"Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation" is the title of a book by my beloved theology professor and friend, the late William C. Placher. It is also now the title of this blog, a place where I hope to add a Christian voice -- God knows, not "the" Christian voice, but "a" Christian voice and not just any old voice, but a distinctly Christian voice -- to the pluralistic conversation going on about just about everything.
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Comfort All Who Mourn
In March of 2007, in the aftermath of several human-made
and natural disasters, I preached a sermon called, “To Comfort All Who
In light of the Colorado massacre that is on so many minds
today, I offer it here again, in hope that it helps:
·A bus with Bluffton University’s baseball team plunges off
an overpass near Atlanta, killing seven people.
·An unseasonable tornado rips through a high school in
Alabama, killing at least eight.
·A house fire rips through a Bronx apartment, killing ten,
including a man’s wife and all four of his children.
We hear about these things and they tear us up.
And there’s a part of us that wonders, “Why?” Why do innocent people suffer and die?
And there’s at least part of us that looks up and asks
another question: “How?”
“How can a God of love allow so much tragedy and
They are good questions.They are also ancient questions.Job and the Psalmist asked, “Why do the righteous suffer, while wicked
And in Jesus’ day, some people come up and tell him about
some people Pilate had killed while they were at worship, mixing their blood
with the blood of the sacrifices on the altar.
Jesus says, “Do you think that because they suffered in
this way, they were worse sinners than anyone else?”He then makes reference to a natural disaster
that might have been “making headlines” in his day: the Tower of Siloam, which
collapsed and killed 18 people.
Those people, Jesus says -- do you think they were more
due for punishment than anyone else?Do
you think they deserved that more, or less, than anyone else?
We watch the evening news or read the morning paper, and
ask the same question ourselves.
And sometimes the question is even more personal: faced
with a family member’s tragedy, or our own, we ask, “Why?”“Why me?”“Why are these things happening?”
Well, even after years and years in parish ministry, I
don’t know what to say.
But I do know what not to say.When I was in seminary, and doing what they
call Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE, I learned a valuable lesson.
Part of CPE includes a hospital-based chaplaincy, where
you work at a hospital full-time for eight weeks. One of the more difficult
aspects of this chaplaincy, at least for me, was making “cold calls” -- you were
assigned a floor or a unit of the hospital and you were expected to go room to
room, tapping on the door, introducing yourself as the hospital chaplain, and
seeing if they would like a prayer, or if there was anything you could do for
My floor was in an oncology unit,
and so I saw a lot of people who were awaiting or recovering from various kinds
of cancer surgeries. When I was first assigned to the floor, I learned about man
who’d been there for several weeks who was basically dying of pancreatic cancer,
and who had been steadfastly refusing to see a chaplain.
“He’s refused to see any of us.Why don’t you go give it a try?” the chaplain
in charge said.
Oh great, I thought.But I got my courage up, tapped on the door, and walked in.
“Hello, I’m John, and I’m the seminarian chaplain.” … (He
just stared at me, no reply.) … “May I sit down and visit with you a bit?”
“Not unless you answer a question,” he said. “Do you believe in luck?”
Now, I hadn’t much training, but I had enough training to
know that that is the kind of question you answer with a question.So I said, “Luck, what do you mean?Why do you ask?”
He’d have none of that.
said. “Do you believe in luck, or do you
believe that ‘everything happens for a reason’?”
A moment of truth: Do I say what many think is the
“correct” theological answer -- that God is a omniscient, omnipresent,
all-powerful, all-knowing God in charge of the universe, and that nothing
happens outside his knowledge and power…
…or do I tell him what I really think, an answer which
seems to rest on less solid theological grounds (or so I thought at the time),
which is, “Yeah, I do believe in luck, good luck and bad luck.No, I don’t believe everything happens for a
reason, I believe that sometimes… stuff just happens.It doesn’t mean that God can’t get in there
and make things better, redeem a bad situation, but that’s not the same as
saying God caused it to happen in the first place.”
That’s what I told him.
“Good,” he said. “You’re the first one to say that. Sit down.Let’s talk.”
As the chaplain at Williams College said shortly after the
death of his adult child:
“I wish some people would get it through their otherwise
intelligent heads that God does not go around this world with his fingers on
triggers, his fist around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is against
all unnatural deathsAnd Christ spent an
inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy,
and muteness.The one thing that should
not be said when someone dies is, ‘It is the will of God.’Never do we know enough to say that.”
