In face of human tragedy, what's a pastor to say?

To stem losses in church membership, spiritual leaders search for better ways to explain awful events such as 9/11 and the Virginia Tech massacre.

Warm waves lapped a Cape Cod beach just a few blocks away, but pastor Liz Magill spent much of a July day in a dining hall among the staples of her unusual week off: a laptop computer and a group discussion about suffering.

"This is supposed to be a vacation," laughed Ms. Magill, pastor of Worcester Fellowship, a ministry among homeless people in Worcester, Mass. "I'm going to go home exhausted."

In her uncommon reprieve, Magill had plenty of company – about 80 preachers, lay people, and theologians from at least five denominations. Together, they grappled with a problem facing modern American churches: People in the pews want to know why, if God is loving, the innocent suffer – and they aren't always happy with the answers from the pulpit.

The occasion was the annual Craigville Colloquy, a theological conference of Christians. Attendance this year was unusually high, organizers said, because the collective effect of tragic events – from 9/11 to hurricane Katrina to April's massacre at Virginia Tech – has made the issue more urgent in the faith community.

"It's getting harder to give answers that do in fact satisfy," says Richard Coleman, a United Church of Christ minister from Pembroke, Mass. Events are producing "a whole rash of dying, killing, and suffering that for us just doesn't add up. That makes the old question more intense because we want someone's life, when it ends in death, to have some meaning" and not simply succumb to the inexplicable.

The explanation for suffering has become a thorn in the side of many 21st-century congregations, and pastors acknowledge the challenge. "We chose this topic because this [struggle to explain suffering] is a reason why people are leaving our churches," says the Rev. Llewellyn Smith, one of the colloquy organizers.

Rejection of suffering as beneficial

One factor, observers say, is a culture that no longer accepts suffering as a means to spiritual growth. Long gone are the Middle Ages, when the faithful typically viewed human trials as a divinely given process of perfection and a holy pathway to the next world.

Christians in America today tend to pay a hollow lip service to others' misery – to hold it at arm's length rather than live and minister among those in the midst of it, says Elaine Heath, director of the Center for the Advanced Study and Practice of Evangelism at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

"When we start living what we're saying about God – that God is with you, God loves you – then people will believe it, and a whole lot of people will want to know the God that we serve," says Dr. Heath.

When discussing human suffering and God's relation to it, stakes are high for church leaders and laity alike. They must decide whether to say a tragic event is a) God's doing, b) something God could have stopped but didn't, c) beyond God's realm of power, or d) unknown to God. Any answer is likely to speak volumes about a person's concept of God – and potentially cause a rift with those who see God differently.

Brad Kay of Vero Beach, Fla., knows the stakes well. A retired microbiologist, Mr. Kay protested when his former pastor said in a prayer after the Virginia Tech shootings, "O God, you ordained it."

"That really set a cascade of thoughts and issues flowing in my mind," Kay recalled in a phone interview. "I said to this fella, 'I don't believe that's the attitude God has. I don't believe He ordained that [even though] He allowed it.... I had to determine, 'Can I stay in this church? No, I can't stay in this church.' "

To refine, or perhaps reconsider, their standard responses, pastors here heard heady lectures, ate leisurely meals at long tables, and prayed. It was a time for refreshment, but also for mental wrestling.

For some, it was occasion to be daring. Asked why someone should believe in an almighty and loving God amid evidence of suffering, Magill backed off traditional doctrine. "I give up the 'almighty' part," she answered. "God is as powerful as those who believe in Him or Her and who let God guide them.... But we don't always do that, so God becomes less powerful."

Unprepared to cope?

Death and disease have been accepted facets of life for most of Christian history, but in modern times Western Christians have ceased to assume "that life is fleeting," says David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian at Providence College in Rhode Island and the colloquy's keynote speaker. "Actual confrontation with suffering and death – for modern, Western human beings in industrial societies – comes as a kind of cosmic enormity, a kind of abomination."

Congregants who generally expect that their children will outlive them and that tragedy will otherwise be kept at bay may need to be shaken from spiritual complacency, says Dr. Hart. "It might be necessary for a pastor forcibly to remind people just how terrible" death and suffering are.

No one at the colloquy had pat explanations, and the mysteriousness of God's tolerance for suffering remained, for many, a mystery.

"We don't have easy answers," says Barbara Herber, pastor of First United Methodist Church in North Andover, Mass. "Our primary job is to sit with people in their suffering because it's really lousy to sit alone."

Still, pastors tried to articulate comprehensive theologies for people experiencing pain.

The Rev. Mr. Coleman recalled leading a memorial service earlier in the summer for an animal lover in her early 20s who died on her morning commute when she swerved her car to avoid hitting a deer. His aim at the time was to comfort her family, but here on the Cape he sought to clarify the logic behind his words then.

"Every death is unnatural and is contrary to the will of God," he said. "But there is not anything that can come between us and the love of God. We have hope that we'll all be raised in the last days."

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