Thursday, May 7, 2020


Dear People of Holy Comforter, 

                 “If I knew! If I knew why!
                 What I can’t bear is the . . . the blindness .  . . .
                 Meaninglessness . . . the numb blow
                 Fallen in the stumbling night.”
                             -- Archibald MacLeish, J.B.

     Pandemics, crippling car accidents, strokes, cancer, “the thousand mortal shocks that flesh is heir to”[i] all happen. How are we to survive them, deal with them, weave them coherently into the tapestry of our lives? Part of that weaving is finding meaning in the seemingly random ruptures and chaos of our lives. Time and again, I have heard the same tear-choked question, “Why?” as if an answer could heal. Such an answer would not take the pain away, but it could make a world of difference.

     Immediately though we butt up against an intractable inner conflict. On one hand, we desperately need to make sense of what has happened; on the other, we refuse to make sense of it – our gall rises at the slightest suggestion that there might be any sense in it – because that implies accepting things that our hearts know to be unacceptable. 

     Psychiatrist Victor Frankl was a WW II death camp survivor. The death camps changed his approach to therapy forever. He noticed who survived and who didn’t. Survival did not correspond to physical health or positive attitudes. It corresponded to the ability of prisoners to find, construct, or imagine some meaning in the horror. Out of that experience, Frankl developed “logotherapy,” a psychotherapeutic model of finding meaning in suffering. Notably, there is a division among Jews as to what word to use for Hitler’s genocide. One word “Holocaust” means a sacrifice, which has religious significance even if it cannot be named. The other word, “Shoah,” means disaster and connotes that there is no meaning or value in such a horror. The tension between those two words expresses our inner conflict over finding meaning in suffering, hardship, and death. 

     There are multiple religious adages to define the meaning in bad things that happen to us. But something in us rebels against them. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky, a man of deep faith, rejects them. The saintly brother Alyosha argues that our sufferings are part of the plan to bring about a final happiness for all humankind. His skeptic brother, Ivan, responds with a list of horrible things that have happened to innocent people, to children, and argues that it is immoral to accept a happiness built on the foundation of such cruelty. In J.B. (a modern retelling of the story of Job, Sarah (JB’s wife and the mother of their dead children) in response to J.B.’s argument that there has to be some justice, some sense to their tragedy, says,
     “Dead! And they were innocent!
     I will not
     Let you sacrifice their deaths
     To make injustice just and God good!
     Must we buy quiet with their innocence –
     Their and yours?
     I cannot stay here –
     I cannot stay here if you cringe
     Connive in death’s injustice, kneel to it –
     Not if you betray my children.”

     In God Of Our Silent Tears, I examined the various theories of why God either causes or allows such evil things to happen – natural law, chaos theory, free will, God has a secret plan, test of faith, opportunity for spiritual growth, revelation of the inadequacy of mortal life turning our eyes to God, etc., etc. etc. I found some truth, some value in most of them; but concluded that none of them really works. I am as conflicted about suffering and meaning as anyone. You may have an idea you cling to in order to make some meaning of seemingly senseless ordeals. If so, I don’t want to take away your meaning. There is probably some truth and a thread of wisdom in it. And you need it. 

But I offer this caution. Ask yourself who you believe God is. Does your understanding of suffering fit with a God you can worship and adore? Here’s the risk in our understanding of evil. Marilyn McCord Adams, the best philosopher I know on this subject, acknowledge that there is some wisdom, some value, even some consolation in the various religious doctrines of suffering, BUT she says if we try to blow a little truth up into a big theory, it doesn’t work and it “attributes perverse motives to God.” It distorts our image of God into someone who does not deserve our love and that is not good for our souls. 

The Bible does not prescribe one explanation for why bad things happen. It has multiple explanations. The explanations of one author are rejected by another. In Job, the “comforters” try to soothe and counsel Job with words of wisdom. Their advice often consists of direct quotations from the Book of Proverbs. Job responds, “quote to me no more these proverbs of dust.”[ii] At the end, God reprimands the Bible-quoting comforters and says Job alone has spoken the truth.[iii] The Bible is a rich source of wisdom, strength, and consolation in the face of suffering, but it does not pretend to offer a comprehensive answer. Marilyn McCord Adams says, “the Bible is relatively short on explanations of evil and relatively long on how God makes good on” (redeems us from) the tragedies we endure.[iv] So, I invite you to consider a God who is not the author of calamities but rather the one who suffers them with us – up close and personal, not from the safe distance of eternity – and redeems us from them. 

