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Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Morning After (Romans 8:38-39)

(On Saturday afternoon, a 16-year-old in our congregation died in sudden and tragic circumstances.  In light of that, I scrapped the scheduled sermon and worship service for the next day and wrote what is below.  It seemed odd to simply continue with "business-as-usual."  My hope was to address some of the pain and questions I knew our congregation would be coming in with, to help us all find some solid ground when everything else seemed to be slipping away, and to point us all in the direction of healing.)
 
 
 
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

When tragedy strikes, it is easy for us to start looking for answers.  Why did this happen?  Where was God?  Why did God allow this?  Why do bad things happen to good people?

 

The temptation is to rush in with some sort of response.  And if you’re a person of faith, the temptation is to rush in with some sort of theological explanation, and my first piece of advice is simply this: “Don’t.”  When my Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, she put together a list she called “Stupid things not to say to someone who has cancer.”  Several well-meaning Christian friends suggested that she take comfort in the fact that “everything happens for a reason,” or “this must have been the will of God.”

 

It sounds like the right sort of thing to say, but it’s not comforting.  It’s not even true.  Far from being comforting, it only leaves people angry with God.  Suffering, unanswered prayers, and the unfairness of life naturally lead us to question God’s goodness and sometimes to question God’s very existence.  Ask atheists why they reject the idea of God, and this will be among their answers.

 

The question often goes this way: “If God is loving and just, then God must not be all-powerful, otherwise God would stop tragedies from happening.”  Or, “if God IS all-powerful, then God must not be loving and just.”  Because, if God is powerful, loving, and just, God would intervene and stop the suffering and tragedy in our world.

 

In light of what took place yesterday, perhaps you are wrestling with these questions.  What I want you to know first off, is that God is the Lord and giver of life.  God is not the taker of life.

 

Should we tell a family who has lost their child: “There, there: God needed another angel in heaven?”  Really?  If that’s true, then God sounds like a real jerk to me.  And yet, Christians can be notorious for saying stuff like that – maybe it’s our way of finding meaning or sounding noble and pious and all that, but really, all we do is tremendous harm, and the worst of it is we do it in God’s name. 

 

I feel like every time someone says something like that, God just says, “Whoa, that wasn’t me!”

 

In the days ahead, many of you will want to know what you can do to help Sandy and Tyler and M’Kenzie, and Bill and Judy.  The first thing I’d say is to not say things like these.  What happened to Dalton yesterday was not part of God’s plan, it was not God’s will, it was not for some reason only known to the mind of God.  Don’t promise things you have no control over, either, like saying it will get better, or they’ll get over it, eventually.  This isn’t something that’s going away.  It’s something we will all have to carry with us.

 

Don’t say those things because they’re not helpful.  They’re not healing.  They’re not true.  They’re more likely to turn a grieving person away from God than toward God – because if God was the one who caused the suffering, why would I go to God to comfort me in the suffering?

 

Friends, when you don’t know what to say, you don’t actually need to say anything.  Turns out you don’t have to say much to let someone know you care.  Often, a hug, a smile, a call, a card, and a simple, “I’m so sorry” is all that needs to be said.  That’s all you need to do.

 

Someone asked me yesterday where Dalton is now.  He is safe and secure in the arms of the Lord, and I believe that with every fiber of my being because I believe the promises of the Scripture that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

You got that?  God IS Love, and NOTHING – NOTHING shall separate us from God’s love.  Not death (whether at the hand of someone else or ourselves), not angels (be they of light or darkness), not powers of depression, not depths within our soul that drag us down and lead us to a point where we feel we have no alternative.

 

The darkness of mental illness is something over which persons have no control. Our understanding of human psychology and mental illness still has a long way to go, but it’s also come a long way.  I’ve heard well-meaning people tell depressed people to just “turn it over to God,” as if it’s that easy.  But, even after people seek God, they may still be very much troubled by feelings of failure, hopelessness, or being unloved, and God understands the difficulties of those feelings and how truly overwhelming they can be.

