April 23, 2019

Another Look: Live into the “What” not the “Why”

Note from CM: I wrote this a year ago. I need it this week. Maybe it will help you too.

• • •

When someone is drowning, the only thing worse than failing to throw them a life preserver is handing them a reason.

Kate Bowler

• • •

Live into the “What” not the “Why”

Religious people (me, for example) are really good at focusing on the “whys” of life. Pastors and theologians, in particular, make this their specialty. We think it is our duty to explain the mysteries of God, life, and the universal code of justice. We imagine that the people in our congregations and communities are filled with questions about these and other transcendent matters, eager to get the right answers so that their minds and souls can rest at ease in the midst of life’s ups and downs.

Not so much.

At least in my experience, we religious types (especially leaders, teachers, and passionate Bible study types) seem to be the only ones who really care about such things on any regular basis. Most of the rest of the human race simply goes about the business of living.

Oh sure, there are occasions, especially in painful and overwhelming seasons — what Walter Brueggemann calls the times of “disorientation” — when most people might feel the cry “Why?” rise up and explode from their mouths. But even then, the questions they ask, like Why? How long? Where are you, God? Why me? How much more can I take? and protestations like This isn’t fair! are usually exclamations of pain, frustration, and helplessness rather than intellectual queries.

We’ve made the point here many, many times that people in such circumstances aren’t looking so much for answers as for reassurance. They want comforting company. They long to feel the “thereness” of someone who cares, who is with them and will not abandon them, who will not freak out but be a calming presence and a sure guide through the storm. They long to feel safe and secure. Having little or no control over their situation, they want a sturdy anchor to hold on to so they won’t be washed away in the rushing waters that threaten to overwhelm them.

Words, explanations, arguments, apologetics, analysis, etc. — these are most certainly not the primary tools of ministry to reach for to support such people. And you know what? Most of the time, they don’t really want those things either. Even if they present themselves as serious about wanting explanations, when you start to give one, I’ve noticed that people tend to tune out, recognizing right away that the “comforter” is just throwing bits of paper into a whirlwind.

Friend, they already know you don’t have the answer! If anything, they are testing you to see whether you are smart enough to know that too. Then, maybe they might trust you.

But most ministerial training keeps on giving pastoral leaders books instead of bread to feed the hungry. Especially in the biblicist evangelical world, in post-evangelical streams such as neo-Calvinism and neo-Puritanism, and in any tradition that places prime value on doctrine and rational “answers” as a main approach to religious practice, we continue to produce miserable counselors who focus on the “whys” of life and encourage people to live into the why.

As a hospice clinician, I have come to appreciate a different way. We live into the “what” of life, the “thisness” of life. We simply deal with what is before us. Discussing theoretical speculations and solving transcendental puzzles rarely enters into the work. No, we sit face to face with people and try to help them find some peace. Period.

It’s as simple and as complicated as that. It can be hard enough at times figuring out what the “what” is that is causing distress. If we were tasked with going beyond that to figure out the “whys” and “wherefores” too, we’d waste a lot of precious time that could be devoted to genuinely supporting those we serve.

The work of supporting others and providing comfort is always more about the “what” than the “why.”

Now I’m not stupid. I realize that ministers and spiritual teachers are in a different setting, and it is their job to maintain and nourish certain traditions within covenantal communities. Those traditions have been developed over time to help explain some of the “whys.” Part of a minister’s kerygmatic and catechetical duty is to encourage people to embrace those as means of grace and strength in the various seasons and circumstances of life.

Fine. I am not arguing for a contentless religion of mere human compassion.

But even within the tradition, I’ve found that, in the end, for me, my “whys” are assuaged by a few relatively simple things: the liturgy and sensory comfort of sacred spaces and rituals, a few precious reassurances from scripture, hymns, and wise sayings, feeling the texture of my prayer beads and hearing the psalms prayed. Things like these provide more than enough satisfaction for the “whys” and other laments that pour from my soul.

And you want to give me a lecture on the sovereignty of God?

Instead, I’m going to need you to look at me in my time of distress and say, “What can I do to let you know you’re not alone? that you are loved and safe and cared for? that you can find some peace?”

When I’m in that situation and need you, don’t try to engage me in some conversation about “why.”

