It's four hours I will not soon forget.
The County Sheriff is a member of my congregation, and he asked me to visit a local family who suffered a tragic loss. In a small community like the one I am a part of, when tragedy strikes, everyone is affected. When that tragedy involves horrific death and suspected murder, folks get sent reeling--especially in a place where "that kind of stuff doesn't happen."
As the pastor of the only congregation within a radius of 11 miles, essentially, I am the community pastor--not just the pastor of St. John Lutheran Church. Sure, not everyone in the community is a member of my congregation, but I serve this community, and we are charged with reaching out into this community to deal with its needs.
The Sheriff sensed a need, and he asked me to go.
Making cold calls to a stranger's home is not the most comfortable thing in the world. You never really know how you will be welcomed--or not welcomed for that matter. Fortunately, the folks in this case were very receptive. They had many within our community reach out to them during their time of trial. At first, I was just one more in a long line.
But I am a pastor. In times like these, whether or not I like it, I represent God. I'm a messenger. That can make a big difference.
Working through grief is an exhaustive process. Working through anger and frustration and pain is an exhausting process, but you have to stick with it. You can't just spend 15 minutes, tell folks we're thinking of you, offer further assistance if they need it, say a quick prayer and walk out the door thinking you've really dealt with things. To really make any kind of impact, you've got to stay.
And I did. The process was overwhelming at times, but there was a lot to work through.
The family was not only dealing with the grief of losing their loved one, but there was more. Much, much more. This death was not the only tragedy experienced. A son/grandson had died while drinking and driving. Years before rape had happened. All of these wounds were touched by the tragic events of a few nights before. Accumulated guilt, anger, sadness, and frustration bubbled--no, erupted--while I was there.
It didn't bother me to be a part of such an event. Sometimes, the doctor has to lance the boil to get the infection out. Only then, can healing salve be administered.
"I've spent the last two years angry with God. I've cussed Him. I was told He made my son die so that I would get my life straight. Is that right?"
I hate it when folks say such things.
Don't get me wrong. I know where it comes from. I know in the Older Testament, there are numerous occasions of God punishing people for their sins. There are numerous instances of death and despair and illness falling upon folks who disobeyed God's commands. David had his son die. The Israelites had serpents sent among them to bite them. The ground opened up and swallowed those who sought to lead a rebellion against Moses. And so on and so forth. In the Newer Book, there is even a scene of God's vengeance poured out against Ananias and Sapphira. One can create this image of God who punishes us for our sins and indeed sends us messages of death so that we get our lives straight. I understand folks who make sense out of tragedy by saying such things, but this is not the narrative revealed through Jesus Christ.
"No," I replied. "God didn't kill your son to get your attention so that you would become a better person. God doesn't operate that way anymore."
Oh, the conversation wound around more and more.
"We are no longer under the discipline of the Law. Mind you, the Law is still in effect, but we are no longer under its discipline."
"God was not responsible for your son's death. The reason your son is dead is he drank, drove into oncoming traffic and hit an 18 wheeler."
"So, he's responsible for his own death?"
"It may sound harsh to say it, but yes. I have to tell the truth. Just like God is not responsible for your sister's death. The person who killed her is."
"God does not make us suffer so that we 'get our lives together.' God does not say, 'Get your stuff together or else you will go to hell.' God says, 'I love you. I died for you. Now, become obedient to me.' God's love always comes first. He loves you now. He always has."
"Thank you. For the last two years, I've hated God."
"I bet you have. But He's never hated you."