When Bad Things Happen to Good People – Rev Eva Cameron

A sermon about Harold Kushner’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. To listen to this service click here.

The text of the sermon begins here..

Today I will speak to you about Harold Kushner’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner’s motivation in writing this book was the spiritual journey that he encountered as he lived with the fact that his infant son had been diagnosed with progeria. This is a disease that causes rapid premature aging and early death, usually at about the age that most children are going through puberty. He watched him grow, love, learn, and die. Kushner tells us that he originally had thought to use as the book’s epigraph, a portion of the Biblical verse 2 Samuel 18:33, “O Absolom, my son, my son Absolom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absolom, my son, my son!” But that as he continued on his spiritual journey, he came to feel the better verse would be 2 Samuel 12:23, “But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”

Of this book, he writes: As he was alive, “I knew then that one day I would write this book. I would write it out of my own need to put into words some of the most important things I have come to believe and know. And I would write it to help other people who might find themselves in a similar predicament. I would write it for all those people who wanted to go on believing, but whose anger at God made it hard for them to hold on to their faith and be comforted by religion. And I would write if for all those people whose love for God and devotion to Him led them to blame themselves for their suffering and persuade themselves that they deserved it.”

As I stand here to speak to you today, it happens in the context of Brittany just having stood up last week, and asked us to keep a missing girl in our hearts and prayers. A girl that Brittany was just at a birthday party with, a sweet 13 year old girl, who less than 12 hours later was discovered brutally murdered in a field in Illinois. It happens in the context of 10 little Amish school girls having been brutally shot, 5 killed, in their school house less than a month ago. Their families all so innocent, so good. It happens in the context of spiraling school violence, as Platte Canyon High School, in Baily, Colorado, mourned the violent shooting death of a teenage girl held captive on a school bus. The week before, it was a principal killed in a high school in Wisconsin by one of his students — only a ninth grader. It happens in the context of violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Palestine every day. Airplanes have crashed in Nigeria. And unimaginable suffering is told of in Darfur. From the local to the global, the world reels from senseless death, violence, and heart-wrenching sorrow.

It also happens in the context of having sat in a circle of people last Sunday, as we celebrated Day of the Dead. People remembered their dead. One woman had given birth to not one, but two retarded children. One of them has since died. Another woman had given birth to a full-term little girl, dead. These are dear, sweet woman _ very good people. It happens in the context of having John and Karen Miller’s son Clay’s picture return to the altar many years after having first rested there, a sad goodbye to a boy that many in this church knew and loved. We do lose our loved ones, acknowledge that it is a natural part of life, and after time realize we can find joy in their living and loving, rather than dwell in our sorrow at their parting. But in the face of all this suffering, it is easy to see that many may be angry at God, or angry at themselves. Let’s pause for a moment, wrap our arms about ourselves, and give ourselves a hug. We need to recall that sense of love that is at our core.

As I spoke to people about this sermon, I kept on wanting to call this book “Why bad things happen to good people,” instead of “When bad things happen to good people.” It’s a subtle but important difference in title. Kushner actually does talk about the natural inclination to think about the question of “Why is this happening to me?” or “How could this happen to someone so innocent?” in his book; but his major point is “WHEN.” For the fact is, that we all will have our moments of sorrow, grief, rage, and upset — due to things not going as we had anticipated, or thought right. And so WHEN they happen, what do we do? How can we maintain a relationship with God, with goodness, with humanity?

We like to imagine we live in a world where WE have suffered trouble and pain, but that the general experience of the world is good, kindness, wealth, health, and joy. A more careful examination shows you how far from truth this really is. We tend to fall into the victim mode, where we are feeling sorry for ourselves, our problems, our life experiences. And when we do, there is little room to ask other people how they are doing, and really hear an answer. We have to make space for people to share what is really going on in their lives. And when we do, what a shock it is to realize that we are not alone. Indeed, it is an odd family, an odd person, who had a good upbringing, with no problems of health or wealth, or sanity.