In my next letter, I’ll explore a way of understanding how God responds to human suffering. But for now, my goal is smaller. I want to suggest a set of distinctions that may allow you to look for or construct the kind of meaning, which Victor Frankl says we need in order to survive -- without saying all of this is ok. It isn’t ok. Theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff, writing on the death of his son, said,
“Don’t say it’s really not so bad. Because it is. 
Death is awful, demonic.
If you think your task as a comforter is to tell me 
that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, 
you do not sit with me, 
but place yourself at a distance from me.”[v]

I urge you to separate three things in your thinking: causepurpose, and justification.
For cause, we start with the faith that God does not will bad things. That would be contrary to everything we believe about who God is. There are multiple and complex causes for our suffering. But God is not one of them. People mostly fall into one of two camps about God’s involvement in the world: Camp 1 – the Predestination camp in which God causes everything; Camp 2: the Deist camp – in which God is not involved in the world. At most God set the cosmos in motion, then like Dr. Frankenstein who abandoned his creation – so it’s not God’s fault but God isn’t much good to us either. These two camps leave us to choose between God as a sadist and God as an innocent but hapless bystander.

We Anglicans usually take a more moderate, nuanced approach. Let me start with an analogy.  A doctor may be able to heal our disease even if the doctor did not infect us to begin with. A doctor may be able to heal some diseases, but not others. As for God, let’s start with the Bible. Throughout the Bible, God is decidedly displeased with a lot that is going on in the world. That does not sound like God is causing it. Jesus’ prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done” assumes God’s Kingdom is not here yet and God’s will is not being done. Paul wrote repeatedly of the “powers and principalities” that cause the world to run against God’s way.[vi] In the Baptismal Covenant, we “renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” To put it bluntly, as C. S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, “The world is in enemy hands.” Alexander Pope said, “Whatever is is right.” Jesus didn’t feel that way. 

     But to say God is not the puppet master of the universe is not to say 
God is not involved. We will look more closely at how God is involved in the next letter. For now, we just note that in the Bible the sick are healed, the blind see, the enslaved are freed, sinners are forgiven, enemies are reconciled, and justice happens by the hand of God. God is present and active -- not as the death force, not as the perpetrator of evil but as the life force protesting against evil. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann said,
     “If it were not for the desire for life, 
      the living would not suffer.
     If there were no love of justice, 
      there would be no rebellion against innocent suffering 
      . . . . If there were no God, the world would be alright.  
      It is only the desire, the passion, the thirst for God 
      that turns suffering into conscious pain 
      and turns the conscious pain into  protest 
      against suffering.”[vii]

Moltmann’s faith in God who is kind, just, and lifegiving is diametrically opposite to the view of Simon Crichley in Tragedy, The Greeks, and Us. He reminds us that the Ancient World of polytheistic paganism saw the vicissitudes and horrors of life as the whims of the amoral gods (“the merciless gods,” Virgil called them). But our faith in One God who is Love sets us at odds with a world which is so often cruel. We will say more about how God participates in the world without controlling it in the next letter. For now, let’s start with the premise that God is not the cause of earthquakes, tsunamis, genocides, or diseases.

But purpose (or meaning) is another matter. It is possible for good things to come from bad. It is possible to grow more compassionate, possible to care more for each other, possible to grow in wisdom, possible to do something good in response to horrors. Remember the past seven pastoral letters on how we can grow through the practice of Christian virtues during and after a pandemic. Oscar Wilde, wrote in his prison cell,

     “I have said behind every sorrow 
      there is always sorrow. 
      It were wiser still to say behind every sorrow, 
      there is always a soul.”[viii]

Aeschylus and Sophocles both included the same line in multiple plays, “I have suffered into truth.” When I was teaching Great Books at Mercer University, students asked,  “If suffering is the price, is truth worth it?” Just so, is being in touch with our souls, our core selves, worth it? I don’t know. But unless there is a way to live in a pain-free world, a safe world immune to suffering, a world where chaos, cruelty, and impermanence do not intrude, those questions don’t really arise. Suffering happens. It’s the First Noble Truth of Buddhism. The things we love pass away. That’s the Second.[ix] We bought the ticket when we were born. The choice is: do we choose to go to the play or not? That’s the question. 

 This does NOT mean God afflicts us so that the good can happen. But God can guide us, console us, strengthen and enlighten us in the midst of it all. The meaning of bad things is not cooked up by God in advance, lying out there for us to just discover. Making meaning out of suffering is something we do, called and aided by God our Redeemer. We do not see God revealed in Caiaphas, Pilate, and the Roman soldiers crucifying Jesus. We see God in Jesus on the cross forgiving and reconciling people to God and each other. We see God raising the condemned and crucified Jesus into glory. 

