When Life Sucks: A Raw Look at Real Faith in Hard Times

When Fred Schmidt learned that his brother, Dave, had life-ending cancer seven years ago, it was the beginning of a very personal journey that would teach this Episcopal priest and Spiritual Director much about real faith in hard times. As he watched his beloved brother’s coming to terms with his own life-changing reality, as well as the responses of the friends and family around him, Schmidt began to develop a set of questions — which he calls the “Dave Test” — for us to ask ourselves during difficult times, aimed straight at the unhelpful ways we as Christians often respond to suffering.

“What we are told and what we say to others when life goes to hell can be crushing or comforting. It can ring true, or it can sound like a pack of lies. If you are looking for God, honesty, answers, direction, and peace (or if you are trying to help others find them), then apply the Dave Test before you open your mouth or believe what you are told. No flinching, squinting, or sugarcoating the truth.” — From the Introduction to The Dave Test

We recently spoke with Schmidt, a popular Patheos blogger and director of the Rueben P. Job Institute for Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, about his new book, The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Faith in Hard Times.

What compelled you to write The Dave Test

Two car accidents. I’ve broken my back twice. The second time I was in the hospital for twenty-eight days and the coach who was driving the car died in the accident. I’ve been unemployed — twice.

Those experiences have kept me alive to my own mortality and life’s hard places. But what prompted me to write this book was my younger brother’s battle with brain cancer. Dave was a great surgeon and the day that they ran the MRI that detected his tumor everything changed. His career was over. His life was on a timer.

Dave was fearlessly honest about his struggle, but he found it hard to find companions on that journey. I wanted to write a book that helped people in Dave’s place to think about life’s ragged edges in a way that is relentlessly honest (whatever the nature of their struggle). I wanted to help people find a durable faith and hope in hard times. I also wanted to write a book that helped other people stand alongside those they love when life comes unraveled.

The Dave Test is a set of ten questions to ask ourselves before responding to another (or ourselves) when life has completely bottomed out. Questions such as “Can I say, ‘Life sucks?’”, “Can I stop blowing smoke?”, and “Can I walk wounded?” Which of the questions do you think is the most important during a major crisis? And which is most difficult, and why?

The most important question? Maybe the question, “Can I be a friend?” We tend to think of friendship in terms of our own needs. Is this a supportive relationship?  Is it life-giving? Is it enjoyable? As I describe it in the book, the kind of friendship that endures life’s ragged edges is other-directed. It’s marked by the ability to love freely, acknowledge our mortality, practice availability, live vulnerably, and tell the truth.

The most difficult question? That’s harder to say. It probably depends upon the person. For some it may be “Can I give up my broken gods?” For others it may be “Can I say something that helps?” The suffering of others takes us into the heart of our own fears and struggles, so what we find difficult has a lot to do with our own journey. But I hope that the book goes a long way to helping with the answers.

Why, when it comes to responding to suffering, do we tend to revert back to childhood notions of God? Notions such as “God the punisher,” “the divine plan-maker,” the “blessing-in-disguiser”?

Our views of God are a lot like the default settings on a word processing document: one-inch margins, New York Times font, double-spaced. They are formed early in life, often between the ages of 6 and 13, and they are more often caught than taught.

Punch the buttons of our life with a hardship and we revert to the assumptions that shaped our views of God in the most formative moments in our young lives: God the judge, God the fixer, God the author of blessings-in-disguise. Because most of us don’t have an opportunity to rethink those default settings, we revert to them. It’s easier. It’s familiar and the unexamined familiar often feels “right.”

Part of what I wanted to accomplish in The Dave Test was to invite people to re-examine their views of God — many of which might be broken — and give them permission to embrace a healthier, life-giving vision of God.

One of your chapters is titled: “Can I Avoid Using Stained-Glass Language?” What is stained-glass language — and what is its antidote?

