I haven’t written much about HIV/AIDS on this blog for a few reasons. First, I don’t feel like I have the knowledge to write helpful posts on the topic. Second, while this is an important topic, it hasn’t been a particular focus at New Direction. And third, I do not want to perpetuate the stereotype that HIV/AIDS is a gay disease. Hopefully most people recognize by now that HIV/AIDS is transmitted in a number of different ways and is a risk that crosses all social, economic, racial and orientation lines.
But we received an email today that offered the opportunity for me to respond:
“I have used your resources in the past when my brother came ‘out’ to my parents. I am SO thankful for your organization! My brother was recently diagnosed as HIV+ and I wondered if you can direct me to any resources that deal with this? Not so much the medical side of things, but questions like, ‘Why is God punishing me?’, ‘Why did God allow this to happen to me’, ‘Can I be forgiven?'”
When I read an email like this, a number of things flash through my mind. I remember the first time I heard about AIDS. I was in a phys. ed. class at my Christian high school. It was the mid-eighties. A video clip was shown in which a gay man was talking about his illness. One of my classmates burst into tears and rushed out of the room. The man in the video was her uncle. She did not know that he was gay or that he had, since the video’s release, died of AIDS. She’d been told he died of cancer. I can remember the shock going through the room. And I remembered at the time how angry I felt that this girl’s family had been too embarrassed to be honest with her and tell her the truth. I didn’t know that much about homosexuality back then, but I knew enough to be outraged that someone’s family would be so ashamed of them as to lie.
And I remember hearing about outrageous things Christian leaders said at the height of the AIDS crisis about God’s punishment and judgement. Even though still a teenager, I remember thinking that this couldn’t be true. If God punished people for their sin by inflicting disease, then people who were greedy in the face of the Ethiopian famine should have been struck down too. I could sense that those Christian leaders on TV were speaking with an attitude and tone that didn’t seem very Christ-like to me.
I also remember hearing from so many individuals, from Exodus circles, to Gay Christian network connections, to gay people through social media, and personal friends, who expressed pain over these very public judgements many years after the original utterances. The sense of condemnation ran so very deep.
I heard leaders, including myself, who spoke out and challenged the church to reach out with love and compassion after having missed such a tremendous opportunity when AIDS was creating such alienation and panic. The church got it so terribly wrong then – but we needed to step up and take advantage of the opportunities in front of us today to reach out and engage LGBT people with the love of Christ.
As these thoughts flash through my mind, I can’t help but feel deep sadness that a young man, raised in the Christian community, is reaping the failure that the church sowed nearly 30 years ago. Of course, when anyone receives such an overwhelming diagnosis, whether it is HIV or some other devastating disease, it is normal to ask the kind of questions the email raises. In many ways, these are the common questions of grief. But I don’t know how many people diagnosed with cancer ask, “Can I be forgiven?” as part of the grieving process.
Grieving is an individual and unique process. There is no formula or recipe to get through the difficult process of coming to terms with loss. While there are some general descriptive stages that help us to understand the grieving process, they are not linear or predictable progressions.
When grieving, people will go back and forth between stages. These stages include:
· Denial & Isolation: Often, the first reaction is to deny the reality of the situation. It is a normal reaction to rationalize overwhelming emotions. Denial is a common defense mechanism used to buffer the immediate shock. This is usually a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain.
· Anger: As the masking effects of denial and isolation begin to give way, reality of the situation and its pain re-emerge. Usually, we are not ready to face the pain. The intense emotion is deflected from our vulnerable core, redirected and expressed instead as anger (which is almost always a secondary emotion). The anger may be directed at almost anything or anyone – and may not seem to make sense. In our minds, we know this shouldn’t be the focus of blame. But emotionally, we feel resentment and don’t know what to do with it. Often we feel guilty for being angry, and this makes us more angry. When we find ourselves in this angry phase, it is important to try to be present to the anger, to remember it is a cover for our pain, to be gentle with ourselves, and to give ourselves the time we need.
· Bargaining: The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control. We can find ourselves going over and over in our mind what we might have done differently that might have influenced the current outcome we are facing. We may make a deal with God in an attempt to postpone the inevitable. All of this is just another way we try to protect ourselves from the painful reality we are facing.
