I am very pleased to welcome back a wonderful guest blogger, someone who regularly comments on www.whatgoddoes.com, Mary Vanderplas. She is a former Presbyterian Minister and is now the Chaplin at Florida Hospital in Leesburg, FL. Her first guest blog was Revelation 8 (Guest-Blogger Mary Vanderplas). Although we regularly disagree with one another, Mary regularly inspires me to look at things from a perspective that I might not otherwise. Several times we have entered into discussion about theodicy (a spiritual/philosophical attempt to reconcile the idea that God is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing with the very real presence of evil and suffering in the world). Mary’s perspective and insight is spectacular, and her vocation puts her in a unique position to give the very churchy word “theodicy” a gripping context in the human experience. Mary wrote the following introduction for a blog series I’ll be doing based on Thomas G. Long’s book, What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith. I will be writing this blog series in the same manner as I have been writing the Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell series, that is, as the inspiration hits and as time allows. Here’s Mary’s introduction…
A little boy, barely five, is wheeled into the ER after being found unresponsive at home. His body, connected to life support, shakes uncontrollably from brain seizures. His mother and grandmother look on helplessly as the medical team does their work.
A young woman is brought into the ER after being involved in a terrible car accident. She is sobbing and shaking, overcome by the trauma and desperate to know if her husband – who was airlifted to another hospital, a hospital with a trauma unit – is “going to be okay.”
A woman not yet fifty lies limp and lifeless in the bed, her frail body riddled with cancer. Under the influence of medication for the pain, she is in and out of consciousness. Her husband sits by her bedside, speechless with sorrow.
In my role as a hospital chaplain, I encounter on a regular basis people such as these, people who are dealing with tragic suffering. Some of the time, they are asking tough questions about God and their experience. Some of the time, they are feeling acutely the pain and grief of their situation and are not (yet) at a point of asking, let alone thinking about an answer to, the tough questions. Some of the time, they express their feelings, including their sense of the absence and silence of God, with loud and mournful cries of “why?”
Because, quite often, the people I am called upon to minister to are in the midst of crisis, my ministry is primarily one of being present with them in the pit of their suffering. With the mother and grandmother referred to above, I sat with them in their helpless sorrow, sharing with them in the sense of injustice and the experienced absence and distance of God. I said very little. At one point, at the grandmother’s request, I prayed out loud. What I prayed was a bold prayer that God would act in power to spare the boy’s life. Since it was evident that they were overwhelmed by the pain of watching their beloved child/grandchild suffer, I did not even attempt to help them make sense of their experience of tragic suffering. I knew that to do so at that moment would have been wholly inappropriate. Instead, I tried to communicate by my presence and actions the presence and care of God in the midst of their tragic situation. And by my bold prayer, I made (indirectly) a statement about protesting the expressions of evil in the world and calling upon God to do something about these expressions being a faithful response in the face of suffering.
With the young woman who, with her husband, was involved in a car accident, I also provided mainly a ministry of presence. Shortly after she came in, the word came from the hospital where her husband was taken that he had not made it. Hearing the news, the woman emitted an anguished shriek, followed by intense sobbing. I sat with her, holding her hand and “speaking,” with words and mainly with nonverbal expressions of empathy and caring. An hour or so later, she looked at me and asked, “Why did God have to take someone who was so good?” Even though my best judgment told me that it wasn’t the time for a deep discussion of the theological issues that her question raised, I responded in brief to her question, which arose out a struggle (in its beginning stage) to make sense of her experience in light of what she believed about God and his ways. First, I challenged her understanding that God had caused the tragic death of her husband. “God didn’t take him,” I said. “I don’t believe that God caused this terrible thing to happen.” Second, I acknowledged that I didn’t know the ultimate source of her terrible loss and that I didn’t think that it could be known whose doing it was. Third, I acknowledged that I didn’t know why God didn’t intervene to prevent it from happening or to save her husband’s life after it happened. I told her, too, that what I believe and am assured of is that “God cares and he is and will be with you in this.” Whether she heard any of what I said in that moment of deep grief I don’t know. But I did feel compelled to begin to help her address the issues raised by her anguished question, rather than simply ignoring them, and to provide the comfort of knowing that God was not the cause of her suffering but a very present help in her time of trouble.
With the woman afflicted with cancer, I provided something more than a ministry of presence. She and her husband shared that well-meaning friends had spoken much to them about God being in control and God having a purpose for what they were going through. After battling the disease for going-on two years and being the object of many prayers, their own and others’, they were weary of the battle and they were questioning deeply whether what others seemed so confident of – namely, the existence of a loving and just God who cared about them personally – could possibly be true. I empathized with their expressed experience of the absence and indifference of God. I spoke directly to the notion that “God is in control” and the notion that “God has a purpose” for their suffering. I said, specifically, that while I believe that God’s purposes for us and for the world will ultimately prevail, I don’t believe that this cancer is God’s will. “I don’t pretend to know where it came from in an ultimate sense, but I don’t believe that it came from God. On the contrary, I believe that God hates it, just as you do.” I affirmed that even though I don’t think we can know where cancer and other evils come from, I rest my faith and hope on the promise that one day God will act to overcome them, to destroy them completely, and that even now God is with us when we suffer, giving courage and strength and hope. (If I had read Tom Long’s marvelous book prior to ministering to this struggling couple, I would have said even more.) And by my presence and actions, I tried to communicate to them something of the loving, compassionate presence of God with them in their suffering.
Next blog in this series: The Shaking of the Foundations