My tendency when describing my life is to paint a lot of silver linings. Like an artist who is not fully happy with his work, I tend to distract the viewer from the harshness in the frame by adding colors and light where they probably don’t belong. I am learning to be content to let people view my life, and hear my story for what it is.
Two years ago I was interviewed for placement in a Clinical Pastoral Education program in Columbia S.C. This is the sort of training chaplains are required to take. During the interview I was asked to tell my story. I did. I told them about my wife’s struggles following brain surgery, my son’s death, my youngest son’s cancer. Difficulties in ministry. I held a brush of sorts in my hand and painted a verbal picture of a hard life, and over each dark cloud and around every rough spot I splashed some light, gave it some color so it would not stand out as that bad. I said things like, “but God has been so good to me,” “I would never know Jesus as I know him had I not gone through all this,” “I understand what people go through, because I have gone through it,” “I know how to speak to a pastor who faces opposition because I too…” On and on I went… adding silver linings to every dark part of the painting.
After a few minutes, certain they saw my experience as more than necessary qualification to enter the program, my interviewer asked me this question, “Tell me something that has not worked out so well in your life.”
The brush fell out of my hand. I understood the point of the question immediately. Some day I will have to stand at the bedside of a dying person, and nothing I say will change the harshness of their experience. Some day I will sit before a man whose wife abandoned him with no hope of restoration. Some times they don’t need me to explain it, or take the sting out of it, but simply to share the harshness with them. To say something like, “Wow, that is hard, unfair.” “I hate what you are going through.” “That is totally wrong.”
I read Psalm 9 this morning struck by the balance, maybe tension, between what David was going through now and what he hoped for in the future. Take a moment and read the Psalm, and you will notice something. David speaks of hope without undermining the harshness of the present. He allows pain to be painful. He treats tragedy for what it really is. Tragic. He allows for the honest portrayal of the enemies for who they truly are, evil. He doesn’t explain away sin, or rationalize what God is permitting. He allows God to hold the brush, knowing the silver linings will not be added till the very end, when it’s all over with and the King has conquered and established His reign. In the meantime it is okay to look around and say, “This is all so wrong, and hard.” Doing so makes room for a kind of hope that will make the waiting and the gutting out worth it. One day, the glory of God will replace the silver linings and fill our lives, our world with such beauty and majesty and all in the absence of sin and evil.
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. 2 Cor. 5:1-5
I reflected on these thought with a good friend who serves as a hospice chaplain and her response is worth placing here: She writes: “This is the most important thing I have learned through CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) and in my work as a Chaplain – not to fix things!! It never works and usually makes the person you are helping feel frustrated. The best thing to do is to listen, empathize, listen and listen some more. Mirroring back to a patient the emotions you hear them expressing is healing. Do I want to tell them it will work out in the end and that God is there for them – yes! Does it ever help – not often. It can come across as dismissive and minimizing their pain. I have had to let go of the need to defend God.”