NOTHING TO DO WITH GOD’S WILL
Our hearts break with all those whose lives have been forever changed by the violent rampage in Nova Scotia this past weekend which took the life of at least 22 persons, including an RCMP officer, a teacher, a nurse, and a retired firefighter. What do we say in the face of such pain?
The inability to find ‘just the right words’ to say to those mourning is multiplied when the loss comes as the direct result of an act of violence. People want to be comforting and even ‘helpful’, so they reach into their toolbox for helpful things to say and, coming up short, some decide it is time to include God. In doing so, it is easy to say the wrong thing – not only because the timing may be off, but because there is little truth in what they share.
The Rev. William Sloane Coffin preached a sermon not long after the tragic death of his 24-year-old son Alex. “When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said,” Reverend Coffin stated. What is that one thing? It is a statement I heard following the death of my wife, to cancer. It was said by good people who meant well. Yet the hurt was just as deep.
It happened for William Sloane Coffin. A woman was delivering quiches, to offer care and comfort to the grieving family. As she walked past the living room on her way to the kitchen, she looked his way and shook her head, saying sadly over her shoulder, “I just don’t understand the will of God.” Instantly, the heartbroken father was on his feet shouting after her, “I’ll say you don’t, lady!”
Here is what he told his congregation following that encounter:
“For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths,…that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions….The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is “It is the will of God.” Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”
Surely, God’s heart was the very first of all hearts to break this past Saturday and Sunday. God’s will had nothing to do with the unfathomable evil unleashed during those twelve hours. It was the result of the man who willfully took those lives. We need to leave God out of that.
A broken-hearted, yet deeply knowing William Sloane Coffin preached on: “The reality of grief is the absence of God — “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The reality of grief is the solitude of pain, the feeling that your heart is in pieces, your mind’s a blank, that “there is no joy the world can give like that it takes away.” (Lord Byron).”
His sermon did not end there, nor is it where our Christian faith leaves any of us in the lengthy season of grief confronting our world today. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is the Psalmist’s question, to be sure, but at least — “My God, my God”! Let us not overlook the relationship that, though strained and tested, invites us deeper and closer to our God. It is that relationship that is paramount. It is what we find in the Living Christ of Easter — the power of a relationship that never lets go of us, no matter what else may slip from our grip.
Coffin received many letters of condolence. One line in a letter from a friend helped him greatly: “Seek consolation in that love which never dies and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.” Is that not the meaning in Jesus’ words in Matthew 6? His statement there, to all of us, is an echo of Psalm 55:22, amplified through the empty tomb, reverberating through the centuries: “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you”. Is this not the reassuring, comforting truth we all live in when the unexpected or unexplainable happens?
Our human words can do so little; which is exactly why Jesus’ peace, and his Spirit breathed over his followers, are what bring the miracle of healing. “Peace, be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”