For many years, I served as the spiritual director at a parish summer camp. I was privileged to receive the stories of many young people as they discerned not only who they were but who God was to them in and through their stories.
Many of these stories involved searching questions about where God was in moments of uncertainty, loss, and tough transitions. Sometimes, at the heart of these stories was a concern that they, or someone they loved, was being punished by God. Sometimes they worried that their actions or an aspect of their identity might create distance between themselves and God.
Somewhere along the way they had internalized a theology that links suffering or frustrations with God to sinfulness. Indeed, the author of Numbers explicitly draws this connection. Having followed God and Moses out of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites are wandering in the desert without the basic material resources necessary for survival. In frustration they cry out to God only to be met with more suffering in the form of poisonous serpents sent by God as punishment for their complaints.
As I sat with this troubling image of God, I kept returning to Moses whom the Israelites turn to in their frustration. God instructs Moses to craft a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole, which will heal those who look upon it. My thoughts drifted back to the many stories I was privileged to receive over the years as young people opened their hearts and their lives to me.
Perhaps it was a camper who trusted me with a story of coming out, parental loss, or family struggle, a fight with a best friend, or questions about college and big life decisions. Sometimes through tears, or with a hug, I thanked them for sharing their story and reassured them that they were loved by God and others. While these reassurances may not have brought an end to their struggles, it was my hope that they were able to see their frustrations, struggles, and uncertainties in a new light as graced and holy moments of genuine searching for God through which they could begin to tell their story in a new way—one in which God was a source of their healing rather than the author of their pain.
- Who in your life is experiencing pain, suffering, or uncertainty?
- In what ways might you be called to be present to them in a special way during Lent?
Ed Sloane is originally from West Virginia. He serves as the board chair for the Catholic Committee of Appalachia and received his Ph.D. in religious education and pastoral ministry at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. His writing focuses on approaches to education in faith through the lens of ecological justice and place-based learning. Ed is also a high school theology teacher.