Stewarding Presence Even When God Seems Absent
I was so pleased to have been asked recently to prepare a presentation for the Stephen’s Ministers of my congregation, and I decided to make the gathered group into guinea pigs.
For some time, I’ve been mulling the experience of pain, grief, and suffering as it is experienced in the Church. I wanted to use this assembly of healers as an opportunity to bounce of a couple of notions I have about the acknowledgement, and in fact stewardship, of pain in the Church.
This use of the term “stewardship” in this way might seem a bit bizarre, but here’s why:
I see stewardship as not about money, nor about the catchy phrase “Time, Talents, and Treasures.”
I like John Westerhof’s phrase, “Stewardship is what I do after I say, ‘I believe.'”
A steward is one who serves in the stead of, instead of, the absent master/mistress. They do not act according to their own agenda, but rather represent the intentions of the one whom they serve.
So when we’re talking stewardship in the realm of religion, we are talking about acting on behalf of the one whom we call God.
Christians believe that on the cross, everything, including most poignantly pain and suffering, was absorbed into God. That is, Christians believe that Jesus took upon himself the pain….and that the empty tomb echoes with the belief that life and love and mercy and hope overcame it.
So to make my point, I’m thinking that even the pain becomes God’s.
Like the cross is transformed into Easter, so too can pain be transformed into persistence and hope.
Insofar as that might be true, pain can be stewarded. Its experience can be shared and, just perhaps, by so doing, can be an avenue for healing by way of solidarity, trust, and compassion.
What I’ve come to decide is that often, the Church doesn’t really know what do to with pain, either the affliction of pain (e.g., accidents, illnesses, natural disasters) or the infliction of pain (e.g., addictions, abuse, betrayals). We tend to gravitate toward promises of God overcoming, and less time attending in a long-term way to the whatever-it-is-that-must-be-overcome.
The acknowledgment of pain, that life is messy, is often granted 7-8 minutes in a 14-17 minute sermon which ends in a rousing affirmation that we despite everything can trust God’s promises.
It’s probably not a coincidence that we extol those who “persist in their faith,” “believe that God is in control,” “remain strong in the face of adversity.”
The thing of it is, in point of fact, there are many of us who are grieving and/or guilty.
As I warned the Stephen Ministers, unfortunately, it is precisely because they are a Christian ministry that people might not trust them, because Christians often do pretty well with judgment, less well with a commitment to compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation as a matter of habit and course.
I’d like to see more openness to the reality of pain of both sorts: affliction and infliction.
I’d like to move beyond the simplistic (and not particularly creative) judgments about people’s behaviors toward the sacred ritual of asking questions.
I’d like to see us make God’s promises tangible. If we read in Scripture that not a hair on our head will be harmed, how do make the spirit of that promise true when the literal meaning of it is false?
I’d like to see us be open to vulnerable acknowledgment of our mistakes, a practice which might provide others with the courage to speak about theirs, and finally find welcome in the pews instead of fearful repression of one’s regrets and persistent sorrows.
I’d like to see us name in sermons that some things in this world are inexplicable in the face of our attestation that God is love–and just leave it there.
In short, I’d like to see us reframe stewardship so that care for others allows for the telling of our tales, the sharing of our lessons, the acknowledgment of worthy and true doubt about–and even disgust at–God and religion, the pursuit of humble reconciliation, the consolation of real compassion in the form of meals delivered for months if not years, laundry washed, therapy paid for, babysitters secured, rent covered, tissues offered.
In short, I’d like to see God’s promises concretized, stewarded into presence even when God seems absent.
What do you think?