PAW: I think it’s crucial that you share your struggle. One of the most powerful books I’ve ever read is a book by Larry Crabb called Finding God (Zondervan). It’s about a church leader telling his congregation that his father has died in a plane crash. While he’s figuring it out, his theology begins to unravel. As church leaders I think that it is very important for us to be prepared to be transparent and to let people understand that we struggle with our theology. One of the things I find very disappointing about a lot of contemporary Christianity, particularly the obvious, accessible stuff that you can just watch on TV, is that there is no ambiguity, there is no grey; it’s just absolute, it’s obvious, it’s clear. It’s as if they’re saying: ‘What’s the matter with you? Why don’t you understand this?’ But it isn’t like that, it’s very complex.
I would absolutely teach on it because otherwise it’s the elephant in the room. The books I write are very much about my own struggles; one book I wrote called Saving Sam is about a time when I woke up to find the house was on fire. My eldest daughter was nearly killed, and I remember thinking, ‘Here’s the closest thing in my life and she’s almost dead.’ I thought to myself, ‘Either God is unfair or I don’t get how his game is played; one way or another, this doesn’t make any sense to me.’ I was very glad to have that conversation and work it out with people. I found that it gave other people permission to say, ‘Phew! You mean, you think that too?’ All too often we present people with the phantom Christian; the person who gets up at 3am and prays for five hours. These people are not real; the reality is that we struggle.
VT: I think there is a danger that you can overplay your confessions to the church and just see this as a place where you can display your feelings. Having said that, leaders tend to be the least confessional members of the community, so I think you need to find a balance. If you go and tell people, ‘This is how you should live your life,’ they have got every right to ask how it has gone for you. That will include the joys and the pains of it. You have to be real around death. One of my frustrations with evangelical and charismatic churches at the moment is that we don’t pay attention to death; we seem to think it doesn’t exist. And then everyone is surprised when somebody dies. I’m an Anglican, and one of the things that you are trained [to do] as a vicar, is to lead people to a good death. So we need to examine what a good death looks like, not assume that everything’s going to be wonderful all the time.
This is the sort of time where you can do all the deliberate stuff, but the real you seeps out
SC: I think for me it is moments like this when a leader has to step up and be counted. There are critical moments in the life of a church where a leader (or leadership team) finds the grace to respond well, or they will let the church down. There is the private interaction with the family and then the corporate leadership of the community together. The church is watching its leadership at times like this, and we model our values and our theology in the way that we deal with these situations. I think it’s appropriate that there is a level of honesty about the pain and the questions, but I also think the leader has to be able to communicate faith in the midst of that. If the leader hasn’t found that place of faith in it, I think somebody else needs to be speaking. I wouldn’t want a leader to be standing up there who hasn’t reached a place of finding faith in a God who is bigger than this particular tragedy.
JC: It would be far more pastorally problematic not to address some of these questions. For many people, a sermon is the only place where they get any form of teaching. But I’m not sure that I would necessarily start with a sermon entitled ‘Child Bereavement’, I think I would want to be creative; for example, thinking about how we introduce the idea of lament into our church. We could also use the liturgical tools of Holy Saturday ? where the disciples had to live with the reality of Jesus’ death and the silence of God in the midst of it. From 3 o’clock on Friday when the skies turn black, to a barbecue on the beach on Sunday morning; how do we live in that space? There are enormous resources that can provide the words that we may not be able to articulate, and there are tools from the Church Fathers. That is part of being a 2,000-year-old organisation ? there are other people that can give us the words. And if they can’t give us the words, then we have permission to live with the silence.
SC: I’m not sure I would actually do this in a sermon, but a lot depends on the culture of the church. In my church, I think we would gather as a faith community and I would tell something of the story; I would reflect what the parents might want to say and give the parents an opportunity to say something. I’d want to open it up so that the church [could] ask questions and we [could] have a conversation about it.
PAW: It’s about a theological approach where people are able to come into our community and be hopeful; whether that’s about death or in a crisis in their lives or struggling with sickness.
VT: On a leadership issue, this is the sort of time when accidental leadership kicks in. Where you can do all the deliberate stuff, but the real you seeps out.
Steve Clifford is general director of the Evangelical Alliance Jo Cox is the learning and development coordinator for the London region of the Methodist Church Viv Thomas is honorary teaching pastor at St Paul’s, Hammersmith Paul Anderson-Walsh is senior elder of the International Gospel Church in North-West London and founder of The Grace Project.