When bad things happen, we sometimes question our faith. Best solution? Helping.
The only time I ever drove the Natchez Trace Parkway, I met more wild turkeys and deer than I did cars. Stretching from Nashville to Natchez, Miss., the Trace is 444 miles of southern loveliness. But smack in the middle of it sits Tupelo, Miss. — the epicenter of this week's carnage from tornadoes. And whether it is storms in Mississippi and Arkansas or mass shootings in Kansas and Texas, one shining truth emerges that they didn't teach you in kindergarten: everybody hurts.
And not just a little. Examine any life from the CEO to the mail clerk, and you will find pain. From my friend whose beautiful daughter senselessly died because the little machine that monitors her blood sugar malfunctioned to our former county mayor who lies paralyzed because he fell off his bicycle. Suffering is universal to the human condition.
For some, such suffering raises grave theological questions. Why me? How could God allow such a thing? Such questions are, of course, unanswerable. Singer Paul Simon once put it like this: "God only knows. God makes his plans. The information is unavailable to the mortal man." Clever, perhaps, but little consolation to the faithful in Tupelo. And though we're all speculating when it comes to things of the spirit, I favor the answer of Christian therapist Robert Money who identifies three takersof life — aging, accident and disease — and one receiver — God. "God doesn't take anybody home," says Money, "but we all go home to God." That's a far better answer — it seems to me — than the notion that a loving God would ever steal our friends and family members away from us.
But the most important question in the face of human suffering isn't theological at all. It is practical. What can we do about it?
If the suffering is a long distance away — as Arkansas and Mississippi are for most Americans — contact the agencies that are working on the ground. The Red Cross, church relief agencies, hospitals and law enforcement agencies. Nearly all of these organizations will have a website with the necessary information for sending donations and volunteers. Nothing lifts the spirit like a CARE package or seeing strangers show up to lend a hand.
For those near the suffering, consider this. You don't need to donate or do anything. Just show up. Be there! To hold, to hug, to cry. Southerners like to bring along a cobbler or a bucket of fried chicken. That's good, too. Wounds are best licked in private. When you're grieving, you may not have the energy to cook and you certainly don't want to go out to a restaurant where you may run into well intentioned — though often unwanted — sympathizers. So it's nice to have food on hand. It's also a quiet visible reminder that somebody cares.
And don't worry about what to say. It's usually best to say nothing. If something more is needed — money, medical assistance, even a bed for the night — you'll discover it in due course and can respond. But never underestimate the simple gift of your presence. Victims will tell you it is the most valued gift of all.
Finally, tragedies can provide the occasion for a course correction. Never waste your pain. Use it for personal growth. Become more reflective. Build storm shelters, better alarm systems, emergency plans. Use the lessons of loss to better care for yourself, your loved ones and your community.
The truest sentence I know about suffering is this. Everybody does it. The next truest is this. Anyone can help.
Oliver Thomas is a member of USA Today's Board of Contributors and author of 10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You.
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