Buddha’s message to us for over 2500 years now has been the same. I sat down because I was so troubled by misery and suffering, trying to figure out what to do. And the first and most important thing I figured out, is that suffering really exists. BUT, it comes from our understanding of how we think the world is supposed to work. It is not enough just to stop thinking we know how things are supposed to work, clinging to permanence. But we also must follow the 8-fold path, which asks of us to make our lives very deliberate, in many ways: in Wisdom 1) Right understanding; 2) Right intention. In Ethical conduct: 3) Right speech; 4) Right action; 5) Right livelihood. In Mental discipline: 6) Right effort, 7) Right mindfulness, 8) Right concentration. It’s a powerful path, but in order to find it fruitful you must first understand that suffering really is core to being human, since we long for permanence, regularity, steadiness, reliability, in ways in never can be.

Having been raised UU, I have long felt that one of our stumbling blocks as a religion, is our inability to address a person’s pain and suffering in any meaningful way. We are a hopeful people. We long for peace, justice, loving kindness — and we like to keep our eyes on the prize. We don’t like to dwell in “the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” as it is so aptly called in the 23rd Psalm. Yet, the Buddha points out to us that very simple and plain fact that suffering exists. Christianity swept the world with its message that God is not removed from human suffering, but suffers with us and feels our sorrow, our sense of injustice, our horror at life’s cruelty along with us. Hinduism teaches about the cycle of samsara, that death and pain are a part of the cycle as much as life and joy. Many of our European ancestors understood that God had to die each year in order to be re-born. And Judaism offers the story of Adam and Eve as an explanation of why we suffer. Even given all this attention and knowledge of suffering, we UUs rarely want to bring this topic up. And rarely spend time thinking about it.

I think perhaps Kushner’s book points to an answer as to why this is. His book, although titled: “When Bad things Happen to Good People,” perhaps really could be titled “Keeping on a spiritual path when bad things happen to you; subtitled: “Stumbling blocks to success.” I think many people who come to UU-ism get stuck on their spiritual path for just the reasons that Kushner mentions. It’s accessible and useful to a UU reader because:
First off, he writes about Bible stories as having an author whose point of view we ought to consider. And, he considers them all as metaphors, teaching aids, to help us understand life. Also, he teaches us to have a mature relationship with God, to see religion and God as subjects and issues to wrestle with as you encounter life, not just things to have _ to own. Not to mention, he tells wonderful stories! The book is just full of them, mostly from his own ministry as a Rabbi, and some from his life: his reflections on struggling with his son’s situation.

I think his book would be a great one for UUs to read, not in times of crisis, as he intended. But, now. For anyone who has an ‘iffy’ relationship with God based on your observations about how the world works _ or how religion treated you _ or prayers that were not answered. Then, you need to read this book. Kushner, in writing this book, hopes to help people from suffering, from doubting God, or feeling angry at God. So, as you begin to read this book, if years ago you had one of these experiences that Kushner was trying to save you from _ in other words, you have felt doubt about God or angry with God _ then, you may have trouble getting past the first few pages.

I’d like to encourage you to try. In fact, I’d like to recommend this book especially to UUs who do come from other faith traditions. And who have had a hard time moving past a God that they don’t believe in anymore, a God they are angry with, a God who seems indifferent. This would best be done, not when you are in crisis, but actually — now! I think that much positive growth can be done in a person’s spiritual life when they don’t feel like they are being overwhelmed by a crisis.

The book is an invitation to a mature relationship with God. And it is a very readable guide to the stumbling blocks people encounter in their relationship with God. You may ask, why do I need to have a relationship with God? And I would answer, that you do, whether or not you believe in God. You have a relationship with God, as a source of life and strength, or you have a relationship with God as an unbelievable meanie, bad-guy, overbearing, cruel _ not something you want to allow entrance in your life. But holding this God that you don’t want to believe in at the door, doesn’t mean you don’t have a relationship with the concept. The god concept exists in our culture, and you will encounter it over and over again — as you read, as you celebrate holidays, and your talk with your family and friends, and most particularly as you navigate through hard times either for yourself, or for people you care about.

So, if the god concept won’t go away, then it makes sense to develop some language and some stories, and some understanding that are mature. Ideas that meet that overbearing, cruel, mean God face on, and have an answer that has integrity. And that’s what reading this book will do for you.

Read it not just to understand his take on bad things happening to good people, but read it to grow in your understanding of who God can be to people — perhaps as many as over 4 million people, if we judge by how many of these books were sold. God is definitively not the same to everyone. We come here to inspire and encourage each other to be on a religious journey, and I think this book will help to bring those who have had an unpleasant relationship with God to a different place. Kushner offers great stories and fun explanations that help us to have a mature relationship with God.

