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Can "my theology" hold pain?

I would like to explore here how my embedded theology as compared to my deliberative theology and reflecting on my personal experience in a patient encounter of infant death. In brief, the theology of my childhood and education could not hold me in my deepest pains; my experience of depression and anxiety, childhood wounds, abuse in and from the church, etc. But my profound experience of God in those places has been able to hold me. It is my task now to articulate in a theological way what theologies are no longer helpful to me for myself and in my practice as a chaplain, and what theologies are helpful to me. This is my first deliberate “words on paper” attempt to tease out these unhelpful and helpful theologies.


Even as I call theology “helpful” or “unhelpful” this raises alerts from my embedded theology. My embedded theology would say, “Theology is not helpful or unhelpful. It is a right or wrong way of understanding metaphysical realities. I.e. God does or does not exist. How the nature of God is understood is right or wrong.” And coming to correct conclusions about these metaphysical realities is of utmost importance.


My deliberative theology is agnostic about getting all the metaphysics correct. My experience of who I call “God”, is unconcerned with humanity’s “correct” metaphysics and more concerned with what my Christian tradition calls “Fruits of the Spirit”, which are: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-control. Where I see and experience these virtues working themselves out, I witness God. Where I see or experience these virtues lacking, I find the limitations of being a human being, the finiteness of the world, and hurt people who hurt people. Human beings are works in progress figuring out how to make the best of this life and this world. In this task, we run up against pain, the fragility of our bodies, and other limited and hurt humans and these things prevent us from living into the fullness of the Fruits of the Spirit.


The other week, I received a call from a nurse while on shift. She communicated to me that a family was removing life support for their 2-month-old son. They had not requested a chaplain, but she wanted to let me know. The family had not received a quilt or bereavement packet yet. The infant had been admitted the day before to the PICU with symptoms of infection and the family was not removing life support. This was all the information I had about the baby’s medical condition. I knew there was mom and a dad who had tried for a long time to have a child and this was their long hoped for baby. I knew there were 2 teenage sisters, so this was a possible second marriage or relationship? I knew grandma was present.


Here is what my embedded theology tells me. My embedded theology says all babies go to heaven, so this should be a comfort to the family. That one day, IF they receive Jesus into their hearts, they will see their baby again.


This does not work for me. This tells me that the only comfort this family has is in accepting certain beliefs about Jesus and what happens after we die and that one day, they will see their baby again in heaven? What about the pain and the grief now? What about the shattered hopes that had come true in the life of this precious baby? What if they don’t “accept Jesus” are they then without hope and comfort? For me, this theology presents a world in which God does not enter into spaces of profound grief and pain because there are conditions on God’s love, peace, and comfort. And that condition is a human’s acceptance of “right theology”. This doesn’t work, because I have experienced God meeting me in my worst pains, so while I don’t pretend to know the actual experience of others in their worst pains, I can imagine what it is like because I have an experience of profound pain myself. And an intellectual assent to particulars of who Jesus is/was and what happens after we die doesn’t begin to bring me comfort in my deepest places of pain.


What did bring me comfort, is experiencing God with me in my pit. I see this reflected in Psalm 139, when David says, “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will overcome me. And the light about me will become night. Even darkness is not dark to you. The night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.’” What I hear described in this Psalm is a God that is not afraid of the dark. Not that dark is actually light to God, but that God is able to enter into the darkest and most painful parts of humanity (as evidenced in Jesus’s experience on the cross) and God is ok. Jesus can conquer death, the worst fear of humanity. I may not be ok right now, but God is present and is not afraid of the darkness I am experiencing, even if I am afraid of the darkness I am experiencing. And in this experience of divine presence and love, I am able to have hope.


In my practice, I consider myself a human incarnation of Divine love being present in dark places. I walked into the room with momma holding her dead baby so lovingly and gently. Grandma and Daddy were leaning in close looking at baby with such love and grief. The greatest love and the greatest pain where held together and displayed on their faces. I felt God in the love the family had for this precious baby and in this love, I felt hope. But not a hope that needed to be articulated in the form of seeing their baby again one day, but an experience of love that needed to be affirmed. I offered the shark quilt to momma and daddy as a token to remember their son. They loved it. Baby’s “favorite” toy was a shark puppet. I offered a small heart to stay with baby and one to stay with momma. “A part of your heart will always be with your baby.” We both wept as I tied the heart on baby’s wrist and offered her “her heart”. I remarked on how beautiful and peaceful baby looked; on how much love for baby was in the room. The family appreciated the tokens of remembrance and the ceremony. The family was basking in the love and grief of their little one, and it was enough for me to witness this, affirm it for them, and offer symbols of remembrance.


Can the love and God I felt in that room be summed up in rational understanding of metaphysical realities? Or is that even the most important thing about that experience? I don’t think so.

After spending time with baby and family, feeling with them the love and pain of the death of their child, I went out to the second floor garden and sat in the middle and closed my eyes. I felt the sun warm my face and the cool breeze on my skin, God was present. In seminary, I learned Ignatian spirituality. Ignatian spirituality emphasizes the uses of the senses to become aware of God’s presence. The guiding principle is that God can be found in all things. For me, on retreat, I met God in the experience of the sun on my face and the cool breeze on my skin. Whenever I have had this experience since, I am reminded God is present. God presence is not incompatible with pain and darkness, but through nature and in other people Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Gentleness, and Self-control are often found.


This for me is a Divine Mystery and I am comfortable in Divine mystery. I am less interested these days in having specific articulated philosophies or theologies of the metaphysical nature of God, I am more interested in how we as humans are coming into union with “God” and reflecting divine love in the world around us.

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