I go to Marcyk’s to buy soup for supper. A young man in a mask steps back to clear the aisle for me and gestures for me to go ahead. Who is revealing God to me, a deadly virus or that young man? Certainly, some people around us are nutting up and behaving badly. But others are acting responsibly, kindly, gently. Where might I see Christ if I choose to look? Clue: In the Baptismal Covenant, where do we promise to look for Christ? “In all people.” Mother Teresa said, “I see Jesus in every human being. I say this is hungry Jesus. I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene. I must wash and tend to him.” She had read the parable where Jesus said “I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you took me in. . . .”[x]

We can see Jesus in people who are acting mercifully, and we can see Jesus in the people who need mercy. The incarnation was not a one-time thing long ago and far away. Christ promises to dwell in people. They are our temple. Might we be blessed in some unforeseen way by meeting Jesus? He’s all around us waiting. Would you be willing to live in a time like this if you could meet Jesus here I this situation?

So what meaning might you make out of the present ordeal, the deaths, the isolation, the boredom, the anxiety, the loneliness, the stress of too much togetherness in our homes? What might you do? This may include a difference in why you do things. Are you socially distancing out of fear for your own safety or for the good of others? Do you see other people in their masks and think “they are afraid of me?” or do you think “they are keeping me safe?”

Who might you become through this hard time? It is possible to forge something good? Remember Frankl said that finding or making meaning can make the difference between life and death. It can even more clearly make the difference between a purposeful, energized life and a life of despair, anxiety, and bitterness. But our ambivalence circles around to block us yet again. If we find or make meaning out of the bad things that have happened, does that somehow justify or condone them? Does it wreck our protest? Does it make what happened alright? This is the question of justification – which is different from cause and different from meaning

A cloud with a silver lining is still a cloud. Forging meaning out of a tragedy does not make it a bit less tragic. The best explanation of this I have read is from Rabbi Harold Kushner, writing on the death of his son:

“I am a more sensitive person, 
a more effective pastor, 
a more sympathetic counselor 
because of Aaron’s life and death
than I would have been without it. 
And I would give all those gains up in second 
if I could have my son back. 
If I could choose, 
I would
forego all the spiritual growth and depth . . . . 
and become wha I was fifteen years ago, 
an indifferent counsellor . . . and the father
of a bright happy boy. 
But I cannot choose.”[xi]

So what is the point of a point? What do we gain from Aikido spinning a tragedy into some good or from growing spiritually through suffering? Here is what Rabbi Kushner said in answer to that question:

     “We, by our responses, give suffering 
      either a positive or negative meaning. 
      Illnesses, accidents, human tragedies kill people 
      but they do not necessarily kill life or faith.[xii] 
      If the death and suffering of someone we love 
      makes us bitter, jealouS against all religion, 
      incapable of happiness, we turn the person who died 
      into one of ‘the devil’s martyrs.’ 
       If suffering and death in someone close to us
brings us to explore the limits of our capacity 
for strength and love and cheerfulness,
if it leads us to discover sources of consolation 
we never knew before,
then we make that person into a witness 
for the affirmation of life rather than its rejection.”[xiii]

     Our faith holds that there is a balm in Gilead,[xiv] that “God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away.[xv] We live by faith and in that hope. But for now things hurt, there is anxiety, despair, grief, and impermanence. The task for now is to make a meaning out of our experience that aligns with that faith and hope, not the fear and despair to which the world invites us. 

     Next week we’ll go a shade deeper into where to find God at work in a pandemic. But my hope this week is to free you up for a bit of Frankl’s logotherapy, to free you up to do something good, to grow whole, to find your soul. That kind of life-affirming effort does not condone or justify suffering. It is how we live a godly life in the midst of it.

Blessings always,
Bishop Dan

[i] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1, p. 3.
[ii] Job 13: 12
[iii] Job 42: 7
[iv] Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils And The Goodness Of God, p. 137.
[v] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament For A Son, p. 34
[vi] Ephesians 6: 12; Galatians 1: 4; Romans 8: 38; Colossians 2: 15 
[vii] Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity And The Kingdomp. 48 
[viii] Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, p. 36
[ix] Heraclitus and The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics concur.
[x] Matthew 25: 31-46
[xi] Harold S. Kushner, Why Bad Things Happen To Good People, pp. 133-134
[xii] It is fair, though ungentle, to say we do that – we kill life and faith – by our response to tragedies.
[xiii] Kushner, p. 138
[xv] Revelation 21: 4