Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Problem of Pain

Street Pastors again.  Tonight made more sense to me, I got to go out with some of the guys I trained with, which was fun, and despite some spitty rain the night had a really good vibe to it.  We met a lot of people; Sylvia the Big Issue Lady was out as usual, selling roses, some groups of lads who thanked us for being there, and some girls who were stunned by the fact we were giving away flipflops for free.  Oh, and check out our new stash.  It's a bit swish and very warm due to the big fat fleecey layer on the inside.

And one lady, who is now engraved in my brain.  We bumped into her when the lads we were talking to started involving her in the conversation and told her who we were.  She muttered something about Christians being fake to her friend, then looked at us, straight-mouthed, and said "Okay, I'm going to ask this to all of you and see if you all answer the same.  I've had eight miscarriages."  My demeanor changed instantly, blocking out the lads round us.  It was time to be serious.  "I've got six kids, but I've had eight miscarriages.  So tell me, what kind of a God does that?"
"Yeah," one of the boys chipped in, "how come pedophiles and murderers can have families, but good people always die."

What do you say when faced with a question like that?  This is the kind of problem that has been a major sticking point about the idea of God with a lot of people since it first came up; why do bad things happen?  C.S. Lewis wrote a book about it, The Problem of Pain, after the death of his wife.
I know many women who have suffered miscarriages, my mother is one of them, and even the idea of it is awful to contemplate.  In my life so far there has been and is an answer to pain, and God is it, but it's not something you can explain to someone.  Rather it's something a person has to experience themselves, a journey they take on their own, and the reason for this is that it's so intensely personal.  No one, however much they might want to, can feel another person's pain, can understand it fully, or can heal it for them.  It's a long conversation, often a fight, between man and God to try and make sense of the world again.

So here I am, faced with this woman who is clearly hurting very badly, and I know that nothing I can say is going to fix this for her.  In fact all I can think of are things I very badly want not to say:
1)  I don't want to try to tell her that it will get better eventually, or about these women I know who have come through miscarriages (one couple, six of them) closer to God than ever.
2)  I don't want to patronise her with meaningless platitudes about how good God is when right now she probably hates his guts.  That would most likely just make things worse.
3)  It's probably not the right time to point out that miscarriages aren't just a smiting, there are often numerous and complex reasons for them including genetics, biology and her own life choices.  How much more insensitive could you get?

Worst of all, with all these lads around us yelling and cutting in, even if I had the time this isn't the place, not for something this delicate.  What can I do?
"It must be so hard," I said seriously, trying to keep eye contact with this boys jumping around everywhere.  "I'm so sorry."
She asks me essentially the same thing again, and I reply the same, adding that it's not really something I can explain for her.  The lad from before chips in again.
"Is it maybe to inspire the rest of us to try and be better, or to make us appreciate life?"
I said "Maybe."

I'm getting a bit of this at the moment from various places.  People have troubles in their lives from day-to-day, I have troubles (somewhat smaller just now, thankfully) in my own, the Pope is visiting which is making a lot of people cross and they want to tell me so (although I didn't invite him!  I'm not entirely keen on it either), I recently saw a televised debate on the Catholic church and whether or not it's a Force for Good.  (Anne Widdecombe says it is -she is always fun to watch and I like her hard-headedness in debate- and Stephen Fry says it isn't -he made an excellent arguement and I have a lot of time for his opinions- I found Hitchens a bit arrogant and Onaiyekan a bit simple, bar his closing statement, and the outcome should give everyone a lot to think about) 
Additionally my housemate is reading the God Delusion (which I do not think is watertight from the section I've read) and I want to borrow it from her when she's done and go through it properly myself, but I am not a fan of Dawkins; not because of his atheism but because I find him to be antagonistic and a whinger (sorry, Richard, but I do)
All in all, a lot of people seem to be telling me how rubbish Christianity/Christians are lately, and how rubbish various churches are, and not many of them are being polite about it.  And I'm not sure they're all wrong either.

I'm one of those people who tries to see the good in things, even if there's not much there to start with.  It's not blind faith, I made sure of that, but I started considering that side of things because I want to live with a certain attitude to the world around me.  It's what gives me my underlying joy about life, but it doesn't mean I'm blind to problems.  There are a lot of them.  Everywhere.  Yes, in the church, in this town, in me.  Maybe because I make so many mistakes myself I can appreciate how easy it is to let fear of reprisals and people's opinions stop even large organisations from doing the right thing, but that doesn't change their actions.On the news I see nothing but problems, many that I cannot fix except to be indignant and angry on behalf of people I've never even met, which does them little help. 

My instinct is to defend the good and try and bring it out, but sometimes there is nothing to defend.  Because when someone is angry about molested children and the institutionalised denial of it, there is nothing you can say.  And when a religion loses it's heart to putting human beings in a hierarchy and the practise of mere tradition, there is nothing you can say.  And when a hurting woman mourns her unborn children there is nothing you can say.  When they shout at you and insult the God you love because they feel wronged by his people there is nothing you can say.  You represent the institution of the international Church in their eyes, and God, and every other Christian on the planet.  For just a few seconds you are all of these people, and you must answer for all of them.
Sometimes you shouldn't say anything.  You shouldn't defend and you shouldn't fight for it.  Because it is bad, and you can't make it better with words.
Sometimes you should just acknowledge the problem, let them hate you, and shut up.

The woman berates us a bit more. I nod and don't smile, and I tell her "It must be awful. I'm so sorry."  When she left she seemed less angry, but I don't really know.

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