His Sorrow is Splendor
A little girl in our community has died. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. Shatteringly. Ten years old, Christ have mercy.
And this is the part where those who call themselves “pastors” are supposed to provide words of comfort or meaning or hope or something, right? Right? But what if these are hard words to find during times like this? What if they are difficult words to spit out? What if they all seem hollow and forced, and I hate them even as they bounce around in my brain, even as they are tumbling out of my mouth? What could words ever do, when a little girl who once filled the worlds of those who loved her with sunshine and light is dead?
I know all the theological “explanations” (what a frightfully inadequate word) for why bad things happen in our world. I know that unspeakable things happen every day around the world to ten-year-old girls in places far from here. I know that the world is a screwed up place full of sin and suffering and tragedy. I know that at the most basic level, this is one awful death among countless other awful deaths in a world full of awful deaths. But goddamnit, I knew this girl, I know her parents, my son played soccer with her brothers. This is different.
The question is automatic at times like this, as people try to make sense, to cope, to move forward. How could God… ? And the feelings of rage are just as automatic. Very well, I want nothing to do with any God who would allow such horrible things as ten-year-old girls dying in his world. I don’t care if there is some kind of mystery or meaning out there that will some day be clear to me, I don’t care if I’m supposed to “grow” through this or whatever, this just hurts like hell and there’s no grand “meaning” that could make it better. I get this response. Oh God, do I get it. I feel it deep in my bones.
And yet, we come to God. Because where else would we go? We come with our anger and confusion, we come with rage and frustration to hurl at God like the Hebrew poets who wrote the Psalms long ago, we come with spirits crushed and bodies groaning, crying out for relief, we come in sorrow and sadness, longing for a sign, a word, a promise, anything that might point to a hope that death is not the final word in the story of this precious little girl.
We come to God with the whole mess. And maybe, we gain a truer picture of who God is in the process.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, a philosopher and theologian from Yale University, knows well the pain of losing a child. His son Eric died in a mountain climbing accident in 1983, and he wrote these words in his powerful little book, Lament for a Son:
For a long time I knew that God is not the impassive, unresponsive, unchanging being portrayed by the classical theologians. I knew of the pathos of God. I knew of God’s response of delight and of his response of displeasure. But strangely, his suffering I never saw before.
God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God.
It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I have always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor.
Elsewhere in his book, Wolterstorff says, “I shall look at the world through tears. Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not see.”
Yes, perhaps this is true. God, I hope it is. I am praying for a family and a community in mourning today, and I am hoping that we will collectively see things about God and each other this week that dry-eyed we could never see.
The image above was taken from a picture on the wall of my office. It is a lithograph called “Easter 1985” by British Columbia aboriginal artist Roy Henry Vickers. Whenever I look at it, I am reminded that in the Christian narrative there is an indissoluble link between suffering and the hope of new life.