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Thou in the midst of them

25 February 2022

Nadia Bolz-Weber’s experience of hospital chaplaincy triggered a reflection on suffering

Cosmo Condina Middle East/Alamy

Mosaic of Christ and the Cross, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Mosaic of Christ and the Cross, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

YOU hear a lot of nonsense in hospitals and funeral homes. God had a plan, we just don’t know what it is. Maybe God took your daughter because he needs another angel in heaven. But when I’ve experienced loss and felt so much pain that it feels like nothing else ever existed, the last thing I need is a well-meaning but vapid person saying that when God closes a door, he opens a window. It makes me want to ask where exactly that window is so I can push him the fuck out of it.

But this is the nonsense spawned from bad religion. And usually when you are grieving and someone says something so senselessly optimistic to you, it’s about them. Either they want to feel like they can say something helpful, or they simply cannot allow themselves to entertain the finality and pain of death; so instead they turn it into a Precious Moments greeting card. I’ve both had those things said to me, and have been the one to say them. But, as a chaplain, I felt that people really just needed me to mostly shut the hell up and deal with the reality of how painful it all is.

WHEN I first began dipping my toe back into the waters of Christianity, back when Matthew and I were dating, I read a lot. Mostly I read Marcus Borg and others who had done work on what is called the Historical Jesus. Matthew had given me a book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. It was my gateway drug. Unlike what I saw as the irrational faith of my fundamentalist upbringing, these people were scholarly and reasonable, and searched for what we could really know about the man Jesus of Nazareth.

He was a Palestinian Jew in the first century who garnered a following based on his charisma and teaching. Man, was he a great guy, really in touch with his God consciousness. I loved these people for rescuing the image of Christ from the bondage of ignorance and the religious Right, and I felt high on meeting Jesus again for what really did feel like the first time.

This was the bonus to liberal Christianity: I could use my reason and believe at the same time. But it only worked for me for a short while. And soon I wanted to experiment with the harder stuff.

Admiring Jesus, while a noble pursuit, doesn’t show me where God is to be found when we suffer the death of a loved one, or a terrifying cancer diagnosis, or when our child is hurt. Admiring and trying to imitate a guy who was really in touch with God just doesn’t seem to bridge the distance between me and the Almighty in ways that help me understand where the hell God is when we are suffering.

And, of course, I didn’t get much help in childhood. The image of God I was raised with was this: God is an angry bastard with a killer surveillance system who had to send his little boy (and he only had one) to suffer and die because I was bad. But the good news was that, if I believed this story and then tried really hard to be good, when I died I would go to heaven, where I would live in a golden gated community with God and all the other people who believed and did the same things as I did.

(When I was estranged from my conservative Christian parents, I used to joke that my mom would say, in her slight Kentucky accent, “Nadia, the least you could do is come visit us more often, since we won’t be spending eternity together.” I wondered if my parents understood that spending eternity with them and their friends is not exactly their church’s best selling-point.)

And anyway, this type of thinking portrays God as just as mean and selfish as we are, which feels like it has a lot more to do with our own greed and spite than it has to do with God.

THE choir at Matthew’s sang that Good Friday — three days after I had sat with two small, motherless boys on a hospital floor. I sat in the back pew and listened to the beautiful Latin and ancient melody coming from the voices of the people before me.

When the reading of the Passion began — the account in John’s Gospel of the betrayal, suffering, and death of Jesus — I listened with changed ears. I listened with the ears of someone who didn’t just admire and want to imitate Jesus, but had felt him present in the room where two motherless boys played on the floor.

I was stunned that Good Friday by this familiar but foreign story of Jesus’s last hours, and I realised that, in Jesus, God had come to dwell with us and share our human story. Even the parts of our human story that are the most painful. God was not sitting in heaven looking down at Jesus’s life and death and cruelly allowing his son to suffer. God was not looking down on the cross. God was hanging from the cross. God had entered our pain and loss and death so deeply and took all of it into God’s own self so that we might know who God really is. Maybe the Good Friday story is about how God would rather die than be in our sin-accounting business any more

The Passion reading ended, and suddenly I was aware that God isn’t feeling smug about the whole thing. God is not distant at the cross and God is not distant in the grief of the newly motherless at the hospital; but, instead, God is there in the messy, mascara-streaked middle of it, feeling as shitty as the rest of us.

There simply is no knowable answer to the question of why there is suffering. But there is meaning. And, for me, that meaning ended up being related to Jesus — Emmanuel — which means “God with us”. We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.

This is an extract from
Cranky, Beautiful Faith for Irregular (and Regular) People (Second edition) by Nadia Bolz-Weber, published by Canterbury Press at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £10.39); 978-1-78622-427-9.

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