this i used to believe? goalposts, grief, God, and Godwin’s Law

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As I was cleaning my house Sunday morning, sweeping floors, vacuuming up dog hair, doing loads of laundry, unloading dishes, dusting, I was catching up on listening to several of my favorite podcasts.  In particular, I listened to an episode of “This American Life” called “This I Used to Believe.”  It’s a take-off from the NPR series “This I believe” about people who used to believe strongly in something, but no longer do so.  You can listen to this episode at this website.

The part that made me hit pause, walk away from my chores, and sit down to blog was the second segment of the show called “Team Spirit in the Sky”.  It was about a woman who saw a story on the news about a Texas football coach (I can’t help but picture Coach Taylor from “Friday Night Lights”) from a Christian school who touched the lives of an opposing team from a juvenile lock-up by having fans from HIS team learn their opponents’ names, cheer for them, form “spirit lines” for them, and root for them when his team played them.  For many of the lock-up’s players, it was a unique experience to finally be rooted for in any sense of the word, and for the coach, a chance to live out in some small way the biblical idea of loving one’s enemies.

The woman telling the “This I Used to Believe” story was a woman wrote to the coach after seeing the news story to tell him that though she was a lapsed Catholic who became an agnostic following the death of a close friend to cancer, she is glad that he is living out an authentic Christian faith for his players and everyone else in his community.  And at first, the coach responds, and I, the listener was thinking, “YEAH! This guy is getting it right!” The coach says he feels that God is speaking to him about this woman who has emailed him, and they begin a correspondence.  She even agrees to talk on the phone with him, intrigued that God has been waking him up many nights in a row, bothering him about what he needs to say to this woman who has lost her faith because of one of the most classic questions in theology: why do bad things happen to good people?

But then the coach totally drops the ball.

When the coach and the woman finally talk on the phone, instead of engaging with her and her questions, of talking with her about her loss and her grief, instead of telling her that God is never on the side of cancer or suffering, the coach decides to debate her.  He engages her in classic forms of debate about laws of thermodynamics and moral relativism, and even ultimately proves Godwin’s Law: he brings HITLER into the conversation, suggesting that since this woman says she does not believe in God, she must be fine with Hitler and all his atrocities.  This leaves an already hurting woman even more hurt– she was hoping for some comfort, for some thoughtful answers to her questions, and instead this man who presumes to have a message from God engages in hurtful debate with her across the miles.

And this is what got me wondering.  WHAT THE HECK IS WRONG WITH US AS CHRISTIANS?  Every day, we are confronted by a world full of hurting people.  A world in which bad things happen to good people and leave good people wondering where God is in the middle of it all, and how God can make sense of the ways in which God acts and does not act in the world.  And in such a world where such horrible things happen every single day, why do we think that what these hurting people need is a DEBATE which PROVES  to their minds that God exists?

Would it not be enough of a God-proving miracle for a total stranger to call a woman up and say, you know, it is TERRIBLE that you lost your friend.  God WEEPS with you.  God wants to wrap loving arms around you and comfort you, and is in fact doing so, whether you are aware of it or not.  Would it not be a miracle for a Christian to hold their tongue, refuse to debate, and instead sit with someone, even a stranger, in her suffering?  To admit we don’t have the answers, but that we worship a God who wants nothing but good things for any of us?

I admit, I don’t always know why bad things happen to good people.  I admit I am terrified to presume to speak for God.  But when encountering people in the midst of pain, all I can do is tell them what I know of God.  A God who hates to see God’s children hurting.  Who weeps when we weep and grieves when we grieve.  A God who is even now conspiring to restore THIS world to the creation it was made to be: without disease or war or violence or hatred or hunger or poverty or environmental degradation.  And maybe this won’t get people to suddenly look at me and exclaim, “BY GOLLY YOU’RE RIGHT! GOD IS REAL!” but at the very least, I hope it won’t leave them walking away from our conversation thinking Christians are jerks who don’t really care so much about their pain as proving a point.

I think my first mission is just to LOVE people.  I don’t really think I’m supposed to barge into debates with hurting people.  I’m not even so sure it’s my job to convince them that God is real– only God can change hearts and minds.  But maybe, just by being a calm and loving presence, someone who admits that sometimes life is pain and the world makes no sense, I can be a fellow human.  Maybe I can be a comfort and let people know they are cared about.  And maybe that act of kindness can be enough.  I think we’re (the Church) supposed to be God’s hands and feet in the world, wiping tears and bandaging wounds and rubbing shoulders and washing feet.  I somehow missed the part where we got the idea that we were supposed to be God’s bullhorn or baseball bat, beating people over the head with “the Truth.”

2 Replies to “this i used to believe? goalposts, grief, God, and Godwin’s Law”

  1. As I said, and will continue to say: “It is far easier to stand at the side of the road and throw stones than it is to reach out a hand and help someone up.” All this stuff is part of that “God put you here to help yourself, now pull up those bootstraps!” mentality that seems to pervade our world now. You follow the rules, work hard, everything will work out for you. As someone who has followed the rules, worked hard, and seem nothing but struggle, I can say to these people, mind your own business!


  2. I remember hearing that episode and I was disappointed too.This may be sexist of me to say, but if the coach’s wife (picturing Tammy Taylor) had been the one on the phone the conversation might have gone better. I think the problem has more to do with how most men respond to the emotional pain of others, than with how Christians do. And maybe the lesson here is don’t expect quality grief counseling from a high school football coach?


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