oh... she's not that bad is she?" And she burst into tears and said, "It's all right for you. You like everybody!"
I displayed my best pastoral skills (Not!) by bursting out laughing! Me!?? Like everybody!? But later, I realised something had changed in me. I did get on incredibly well with most people, and it wasn't just an act, even though some of them really annoyed me. How did that happen? And one day, I remembered three very little girls at school, who I now realised had lived in painful circumstances themselves, and I felt sorry for them. Something which had grasped hold of me had been made to let go. It's not that I'm perfect. I still get pretty judgemental. But there has been a huge release, and I find myself a lot easier to live with.
How does all that work? What happened to me?
We talk a lot about Grace, which means gift. God gifts us with healing. God changes us. I have not changed myself; I could not change myself, I could only pretend. God has changed me. I think what I have done, certainly mostly by accident in the beginning, is put myself in a place and an attitude which has made me open to being changed and healed.
That came about because, trying to be like Jesus, and seriously working out what the Gospels showed us about the way he lived, I saw another way to live. Even though I was full of doubts at times, the other way of living, the way of forgiving and non-violence, opened me to being changed and healed. It took me away from the key thing I shared with my atheist friends, which was that I had inevitably made myself the centre of my universe. If you think about it, we have a name for that; we call it idolatry. Jesus lived for others, and when I did that, and stopped putting myself at the centre of everything, just the tiniest bit, then God could heal me.
Here is how I think God works on the ground. Do you remember telling me the other night how you were inspired by something I did during youth group days. How you'd decided you wanted "to be like that?" We do that all the time with people. Your gentleness when David was so angry the other night inspired me. How does she do that? I want to be like that. The goodness of God attracts us. We copy it; that is, we copy our friends. That's what you give to David. And as that attracts him, and as he copies bits of it, he opens himself to being healed and discovering a new peace. And God will stick with him for as long as it takes.
Well, mate. It's nearly a 3,000 word essay I've given you, and it's barely scratched the surface! But I'm more than happy to talk about this stuff in more detail— there's a great coffee shop near the church. (I've also written about the copying and imitating nature of us people, and how I've been healed in that, in a lot more detail here. https://www.onemansweb.org/theology/what-just-happened.html )
May Peace be upon you.
(This letter supposes that Jen was in the youth group of a church where the writer was once a student minister. But Jen and David and Jannie and the writer are a mix of friends and family who have dealt with tragedy and its ongoing pain. I write remembering Rosemary and Phong and Neil, all dead far too soon.)
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