Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sometimes Answers Aren't Necessary

On Friday, I was called and asked if I was available to come in that evening and cover the front desk at church during a visitation. They wanted to make sure that someone was there to answer the phone, give directions, or answer questions. This was especially important because a large number of people were expected to attend and most were not members of our church. Whose funeral could bring so many people from outside our congregation? That of an 18 year old girl who took her own life.

Funerals are always hard. But when the victim is so young and the cause was so preventable, it's even worse. At the same time, I was thankful that the family was there. We have a head pastor who has also had a child who took her own life. They truly do have someone who can say "I know how you feel." I'm also thankful that we have a congregation that recognizes and tries to remove the stigma of mental illness. This is not always the case in many American Evangelical circles, which is a topic I will address in a later post.

Being in that environment was surreal. As I sat at the front desk, I decided to open the Book of Job. It only seemed appropriate to revisit the story of a man who loses virtually everything. And as I read those words and looked at the gathering of people around me, I realized that the biggest mistake some Christians make during times of loss and grief is trying to provide people with answers.

It really struck me as I was reading the exchanges between Job and his friends after they came to comfort him. The text indicates that when they initially came to support their friend, they sat with him saying nothing. Many of us can relate to that experience and in times of fresh grief I think that's really the only thing you can do. There's a scene in the movie "Lars and the Real Girl" where the main character is facing loss. He comes downstairs to find a bunch of women from his church sitting in his  living room they have the following exchange:
Hazel: Well, that's how life is, Lars.
Mrs. Gruner: Everything at once.
Sally: We brought casseroles.
Lars: Thank you. [looks around the sewing circle. The three ladies are knitting and doing needlepoint] Um, is there something I should be doing right now?
Mrs. Gruner: No, dear. You eat.
Sally: We came over to sit.
Hazel: That's what people do when tragedy strikes.
Sally: They come over, and sit.
I think that's true. When tragedy strikes, people come and sit. They provide food. They listen. They tell you how sorry they are, but what they usually don't (and shouldn't) do is provide explanations. That was where Job's friends went wrong.

I believe that his friends had the best of intentions when they came to sit with him. But as the days went on, they decided it was time to try to find an explanation to such a tragedy. They expressed their belief that God protects his faithful from calamity and that if only Job would look to God, he would be restored. What are the implications of such a claim? That Job hadn't previously been looking to God or that he had somehow betrayed God with his sin. What a hurtful thing to hear from your friends when you've already lost nearly everything.

I've heard similar things happen in some Christian circles. Although "Everything happens for a reason" or "God uses everything for good" may be spoken with the best of intentions, it can come across extremely callous to a parent who is placing their child in a coffin and confronting the death of all the dreams they had for his/her future. On a related note, I would advise any Evangelical to NEVER ask a grieving family member if their loved one "was a Christian/saved" unless they are prepared for the possibility that the answer is "no." Even then, I probably wouldn't recommend it. I know that that question is asked with the intent of reassuring someone with the belief that they are in heaven, but the flip side is inflicting even more pain by reminding them in the midst of such fresh and painful grief that you believe their loved one is now experiencing eternal torment. Unless you think it would be a good idea to walk directly up to someone and say "Your loved one is in hell." (I'm looking at you, Westboro Baptist Church) don't ask grief stricken families if they're loved ones were "saved."

All that to say that many who dwell in Evangelical America spend a lot of time pouring over their Bibles and memorizing verses under the idea that what the world needs is answers. I don't think that's necessarily the case, especially in times of pain. Most of the world has heard your answers. What they may not have experienced is a love that puts others ahead of oneself. I believe that is the true love Christ taught and that living it out would have a much greater impact than simply saying the right thing.

Also, if you or someone you know struggles with depression or mental illness. There is no shame in that. There's no shame in seeking help. It's not indicative of a personal weakness. And regardless of what you may think, many people really would be heartbroken if you were no longer around. I saw that first hand Friday night.

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