Wrong Words #2 – September 16, 2018
“Everything Happens for a Reason”
A sermon preached by Emily Moore-Diamond at Aldersgate Church on September 16, 2018
You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record? Then my enemies will retreat in the day when I call. This I know, that God is for me. In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me?–Psalm 56:8-11
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.–Psalm 46:1-7.
The readings also included an excerpt from William Sloane Coffin’s eulogy for his son Alex.
May we join our hearts in prayer.
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight oh Lord, our strength, our rock, our refuge and our redeemer. Amen.
Five words … Everything happens for a reason.
What do you believe about these five words?
These five words remind me of the relationship between fire and water. If it is a wood fire, responding with water is a great way to extinguish the flame and calm the heat. However, if it is a grease fire, responding with water will only make the damage worse. These five words are like that. In one case, there are persons who cling to these five words in ways that are life-giving for them. These five words are like a pillar upon which they stand and interpret the world … and hearing these five words when crisis erupts can cool and calm their pain. But – there are as many persons, if not more, like the pastor who wrote the eulogy that was just read, for whom these five words are beyond painful … and, responding with them intensifies the suffering … and makes the fire grow.
What do you believe about these five words? If they are of comfort to you, and I know people for whom that is the case, then I apologize up front for raising the question. And would love to hear your stories and honor them. And at the same time, far more people have told me that these five words are the wrong words to share and hear when the blaze of suffering erupts.
Where do you stand on these five words? Does everything happen for a reason? Do some things happen for a reason? Do no things happen for a reason?
Where do you hang your hat … on the spectrum … between randomness and a predetermined, unalterable plan? Between powerlessness and the illusion of control? Between the gift of free will and the Calvinist doctrine of general and special providence? Between wanting to protect ourselves from another’s pain and being willing to enter it? Between wanting black and white answers and being comfortable with a little holy mystery? This is one of those weeks when I had far more sermon research and material than would ever fit into a sermon. I wish we had longer to sit and talk. I also wrote different versions of this sermon; the first ones were more intellectual. Then I realized this sermon series is not so much about the elucidation of various points of doctrine as it is about the impact of our words in one another’s suffering.
So I decided to tell you a story. A true story. From about ten years ago.
I was in England to explore doing a Ph.D. program. My meeting with the last professor of the day had run later than expected, and I had to run to catch my train. I barely made it on board, dragging a suitcase in one hand and a hastily purchased sandwich, crisps, and drink in the other. I found one seat open on the entire train. So, I sat, or, rather, plopped down, into it.
A young man was sitting across from me, so close on that crowded train that our knees almost touched.
It was late and long past supper. As we sat, towns streamed by in darkened windows.
I was hungry and pulled out my hastily purchased sandwich, crisps, and drink.
The young man also pulled out his sandwich, crisps, and drink.
It was the exact same sandwich, crisps, and drink. Every item a duplicate. We looked at the food in our respective laps and laughed. Then we started talking.
He invited me to listen to songs on his iPod; he was in his twenties. He opened up about his life. I listened in grief to story after story of painful things that had happened to him and his family. Abuse. Racial profiling. Hate crimes. Death. Disease. Financial ruin. And more. A lengthy list of heartbreaking, gut-wrenching stories. He went from tears to anger and back to tears. Then the young man told me his church had also hurt him. They had said the five words–“Everything happens for a reason.” He said Christians did not care about problems in the real world. He said he had been hurt by his pastor. He told me he hated church. He hated God. He hated pastors. And then he said, “What do you do?”
I said, “Um, I work with … students.” (which was not entirely a lie, because part of my job at the time was campus ministry at the University of Richmond) – but he kept asking, which students? where? why? and I eventually confessed that I am a pastor.
And with my confession, his whole demeanor changed … his body went rigid, he pointed his finger at me, and said fiercely and loudly … “Then you tell me why these things happened to me.”
I did not know what to say. People had told him repeatedly … “Everything happens for a reason.” His anger about it was palpable. He wanted to know what reason was that? No reason could justify the evil that had happened to him. And to be told God planned this for him? And on purpose? What kind of God is that? What reason could possibly justify the abundance of tragedy and pain in his short life? Everything happens for a reason? Abuse and rape and hate crimes? Hurricanes? Everything? If God had caused or allowed everything or had some secret painful plan for his life … then he wanted nothing to do with God. When we say “everything happens for a reason,” the logical end of the statement is that it makes God the one who designs our suffering and determines that some awful thing needs to happen to us … it makes God the deviser of our deepest pain … We could add this to Dennis’s list from last week of things God would not do. In this young man’s life, “everything happens for a reason” had not only made the grease fire worse, it had caused the fire to blaze with searing pain.
