Tuesday, February 25, 2014

When Why is not the Right Question

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  This was preached in reaction to the death of my 9-year-old-nephew Wyatt, who also attended the church. The text was Romans 8:18-39:

In order to be a good journalist, or really to be able to tell a good story, you have to be able to answer five questions: who, what, when, where and why.  Of those, the why question is probably the hardest to be able to explain or to find.  After all what do we hear all the time in the news about some criminal investigation, “police are still looking for a motive.”  The motive is the why question.  Why did they do this, why did this happen.  Sometimes the why question is never really fully answered, and even when it is it is often unsatisfactory, but that doesn’t stop us from asking it, especially when bad things have happened.  I remember one person saying that they didn’t ask why when their first child was born happy and normal, they didn’t think about it because that’s the way things are supposed to be.  But when their second child was born severe mental and physical handicaps they were asking a lot of why questions.  These are the cries we lift up not in the best moments of our lives, but in the worst, even Jesus asks these questions as we are told that he cries out on the cross, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

We want things to be orderly, to be predictable, to be understandable, we want things to go the way we think they are to go, and when they don’t we wonder that question why.  That has certainly been flowing around our house the past week following Wyatt’s death.  I would have been perfectly content continuing to preach on the Sermon on the Mount, which we’ll have to come back to, and so I wonder why did this happen?  Why is a seemingly healthy boy no longer here?  Why did what seemed like successful surgery go downhill so fast?  Why did God let this happen?

I was just two months into my first pastoral appointment when I got called on to perform my first funeral.  I had assisted with one funeral in my internship, but it was for someone who was 96.  As Pastor Gerry said last week, when performing funerals for people who have lived long lives, it’s more of a celebration, there aren’t a lot of questions being asked, and certainly not a lot of why questions, but this was not one of those funerals.  Ethan had been born with a rare genetic defect called Spinal Muscular Atrophy.  It is a disease caused by a recessive gene which means that both parents have to carry the gene, and even if both parents carry the gene there is only a 25% chance of the child being born with it.  Jane and Anil had two children when Ethan was born, neither of whom had the disease, and they did not know they were carriers until they sought help from their pediatrician when around three months Ethan stopped growing.  They  were told the disease would cause his muscles to continue to deteriorate, that he would never be strong enough to lift his head, let alone walk or crawl, and his respiratory functions would be  most affected, and that with a good outcome he might live to be two years old.  He didn’t make it that long, dying at 15 months.

What do you say at a time like this?  What can you say?  We want to have order in our world, we want to know why things have happened, we want to know that we are not surrounded by chaos and unpredictability and so we want to provide answers for these things, to make ourselves feel better if nothing else.  And so at the death of a child people will say things like God loved Wyatt or Ethan so much that God wanted them to be in heaven with God.  But if God is everywhere, and if God is with us, then why would God need Ethan or Wyatt in a specific place.  Or maybe it’s that whatever God had sent them here to do had been accomplished.  This idea largely comes from the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder.  But could Wyatt or Ethan truly have accomplished whatever task God had planned for them?  And what about the love and happiness and plans and dreams that they brought to their families, do those things not matter?  Or maybe they say, as they did to Harriet Sarnoff Schiff when her son Robbie died of a congenital heart defect, “I know that this is a painful time for you.  But I know that you will get through it all right, because God never send us more of a burden than we can bear.  God only let this happen to you because he knows that you are strong enough to handle it.”  Schiff remembers her reaction to those words, “If only I were a weaker person, Robbie would still be alive.”

I know that these people do not say these things with bad intentions, in fact they are seeking to provide comfort, but rarely do they.  In the Book of Job, we are told that Job is a righteous man, and then he is stricken and loses his wife, children and everything he owns and he cries out, why has this happened to me?  His friends come and visit and they sit with him in silence.  The friends sit in silence with Job for seven days, and as long as they are silent, everything is okay.  But at the end of the seven days, their silence is broken and his friends seek to provide Job with some answers, but end up making him feeling worse, because Job is not really looking for answers.  Instead his cry of despair, his cry of why, just like those who make similar cries, should not be heard with a question mark,  but instead with an exclamation point.  Job is not really asking a question, he is crying out to the universe in despair, seeking not an answer but compassion and to know that he is not alone in his suffering, that people care about what is happening to him, that he still has self-worth and that God cares about what is happening to him.