And yet, too often, whenever we are faced with tragedy, we
hear a lot of spiritual diagnoses and pious prescriptions.
We hear scripture after scripture quoted at us as people
try to convince us -- out of their own anxiety -- that God is in control of
But whenever that happens…whenever God is reduced to a
glib explanation or a formulaic platitude, it doesn’t work… we’re left feeling
emptier, and lonelier, and more confused, than before.
So, what’s the alternative?
The alternative is to be reminded that when tragedy
happens, God’s heart is the first of all our hearts to break.
An alternative is to be reminded that while God is
the Lord God of all history, and while God does enter into human tragedy
and can even redeem it, that is not the same thing as saying God causes tragedy
to happen in the first place.
In the Old Testament lesson, God tells Moses that he sees
the people Israel in slavery, and says
I have observed
I have heard
I know their
I have come
down to bring them
God observes human misery… he hears our cries… he knows
our sufferings… and no, he doesn’t just “sit there” -- he comes down to bring us
In other words, God can redeem -- (that is to say,
exchange or convert) -- something bad into something good. But that is not the same as saying God causes
the bad to happen in the first place.
Let me give you a concrete example:
In 1979, a mother and her five-and-a-half-month-old girl
named Laura Lamb were driving when they were hit head-on by a drunk driver.
The little girl became a quadriplegic as
a result of the accident.
The driver was a repeat drunk driving offender who at the
time of the accident was going 120 miles per hour.
Not long after the accident, the mother’s mother, Candace
Lightner, joined with other grieving mothers to start
Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Now, more than thirty years later, MADD is a nationwide
organization with more than 600 chapters. They have saved tens of thousands of
lives, and have comforted even more.
I believe that God motivated, encouraged, and actively
supported the efforts of those mothers.
I believe God helped them -- and is helping them now -- to
redeem tragedy, even bring good out of tragedy.
But again: that is not the same as saying God caused the
tragedy to happen in the first place.
the misery of his people
God hears our
God knows our
And God comes down
in order to lift up,
And God encourages us -- the Body of Christ -- and equips
us to do the same: To work alongside God
in preventing man-made tragedy where we can, and to do the best we can to redeem
all the rest… to observe suffering around us, not to turn away from it… to hear
the cries of the oppressed, and lonely and suffering… to know -- to empathize
and share in it… to reach down and help, in order to lift up.
When we do that, we work his true will, which was, and is,
and always will be:
to bring “good news to the oppressed, healing to the
brokenhearted, and comfort to all who mourn.”
For Lent, I was thinking of doing the typical fasts: fast from Facebook and take up reading, fast from petty vices like overindulging in sweets and alcohol and take on moderation, yada yada yada.
But I'm re-thinking that this year. What I'm fasting from this Lent is discouragement. That means cutting back on what is so often the source of discouragement, which is a tendency to gorge on, or dwell on, bad news.
(Let me be clear: that does not mean giving up news or otherwise burying my head in the sand: it means staying informed while finding ways not to get pulled into a downward spiral of feelings of numbness and helplessness; it means giving up unproductive feelings like hopelessness and resignation and taking on visible behaviors like giving encouragement and taking action.)
It means making visible -- here, on my blog, and even on Facebook -- the good.
Because the problem is -- to paraphrase the community organizer Rich Harwood -- a lot of times we see "good news stories…
So for Lent, I was thinking of doing the typical fasts: fast from Facebook and take up reading, fast from petty vices like overindulging in sweets and alcohol and take on moderation, yada yada yada.
But I'm re-thinking that.
Now one of the things I'm thinking about fasting from during Lent is discouragement. That means cutting back on what is so often the source of discouragement, which is a tendency to gorge on, or dwell on, bad news.
That would mean taking on encouragement: to make visible -- even on Facebook -- the good.
Because the problem is -- to paraphrase the community organizer Rich Harwood -- a lot of times we see "good news stories" as being quaint -- they are tossed in at the end of the news as an inspiring story, or put in the style section. But stories of good things happening -- people coming together to do things, is not a touchy-feely, feel-good story, but something affecting real change.
So for starters: I'm inspired by the leadership example of…