 

And not only does God understand, I understand, and I care, and whatever any of you may be going through, please, know that I’m willing to listen and help in any way I can.  If you’re struggling with self-destructive thoughts and habits, don’t go through that alone.  I promise no shame, no judgment, no guilt – just a desire to see you healthy and full of life and thriving.

 

I am well-aware that in a group of people this size, statistically, it is highly likely that one or more persons here today are dealing with destructive thoughts that make you feel like you’re at a dead-end or you’ve got nowhere to go. Listen, if that’s where you are, I want you to come talk to me this week. In fact, I expect you to come talk to me.  Or maybe you don’t want to talk to me, and you’d rather talk to someone else, and I’m willing to bet that there are other people here today who would be glad to talk to you and help you before you do something that can never be taken back – if you would be willing for people to talk to you, would you please put your hand up?

Even Jesus prayed on the cross, “My God, my God: why have you forsaken me?” Do you know the response that came from heaven when Jesus prayed those words? Nothing. Deafening silence.

 

I can’t overstate the significance of that. Jesus – the son of God, who was himself God – knew what it felt like to be alone and abandoned and forgotten. Jesus – who was sinless – knew what it felt like for his deepest and most earnest prayer to be met with silence. And so when someone feels alone in the world, when they feel friendless and hopeless, that is a very real feeling that even Jesus himself experienced. Those feelings don’t make someone a sinner or suggest that they have some defect or flaw of character, because even Jesus himself struggled with the very same feelings.

 

God is well aware that people are subject to harmful and self-destructive thoughts. That doesn’t make them wicked people. It makes them ill.  Jesus is the Great Physician – who came to heal all illness, including mental illness that may lead to people doing things that are harmful to themselves and those they love.  God’s mercy and love and grace is big enough to cover that.  There are those who leave this life too early, and God has special understanding and mercy for those who take an incomplete in life.

 

I just can’t imagine God – the God of Love, the God whose heart and love and grace is bigger than we can ever know – I can’t imagine God holding the events of yesterday afternoon against Dalton.  God grades on the curve – and where mercy and grace are needed, God supplies it all the more.

 

Was this God’s will for Dalton?  Hell, no.  Again, any god who willed this, who wrote this particular tragedy into Dalton’s life story is a god I would want nothing to do with.  No, this was not the will of God.  The Scriptural witness is clear: God’s will is ever-directed to his children’s good.  Jeremiah 29:11 says, “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Jesus promised us that we came so that we would have life and have it abundantly and to the full (John 10:10).  All of this witnesses against God having anything to do with a life tragically cut short – that when life does end too soon, it was clearly not the will of God.

 

Since yesterday afternoon, I have imagined the conversation God and Dalton had when he arrived in heaven.  I imagine God saying, “Dalton, you knucklehead, you are here way too soon.  This was not what I wanted for you.  This was not my plan or will for you.  I wanted so much more for your life.  This was not the way I wanted your life to end.  There was so much more I wanted you to know and experience, so much I wanted you to do – you’re not supposed to be here, yet!  So yes, I am so disappointed to see you here so soon, yet, I love you.  You are my beloved child.  I know the difficulties you’ve had, the feelings you’ve had, the mistakes and shortcomings and decisions you’ve made that I wish you hadn’t.  And, my grace is sufficient for you, for this and every time of need. I am sorry for the pain and torment you went through, and my love for you is greater than all those thoughts and feelings, and my grace is greater than even this destructive thing you have done.”

 

You see, we have a God who weeps when we do.  Who grieves when we do.  God knows what we’re going through – he lost a son once, too, you know.  We don’t have the promise that God will make the pain go away or shield us from tragedy, or that if we’re good, godly people, bad things will never happen to us.  I wish, but it doesn’t work that way.

 

But the things that break our hearts also break God’s heart.  We have a God who enters into our suffering and takes it on himself.  As his hands and feet, we are called to enter into the suffering of others and walk with them through it.  And I know for the Davis family, you are already doing that and will continue to do that.

 

Where is God?  God is with us, particularly as the people of God show up where love and grace is needed the most.

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