In the 121st Psalm, the psalmist says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”  Notice that the psalmist does not say my pain, or my suffering, come from God, but that my help comes from God.  I do not believe that God causes us to have pain and suffering, God did not cause Ethan to be born with a genetic disease, or Wyatt to get a brain clot, as part of some grand master plan that we don’t understand.  God was not the cause.  God was not punishing them for something, God was not punishing his parents for something, God was not trying to teach them a lesson, or to teach us a lesson, God was not using them to demonstrate faith and perseverance, God did not allow this to happen because God thought that they could handle it, or that having lived with Ethan or Wyatt that they might be better people or that others would learn from how they approached life and become better themselves.

If Ethan’s parents has asked me at that moment why their son had died, I would have said that Ethan had a defect on the SMN1 gene that codes for a specific protein needed for motor neurons to survive, which is the medical reason, but does that really answer anything?  I could say that we are all mortal, and since we are mortal that means that children die, just as middle-aged people die, as wrong as that might be, and the pain that we feel from that I believe is part of the pain of childbirth that God talks about when Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden.  But does that really answer anything?  I could simply say, that in the creation story that God brought order to the chaos, but that creation is not done, it’s still taking place in the world, which means that there is still chaos in the world, which means that there are things which happen contrary to how God might want them to happen, and so cells and genes sometimes go wrong causing negative things to happen, and sometimes blood clots in the wrong places.  We want our blood to be able to clot, usually its healthy and important, but this time it went wrong.  And we also have free will and so we sometimes choose to do things that bring negative consequences to us, or others choose to do differently than what God would have them do, and we are sometimes caught in those negative consequences as well.  But do those answers really answer the question?  The reason why those answers are not satisfactory is because none of those answers really give any true meaning or purpose to what we are undergoing.  Because it turns out that why is not really the right question.

On the day that Wyatt died, we were supposed to be at my mother-in-laws house celebrating Samantha and her cousin Roman’s birthdays which both occur in February.  February also happens to be the anniversary of my first kidney stone, and you might wonder how I can remember that, and it’s because the first symptoms occurred on Ash Wednesday.  In my ten years serving in pastoral ministry, I have missed three worship services that I was not scheduled to be off, two of them have occurred in my short time here, which I don’t know what to make of that, and two of them have been because of kidney stones.  Now the reason these are related, and I’m sure you were probably wondering, is because according to doctors kidney stones and giving birth are the two most painful things that we can undergo as a normal part of life.  Obviously I’ve never given birth so I don’t know what that’s like, but I can say there is a significant difference between the two events and the pain undertaken.  While child birth might be painful, there is some positive outcome, some purpose that makes it all meaningful and worthwhile, and makes it so worthwhile that women are willing to undergo the experience more than once.  But anyone who has ever had a kidney stone will say, without exception in my experience, “I hope I never have to do that again.”  Because a kidney stone has no underlying purpose of meaning, it’s simply a mistake that’s happened in the body which has caused the pain.  When we ask the question why, we really aren’t searching for answers so much as we are searching for meaning and purpose, because we feel we can bear anything as long as we feel that there is some greater reason why we must endure.

In her seminal work, Suffering, the German theology Dorothee Soelle says, says that in the midst of suffering we should focus not on where it comes from, but where it leads, what is going to be the result of this, how are we going to redeem this in our lives and in the lives of others.  Science and medicine can tell us about illness and disease, about earthquakes and hurricanes and other natural disasters, but science and medicine cannot give meaning or purpose to these events, only we can do that by allowing God to transform these events in our lives.  We shouldn’t be worrying so much about the why questions, because in most ways the answers are unsatisfying and for some ultimately unanswerable, but we can give these events meaning, we through God’s works in our lives, can redeem them, we can give them meaning by beginning to ask what questions.

In today’s passage from Romans, Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit “intercedes with sighs too deep for words,” and that God makes all things work together for good.  Notice that, like the Psalmist, he does not say that everything that happens is good, which is what those who claim that God causes everything might say, but instead that God makes everything work out for the good.  That even in the midst of the worst tragedies of our lives, that something good can come from them, not because God caused these things in our lives, but because God can use them and work and walk with us through them, so that they can be redeemed, so again the question we must ask is not really why, but instead what?  Now that this has happened, what are we going to do about this?  What can we do so that God can God use us and this situation to make something better?

