Friday, June 17, 2016

"God must have needed another angel."

My Baby Angel, by Draskias Art
He was a garrulous man and we'd just met him at church, accepting an invitation to share a table at a meal before the Wednesday night service. In exchanging pleasantries he discovered that Hubs is a chaplain. People seem to connect with that much more easily than with my ministry. So even though I've been working in missions all my adult life, Hubs comes across the religious professional in our family. Occasionally this rankles.

Maybe I should be glad of it. It means people seldom try to engage me on matters in which I have some expertise and experience, such as relating to people from different religions and cultures or understanding the cultural dynamics underlying global events. Sometimes they still say dumb stuff about those things in front of me which I have a hard time letting pass, but it doesn't seem to occur to them that I might know more than they do about what they're talking about. I'm more likely to get blank stares, though, than people who want to talk world mission with me.

It is, though something that happens to Chris a lot. People want to talk to him about death, grief, and loss, or make statements taking for granted what his job must be like or what he's trying to accomplish (e.g., evangelism? nope!). Sometimes they just say the most ignorant things... things I hate to hear, but at least it's just me, not  someone who just suffered a heartbreaking loss.

This time the man brought up a tragedy that had just occurred down in Florida. A two-year-old boy was snatched and killed by an alligator while wading in a pond at a Disney resort.

"God must have needed another angel," the man said with conviction, as if expecting nods and affirmation from the chaplain and his wife.

We both stiffened. What kind of terrible God would... ? Take a child from his parents so cruelly, for his own sake? Need more angels, really, at all? And where does this idea come from that people who die zip right up to Heaven and turn into angels, anyway?  How could someone who grew up in the church and came to this specific church because he appreciates that they teach the Bible (and not just the human ideas and traditions) fail to recognize how many things were wrong with this kind of statement?

But usually people do things for a reason, so I got to thinking about why people might think the "angel" bit is a helpful thing to say. I can think of several possibly comforting or encouraging implications of believing that kind of myth. It suggests that God has things under control, rather than letting the world's chaos run wild. It suggests that the child is in a better place and has in some sense been promoted, rather than suffering such a horrible experience without any positive results to perhaps mitigate things. It may be as if to say: Your baby is OK. So, even someone who didn't really believe that might consider it more palatable than alternatives! There are certainly other ways to arrive that these conclusions, though, ways that align better with the teachings of scripture, though they may not sound as slick. The "angel" idea might seem kinder, if indeed people are in a place to receive comfort of this sort (maybe so, maybe not).

Still, it is hard to sit and listen to someone malign God, really, and say things that are, when it comes down to it, biblically and theologically unsupportable (not to mention potentially very harmful or wounding if said to someone experiencing that kind of loss).

But what do you do? We'd just met this guy and his comment was only made in passing. No one was asking for feedback or instruction here. The right thing to do seemed to be just to let it pass. Hubs has also held his tongue in more sensitive settings, as when a family member or neighbor or nurse or deputy coroner says these words or others like them. To stop them and give a theology lesson isn't likely to keep such words from wounding the bereaved, just to shame and maybe anger or drive away the well intentioned but thoughtless speaker.

What do you do when people say thoughtless but terrible things like that? When would it be OK to confront them? Does it depend on the setting? Who else is present? How long they go on in that vein? Or maybe how well you know that person? Perhaps there are times when you know the person and can speak to them later about the problem, privately, as well as to offer the bereaved a chance to talk about it when the other person is not present.