Live into the “what” and love me.

Comments

  1. Robert F says

    What can I do to let you know you’re not alone? that you are loved and safe and cared for? that you can find some peace?

    Oftentimes, it seems like precious little can be done in these matters. I think some people fall to giving theological reassurances that don’t reassure, and other impotent words, explanations, rationalizations, etc. (from those without any specific religious orientation I often hear the grief-stricken offered these words: “Everything happens for a reason”) because they don’t have any other options. It’s hard to just be with those who are suffering and grieving, when there’s nothing else to do but be with them, without offering all kinds of explanatory words, not just because it is awkward, but because it is scary — we want to put defenses up against the likelihood that we will sooner or later be in the same situation, we want to defuse our own fear of the future and our fragility. To be silently present to and with others who are suffering, we must beforehand have a practice of silently confronting our own fears.

    • — we want to put defenses up against the likelihood that we will sooner or later be in the same situation, we want to defuse our own fear of the future and our fragility.

      Exactly.

      • anonymous says

        isn’t the whole premise of the culture war fundamentalist scene to ‘distance ourselves’ from ‘those other sinners’ ?

        As the ‘chosen’ and/or ‘the saved’, do these fundamentalists not NEED to build themselves up by telling other they are going to hell UNLESS . . . . . (and here, they supply the conditions upon which you can enter into their approval and acceptance, just maybe)

        I am beginning to see how ‘exclusion’ works not so much AGAINST those excluded and FOR those doing the exclusion, that they see their ability to look down on, to judge, to throw stones at ‘the others’ as a way of promoting themselves in their pride and self-righteousness . . . . and this seems to me more of a sickness than not, that they define themselves by their contempt of ‘the others’

        ‘putting up defenses’ AKA ‘putting up fences’ . . . . it’s all about acceptance and rejection, salvation and damnation, inclusion or exclusion, a fundamentalist heaven or a devil’s hell, isn’t it? Nothing in that ‘heaven’ of ‘patience’ or ‘love’ or ‘kindness’ or ‘longsuffering’ . . . . . only a smug-filled contempt for those they have deemed ‘lesser’ than themselves

        end of lenten rant,
        sorry

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          isn’t the whole premise of the culture war fundamentalist scene to ‘distance ourselves’ from ‘those other sinners’ ?

          “If I Can’t Be Holier Than Thou, Who do I got to Be Holier Than?”

          ‘putting up defenses’ AKA ‘putting up fences’ . . . . it’s all about acceptance and rejection, salvation and damnation, inclusion or exclusion, a fundamentalist heaven or a devil’s hell, isn’t it?

          Boolean logic.
          1 or 0, True or False, a or Not-A.

          P.S. Isn’t there a Christianese Culture War group called “Wallbuilders” with that exact purpose?
          Walling off Our Purity from Heathen Contamination?

          • Christiane says

            wow, Headless

            come to think of it, there was a guy over at SBCtoday before the blog expired who was adamant about being a ‘gate-keeper’ and he was highly offended that I would not ‘answer his questions’ (they weren’t questions so much as requirements to declare my ‘contempt’ for ‘the others, which I would not do, much to his frustration). I believe his name was ‘Norm’ and he was a ‘protector’ of the ‘purity’ of the blog’s ‘doctrines’: the usual agenda of Islamophobia, homophobia, etc. etc. but ‘hyper’ hate-filled. Bad stuff.

            Sad day came when ‘Norm’ and his group encouraged the blog administrator to the point of a terrible verbal attack on Wade Burleson and some others. The blog administrator did not seem like such a bad soul, but I think he was influenced by the ‘Wallbuilders’ to do what he did. The man apologized to Wade and the others, and resigned from the blog. I had long since been ‘banned’ from SBCtoday, but I felt badly that such a group’s poison could lead the administrator into thinking that kind of attack on someone else’s character was allowed. At least the administrator realized his mistake and tried to make amends, but I always thought that behind his vile action stood a chorus made up of that ‘group’ that was so negative, so filled with contempt for ‘the others’.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > it seems like precious little can be done in these matters

      There is so much culture, history, personality, for better and worse, wound up in that. Another reason to choose fewer words. People far too often speak boldly with only presumed knowledge.

