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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 Mourn.”

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 suffering?”

They are good questions. They are also ancient questions. Job and the Psalmist asked, “Why do the righteous suffer, while wicked people prosper?”

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 them.

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.

Luck,” he 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 deaths And 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 every situation.

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 their misery

I have heard their cry

I know their sufferings

I have come down to bring them up.

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 up!

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.

God observes the misery of his people

God hears our cries

God knows our sufferings

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.”



  1. Thanks, John. I have sent this on to a friend. Your wisdom helps, as always. Lucia

  2. Thanks, John. I have sent this on to a friend. Your wisdom helps, as always.


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