· Depression: There can be two types of depression experienced when we are grieving. The first one is a reaction to practical implications relating to the loss and result in feelings of sadness and regret. These feelings may be eased and managed by obtaining clarification and reassurance. Helpful cooperation and a few kind words from those around us can be really helpful. The second type of depression may be more subtle and, in a sense, perhaps more private. It is our quiet preparation to in the face of loss. Sometimes what will serve us best is a hug and simply knowing that someone is present with us.
· Acceptance: Depending on how much time people have for grieving, this may be an unreachable gift. It should be noted that it is not necessarily a mark of bravery to resist the inevitable and to deny ourselves the opportunity to come to a place of peace. Acceptance may be marked by withdrawal and calm. Acceptance is not a period of happiness but of rest.
Navigating the reality of loss is ultimately a deeply personal experience — nobody can make the process easier for you or be fully able to understand all the emotions that you’re going through. But others can be present with you and offer a sense of comfort. The wisest thing to do is to allow yourself to feel the grief as it comes over you. Resisting it only will prolong moving through the stages and coming to a place of rest and peace. Grief is messy and chaotic – there isn’t anything pretty about it. Appearances should be put on the back shelf, they have little to contribute to moving through this process towards healing.
Unfortunately, many people do not know how to simply be present or offer comfort. They may also be grieving the reality you are facing and be too overwhelmed by their own denial, anger or bargaining to be of much support to you. Or your grief may trigger their own fears, anxieties, memories or sense of loss. People tend to panic in the face of a situation they cannot control and may express this by giving unsolicited (and often unhelpful or even downright hurtful) advice. They may not be able to get past their own opinions about what should have or could have been done differently.
It is unfortunate that someone who is grieving needs to take on the extra burden of needing to maintain boundaries with unhelpful or hurtful people – but this is sometimes a necessity. If you are someone who is seeking to support someone as they’re grieving, you may want to encourage and help them in keeping such boundaries.
In my doctoral cohort, one student is focused on introducing the cursing Psalms into personal and communal worship. In the Roman Catholic church, these Psalms are no longer read in public worship because of the strength of the language and images they employ. However, for people who have suffered, for people who are grieving, for people who are angry at God, for people who have trouble expressing their emotions to God, these Psalms offer great depth and permission.
Consider Psalm 55:
Listen to my prayer, O God,
do not ignore my plea;
hear me and answer me.
My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught
because of what my enemy is saying,
because of the threats of the wicked;
for they bring down suffering on me
and assail me in their anger.
My heart is in anguish within me;
the terrors of death have fallen on me.
Fear and trembling have beset me;
horror has overwhelmed me.
I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
I would flee far away
and stay in the desert;
I would hurry to my place of shelter,
far from the tempest and storm. ”
Lord, confuse the wicked, confound their words,
for I see violence and strife in the city.
Day and night they prowl about on its walls;
malice and abuse are within it.
Destructive forces are at work in the city;
threats and lies never leave its streets.
If an enemy were insulting me,
I could endure it;
if a foe were rising against me,
I could hide.
But it is you, a man like myself,
my companion, my close friend,
with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship
at the house of God,
as we walked about
among the worshipers.
Let death take my enemies by surprise;
let them go down alive to the realm of the dead,
for evil finds lodging among them.
As for me, I call to God,
and the Lord saves me.
Evening, morning and noon
I cry out in distress,
and he hears my voice.
He rescues me unharmed
from the battle waged against me,
even though many oppose me.
God, who is enthroned from of old,
who does not change—
he will hear them and humble them,
because they have no fear of God.
My companion attacks his friends;
he violates his covenant.
His talk is smooth as butter,
yet war is in his heart;
his words are more soothing than oil,
yet they are drawn swords.
Cast your cares on the Lord
and he will sustain you;
he will never let
the righteous be shaken.
But you, God, will bring down the wicked
into the pit of decay;
the bloodthirsty and deceitful
will not live out half their days.
But as for me, I trust in you.
One of the most effective ways the enemy of our souls has to distract us from trusting in God is to accuse us. When we are vulnerable to that sense of accusation, our guilt, anger and pain keep us from resting in the security of God’s love and grace for us. Questions like the ones asked in the email may be a complex combination of our own grieving and the accusing whispers of the enemy. “Why is God punishing me?”, “Why did God allow this to happen to me”, “Can I be forgiven?”