And to be completely honest, I had no idea what to say to him. My heart broke at his story. And I felt inadequate to speak into his suffering … So I told him that. I said, “I don’t know. I don’t know what to say. I know that I care about you. I’m sorry those things happened to you and your family. I cannot imagine how painful that would be.” We were quiet for a while. Then I continued, softly, over the last of our egg salad sandwiches. “I am sorry the church hurt you. I’m sorry it’s been like that. I’m sorry people told you God did this. It doesn’t sound like God to me.” And we fell silent again.
In my mind were coursing scriptures like the ones we read today … the poetry of Psalm 56 that says God knows our suffering so deeply that God counts each tear that falls and keeps a record of our tossings–our anxieties, our fears, our sleepless nights. Psalm 56 says God is intimately acquainted with our grief. That God’s heart breaks with ours. And Psalm 46 says that when our world falls apart – when the earth changes, when the mountains shake and tremble, when the waters foam, and when the nations totter … in other words, when those things in life on which we thought we could count are gone … God is not. God is a well-proved help and refuge.
When we lose the ground beneath our feet, God is a well-proved help and refuge.
When the worst case scenario happens and life as we know it is forever altered, God is a well-proved help and refuge.
I have lived and breathed and moved in Psalm 46 since I was a young teenager–the first time my world fell apart–and I still read and reread it each time the ground shifts beneath me in pain or loss. This Psalm tells me again and again that, in this life, when we lose everything we thought was solid, we can never lose God. God is a well-proved help and refuge … always. As Howard Thurman writes, God is our “steadying thread.”1 And the New Testament tells us Jesus promises to be with us always. And the Holy Spirit is our advocate always. God is for us, not against us. A well-proved help and refuge. Always.
So I prayed silently before I spoke, and led by the Holy Spirit said, “No matter what happens in life, and especially when what happens is so painful … there are two things on which I can hang my hat –without fail –that God loves me and you, and God is with us always. Many days on this planet, that’s the best I’ve got.”
Then I stopped talking. Our crisps were gone. Our drinks were long empty. Our egg-salad sandwiches were now crumbs. And the young man looked at me; in fact, he hadn’t taken his eyes off me since he had yelled. And … the next thing he did … was relax. His tension eased. And we sat in his pain together. He had heard the right words. Thank you, Holy Spirit. As our train passed town after town, he asked about God’s love. And the constancy of it. And God pulled him town by town toward life. When we reached London, the young man carried my suitcase up the steps, we exchanged email, and music … and each continued the journeys that had begun long before we met.
Holy conversations like that, in which we put skin on God’s love in the midst of pain, happen in hospitals, around bedsides, in funeral homes, at church, in backyards, over kitchen tables, and on commuter trains.
After we left the station, I thought I’d never hear from that young man again, but several years later, I got an email that began … “Emily, you probably don’t remember me, but I sat across from you on a train one night on the way to London…” and he told how much that conversation had meant to him. He thanked me for letting God use me in his life that night. He wanted me to know it had made a difference, and now he was sharing God’s love with kids from his community who had been hurt, too.
And I can bet you that young man did not tell anyone, “Everything happens for a reason.”
God is NOT the cause of the suffering, but the companion through it.
God is NOT the architect of the grief, but our advocate through it.
God is NOT the programmer of the pain, but the one who walks with us through it.
What God does is make possible new life where there was none. God works overtime to bring transformative, life-giving hope out of the tragedies that break us. That’s what the God of love does. That’s what the God of resurrection does. I like how Paul Young puts it in his book, Lies We Believe about God, “… God has the creative audacity to build purpose out of the evil … but … will never justify what is wrong.”2 God does not make horrible things happen to us so that we will grow.
God has the creative, life-giving, loving, plucky, compassionate power to take the worst things that happen to us and bring new life out of them. That’s the God we worship. That’s the God who loves us so much that pain and evil need not get the end of the story.
My guess is the young man from the train teaches that to the neighborhood kids, with right words like … “God loves you – and I care about you – and we’re here with you.” My guess is he says right words like, “I’m sorry that happened. It makes no sense. It’s not your fault. God didn’t want it to happen either. Tell me about it. I promise to be with you through it.” The right words are about listening and love. Always.
May we be careful with what we say.
Amen and Amen.
1. Howard Thurman, “The Threads in My Hand,” in Meditations of the Heart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1981), 127.
2. Paul Young, “God is in Control,” in Lies We Believe about God (New York: Atria Books, 2017), 38-39.