For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
--Romans 8:38-39 NRSV
During these days of pandemic quarantine, I have indulged in binging some TV series that have been on my list for a long time. Recently, I got around to watching the HBO series The Leftovers. It is about what happens in a world where 2% of the world’s population simply disappears one day. Poof! Suddenly, 140 million people are gone, people from every nation, ethnic group, gender, religion, sexuality, age—all simply gone. Those who have disappeared are called “the Departed.” The show takes pains to show this is not some kind of Rapture where the good people are taken off to heaven, because the Departed were a mix of good and bad people. There is no explanation, no pattern, no sense to the world changing event. It happened and now the world must deal with that reality.
The Leftovers was recommended to me by multiple people, because of the shows overt religious subject and the many different ways characters both do and don’t look to religion to make sense of their losses. One of the main characters is a minister; he’s deeply flawed but at least he is not a pedophile or exorcist, which are the usual ways clergy show up in popular culture. Yet, I resisted watching the show, because one of its creators is Damon Lindelof. Lindelof also was a creator of the TV show Lost, which I watched well, religiously, and was sorely disappointed when the many mysteries the show set up were never answered in satisfactory ways. I didn’t want to be frustrated and disappointed again.
I became more open to Lindelof’s Leftovers when I read his statement early declaring the show would never provide an answer to its central mystery: what happened to the missing people? Lindelof said the show isn’t about answers but about how people deal with not having answers to their deepest pain. Huh? That sounds like a pretty depressing show, but I am interested, or at least interested enough to watch the show six years after it first came out.
Indeed, Lindelof was true to his word; The Leftovers offers no definitive answers for why 140 million people simply vanished one day. Instead, the show is about how people deal with a grief that has no closure. Some double down on the religion they have, others reject their former religions. Some create new religions, and there are new mysteries and seemingly supernatural events that end up raising more questions than they do answers. Some get lost in their work, others quit their jobs. Some families grow closer, others fall apart. Some self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, others seek to drop all their vices. Conspiracy theories are everywhere. In sum, it seems a lot like real life when unexpected and/or unexplained tragedy strikes.
Whether it is 9-11 or a death in a car accident, a lost job or a divorce, our losses set us adrift searching to make sense of what is nonsensical. Like someone trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the box of the finished work and without all the pieces, we struggle to find a reason for our pain. It’s no wonder people cling to shallow and dangerous theology like, “everything happens for a reason” or “God just needed another angel in heaven” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Even bad theology is better than a world where nothing makes sense. A conspiracy theory, no matter how crazy, is preferable to a world where chaos can strike at any time.
I’ve seen that people who work through their grief do so by creating meaning in their lives in the way one might use a nail file to sculpt a mountain. It happens slowly, with all sorts of stops and starts. It only happens with honesty, but even the most honest must deceive themselves sometimes, because the pain can be too much.
I have learned in my own life and seen it also in my role as minister that more than answers, even though answers are important, people really want to know they have not been rejected and abandoned, by family, by friends and by God. Even when they (and I) push people away, inside we are begging for someone to stay beside us and help us bear our pain when it is too much for us to bear alone. Cards, letters, texts, emails, calls, visits, sitting down over coffee or a drink, talking, listening, crying, all matter more than explanations, because oftentimes there is no explanation good enough.
At one time or another, all of us are “leftovers,” left behind as the world keeps spinning while we are stuck in our moments of pain. When that happens and I’m called to show up in my capacity as minister, if I mention God at all, I read the few verses in Romans 8 that declare nothing can separate us from the love of God. In the end, more than answers, that’s all I want to know. If God can’t show up in person, I will settle for a good friend, many times, I expect, that is how God shows up anyway.
Grace and Peace,
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