And, Kushner offers very good and useful advice about what is helpful and what is not helpful to say when someone is hurting. This is always something we can use. We all have times when someone around us has had something horrible happen in their lives. Our hearts hurt so much for them. The very first question that comes to our mind is: “What can we say?” Kushner has some good answers. I want you to read the book, and underline the parts that are useful, so you can go back and pick it up and refer to it, right before you need to walk into that hospital room, funeral home, prison, or any place where someone you care about is standing in shock over something terrible that has just happened in their lives.

I’ll tell you the most important thing to know: Just be there with all the love you can muster.

One of the most powerful sections of the book deals with prayer. How many of you have a good prayer life? How many of you aren’t sure what to say, if someone asks you to pray for them? How many of you wish you could pray, but just feel like it is pointless?

Kushner first points out that there are traditionally, from his Jewish faith, several kinds of prayer that would be considered bad, pointless, or wrong. These would include prayers that: 1) ask God to go back and re-write the past. Like seeing smoke as approaching your home, and praying it’s not your house that’s on fire — well, whatever house it is, it’s already on fire; so you can’t really expect God to undo that. 2) You can’t ask God to change the laws of nature. Many things happen which the insurance companies like to call ‘acts of God,’ but we all know happen due to cause and effect. We like to live in an ordered world that operates as we expect it to. And we can’t ask God to make exceptions, or we’d lose all laws of nature. 3) You can’t pray for harm to come to someone else. 4) We can’t pray for God to do something that is within our own power to do. It’s kind of crazy to be that lazy.

He quotes this wonderful prayer by Jack Riemer:

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end war;
For we know that You have made the world in a way
That man must find his own path to peace
Within himself and with his neighbor.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end starvation;
For you have already given us the resources
With which to feed the entire world
If we would only use them wisely.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God,
To root out prejudice,
For you have already given us eyes
With which to see the good in all men
If we would only use them rightly.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end despair,
For You have already given us the power
To clear away slums and to give hope
If we would only use our power justly.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end disease,
For you have already given us great minds with which
To search out cures and healing,
If we would only use them constructively.
Therefore we pray to You instead, O God,
For strength, determination, and willpower,
To do instead of just to pray,
To become instead of merely to wish.

It turns out there are reasons to pray, just perhaps not what we understood from our childhood, and immature spiritual paths. The reasons are simple and purposeful. The first reason is to “put us in touch with other people, people who share the same concerns, values, dreams, and pains that we
do . . . . Prayer . . . redeems people from isolation.” And the other reason: “prayer puts us in touch with God.”

We cannot alter the fact that suffering exists, and sometimes it’s a real person — affecting us, or one of our closest loved ones. But we can alter our approach. As in this story told by Nancy Burke:

“When I was very ill, I had to receive weekly intravenous treatments. This went on for almost two years. Somewhere in the middle, I lost my courage. It is hard to say which collapsed first, my soul or my veins, but collapse they both did. One day the search for a healthy vein became too painful. I pushed the needle away, and cried. A nurse brought to my side a young girl, of about 10, who had battled cancer all her life. This child smiled at me and said, “You should have got one of these.” Lifting her T-shirt, she showed me the hole that had been cut into her abdomen so that she could receive her treatments through a permanent plastic port. Then she put her hand, so small and soft, on mine and said, ‘You can take it.’ And I did.”

What changed in this suffering woman’s life? How was she able to “take it.” She somehow found hope again, and she did so by being in touch with a caring fellow human. Kushner would call this new hope God-given, because it wasn’t there before. We could easily say, those simple words, with that simple touch of the hand, “You can take it,” was the ultimate form of prayer. A radical connection to love.

And it does speak to the miracles that happen daily, as we experience powerful, direct responses to who we are, what is happening to us. I know that in my hard times, I have been so thankful for the many, many times that I suddenly felt infused with new hope, with new courage, all due to the love shared by friends and family. It has felt a holy love. My wish for you, in your hard times, that you to will have the courage, the strength, and the wisdom to endure.

[The service’s Closing Words]:

1. From David Wolpe: There once was a man who “stood before God, his heart breaking from the pain and injustice in the world. ‘Dear God,’ he cried, ‘Look at all the suffering, the anguish and distress in your world. Why don’t you send help?’ God responded: ‘I did send help. I sent you.’”

2. Followed by the Zen teaching: “The seed never sees the flower.”

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