She was only 18 months old, but by the time I heard about her she had died of cancer. I took the funeral with a tiny white coffin.
- The 38 year old mother of two young boys was a really friendly and pleasant person, a regular churchgoer. She contracted a brain tumour and, despite all our prayers, she died.
- I shall always remember the two graves side by side under a big oak tree in the churchyard. That family had lost not one but two small children.
These are three of the many tragic situations I have been called into as a clergyman over the years. What can you say? Not pious platitudes, that’s for sure.
I don’t know how many times I’ve stood in front of grieving family and friends and acknowledged: “We’re all asking the question ‘why?’”
And what is the answer?
On the other hand, I often stand before congregations and state the fundamental fact in Christianity is that God is so loving, so infinitely and eternally loving that he is love.
But how do I reconcile the perfect love of God with the tragedies in innocent people’s lives? Is it possible to do so with integrity?
Or is it the case that such tragedies, which can be multiplied millions of times, indicate that there is no God, certainly not a God of love such as Christians believe.
Time after time I have met people who have lost their faith because of such an experience. What is my reaction? Is it to criticise or to “preach” at them? No, certainly not. That would only make things worse.
By the time you read this I shall have reached the 40th anniversary of my ordination. On Sunday September 24th 1967, I was ordained in the beautiful Norman Minster in Southwell. One early experience after donning a clerical collar, was being greeted (as a 24 year old) by a middle aged man: “Good morning, sir.” I looked round to see who he was talking to! Then I realised it was me! I had suddenly become “sir”!
It was always fascinating to see how I was treated as a clergyman. We always used to say that wearing a dog collar was the best way to get an empty railway carriage. Some people didn’t know how to treat me. What do you say to a vicar? Others would try to shock me, thinking I’d lived a sheltered life.
So back to the issue of innocent suffering. You can’t criticise God to a vicar, or can you? You can’t express your doubts and resentment to a vicar, or can you?
Well, you can to this one, and I hope you will, if you have been wrestling with the pain, rage and frustration of injustice, loss and isolation of innocent suffering and tragedy. There aren’t neat, glib answers but it helps to talk. I can only hint at part of my response, and it is cross-shaped.
This autumn we are majoring on trying to offer support for those who are facing all this. We’ll open up the subject at Pints of View, in the House on the Green on Tuesday October 2nd at 8.00pm.
We’ll address it in greater depth at a Public Meeting in South Wootton First School on Wednesday November 7th.
Of course, these meetings are not just for those who have suffered personal tragedy but for all who are concerned about suffering in the world.
Also my colleagues and I are more than ready to talk privately, even confidentially, if that will help.
In the two meetings we’ll look at the question whether the Problem of Evil disproves God’s existence, then we’ll move on to the question of how can we cope with personal tragedy emotionally. Some may be more concerned about the former, others with the latter.
Why not come along, privately if you wish, and see if you can receive some help and healing? You’re more than welcome. And you can be honest.
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction