When someone is drowning, the only thing worse than failing to throw them a life preserver is handing them a reason.
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Live into the “What” not the “Why”
Religious people (me, for example) are really good at focusing on the “whys” of life. Pastors and theologians, in particular, make this their specialty. We think it is our duty to explain the mysteries of God, life, and the universal code of justice. We imagine that the people in our congregations and communities are filled with questions about these and other transcendent matters, eager to get the right answers so that their minds and souls can rest at ease in the midst of life’s ups and downs.
Not so much.
At least in my experience, we religious types (especially leaders, teachers, and passionate Bible study types) seem to be the only ones who really care about such things on any regular basis. Most of the rest of the human race simply goes about the business of living.
Oh sure, there are occasions, especially in painful and overwhelming seasons — what Walter Brueggemann calls the times of “disorientation” — when most people might feel the cry “Why?” rise up and explode from their mouths. But even then, the questions they ask, like Why? How long? Where are you, God? Why me? How much more can I take? and protestations like This isn’t fair! are usually exclamations of pain and panic rather than intellectual queries.
We’ve made the point here many, many times that people in such circumstances aren’t looking so much for answers as for reassurance. They want comforting company. They long to feel the “thereness” of someone who cares, who is with them and will not abandon them, who will not freak out but be a calming presence and a sure guide through the storm. They long to feel safe and secure. Having little or no control over their situation, they want a sturdy anchor to hold on to so they won’t be washed away in the rushing waters that threaten to overwhelm them.
Words, explanations, arguments, apologetics, analysis, etc. — these are most certainly not the tools of ministry to reach for to support such people. And you know what? Most of the time, I’ve found they don’t really want those things either. Even if they present themselves as serious about wanting explanations, when you start to give one, I’ve noticed that people tend to tune out, recognizing right away that the “comforter” is just throwing bits of paper into a whirlwind.
Friend, they already know you don’t have the answer! If anything, they are testing you to see whether you are smart enough to know that too. Then, maybe they might trust you.
But most ministerial training keeps on giving pastoral leaders books instead of bread to feed the hungry. Especially in the biblicist evangelical world, in post-evangelical streams such as neo-Calvinism and neo-Puritanism, and in any tradition that places prime value on doctrine and rational “answers” as a main approach to religious practice, we continue to produce miserable counselors who focus on the “whys” of life and encourage people to live into the why.
As a hospice clinician, I have come to appreciate a different way. We live into the “what” of life, what we’ve been talking about this week as the “thisness” of life. We simply deal with what is before us. Discussing theoretical speculations and solving transcendental puzzles rarely enters into the work. No, we sit face to face with people and try to ease their pain. Period.
It’s as simple and as complicated as that. It can be hard enough at times figuring out what the “what” is that is causing distress. If we were tasked with going beyond that to figure out the “whys” and “wherefores” too, we’d waste a lot of precious time that could be devoted to genuinely supporting those we serve.
The work of supporting others and providing comfort is always more about the “what” than the “why.”
Now I’m not stupid. I realize that ministers and spiritual teachers are in a different setting, and it is their job to maintain and nourish certain traditions within covenantal communities. Those traditions have been developed over time to help explain some of the “whys.” Part of a minister’s kerygmatic and catechetical duty is to encourage people to embrace those as means of grace and strength in the various seasons and circumstances of life.
Fine. I am not arguing for a contentless religion of mere human compassion.
But even within a tradition, I’ve found that, in the end, for me, my “whys” are assuaged by a few relatively simple things: the liturgy and sensory comfort of sacred spaces and rituals, a few precious reassurances from scripture, hymns, and wise sayings, feeling the texture of my prayer beads and hearing the psalms prayed. Things like these provide more than enough satisfaction for the “whys” and other laments that pour from my soul.
And you want to give me a lecture on the sovereignty of God?
Instead, I’m going to need you to look at me in my time of distress and say, “What can I do to let you know you’re not alone? that you are loved and safe and cared for? that you can be at peace?”
When I’m in that situation and need you, don’t try to engage me in some conversation about “why.”
Live into the “what” and love me.