We had a prayer service last night. I envisioned it as a place for people to grieve and to express sorrow, but also to begin to be equipped for the task of supporting B and L as they come home from Minnesota with their daughter in the coming days.
I want to thank my Facebook friends for helping me think through the phrase "God has a plan." I have never found that phrase helpful, and while I still don't, and don't keep it in my pastoral toolkit, many of you helped me understand what it can mean to people who use it. Those thoughts helped shape what follows.
As I think about this tragedy, my thoughts go inevitably to the book of Job. Job, you may recall, lost his children, he lost his fortune, he lost even his own physical health. Here is what happens next:
Job 2:11-13 Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
As you can see, one thing Job does not lose is his friends. And notice what they do. They go to him. They weep. They seek to console and to comfort him. They tear their clothes and throw dust upon their heads—that sounds weird to our modern ears, but in Job’s time, tearing one’s clothes was a sign of great distress. It shows that the fabric of life is somehow broken by this tragedy and cannot be easily repaired, if ever.
Then they sit with him in silence, for seven long days and seven dark nights. They refuse to leave his side, but they also do not feel the need to speak. Their presence is enough.
Then, something happens to Job’s friends and the story takes a sour turn. Maybe they themselves become uncomfortable with the silence and want to find an explanation. Maybe they think Job should be “getting over it” by now. Maybe they genuinely want to help their friend. But whatever it is, the friends begin to speak. And they speak for chapters and chapters, heaping on words that do not help, words that are not healing like that silence and their presence was. Words that say that Job must have sinned to incite God's punishment.
As the speeches go on, Job's friends increasingly call him to task, urging him to confess his sins, although they themselves are at a loss as to which sin he has committed. In their view of theology, God always rewards good and punishes evil, so on some level, Job must have invited this punishment. Through it all, Job refuses to accept their view of things, and the arguments continue for pages and pages.
Thankfully, our view of God has shifted, and is not that of Job’s friends. We know that there is nothing that J, or his parents, or his brother E for that matter, did to deserve the difficulties that they have faced.
And yet it is human nature to try to make sense of such tragedy. It is human nature to want to try to tie it up in statements about God’s plan, or God somehow needing more angels up in heaven, or God never giving us more than we can handle, or any of a number of statements we might make that appear to speak for God and God’s will.
I have a friend who is a chaplain at a children’s hospital, and she spends a lot of her time with families who have lost children, trying to undo the hurt that is unwittingly done by friends whose intentions were good... but who, like Job’s friends, seem to get too uncomfortable with the silence and the questions, who need to insert their own interpretation on these matters. Who feel the need to defend God and God’s action, or lack of action, in the difficult events that have transpired.
Let me be clear: it is not bad to try to make sense of the events of our lives. "Where is God in this?" is a good and faithful question. And many of us have seen the ways that good can come out of even the most terrible of circumstances. But here's the thing: we cannot do that work for others. Any meaning that B and L wish to make of this event is theirs to make. We stand beside them and support them mightily through our love, and our prayers, and our tangible signs of support, and our witness to the love of God that we know in Christ.
Someone asked me the other day what to say. "I don't know what to say," she told me.
I love you, I care, I am praying for you, I am sorry, I am here for whatever you need.
That’s all that need be said.
You may also add, if you so believe, that God is working out God’s shalom, God’s peace, God’s healing in our lives, and that the suffering of little boys is not part of God’s intentions for this world. That God promises never to forsake us or leave us. That the death of Jesus means that there is no sorrow and suffering that God has not also participated in. And the resurrection of Jesus means that we live as people of hope, that death is not the end.
Our job is simultaneously very hard and very easy.
It is hard not to want to put our own interpretation on these events. To try to make sense of them as somehow God’s will, or part of the divine plan. It is hard to let the questions linger in the air, to live with the mystery, because mystery is painful. Why do children sometimes die? Why do others live to a ripe old age? Why are good people not rewarded with a long and untroubled life? These are painful questions and it is tempting to wrap them up. It’s hard to avoid that temptation.
But our job is also much easier. All we need to do is provide our presence. Like Job’s friends. That presence is enough.