I was a young pastor officiating at a funeral for an elderly man I didn’t know. I had met his wife of fifty-plus years once at the baptism of her granddaughter. Although a church member elsewhere, she asked me to do the service and her family pressed me to do so. I agreed.
I had performed maybe three funerals and was inexperienced with people, dying, and grief. At the viewing before the service the widow collapsed onto the open casket and began wailing. Her shrieking made everyone uncomfortable, especially me. I stood nearby without the least idea of who should do something and fearing I was the one. Family members hugged her and encouraged her to move on, but the ear-splitting howling continued unabated. Then I heard the dreaded words, “Where is the pastor?” as unfamiliar people looked around, no one imagining that the timid twenty-something in the corner was a clergyman.
You know, I don’t even remember what happened. Later the emotionally spent widow with streaking mascara reached for my hand and said, “Why, Pastor, why? He was a good man. How could God do this to me? I stammered something inane and looked for an exit. Somehow we got through the service and I went home, sobered and wondering what I had gotten myself into.
I think what baffled me was being the answer man with no answer. Why did her husband die? He was suddenly gone leaving a gaping hole in her life. I hadn’t been to seminary yet, but even when I went I don’t remember any classes on dealing with hysterical people. Or any kind of people. Too bad.
Why do we use clichés?
It’s at times like these, when we don’t know what else to say, that Christians blurt out those clichés that help no one: “God has a reason,” for example. Or when a child has died, somebody says the inevitable and embarrassing “God needed another angel.” Nowhere in the Bible are we told that God kidnaps children to make angels. We are quick to quote this well-intentioned but inaccurate bomb: “The Lord never gives you more than you can handle.” We might even share this non-biblical quote by Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music” with “When God closes a door, He opens a window.”
So why do we use clichés? Christian Piatt, a minister in Portland, Oregon, writes about this. “Christians hate loose ends. We want to end every conversation with everyone smiling and assured that everything will be just fine. But that’s not always reality, and sometimes, what people need is to grieve, wrestle or reflect rather than feel better and move on. Being a Christian is not about having all the answers at the ready.”
Just like I felt I had to do something at the funeral with the distressed widow, we find ourselves ill equipped at times of grief or trouble. Yet we feel we have to provide answers. Not knowing what else to say, we share those time worn phrases that help no one and sometimes aren’t even biblical.
Another discerning writer says we feel obligated to have an answer, but, “Sometimes there simply are no appropriate words, and we just need to listen.” Over the years I am learning that silence more often than not is golden. People in crisis usually are not asking for answers. What they need is from us is presence. It’s okay to be silent, cry with someone, or simply hug them.
Developing a Mature Faith
When we are insecure in what we believe we are easily challenged by crisis. Unsure of what the Bible says, we exist on maxims and a cursory understanding of God and our faith. Such childish faith collapses quickly when difficulties come: tragedies like incurable illness, family breakup, or mental illness. And they will come to everyone.
Does God allow suffering? Yes. Why? We cannot know his reasons. Does He love us? Without question! Then what do I do with this seeming ambiguity? I must learn to live with it. I must consider the life experiences of those who suffer. I must faithfully study the Bible and learn how God interacted with people throughout history and also study how He interacts with me. Faith is not easy. Faith is not a formula: so much prayer equals so many blessings. We all must grapple with tough times so that our faith will grow strong enough to sustain us and our families.
The Upside of Failed Faith
I have shared in an earlier blog about my depression and its drastic effect in my life and my family’s life. One monumental trigger more than any other pulled the rug out from under me: I lost confidence in my Christian experience. Life events swerved me off the road and I crashed. You could say it this way: the maxims and clichés that were part of my faith—not all of my faith, mind you—were revealed as stunningly inadequate
Now, years later, I say that this was the best thing that ever happened to me. My dark night of the soul has helped me come to a healthier and more balanced understanding of God and faith. I will not quote this to someone in crisis but I do believe in the truth of Romans 8:28 “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” God does work in mysterious ways. After all, He is God and light years beyond any capacity on our part to understand Him. Yet He daily reveals Himself to me and reminds me that I—and you—are precious to Him and worth far more than many sparrows (Matthew 10:31).
 Mary Fairchild @http://christianity.about.com/od/faithinaction/qt/Christian-Phrases.htm
David Shultz enjoys mountain views in Arizona where he lives with his wife and two dogs, Molly and Maggie.