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Making Sense of Grief and Tragedy

I write this article on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and we have just had a wonderful service here to commemorate his life and ministry. I think we were all inspired by his vision which continues to challenge all of us to carry on the work of freedom and justice for all. For that work is not over and the struggle and suffering continue. It is also now nearly a week since the devastating earthquake struck Haiti and we are all filled with grief and concern over the suffering and loss of life brought on by this tragedy.

And we may wonder how to make sense of it all. How do we as people of faith account for pain, suffering and tragedy in our lives? Many of us may also ask, “Why does God allow this to happen?” This is a question that has been asked in some form or another for millennia.

Some of us might believe that all that happens in life is God’s will and is a mystery to us that we can never comprehend. This may provide comfort to us and allow us to go on knowing that our lives are in God’s hands. And, there is some truth to this statement for there is much in our lives that we don’t understand.

But, to say that suffering and tragedy come from God is not an adequate explanation for many people and is more than they can bear, especially with a tragedy such as this one. If we believe in a loving and just God, it is hard to understand why this God would send blessings to some people and tragedy to others, especially to those who have already suffered so much.

We sometimes falsely think that if we follow the practices of our particular religious tradition then nothing bad will ever happen to us. Sometimes we mistakenly equate divine love and grace with earthly wealth and pleasure. “If we are in God’s favor,” we might conclude, “then blessing will shine upon us and no misfortune will befall us.” Therefore we also might infer that tragedy is some kind of punishment, that we have angered God in some way. Nothing could be further from the truth.

How did we ever come to believe that life would be without challenges and suffering? Just because we believe in the goodness of God and the abundance of life and love in the universe doesn’t mean that evil and suffering do not also exist. Accepting life’s challenges does not negate God’s goodness and the blessings of this life.

In his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold Kushner suggests that sometimes there is no reason for tragedy and that there is randomness in the universe. He ponders that the story of creation may not yet be finished and that there are places and moments where God’s creative power has not yet reached.

This view can be supported in some way when we look toward the Buddhist tradition where it is taught that all of life is dukkha. Dukkha is often translated as “suffering” but can also be translated to mean that all of life is out of balance or incomplete in some way. Life is not perfect and we are not fully whole or holy. There will always be tragedies and struggles that challenge us. Buddhism then prescribes an eight-fold path of spiritual practice in order to deal with the suffering and misfortune of life.

In order to embrace a different perspective we may need to think of God, not so much as the cause of everything that happens in our lives, but as the spiritual power that remains with us to nurture and guide us through whatever tragedy or triumph we may encounter. It is the power of divine love that reminds us that we are not alone and that we will never be abandoned. It is this spiritual power, the power of God’s love that helps to carry us through the twists and turns of life’s journey.

It is also this divine love that expects us to be a presence in each other’s lives. God has handed this world into our care and gives us the grace to be human and to make our own choices and to learn from these. One choice we need to face is how we will react when we see the suffering of others or when we see tragedy, injustice or inequality. It is not so much God’s job to fix these things as it is ours. With the grace and blessing that we have received we are continually called and challenged to bring that same grace and blessing to each other. The question in our hearts may not so much be, “Why has this happened?” but “What will I do about it?”

Amen, Blessed Be.

Rev. Arthur Lavoie is the Minister at First Parish Church in Dorchester, Unitarian Universalist and can be reached at minister@firstparishdorchester.org.