With a Whisper or a Shout

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12 – The 5th Sunday of Lent  – for March 25, 2012

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)

Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?

Why doesn’t God heal my friend?

Why does God seem distant, absent or capricious?

This week I read the stunning words of the Old Testament prophet: Jeremiah claimed the Lord will “put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Alleluia! The God who bequeathed the rock hard tablets of law to Moses preferred to touch the vulnerable heart of the human creation, and will forever forgive them of their sins. How compassionate! Soon after I read the tender words of the Psalms . . . “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Alleluia! The ancient psalmist gifted, from generation to generation, the joy of trusting God’s saving grace. How compassionate!

Then, why do we so often feel abandoned? Why has a person won the lottery, or had their sick child made whole and happy, or married the perfect soul mate while another experienced financial struggle, illness and fractured relationships?

Why is God distant? Absent! Capricious!

In the same week I read Jeremiah’s stunning declaration and the Psalmist’s tender requests, I met with Cathy*, the director of a local hospice’s Center for Grief & Healing. I volunteer at this hospice and needed information about one of their programs. Once my “business” was finished, Cathy asked a question. She knows I’m a pastor and sought my feedback about a struggle she sometimes experiences with grieving clients.

It’s easy to guess what she asked. I’ve already posed the questions alongside thoughts about God writing laws on the heart and placing a “new and right spirit” into humans.

Not always, but too often, Cathy counsels clients angry with God or church or both. They’ve read scripture or heard sermons that promised God would hear their anguished requests. Heal my child. Mend my broken soul. Ease my spouse’s suffering. And yet nothing changed . . . the child died, their soul splintered further, pain wracked and wrecked a loving partner to the bitter end.

They sit in Cathy’s office and, with a whisper or a shout, wonder, “Why is God _______?” Distant? Absent? Capricious?

“How can I help them answer that?” Cathy asked.

They are posing the question Rabbi Harold Kushner confronted in his 1983 bestseller of the same title: Why do bad things happen to good people? His book may still be the best book for people of all faiths with this most awful of questions. Indeed, when I asked a few clergy friends about resources they’d recommend for the why-doesn’t-God-answer-my-prayers question, Kushner’s title cropped up the most.

I too recommend it.

And though Kushner—or a different author** you might recommend—brilliantly addresses Cathy’s question as she longs to help her anguished clients, it also won’t answer them.

If I have learned nothing else, it is that when someone is deeply wounded by grief, when the illness/death of a beloved friend, child, spouse, partner or parent occurs, no words bring solace.

We will cry, “Why?” Oh . . . you are hurting?
We will cry, “Why me?” Oh . . . your faith is in shambles?
We will cry, “Take me instead of her/him/them!” Oh . . . your future plans have become a present sham?

Here, then, read this book by the good Rabbi Kushner. Or perhaps you’ll appreciate Larry Patten’s insights. Study the Bible (but skirt places such as Jesus saying, “take this cup from me” and God doesn’t take the cup). Be positive: meditate, begin journaling, exercise more, eat better and join a grief support group. Be rebellious: abandon Christianity and embrace atheism. Be angry: Tell your pastor to shove his/her clichés where the sun don’t shine if he/she dares to say, “Time heals all wounds” or “God closes a door and opens a window.”

Expand that list. Start your own. They won’t work. None of ‘em.

So what can I say to Cathy? How can I help her respond better to her troubled clients?

Fortunately, we were interrupted when a man wandered through the doors of the Center for Grief & Healing office, in turmoil from a loved one’s recent death. He needed to talk with someone. Now! Please! Help me! Cathy left to be with him while I scurried back to where I do my volunteer work.

Grief arrives. Unannounced. Uninvited. Books help . . . a little. The Bible helps . . . a little. Clichés help . . . a little.

Will God create a “new and right spirit” in the broken heart? I honestly believe so. Because it’s Lent, I never forget that if we Christians call ourselves an Easter people, we’re also a Good Friday people. We’ll never avoid the worst questions and the absence of answers. I also believe . . . often all we can do is welcome the person who stumbles in and hear their story and share their tears.


*Clever me, Cathy is not Kathy’s real name . . .

**Two “classic” books I’ve appreciated that deeply address grief issues are: C.S Lewis’ “A Grief Observed” and Nicholas Wolterstorff’s “Lament for a Son.” What authors would you recommend? Let me know!

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  1. Again making me think far beyond my comfort zone. I guess I need to make a trip to the bookstore to get two new books, and re-read the third. None of those questions can I honestly answer. I’ve asked. I’ve prayed. But we always forget that God answers our prayers, sometimes just not right when we pray and ask. I remember how much I hated God at 17. My mother was in the hospital, she died without my brothers and I able to say goodbye. All I asked of Him was to please not let her die while we were rushing to the hospital. I later found out she had cancer, had somewhat eaten her inside, the only organ in her body that was cancer free was her heart. Had she lived she would have suffered terribly. Yes I hated God for some time, but eventually came round again. Knowing in my heart, from my roots, that God is a good and caring God. And through my journey of life, He is always near, and always there for me. It’s just sometimes He knows better than I what I do or don’t need at the time. I think we all need to step back once in a while and realize that God knows better than we do what we need. Although some of us may argue that point. Sometimes I get angry with Him, but never very long, I always come back to my senses.

    1. Again, Nancy, thanks for your comments. And your honesty. I suspect we all have our angry days (years?!) with God. I do. But, like you, it’s never for long with me. Take care!

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