As Sundays go, it was a pretty good day. Scout Sundays are like that. Our Boy Scout troop is not that active at the moment so we were blessed with plenty of Cub Scouts. That was fine. Having been both a Cub and Boy Scout, I know the Cubs are the less jaded of the two. The Cubs are happy and proud of their uniforms. Not that the Boy Scout’s aren’t, but to the Cubs, they are still a novelty.
Two who arrived first came a good 15 minutes before Sunday School began. They wanted to point out to me that they matched. Their uniforms were in sync. This is important. Boy Scouts will often throw on their uniform shirts with any pair of trousers and go. These guys had matching dark blue pants and black shoes. They were in full dress uniform. Despite the fact both had stayed up all night (until 1:30) playing video games, they were taking this Cub Scout Sunday seriously.
I said to one of the guys, “You like really look nice today.” And without missing a beat, the Cub said back to me, “you look nice too.” I need to tell you what I was wearing. I had on the same khaki pants and plaid shirt I wear on most days. I wasn’t wearing a collar, robe, or clerical attire. I didn’t feel all that nice. It was almost ten and I’d already been at church for four hours. I was worn out. Somehow, this compliment, out of the blue changed the course of my morning. Why? Because I knew this kid meant what he said. All the scouts looked sharp and even though I didn’t feel special, nice, or even like I should be leading worship, maybe there was hope for me yet. A sincere compliment can work wonders on the human soul.
The service proceeded as normal. On special Sundays, we work observances into our methods. God’s people called ourselves to worship, we sung, and took a collection. I preached what my British friends would call an all-age message on 1 Corinthians 13. Love makes the weirdest camping trips and the strangest churches tolerable places. The kids stayed with me. I kept the whole thing to about 12 minutes. Attention spans, even for well-behaved scouts aren’t something you want to play with, especially on beautiful Sunday morning.
Our congregation is full of saints and sinners. I love them all. Perhaps the most precious moment of worship is when I stop speaking and offer the opportunity for those gathered to share their prayer concerns and celebrations. On Sundays when we are not celebrating Holy Communion, I believe this is the most sacred time in worship. There are no rich, poor, local, off island, native, tourist, or any other distinction. Before our God, we talk about where we are and what’s on our minds.
It was in this time of sacred conversation that my day grew darker. Two of our members, a husband and wife who support the church, shared that a large unidentified mass had been found in the wife’s lungs. It didn’t look good. She’s going in for a biopsy later this week. What’s so strange about that, Richard? A church member may have cancer, haven’t you dealt with that for years? Isn’t this the much vaunted pastoral care part of your job? Sadly, there is nothing strange. Yes, I’ve dealt with it for years. Yes, it is the pastoral care facet of my calling.
Life and death never get any easier. In fact, it gets harder. Secondly, context is everything. Just ask Job. This family, these wonderful people believe God’s promises in the wake of tragedy like few people I’ve ever met. They lost a teenage son in a tragic accident several years ago. They counsel parents who loose young children. The wife is caring for a severely ill parent with dementia at this moment. Now cancer seems to come from nowhere.
I spoke with them after church. They were trying to hold on to hope as they held back tears. As their pastor, I was trying to hold on with them. I didn’t know what to say. I know what I was saying in my head. “God, you bastard, how could you? These are not the people to strike down. A good God shouldn’t kill good people.”
There’s so much going on in the world. Self-righteous Methodists in Mississippi want to save themselves from Hell. North Korea seems bent on taking us all to Hell. We need to offer sanctuary to our Hispanic neighbors. Refugees should be able to find safe homes in safe countries. The God who gives us clues on how to find peace and how to treat our neighbors, in the real world I’m living in right now, is undermining my ability to explain why good people are dying.
Yeah, I’m mad. I’ll probably get over it. But for now, I’m mad at the idea of a good God. Why? Because I hate to see good people cry.
The Rev. Richard Lowell Bryant serves as pastor of Ocracoke United Methodist Church on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina's Outer Banks. He blogs at Richard's Food for Thought, from which this post is taken with the author's permission.