Honest to God: The Sago Mine disaster cries for Christian formation that blesses bitterness and sanctifies anger

[1] Archetypal images of religion in American life filled our TV screens in early January. The cameras fixed their fickle eyes on a small white-frame church amid the worn hills of Sago, West Virginia. A coal mine explosion, Jan. 2, trapped 13 miners in the cold blackness of the mine. Above ground, mining officials and rescuers scrambled to free the miners in the quickest way without killing more hardy souls in the process. Family members and friends of the trapped miners gathered at a nearby Baptist church to beseech God, singing old hymns with trembling voices. They held each other and shared fears and hopes all-too-common in mining towns like this, knowing a unity that transcends the differences and tensions townsfolk must observe on ordinary days.

[2] The scene was virtually identical to a 2002 incident at the Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania. Then, too, TV footage of a little white church ‘in the vale’ evoked images of a well-accepted role of religion in American life. The images warmed hearts anxious for comfort, not only the hearts of those within the walls but those of us who looked on from our living rooms. In 2002 the little white church was Lutheran, not Baptist. But that was totally irrelevant to those inside seeking human comfort and divine reassurance that all might still be well. And the rest of us looking in hoped the church could be a place where anxious souls can find the open arms of an expansive mercy that excludes no human pain or emotion, no matter how raw.

[3] The two scenes reflect a role even agnostic Americans understand, and often affirm, as a legitimate function of religion in society. But this understanding turned to incredulity in the wee hours of the night. Happy songs of praise rang through the Sago church when word came that the miners were alive. Later in the night came an announcement that choked the breath of life from those songs: The miners were found; all but one were dead. Words fail to convey the cruelty of smashing hope in the holy hour of it highest joy. CNN’s cameras documented scenes of disbelief and rage as several men stumbled out the church door, looking like they’d been kicked in the stomach. They fled down the stairs and into the darkness, unable to stay inside with the others. Perfectly understandable.

Beyond white-framed faith
[4] I hope they found their way back. But it was clearly impossible for several experienced journalists on hand to imagine a compelling reason why they might want to return, let alone why it might be critical that they do so. For the reporters, the white-framed image of faith and church in American life was no longer comforting or clear. CNN’s Anderson Cooper was typical. He aired interviews outside the church and the mine in which he asked, “What happens to your faith now that the miners are lost?” And to another, “What is it possible for you to believe?” Cooper looked and sounded overwhelmed. His face was question mark, seeking an answer that might bring perspective to calm spinning minds and salve wounded souls. He’d witnessed believing souls beg God for the miners’ deliverance. He’d heard their praise when redemption seemed at hand. So what do they do when their prayers–and I suspect, his hopes–are dashed in the cruelest way imaginable? Warm images of the little white church in the vale have nothing to commend in the face of such human pain, bitterness and rage. There’s no place for such experiences in the tired archetype the cameras evoked early in the crisis. Cooper and his colleagues knew: The church can offer mutual support amid fear, a place to bring our sorrow. But profound anger, bitterness at life’s cruelties, blinding rage that a merciful God would refuse to save human lives being snuffed out in the black hole of a West Virginia mountain–this is just too much. So the men flee the night vigil when the worst of news comes, and newscasters ask incredulous questions of the faithful who fumble as they try to say why they remain in relationship with the One who refuses to save them from shattered dreams, searing pain and scars that will endure as long as they draw breath. They didn’t give the men who fled into the night a reason to return, at least not on camera. Nor did they offer the culture reason to reconsider its nostalgic associations of religious faith with the naiveté of the little white church.

Gritty faith formation
[5] This calls for fresh attention to much-neglected aspects of Scripture and to the place of simple honesty in Christian faith formation. Too much common wisdom, in and outside the church, considers experiences of human bitterness, such as the Sago disaster, as the very stuff of Christian deformation. Profound human suffering, the virulence of cruelty and genocide, and the untimely death of the innocent–especially of those we love–threatens faith. No doubt. But the threat lies less in our anger and bitterness than in the retreat from relationship with God and the church that too-often results. We need to bless bitterness, sanctify anger and invite human hatreds, seeing them as the wings on which human souls can fly into intimacy with God.

[6] Resources for this kind of Christian formation are at hand. Praying the Psalms is among the most ancient spiritual disciplines of the Christian tradition. The great tragedy is that it is so little practiced and taught among us, for it would almost immediately reveal that we stand in relationship with a God who asks no one to flee into the darkness when in the grip of rancid and unruly emotions. Human bitterness is to be prayed. It should be offered to God: All of it. This is central to the Psalms, which hold back nothing, not impatience and disappointment with God (Psalm 13, among dozens of examples), nor even the vile wish to smash the life from the babies of one’s enemies (Psalm 137). Scripture is wonderfully rife with such honesty, including unvarnished accusations against God for showing little interest in the plight of human beings, sometimes seeming to pay greater attention to those who ignore God than to the faithful. Jeremiah curses the day of his birth, castigating God for letting him be born alive. Were that not enough, the Hebrew prophet compares God to a stream that runs dry just when you most need a drink. So much for divine dependability.

[7] Nor is he alone in Scripture or later Christian tradition. The Scottish Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins, writes to God: “Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend/How wouldst thou worst, I wonder, that thou dost.” The Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila, draws the conclusion Hopkins only implies: “If this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them.” Examples like these can be found in classic Christian spiritual writings in all ages.

How divine intimacy grows
[8] The prayers of those who have lived intimately with the holy and blessed Trinity often express an honesty, a transparency, we need to treasure in ourselves and cultivate in those we mentor. Such honesty takes God seriously. It takes human experience seriously. And it’s the royal road toward intimacy with the loving mystery of God, the primary way such intimacy grows. In all human relationships, intimacy grows through mutual revelation. We receive what another reveals of herself and are willing to reveal something of ourselves. The process is circular, and it can and does break down at thousands of points from want of trust, perceived falsity, broken confidence, or even the slightest sign that someone or something can’t be trusted. It moves back and forth as each party slowly grows able to risk something … more. When the sharing of souls stops or is able to go no farther, the relationship founders. Intimacy with God develops through a similar process as we receive God’s revelation in Christ from others and live in relation to God and the church. As we are willing to share more of ourselves with God, we come to know the mystery of One whose love and wonder we cannot fathom, but in whose presence we experience fullness of love, life, joy, vitality and hope. Everything we exclude from the relationship–the things we hide because they seem too shameful, foul, rancid, evil, dirty or harsh—becomes a barrier to relationship. But when prayed these barriers become wings on which the Spirit of God in Christ bears us into intimacy with a love that welcomes all that we are.

[9] This is the witness I’d hoped to hear from the wounded souls outside Sago Baptist Church. But I suspect it was too much to expect amid the rawness of their grief. Still, it is the witness the church needs to offer amid cultural images of religion that suggest that faith is untenable or impotent in the face of great tragedy, suffering and bitterness. We need to be honest with God. Only then can the Spirit teach us that we stand in relation to a Loving Mystery who, in Christ, invites us to bring all that we are, all we fear and all of which we are ashamed, holding nothing back. Such transparency does not produce answers that justify suffering. Nor does it make tragedies rational or meaningful. It is simply a door through which the Spirit invites human beings to live in the presence of the One who is love itself, finding there our one true home.

[10] In relation to this One, lonely bitterness and unruly passions grow into the freedom to love and the blessed hope that, nevertheless, all is well.