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Good Grief

By Houston M. Burnside

Houston Burnside cupI lost my son on December 5, 2012. He was an adult, but still my dearly loved son. At first I was numb. I didn’t shed a tear at his memorial service. A year and a half later I opened our front door and heard a familiar sound. It was from a music CD my son had made. My wife was playing it. The very moment I identified that it was Steve who was singing, I almost collapsed. I broke down in such deep sorrow and emotional pain I could hardly stand. My Christian faith didn’t seem to be of much help in removing my sorrow and guilt.

It’s been three years now. I still find myself talking to his picture.

There’s a story in the Bible about King Jeroboam who lost his son. The prophet Ahijah told the king’s wife that their son would die – and he did. This was punishment for the king and his family for “making other gods” (I Kings 14:1-18).   Jeroboam must have felt like I do. I still feel a sense of guilt concerning my son. What could I have done to help? What did I do wrong in raising him? Am I being punished for my sins and shortcomings?

In 1981 Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book that has been very helpful for many people dealing with suffering, sorrow and guilt (When Bad Things Happen to Good People).(1)  He and his wife lost a young son. Kushner said he became a lot more sensitive, sympathetic and effective in his ministry after the death of his son. Yet he went on to confess that he would give all that up if he could have his son back. If, indeed, something good can evolve from something bad, it is also the case that this good may not completely erase deep feelings of sorrow, grief or guilt.

Professor Bart Ehrman is a well-known agnostic. He started out as a rather fundamentalist Christian.  He and his wife lost their young child who suffered from a rare genetic disease called progeria. In 2008 he published a book dealing with the question, “Why do we suffer?”(2) He said his examination of the problem of suffering in light of the Christian scriptures is what led him to give up a belief in God. He has a hard time believing a loving, omnipotent God would allow such suffering as we see in our world and would dish it out as punishment. Ehrman suggests that biblical authors offer differing solutions to the problem of human suffering. They lived at different times and represented different cultures. He rejects the notion that God’s punishment is to prepare his people for the afterlife. He asserts that this life is all we get. It is, therefore, imperative that we make the most of it. Death and dying are part of life and suffering is a universal phenomenon. Because our fellow humans suffer is reason enough for us to want to do what we can to help. We don’t need a transcendent, divine imperative.

When my son died, I questioned my faith and all of God’s “promises” that I read or heard about over the years. However, I didn’t completely give up. I didn’t go as far as Ehrman did, but I did move in that direction. Even before Steve’s death I tended to view many Bible stories as myths. They didn’t have to be historically or scientifically accurate. As myths they carried depths of meaning that, for me, went far beyond my earlier, fundamentalist understandings. Even though Ehrman is a professor of religious studies, he no longer believes in God. I still believe in God, but not the anthropomorphized God I learned about in Sunday school.

In trying to handle my own grief from the loss of a son, I did what I’ve advised many others to do, over the years: to treasure the good memories and hang on to hope as best you can. There’s no right, or pat, answer to questions that evolve from experiences of grief. I had to come to terms with that conclusion as a pastor and as one grieving over the loss of my son. I’ve accepted the notion that ambiguity is a vital part of life – whether I like it or not.

It’s more effective to deal with grief and suffering in the company of others. That’s where the church community can enter the scene: providing a place and an opportunity to offer and receive emotional and spiritual support.

Psalm 13 offers some understanding of human suffering via King David’s example. Feeling ignored by God, the Psalmist cried out, “How long, O Lord; will you ignore me forever? How long will You hide your face from me?” (vs. 1). He felt utterly forsaken. Yet, in the end, he was able to trust and hope, even to rejoice in the hope of God’s salvation. God didn’t remove David’s suffering or its causes. But, David was able to come to the place where he could sense that God was still with him; he wasn’t alone.

My pitch is that, whether we are believers or not, we need to do what we can to be of help to the suffering in the here and now. This doesn’t mean preaching to them. It means being present for them as best we can. It may mean holding a hand, offering a gentle hug, listening without rushing in with quick solutions or clichés. It means showing by our actions what unconditional love is all about. That’s what Jesus demonstrated. I’ve said this many times, and I’ll say it again, I don’t want to be known as just a believer. I do want to be known as a follower of Jesus.
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(1) Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (NY: Schoken Books, Inc., 1981, 2001), p. xiii
(2) Bart Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer (NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008), pp. 3, 53-55, 141

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Houston Burnside is Professor Emeritus of Teacher Education, San Diego State University. In addition, he is an ordained minister with the American Baptist Churches, USA and served 12 years in pastoral ministry. Houston and his wife, Connie are now active members of the Table: United Church of Christ of La Mesa, CA. Houston is currently enrolled in a continuing education program through Princeton Theological Seminary.

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