      > I often hear the grief-stricken offered these words: “Everything happens for a reason”

      Indeed, been there. The federal government should issue blanket legal immunity to anyone who punches anyone who utters those four words. I have limited sympathy for their feelings of awkwardness; wordiness in “sympathy” and “support” is often as much an opportunity to be dramatic (vanity) as it is about sublimated fears.

      • Robert F says

        A retort to “Everything happens for a reason” that comes quickly to mind is “Go f–k your reason.” I’ve come close to saying it one or two occasions, and had to stop myself.

    • –> “I think some people fall to giving theological reassurances that don’t reassure, and other impotent words, explanations, rationalizations, etc. (from those without any specific religious orientation I often hear the grief-stricken offered these words: ‘Everything happens for a reason’) because they don’t have any other options.”

      Overall, I agree. And those kinds of cliched Christian soundbites annoy the crap out of me. But as a slight counterpoint, I think this also falls into the category of “read the room.” There are some people who will need these reassurances, so be ready if you get the sense it might help.

      • senecagriggs says

        Good point Rick Ro. Logic and theology/doctrine reassure me; others? not so much.

        • Rick Ro. says

          Yep. Don’t assume that no one likes that kinda stuff just because I don’t. Figure out what fills someone’s bucket, then help to fill it.

      • Rick, in one sense I agree with you, but I have a sneaking suspicion that those who are comforted by doctrine in a moment of crisis or loss are more comforted by the familiarity of the approach their tradition takes than they are by the doctrine itself. It’s not the “answer” it’s the familiarity of being among my people who I’ve come to expect will respond in a certain way. I’m safe among my own.

      • Robert F says

        I’m afraid those kinds of assurances won’t come out of my mouth; they stick in there like chalk.

  2. Burro (Mule) says

    In 2012, it appeared that the area we were living in (the prosperous southern suburban rim of Atlanta) became an epicenter of adolescent suicide. 312 young people took their lives by their own hand that year. I don’t know if it has gotten any better. My instincts are that it has not, but that people have adjusted to the “new normal”. Whatever unclean spirit it was that was stalking the young people of Coweta, Fayette, and Henry counties, it was remarkably egalitarian; distinctions of white/non-white, gay/straight, male/female meant nothing to it. High school royalty and high school rejects were alike victims.

    One family had a crusty old matriarch who lost a grandson, a promising young musician in the church. When someone approached her with the old bromide “Everything happens for a reason”, I’ll never forget her response. “That doesn’t mean that we would like it or that we should accept it.”

    Somewhere between the Hallmark Channel optimism of “Everything is part of God’s big squeaky, cuddly plan” and the nihilism of “Nothing happens for a reason. What we call ‘order’ is an emergent phenomenon, a phantasm of our misfiring synapses”; is where the truth inevitably lies, with a God who didn’t exempt Himself from the disorder He allowed His creatures to suffer through. Actually, He even arranged for Himself to have a mother who would suffer just as much, if not more, than He did.

    • Christiane says

      ” What we call ‘order’ is an emergent phenomenon, a phantasm of our misfiring synapses”; is where the truth inevitably lies, with a God who didn’t exempt Himself from the disorder He allowed His creatures to suffer through. Actually, He even arranged for Himself to have a mother who would suffer just as much, if not more, than He did.”

      +1

      • Christiane says

        “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or to remove it.
        He came to fill it with His Presence.”

        (P. Claude)

    • –> “…a God who didn’t exempt Himself from the disorder He allowed His creatures to suffer through.”

      Yep.

      I was having a discussion yesterday with some people about other religions/gods/etc and I asked, Is there any way to prove the God portrayed in the scriptures (“our God”, if you will) is the True God?

      Our conclusion was, No, not really. But we concluded that what you CAN say is, “If there is a God, how might He best portray Himself and His love, and how do other religions/gods measure up to that?”

      Well, we think it comes down a lot to your line there: we believe our God is the True God because he didn’t exempt Himself from the disorder He allowed His creatures to suffer through.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    But most ministerial training keeps on giving pastoral leaders books instead of bread to feed the hungry. Especially in the biblicist evangelical world, in post-evangelical streams such as neo-Calvinism and neo-Puritanism, and in any tradition that places prime value on doctrine and rational “answers” as a main approach to religious practice, we continue to produce miserable counselors who focus on the “whys” of life and encourage people to live into the why.