When Joe and Sherril Garrett lost their 7-month-old son to what used to be referred to as SIDS, they were devastated.  “It just seemed like our whole world just collapsed and we didn’t really know what to do,” Sherril said.  But then they found a way to make a difference.  She and a friend had previously talked about how expensive it could be for girls to go to prom, and as her friend’s daughter prepared for this event, her friend said, “You know, I want to tell you that as I sit here and listen to my daughter talk about who she’s going to go to the prom with, and I couldn’t help but think that 15 years from now you’re going to wonder who Jake would have taken to the prom.”  Sherril’s initial thought was “15 years from now?  I just need to get through today.”  But that conversation planted a seed in her mind, and together she and her husband founded Dresses for Jake’s Dates, an organization which loans out prom dresses, shoes and jewelry, to girls who otherwise would not be able to afford to go to the prom.  “If we can provide financial relief for one family and make one little girl feel like a princess for one night, then we’ve accomplished what we set out to do,” Sherril said.  “We could crawl into a hole and feel sorry for ourselves because we lost our son, we really could.  But we don’t feel like that’s what God would have us do.”  Does this group make them miss their son anymore?  No, but they are allowing God to transform their loss, to move from the why, to what are we going to do about it.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose son died at the age of 14 from progeria, which brings premature aging, says of his son’s death, “I am a more sensitive person, a more effective pastor, a more sympathetic counselor because of Aaron’s life and death than I would ever have been without it.  And I would give up all of those gains in a second if I could have my son back.  If I could choose, I would forego all the spiritual growth and depth which has come my way because of our experiences, and be what I was fifteen years ago, an average rabbi, an indifferent counselor, helping some people and unable to help others, and the father of a bright, happy boy.  But I can’t choose.”  What he could choose, however, was what he was going to do with it, how he was going to make his son’s death meaningful, what meaning he was going to give not just to his son’s death, but his son’s life, and so he wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People which has brought meaning and healing for millions of people.  I know that walking with Ethan’s family has made me a different person and a different pastor than I would have been without it, just as Wyatt’s death will also impact me deeply as a pastor, but like Rabbi Kushner if I could choose to have it never to have happened, to be who I would be without that event, to have Ethan being a healthy happy little boy and his family unaffected by tragedy I would make that decision in an instant, just as we would give up almost anything to have Wyatt back, but I too cannot choose, you cannot choose, none of us can choose.  But what we can do is to allow God to transform our whys and make them meaningful not just for us but for others as well.

“In hope we were saved,” Paul says.  “Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”  We don’t need hope in the brightness of the day, we need hope in the darkness, we need hope in the valley of the shadow of death, and we need it not only for ourselves, but we need it for others as well.  While we cry out to God and ask why, it’s not followed by a question mark, it’s followed by an exclamation point.  Because it turns out why is not the right question the right question is what.  Now that this has happened what are we going to do about it?  What can we do to bring meaning and purpose?  What can we do to carry on the legacies of those we have lost?  What are we going to do to make sure our lives don’t become tragedies because of this tragedy?

That’s what Marianna and Pete chose to donate what they could to help other families, to give up to 52 other children a different life, perhaps even to give them life, and through that Wyatt lives on.  But they are not really struggling with the what question, because really they are still crying out why.  We start with why.  Why did this happen?  And then we move to what.  What are we going to do to give meaning to Wyatt’s life and death?  But here is what I do know, and that is that in the midst of these tragedies people will often turn from God, because they don’t know the whys and the desperately want an answer.  But when we decide to get rid of God because of our tragedies, we don’t change the realities of the situation, they still remain tragedies and all we’ve done is to remove the only thing that can give us hope and peace and assurance and strength and power and mercy and grace and all the other things that we need to be able to move through these events in our lives, when we try and remove God we get rid of the only person who can work to transform our whys and instead to work together all things for good.

"Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?...  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  What God tells us, what scripture tells us is that tragedies and suffering do not have the last word in our lives, God has the last word, and that God can transform our whys, God can transform the worst events in our lives to the good, God can give them and us meaning and purpose, we can give them meaning and purpose, because it turns out that sometimes why is not the right question.  In Philippians, Paul writes “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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