By Seth Vopat
If you haven’t taken notice yet of the latest young adult fiction book to obtain massive fan appeal then you are missing out. John Green’s novel-turned-movie, The Fault in Our Stars, isn’t your typical teenage fiction novel. Gone are the magical world of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the bleak dystopian future of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games. In their place is a world all too real, painful and full of questions everyone hopes they never have to face.
Questions such as :
• Parents wrestling with impossible questions of when has your child suffered too much? Is it okay to say enough is enough and let go?
• Teenagers having to accept the hard truth life is finite. Cancer and other terminal illnesses like it are the terrible equalizers in which age does not matter. It is in this having to embrace and, at the same time, wanting to reject finiteness that they are struggling with deep existential questions. What makes life meaningful? Can life be meaningful if I never got the chance to make something of myself in the world?
As I sat in the movie theater with our youth and adults I pondered these questions and began to wonder how as a minister I have responded in these situations. This got me thinking to the larger question as to how should, and can, the church respond to these questions.
And this is where the movie struck me deepest. As the movie portrays, it has been my experience church is more often than not a poor place to express our deepest pains and sorrows.
In the beginning of the movie Hazel is strongly encouraged by her parents to attend a cancer patient support group. She along with a couple of other participants quickly lose interest in the group as they find themselves unable to connect with the group leader’s message. A cancer survivor himself, the group leader encourages the others with the same easy platitudes we have all heard and, perhaps given at one time or another. Jesus is the answer to which all life’s problems and struggles will melt away.
For Hazel and her friends this answer is unacceptable because it glosses over what they are feeling inside. Proclaimed with an exclamation point at her friend’s house, “Pain demands to be felt!”
Maybe the reason church has become inconsequential for so many today is due more to the fact we have limited our understanding of Jesus and God to an answer and have focused less on our being out of touch with society. Like the movie we’re great at offering Jesus as the solution to our problems. Church quickly becomes the place to go when I have it together because I can then offer up my testimony as to how God is working all things out for the better.
But what happens when all of life doesn’t get better. Where do we go then? Where do we go when we find ourselves in Hazel’s and her friends’ shoes?
These are the questions a church which only provides Jesus as an answer is ill-equipped to handle. Pain cannot simply be acknowledged and pushed to the side. As congregations we need to become as comfortable with Lamentations and the cry of the Psalmist and with Jesus, who dare to utter, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” as we are with the promise and hope of the resurrection of Jesus.
Theologian Stephanie Paulsell reflecting on the incarnation of God writes, “Christ’s body opened a window for God onto human life, its pleasures and its pains.” The gospel story isn’t simply about the resurrection of Jesus, it’s much more.
It’s about the forming of a community whose members freely enter into solidarity with one another, sharing each other’s burdens. It’s about a God who doesn’t simply know about life’s struggles and pains but has experienced them firsthand, a God who is more than okay with the demands of pain to be felt and affirmed, not simply trivialized and dismissed.