Thursday, April 13, 2006

Death comes to a preacher

Naturally, I read every word of the Times' lengthy obit on William Sloane Coffin, Jr., reflecting on his long life of conscientious resistance. I learned that a son predeceased him in 1983. Looking at a picture of Coffin preaching in 1982, I thought about what he didn't know.

His son Alex, age 24, died on a stormy night when his car slipped into the Boston Harbor. Ten days later Coffin stood in the pulpit of Riverside Church to preach about it.

The one thing he would not have was the thought that his son's death was part of God's plan.

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths — I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I've been here — deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions, and even the specter of a Cosmic Sadist — yes, even an Eternal Vivisector. But violent deaths, such as the one Alex died — to understand those is a piece of cake. As his younger brother put it simply, standing at the head of the casket at the Boston funeral, "You blew it, buddy. You blew it." The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is "It is the will of God." Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

For the father, the only way forward was through the grief, unmediated, unconsoled, wherever it might take him.

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