No one escapes pain, and loss is inevitable.
I first discovered this personally when I watched my baby brother die from a genetic defect that was "incompatible with life." Though whole on the outside, his inner workings were irreparably different from what people need to survive. I was 8 years old, wide-eyed, and confused. I hope that his 3-day-old suffering was small. But I know that our family's was great. The helplessness, resignation, and wrongness of that loss hurt.
Afterwards, I saw from my second-grade perspective the various responses of our church to my family's difficult time. We were new to the faith. I watched my parents mourn and receive comfort from people that we worshipped with on Sundays. Some of them were wonderful, silent. They suffered with us. Others had no clue what to do, other than share awkward platitudes or even trying to change the subject to something other than the little bundle lying just out of sight.
Since then, I've been around plenty of premature funerals, at plenty of hospital beds where the morphine wasn't cutting it, or was cutting it too well. Across plenty of coffee tables from close friends one Americano away from breaking down. I've seen and heard the myriad Christian responses for when life hurts. Many were wonderful. But many others were totally inadequate to plumb the depths with people in the valleys of shadow.
Sometimes I wonder if our Christian subculture has lost the ability to reckon with suffering. You'd be hard pressed to find any indication in most Christian media that we suffer at all. The few resources dedicated to the topic of suffering or anger towards God are either for a crowd that already knows the word "theodicy," or else so sugar-coated with sweet nuggets of how to get over your grief and on with your life that the pain and richness of suffering all but disappears. Where is the anger? The deep grief? The sense of having gazed into the abyss without any indication that God even cared about what was bumping around down there? We seem to want to excuse God even at the moments when our every instinct is to blame him.
It's polite, but hollow.
The Christian story is unflinching in its treatment of suffering. It looks the full horrors of the human experience in the eye—and refuses to turn away. It finds life and joy in the middle of it all. Our doctrine is rich with holy contradictions of blood and bandages, deaths and resurrections, and a hundred inexplicable moments of hope right when all seems lost. We have holy, angry, righteous indignation against the world's systems of abuse and oppression. And, of course, our spiritual ancestors often railed against God.
So when did we forget our rich, raging heritage?
Raging and reverent
AM talk radio is a bit like Nazareth. Can anything good come out of it? Yes, if How to Pray when You're Pissed at God (Random House, 2013) is any indication.
Ian Punnett isn't your stereotypical prayer guru. His day job is as a talk radio host/ rock station DJ, including on the (in)famous and bizarre Coast to Coast AM show, which I freely admit to listening to, anytime I have to drive creepy, isolated roads at night. When I saw his bio I expected a book that was short on prayer and long on pissed. I was wrong.
Punnett is an Episcopal deacon with a M.Div. and extensive experience as a hospital chaplain. That experience of dealing with the harsh questions of suffering comes through. How to Pray is an honest, sensitive, and surprisingly reverent book. It's big-hearted and gritty. It manages to capture a bit of the deep resignation and quiet closeness to God that I've felt in my own experiences of loss and anger. Punnett writes for those pulled to prayer even when the only words that seem to come are expletives, and he does it well.