Photograph by Adam Ling via Unsplash
Pandemic and platitudes
Rev. Cassandra Carkuff Williams
May 29, 2020
My mother was the only parent I ever knew. Her life was hard supporting four children on meager earnings from the late shift at a nearby factory. When she wasn’t supplementing her income by wallpapering for our more financially secure neighbors, she was canning tomatoes, cutting up her old dresses to make new ones for me, or teaching me to gather dandelion greens, crab apples, and wild mushrooms.
In my early adulthood, I dreamed of establishing myself so I could make her senior years more relaxed and enjoyable. Instead, I found myself weeping alone in the parsonage after 3 days of watching her slowly die from a combination of the flu and inadequate healthcare in the rural community where she lived.
A knock on the parsonage door. A parishioner joins me at the dining table. Taking my hand, she reminds me that everything happens for a reason. The look of sincerity in her eyes calms my initial instinct to smack her—verbally, not physically. I take a breath and say “I appreciate you being here so much. I’ve heard that everything happens for a reason, but I wonder what that means and if there’s any reason good enough to make me feel okay about losing my mother at age 69.” My guest is quiet for a bit, then says “I’ve always wondered that too.” So begins a strangely comforting conversation about the unanswerable questions of life.
During difficult times such as these, most of us feel desperate for ways of framing the unprecedented that will provide a feeling of safety. And, often Christians feel a compulsion to provide answers almost in defense of God. While few of us are cruel or ignorant enough to suggest that COVID-19 is God’s punishment, we do run the risk of offering platitudes that are not helpful to others and ultimately are a disservice to our faith.
This pandemic has pulled back the veil of our cliché-ridden faith and reminded us of what most of the rest of the world knows: life is hard, circumstances are unjust, children die, and simplistic religion is valueless.
Everything happens for a reason. Does it? Is there a reason sufficient to justify the death of a 2-year-old alone in ICU?
God is in control. Really? This is what a world controlled by a loving God who willingly suffered a torturous death on our behalf looks like?
God brings good out of everything. So, is everything ultimately good or does everything have an intended purpose? The oft partially quoted Romans 8:28 reminds us of the depth and breadth of the fall. It is a word of hope that even in the most difficult times that life (not God) brings, we know our current circumstances are not determinative. It is a reminder of our privileged role as children of God to help liberate this world from its current state.
Platitudes are tempting but not beneficial. They only function from within a place of privilege, a place where Christians pray for parking spaces or “witness” to God’s sovereignty when their mortgage applications are approved. This pandemic has pulled back the veil of our cliché-ridden faith and reminded us of what most of the rest of the world knows: life is hard, circumstances are unjust, children die, and simplistic religion is valueless.
What we have to offer is faith, not religion; faith in a God who transcends rather than answers the complex questions of life. At the very least we owe our faith and those we hope to comfort, honesty. How do we witness to a loving God during unprecedented times? By resisting the compulsion to offer explanations and choosing instead to walk with others through unanswerable questions so they know what we know—we don’t walk alone.
The Rev. Cassandra Carkuff Williams, national director of discipleship ministries at the American Baptist Home Mission Societies, is the author of Learning the Way: Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities (Alban, 2019).