    And you become nothing more than a Party Commissar reciting The Party Line.

  4. I was at a bar prior to the last Dallas Stars hockey game of the season last week. Guy sitting next to me and my buddy was Greek Orthodox. My friend and I started chatting with him and his wife. I told a Catholic joke and he asked if we were Catholics. I told him yes and they mildly but immediately launched into debate mode concerning the Pope and the nature of Mary. Oddly, I think for the very first time ever, I was utterly disinterested. I was looking forward to hockey and could not have been any less inclined to debate them. I’m guessing I came across as a nominal adherent with little or no knowledge of anything theological. That may be the case. I made light of it all in a friendly and humorous but clearly dismissive way. Our conversation ended light and congenial. When he left he said something to the effect that if it were up to the laity we could sort out the divide but the clergy is entrenched. Not sure I believe that. Plenty of futile arguments to go around from top to bottom. Anyway, the Stars won and all is right with the world….and Mary…and the Greeks…and the Pope. God still looks for a humble and contrite heart above sacrifice, Mercy above judgement and most importantly, Love above knowledge.

  5. A hug, your presence, and a simple, “I’m here if you need me.” That’s all that’s required.

  6. Ronald Avra says

    Thanks for the repeat post. Yes, it was helpful.

  7. johnbarry says

    Some good insight and thoughts in the article. Very simply as Rick Ro stated . there is comfort and value and just being there.
    I really have gathered some needed insight and how to handle the very arkward, if that is the right word, situation when someone loses a loved one or face a terrible situation. I no longer feel compelled to say “something” or to quote a well meaning platitude or stumble, babbling on..

    I also agree with the point Rick Ro. made about reading the room. I think at times I can “sense” when someone grieving wants to hear some familiar comforting words as they long for their lost to be validated.

    Again I will say , on this subject when CM speaks I treat him like E.F. Hutton and I listen.

    I am afraid that at my demise, IF and when that occurs, the majority comment will be “no big lost”, so I am hoping for silence.

  8. Christiane says

    Where did the idea of ‘everything will turn out okay in the end, even if it’s terrible now’ originate, or is it the ‘God’s Will’ thing (The Lord giveth, and the The Lord taketh away, praise be the Name of the Lord);
    or maybe was it from the story of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt, where it was mentioned ‘men intended this for evil, but God meant it for good’ ???

    I don’t know.

    But I like the idea that Christ came to be ‘with’ us and that His Presence and His partaking of our sad lot has great meaning in response to the ‘why’? of suffering in this world.

    There is kind of a ‘tradition’ of ‘everything happens for a reason’ in Judaism but it goes by a different name, this:
    ‘Whatever God does, must be for the good’

    . . . here is one example:

    ” . . . a famous story from the Talmud, this one featuring Rabbi Akiva.

    Rabbi Akiva, a student of Nachum Ish Gamzu, would say, “Kal d’avid Rachmana letav avid—What­ever G?d does, must be for the good.” The tale is told of how Rabbi Akiva traveled with a candle, a rooster, and a donkey: the candle so he could study Torah at night, the rooster—his alarm clock—to wake him up to study Torah, and finally the donkey to carry his possessions. Rabbi Akiva stopped at a city. He tried to get lodging at an inn but there was no room avail­able. Rabbi Akiva went from house to house but nobody would let him in. So what did he do? He walked into the neighboring woods and set up camp. All of a sudden, a strong wind kicked up and extinguished the candle. A few moments later, a fero­cious lion emerged from behind his tent and killed his donkey. What was left? The rooster. A ravenous cat appeared and devoured it. Rabbi Akiva was completely stuck. What did he say? “Whatever G?d does, must be for the good.”

    The next morning, Rabbi Akiva discovered that a band of robbers had attacked the town during the night, mercilessly killing the people and stealing their money. The robbers escaped into the forest. If they had seen the candle, or heard the noise of the rooster and donkey, Rabbi Akiva would have met the same fate as the townspeople. G?d had saved his life by extinguishing his candle and taking his animals.”