An entrenched and growing peeve of mine is the manner in which too many people attempt to trivialize, minimize, and sanitize the great power of death and the terrible mess people can find themselves experiencing in the wake of the death of someone they’ve loved. “Why, God must have needed another angel in heaven to watch over us,” they say to a parent whose child died after a tragic accident. “It’s God’s time and God’s plan, and today he’s in a better place,” they say to a wife whose husband died after a prolonged bout of suffering. It’s both saddening and infuriating to see people who do this as an attempt to offer comfort and support to a grieving survivor. To hear them talk you’d think they had gotten themselves some sort of crystal ball, through which they can see the blueprint of the universe with such wisdom that they can zero in on that part of the plan that relates to the life and death of people in a particular time and place. But when you dig down underneath their comments–and believe me, you don’t have to dig much–you find, time and again, someone gleaning some image of heaven from the most superficial and deviant encounters with the Bible and Christian tradition.
Such folks fail to realize that their attempts at “comfort” actually bring an unsettling sort of pain, because the person receiving their platitudes has to now deal with both the death of the loved one and the misguided person in their company, who is spouting the very worst thing to say at the very worst time. Seriously. It’s in the exact same ballpark where you find the notion that “he/she deserved to die; he/she had it coming.” And think about the image of God conveyed in those messages saying, “God must have needed another angel.” Evidently God reached down from his throne, caused the man driving the SUV to go into a sudden seizure, and sent him into the oncoming traffic lane to hit head-on your son coming home late from his high school jazz band practice. That is God, the God whose “providence” also inspires the heretical saying, “He doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” That is the God shared in an attempt to comfort this mother who has just had her only child ripped away in a senseless, violent car collision.
When you think about it though, the person saying such a thing really doesn’t have comfort in mind, comfort for the other person, that is. It’s more about coming up with something that will bring self-comfort, because it’s tough to be in the immediate company of one so wounded by tragic death. Our senses and sensitivities are drawn into their despair and grief, and before we know it, if we’re not careful, we find ourselves drawn into that grief with the gravitational force of a black hole–unchecked compassion can have such effects. And this is unbearable for folks whose main hope for their lives is that there is a plan, there is order, THERE IS A REASON FOR EVERYTHING!! THERE MUST BE!! So in this place of uncertainty, and the fearsome discombobulation that comes with it, too many people find themselves offering a painful platitude as a magic pill so that their own pain might be abated. Sort of like those folks who once offered sour wine on a sponge to a guy in extreme pain.
When you dare to go deeper into the Christian faith tradition, you find yourself at the foot of a cross, where the sky is dark, the wind is howling, and the suffering One hanging there cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Most of us are like those 12 fellas Jesus called to follow Him; we’d rather be anywhere but there, at that intersection where death thrusts its jagged blade into the mortal flesh of life. The place where there is nobody coming to “save the day,” because death is blotting out the day in an unstoppable way. Yet this is the place in our faith where we truly find Emmanuel, “God with us.” We discover that God has become incarnate to do much more than show us how human beings should live, and then die in a gruesome way so that some sense of divine righteousness might be appeased. Stand near the foot of the cross and see how God has come to endure the pain and isolation of our human death, and to share in the grief that death brings. It’s remarkable to think that the Almighty Creator of the universe, the Alpha and the Omega, could lack for anything. But our gospel suggests that was exactly the case; that God lacked one thing, the experience of suffering as we suffer, the experience of suffering with us and dying as we die. And in all these things, the gospel tells us that the God who experiences suffering and death is able to guide us to the place we need to be when called upon to offer support and comfort to people who have been vandalized by death. We stand with them, like those few hardy souls who stood at the foot of the cross, bearing witness to suffering and offering the very best we have to offer–our presence, our compassion, our own hearts, that we’ve allowed to be pulled into this grief of our friends, our family, and even those whom we do not know. We set our words on the shelf, for the most part, because what has happened is beyond the scope of words to frame and explain. Death is too big for us. Life is too big for us. And somewhere, somehow, some way, hopefully, God is. Strip all the varnish away, and that’s what we’ve got. That’s what we find when we journey to the foot of the cross. That’s what we find when we journey into the life of someone who has been clobbered by the fearsome strength of death. Don’t be afraid to make that journey, to offer the most basic companionship in the midst of utter abandonment and desolation. And for those who insist on jumping pell-mell into their own warped, twisted and shallow understandings of life, death and God, let them use all their bromides on themselves as suppositories–because that is where such things truly belong.