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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.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Fred U #

    Thank you for your honest blog. I wish we could be this honest and loving more often.

    August 19, 2014
  2. mmartha #

    I have no words.
    Diane Roth has just written in “Prayer and Poetry” that perhaps we might only cry out, say a name. Be honest, she accents as Fred U has.
    Ellen Davis, Getting Involved with God, emphasizes the compassion of shared grief as in sitting shiva, silent companionship, community. She writes, p.22, that “sometimes the only act of faith that is possible – for those who suffer and those who minister to them – is to name our desolation before God and to implicate God in our suffering. ”
    There is the very short Catholic prayer “Oh, my Jesus.”
    Christ have mercy, as you have written.
    Where else would we go ?

    August 19, 2014
    • Yes, I have been thinking a lot about silence… About Job’s friends… About how they ruined it all when they opened their mouths.

      We are always tempted toward words, but words sometimes just aren’t up to the task.

      August 20, 2014
  3. “I shall look at the world through tears. Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not see.”– These words will stay with me.

    In my city the body of a 15 year old girl was pulled out of the river this week. She had been raped, killed, and her body stuffed in a bag. There is so much to weep about.

    August 19, 2014
    • I heard this awful news from Winnipeg yesterday. Unspeakable.

      August 20, 2014
  4. tammy clarke olson #

    ty…its the only thing i have rite now as her aunty,,,Thank you!

    August 20, 2014
    • I am praying for your family, Tammy. And I am so incredibly sorry for your loss.

      August 20, 2014
  5. Shauna Kingston #

    Beautifully expressed truth!! As a parent,, my heart cannot even grasp the depth of sorrow that takes place in times like these! I only pray that faith, hope & love find you & keep you safe through this storm.

    August 20, 2014
    • Thank you, Shauna. Well said.

      August 20, 2014
  6. Dorothee #

    The comment “I shall look at the world through tears….” resonates deeply. Time was needed to see…

    August 25, 2014

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