Thoughts on human suffering, pain, and God.

On Saturday of last week, a terrible tragedy took place here in Spartanburg.  At popular Cleveland park the well-known miniature train was making its first passes of the season around the loop with a full load of passengers.  For reasons yet unknown, it came off the tracks at a high rate of speed crashing onto rocks below.  15 persons were taken to the hospital and a 6 year old boy was killed.  The train had an up to date maintenance record and had just recently been approved for its 53rd year of operation.

Almost immediately we want to ask the “why” questions.  Especially in the case of the death of children who are the epitome of innocence and the vibrancy of life, we grasp for answers.  Inevitably, God receives the questions, “Why a child,” “Why didn’t he make it but everyone else did?”  These lead to darker and more foundational questions, “God, if you are all-powerful why didn’t you save this little child?” “Why would a loving God allow this to happen?”  “God, why would you want us to go through such pain when you have the ability to stop it?”  Unfortunately, these questions and the tragic events that cause them are the reason many persons abandon belief in God.  These events are part of the human condition and the questions we ask are the same questions people have been asking forever.  What follows is a communion meditation I preached on Luke 7:11-17.  It is the story of Jesus raising from the dead “a mother’s only son.”  It is also my personal reflection on my time as a hospital chaplain taking CPE.

“11 Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. 12 As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out–the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” 14 Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. 16 They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” 17 This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.”

This story strikes some very raw and tender places within my own psyche.  Many of you know that I took a unit of CPE in the Winter and Spring of this year at Richland Memorial Hospital in Columbia.  CPE stands for clinical pastoral education and is essentially a course in hospital chaplaincy that is required for full ordination in the Methodist church.  As part of CPE there are several nights when each person is on-call at the hospital.  When you are on-call you are the only chaplain in the hospital and respond to various kinds of calls.  The most trying of calls is responding to the death of a patient.  All of them were someone’s child or sibling or spouse or parent or grandparent or husband or wife or friend.  One case that has especially stuck with me was the case of a 17 yr. old boy who had accidentally been shot in the head by his friend.  I held the mother and father’s hands as the doctor told them their son wasn’t going to make it.  I am sure you all have incidents like this which you can flip to in your minds.

Within such a setting, it is hard to hear this story in which we read that the Lord Jesus was moved to compassion at the widow’s grief over her only son.  And I want to say, “Hey, why didn’t you have compassion for the parents of this 17 yr. old boy?”  The same can be said of our own church.  In the year I have been here we have had about 25 funerals.  Sometimes we say well they lived a long life; they fought the good fight but now they are in a better place.  But on many occasions we have been left wondering why?  And as a church we want to ask Jesus that hard question, “Why didn’t you have compassion on us….”  Day in and day out, week in and week out, we practice our faith.  We read our Bibles and say our prayers.  We assemble together as a community and hear the Word and receive the Sacraments.  We confess our trust in the Triune God.  We look forward with a hope that will not be disappointed.  We confess our sins and cry out for the resurrection of our lives.  But the suffering of this world continues to surround us.  So, yes, there are some raw and tender places in my psyche that this story grates against.  And I am sure there are in yours as well.  We are the grieving widow in the story, the desolate parent who walks behind her dead and wonders how we can go on now that the whole world has been shattered.  How can this resurrection story possibly do anything more than evoke a bitter response: where was your compassion for us, Lord Jesus?

How hard it must have been that day when this rabbi interrupted the funeral procession to say to the grieving widow: “Stop crying!”  Did she think he was insensitive?  Did the pious mourners gasp when Jesus made himself ritually unclean by actually touching the stretcher on which the body was being carried?  How did the mother feel to hear the rabbi talk to her son as if he were alive?  Yet, for all of her discomfort in the moment, for all of Jesus’ seeming insensitivity to her, the widow still got her son back in this world.  Death, it seems, took a holiday.  Jesus raised the widow’s son.

So many times at the death of a loved one or friend we are so overwhelmed with grief that we often forget that our loved one and the son in this story was fine.  That’s the way it is for all God’s children that have left us behind.  We tend to project on to them the sadness we feel that we won’t get to experience so many of our dreams with them.  We even say to ourselves: but they didn’t get to do this or see that.  We forget that they are beyond pain and beyond death.  But, in our grief, we say to ourselves: it’s so unfair that they didn’t get to do “this and that.”  When, in fact, what we mean is that it is unfair that we didn’t get to experience those things with them!  When we lose someone whom we love very much it is not their loss that we feel.  It is our loss.  It is our pain.  It is our sense of deprivation.  It’s our heart that is being torn.  The painful part of the story, for us, is that the widow of Nain got those years back that she thought she had lost.  Let’s be honest.  Unlike other places in the Gospels, she wasn’t at all concerned about whether Jesus would die or rise.  What mattered to her was that her son was raised.  In short, the widow of Nain was overjoyed to get her boy back.  And it may well be that later she responded to the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection with: “Isn’t that a nice story!”  But not us.  We are still left to stand at the side of our loved one’s coffin or to hold the hands of devastated parents, or to see the tragic stories on the news of a child being killed in a senseless accident.

But friends I want to tell you today that the Christian story is good news not because the widow of Nain got her son back.  No, the Christian story is Good News because it is a story of a down to earth God who becomes truly human with us in Jesus Christ.  The Christian story is good news because God suffers with us and for us.  The Christian story is good news because God dies with us and for us, so that, by His dying, the ultimate power of sin, death, and evil is undone….and we are able to say mockingly “Where O Death is your sting, Where O grave is your victory.”  The story of Jesus’ Easter resurrection is indeed good news because it answers the deepest hurts and the greatest fears of human experience.  Looking to the Crucified God who was raised from the dead, we have a hope that speaks to our greatest hurts.  In Christ, we have a peace that sustains us when we are wounded by the separation from loved ones that death brings because we have the hope in Christ of resurrection.  He has promised that we are His and He is ours.  In Christ we have the promise that in the midst of life’s worst tragedies, we are going to be alright.  In Christ we have the promise that says we don’t have to be afraid.  For the Crucified and Resurrected Lord Jesus is with us to lead us through death to life, to carry us through those times we are overwhelmed by our weakness!

The Lord Jesus still raises the dead.  We trust that promise each time we go to the cemetery and say those words: “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother or sister, and we commit his or her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  The Lord Jesus still raises the dead.  We trust that promise each time we bring another person to the waters of Holy Baptism and say those words: “that dying and being raised with Christ, he/she may share in his final victory and feast at his heavenly banquet.”  The Lord Jesus still raises the dead.  We trust that promise each time we bring our shattered lives, our broken hearts, our anger, our depression, our deepest hurts to the table of the Lord and hear His sure and certain words: “This is my body and this is my blood given and shed for you!”  Bring your shattered lives, your broken hearts, your anger, depression and deepest pain to the altar this morning.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.



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