Robert R. Merhige, Jr., Modern Hero

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 8 June 2005 0 Comments
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I was born and raised Catholic but for many reasons have shed that belief system. I have been attending a Society of Friends Meetinghouse for over a year and it seems to be the best "fit" so far. I am 60 years old and still on this, at times, overwhelming journey. Two questions are uppermost in my mind. I have not received any answers to which I can ascribe, so I thought that it would be interesting to seek your perspective. First, I am the father of a mentally retarded 22 year-old daughter, who functions at about a 2-3 year old level. Of course, there is the familiar lament, "Who will take care of her once I am gone?" But a bigger question is "why?" What purpose does it serve to have her suffer from day one through what life she has? Is her soul retarded? Second, I know that somewhere in the Bible it states that no man will be given more than he can handle. Well, I also had a 30-year old daughter, who suffered from mental illness and wound up putting a bullet through her head. So what happened to the Biblical guarantee in the case of my daughter? Is it any wonder that God, who appears to allow things like this, should have someone ask, "What is going on here?" Is this my punishment for a selfish and sinful past?


Thank you for sharing your personal story with me. You have indeed faced both in the past and in the present some difficult moments in your life.

Both of your questions are related, though at times they might not seem to be. There is a definition of God that underlies everything you say. I do think you must address that before you will ever come to peace.

First, please dismiss any idea that God is punishing your daughters because of your own "selfish and sinful past." Any God, who would make your daughters suffer in order to punish you is a demon, unworthy of your worship or indeed of your service.

I understand deeply your concern about who will care for your daughter when you have departed this world. That is why we live in a civilized society. We will bear one another's burdens and society has a kind and gracious face that turns toward those in your daughter's situation.

No one can explain life's tragedies. That is just the way things are. Our task as agents of the divine is to transform our world, to play the game of life with the hand we are dealt and to make whatever we can of our circumstances. Christianity does not free us from pain or evil, but it does give us the ability to transform them so that life becomes full to the limits available to that life and therefore a blessing to those who are touched by that life. You have my admiration. I trust that you have a number of friends who will help you to live well by walking with you on your journey. God, understood as the Ground of all Being, works within us enabling us to be all that each of us can be.

--John Shelby Spong

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