God Cares: Two Stories of Grief
by James Wilson (July / August 2002 • Volume 18 • Number 4)
What one pastor said and did as he stood with persons in a time of intense grief and sadness.
"Pastor, there is a man who wants to see you, can you spare a minute?" The truth was, I couldn't spare any time, but I knew I was trapped.
"Sure, show him to the conference room, I'll be there in a minute."
On the way down the hall I was preparing my best "We can give you food but can't give you any money" speech. To my surprise, I was met by a well-groomed man holding his wife's hand.
"I think you knew my father," he said. "His name was Bill Brooks."
"Bill Brooks, sure, I baptized him about a year ago, but haven't seen him in a while. Is he O.K.?"
"No," his son said, "that's why I'm here--he killed himself yesterday."
After I baptized Bill, he had come to the office a couple of times for counseling. He was experiencing deep guilt over something that he couldn't seem to shake. I did the best I could to encourage him but never really got through to him. He slipped away from the church, and I never reached out to him like I knew I should.
"We're here to see if you would be willing to hold a funeral service for him if the rest of the family agrees to let you preach. You see, most of the family aren't Christian and don't have much use for the church, but we are Christians and know that Bill thought highly of you."
I got a rather cool reception when I paid a visit on the family the next day, but they did agree to have a service at the church and let me preach. After the service, I had a private moment with the widow.
"I'm so sorry about Bill's death, you know he came to see me a couple of times."
"Yes, I knew he did," she said.
|"Why, God?" is not a question; it is an expression of grief and a statement of faith. When someone asks, "What did I ever do to deserve this?" they don't really want an answer. They want a sympathetic ear.|
"Somehow I feel responsible for what he did--like I failed him as a pastor. Maybe I should have referred him to a counselor when I couldn't help him. I really feel bad for letting him drift away from the church. I just don't understand why such a good, decent man would take his own life."
"We don't understand it either," she said as she hugged me. "Thank you for standing beside our family." We both wiped away our tears and walked away with many unanswered questions.
I didn't know why a good man like Bill would swallow the barrel of his hunting rifle or why a good God would allow it to happen. Instead of trying to answer the unanswerable, I articulated the frustration and pain and shared the burden of the family. To do otherwise would have pushed them further away from church and God. Instead, three generations of the family that never attended our church before the funeral began attending on a regular basis.
"Why, God?" is not a question; it is an expression of grief and a statement of faith. When someone asks, "What did I ever do to deserve this?" they don't really want an answer. They want a sympathetic ear.
Could anyone ask "Why, God?" if they didn't believe God existed? The question is a profound expression of a belief in the existence of God. It also presupposes a loving God who cares. If they thought God was distant and uninvolved, they could never ask why God allowed something bad to happen to them. The question also affirms that God is all-powerful and sovereign. If they didn't think God is in charge, would they have questioned what God is up to?
Expressing frustration is often an effective way to minister to hurting people. I wonder how Mary felt when Jesus asked the question, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Funeral of Baby Son
A few days after Bill's funeral, a church member called to see if I would be willing to do a funeral for his wife's sister's husband's nephew. He said the boy died of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) and that the funeral home was waiving their fee, but the family didn't have money for a minister. I agreed to minister to the family and told him the church would send some money to help pay for the cemetery plot.
I was still numb from Bill's funeral and wasn't in any shape for another ministry. I scanned a funeral sermon from a minister's manual into my word processor and made a few changes to reflect my theology and the occasion. My plan was to preach from the manuscript, because I feared that in my emotional condition I could not preach an extemporaneous sermon. The well was dry and I knew I had nothing to give.
The morning of the funeral, I was sipping a cup of hot tea in the Minister's Room at the funeral home when the director knocked on the door. She had just received a fax from the coroner's office. The baby did not die from SIDS; he died from suffocation. The father laid the baby down on a water bed to sleep. During the nap, he rolled over and was trapped between the mattress and the side of the bed.
"Does the family know?" "Yes," she said, "they do, I thought you would want to know too."
During the service, the father gripped his wife's hand, and with his head down, nervously rocked back and forth. Beneath the sound of my calculated voice was his muffled weeping. My finger moved down the manuscript as I preached, but my eyes kept escaping from the prepared text to watch the father. There was a car wreck right before my eyes.
Back and forth he rocked, and as he did, I was bombarded with memories: our pediatrician telling us that our new baby might be retarded. A late night phone call from my mother telling me that my little sister just died. My surgeon telling me that he thinks he got all the cancer but that I might never be able to speak again. Bill's son telling me that his father killed himself the day before. The scab was gone; my soul began bleeding.
I left my text and began to weep. "I can't begin to know your pain right now. I don't even pretend to know the depth of your hurt. But I do know that when I've sat where you're sitting, I doubted God's presence. I asked, 'Where are you, God?'"
The father looked up.
"In the distance, if you will listen, you will hear a voice. Go to the voice. It is saying, 'Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.' Go to the voice. God is in the voice."
Others began to weep.
At the graveside service, the father carried his baby in the small casket and put it on the stand, and took his seat. I read the Shepherd's Psalm, prayed, and dismissed the service.
I didn't promise them that the pain would ever go away or that there was a reason for this suffering. All I promised was that God was there and that God cared.
Our tears often bring hope to hurting people. I wonder how Mary and Martha felt when Jesus wept at Lazarus' tomb.
James Wilson is a freelance writer, and pastor of Lighthouse Baptist Church, Seaside, California. This article was first published by Growing Churches magazine (Fall 1999) under the pen name of Jimmy Lawrence. An adaptation of the article was published in chapter six of the book The Boomerang Mandate: Returning the Ministry to the People of God (Willow City Press, 1999). Used by permission of author.