Stained-glass language is the churchy religious and theological language that we string together, often without thinking through the connections it has with real life. What do we really mean, for example, when we say that a tragic event is “a blessing in disguise?” The biblical notion of blessing is all about God choosing you for God’s purposes. God “blessed” Abraham when he was already an old man and sent him on a trip. Jacob was chosen — a.k.a., blessed by God — to lead his people and ended up with wives who fought among themselves and mean-spirited children. What does the one have to do with the others? Do we really mean that murder, mayhem, and loss are the things God uses to “bless” us? What kind of God would do that?

The anti-dote to stained glass language is to “keep it real” and think about what you are saying before you use that kind of language. Most of our spiritual, religious, and theological language has real world connections and real world consequences.

The incarnation, to offer another example, can be a pretty abstract concept. It’s all about the conviction that Jesus was both God and a human being. But when we realize that it’s also about the conviction that God has walked in our shoes and understands the ragged places in our lives and grieves with us, then our language about God becomes real.

One of my favorite quotes from that chapter is this: “For every person who offers up an easy formula for letting God solve your every problem, there is a progressive skeptic who is so obsessed with the inaccuracies and defects of the Scriptures that he or she has never bothered to plumb the wisdom of them.” You seem to suggest that there is a lot of bad “spiritual” guidance being doled out these days in the name of “help.”

Do I think there is a lot of bad advice out there? Sure. At the extremes, there are people who trade in easy answers that don’t work and people who argue that there is no hope at all. What I’ve tried to do in The Dave Test is offer hope that is worthy of the word and honesty that acknowledges how really hard life can be.

Dave’s best and most valuable friends throughout his illness, ironically enough, were not his church folk. What were the qualities these unlikely companions in his suffering demonstrated that were lacking in his church community?

Honesty, vulnerability, the ability to walk-wounded, and deep faith are probably the qualities at the top of the list. The two friends who were closest to Dave were both recovering alcoholics. So they had been to the bottom and found their way out.

Far too many churches are places where people are expected to show up with the rough edges planed off or hidden, minds clear, and hearts aligned. We need to find new ways to welcome people who are struggling.

You are an Episcopal priest and are surely privy to a lot of people’s pain. What have you found to be the best response to someone who is suffering?  Have you ever found yourself with ‘no words,’ and what have you done then?

The best response to the suffering someone encounters is also the thing to say when there is nothing to be said. “God grieves with you and I grieve with you.” But we shouldn’t focus just on what we say. Simply walking wounded with someone we love makes a significance difference, especially in the places where there is nothing to be said or done. I am convinced that God uses those moments to comfort and strengthen us.

You talk about the importance of acknowledging the reality of someone’s suffering, and being willing to say, “Life sucks.” But isn’t it helpful sometimes to offer an encouraging word as well as be a witness to the ‘suckiness’ of it all?  Is it possible, or practical, to speak hope into the situation as well?

Sure it is and, as I point out, in the worst of times we can rest in the knowledge that there is nothing of lasting value that is forever lost. For Christians that conviction is rooted in the hope of the resurrection.

But there is an important difference between offering one another real hope and blowing smoke, as Dave put it. Too often we offer one another hope that is grounded in wishful thinking:  “You’re too talented to remain unemployed.” “God has something better in mind for you.”  The fact is, some people don’t find other employment. Some illnesses do sideline people. Then what?

Acknowledging the “suckiness” of some places in life is not about surrendering to despair. It’s about naming what is lost with honesty. Until we do that, we can’t begin to name what real hope might be.

This story has a personal and painful ending for you, and for us as your traveling companions in your story.  How does the Dave Test continue to inform and guide your life in the absence of your brother?

Losing Dave has been really hard and it still is. We talked twice a day, every day. I really miss him and I still catch myself thinking, “Time to call Dave.” I talk to people every day with stories of loss, pain, and struggle. Some of those are people I meet in connection with the work that I do as a teacher, spiritual director, and priest. But a lot of them are simply the stories we all hear from friends, family, and acquaintances. I let my loss keep me alive, open, and vulnerable to the loss of others. I hope that The Dave Test helps other brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, spouses, partners, and friends do that for one another.

To read an excerpt from The Dave Testvisit the Patheos Book Club here. 

About Deborah Arca

Deborah Arca is the Managing Editor of the Progressive Christian Portal and Book Club at Patheos.com.


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