To combat the power of such thoughts, we first of all identify them for what they are:
grief + accusation = loss of peace and inability to rest in trusting God. When we know what we are dealing with, we can begin to take concrete steps to address it.
Secondly, we give ourselves permission and space to express the emotions that connect to these thoughts: our pain, our fear, our anger, our worry, our sadness etc. Remember the Psalm. There is no need to hold back in expressing these emotions. God can handle it. We don’t rush ourselves through this phase –we are gentle with ourselves and we wait to seek creative ways to allow these emotions expression.
Thirdly, we confront whether the statements are true. Is God punishing me – or is my experience part of living in a broken world as a person with free will? Can I be forgiven –or is the truth that all the sin of humanity past, present and future has already been taken to the cross by Jesus and cancelled and forgiven – and my part is to accept and trust that this is true? We may need to sit in prayerful silence, inviting the presence of Jesus to work the truth past our minds and into that deep place in our heart that is fearful and vulnerable to guilt and accusation.
Fourth, we recognize that to move forward we must tackle the challenge of acceptance and letting go. The question “why” can haunt us forever if we do not take this step. The reason the question has so much power is that we can only respond to it with faith – not with certainty. Faith tells me that God loves me. Faith tells me that when I hurt, God hurts too. Faith tells me that God cares for me and is with me in all things. Logic says God is all powerful and could have intervened if I mattered to him, if he cared about me, if he loved me. Logic says God is all powerful so since he didn’t intervene and prevent this from happening he must have it in for me, is punishing me, or is unloving. Logic says maybe God isn’t all powerful. Logic says God is cruel and not worthy of my worship. When we get to this kind of impasse – where our faith is waning in trying to maintain a sense of a loving and gracious God in the face of our logic which is concluding that either God doesn’t love me or God isn’t really God, we can feel so hurt, hopeless and angry.
But this competition between faith and logic will not resolve our painful dilemma or bring us peace. To break out of such an impasse, we need to shift our focus. When the scripts run over and over in our head, questioning the love and care of God, we need to stop, become aware of the infinite loop, and ask ourselves, “What will bring me peace right now?” Peace comes when we recognize that our logic can only answer the question “why” if we let go of our faith. And if we let go of our faith, we will only experience a limited peace – because we will have lost our connection with the Source of the peace that passes understanding. True peace comes when we accept that we cannot fully and completely answer the “why” question this side of heaven. Peace comes when we acknowledge the limits of our understanding and choose to believe that God is for us, even though we cannot understand why he did not prevent the pain we are experiencing.
One of the scripts I use to replace the fearful, angry doubt that can rise up when I am experiencing grief and accusation is to remind myself, “Whom have I in heaven but you?” (Psalm 73). Even in my pain and confusion, I would rather have God on my side than be left simply to make myself my higher power. I need Someone bigger, wise, more gracious and loving than I. I will choose to believe in this God – cling to him even when I am angry with him, confused by his absence or fearful that he has ceased to care for me – because my other alternative is to simply trust myself and I know only too well how limited that will be. I have found that when I practice the script, “Whom have I in heaven but you?” my faith is stirred up, the power of the grief, accusations and emotions gives way to a quiet confidence that though I do not understand, I will trust in the Lord.
Letting go of needing to know “why” is never an easy task. Our pride, our sense of entitlement can get in the way. It takes hard work, focus and determination to replace the why script in our minds with a script of acceptance and submission to the call of faith to believe that God is good. But, if we seek to do this, the power of the Holy Spirit will help us each step of the way.
To the writer of the email, I would say that it will take much more than logic to find peace in the midst of such difficult questions. But there is Someone who is much more powerful than our logic – and his name is Jesus. He is for us. Nothing can separate us from his love. He gave up his very life, suffering on our behalf, to make us right with God. He is the One who holds the keys of the Kingdom. He is able to give life where there is hopelessness and despair. He brings light where there is darkness. He gives strength to the weary and peace to those who are distressed. And in ways beyond our understanding, God does work all things together for our good. It would be my prayer that this individual who has received the diagnosis would find a depth of life and peace in Christ that he has never experienced before.