In the wake of a horrific event, where a human choice took the life of beloved police officer, some friends in blue have asked me hard questions this week. Why would something like this happen? How can your God of love allow things like this to happen? Many of the folk asking are non-religious, anti-religious or grew up abused by people of an angry God and have turned away from the church and a life of faith. When friends like these turn to me with painful questions of "why?" I feel intensely compelled to invest a great deal of time thinking, reading, talking and praying about what on earth to tell them. You can be damn sure I will never utter those ridiculous phrases that we've all heard too often. You know the ones: "God has a plan in this, we may not know it but He does." Or "God is teaching us something through this." Those sprinkled with the hollow "She is in a better place now." leave me more than cold, they leave me angry.
See, I'm a woman who believes in God. Well, sometimes I wonder if I just really, really want to believe in God. This has been one of those weeks where I vacillate between believing with all my heart and wanting to believe but not really sure how I can. My deepest struggle with faith happens when I swim in the murky waters of theodicy; you know the question - if God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good how can evil exist? These questions are not some theoretical mind game or intellectually acrobatic spectacle among theologians. The questions arise for me, like for so many, when faced with real, deep suffering. Some will immediately retreat to the argument of free will. Humans have free will and we create evil. Ok, I'll buy that for a dollar, but there is really more to it than that. Why would God allow such depths of evil to manifest in some? Yeah, yeah, I hear you that God's gift of free will is an incredible act of love and self-sacrifice. But arguments of free will and a God that self-limits out of love do little in the face of natural terror such as tsunamis, earthquakes and childhood cancer. To be honest, those arguments really don't satisfy in the gnawing hole of human evil either - why the hell would God permit such evil to destroy those so presumably loved? I am perplexed by, and frankly find unworthy of worship, a God who creates or allows human evil to expand to the size of a holocaust or contract to the level of nauseating abuse of tiny innocents. But I do believe in and love God. WTF?
When these questions awaken me at 3 am, soon to follow is the question of whether or not God is active in my life at all. If God is not causing or allowing evil then does that mean the notion of blessings is pure fantasy? When I pray does it matter one, red cent? How can God seemingly grant some rancid excuses of humans endless blessings while withholding the basics of life from others? We can look around the world and see that abundance of health, wealth and happiness are bestowed on kind and cruel alike. I truly do not believe that God gives away touchdowns to Tebows while withholding decent food and drinkable water from a whole continent of babies. God does not arbitrarily bestow long, opulent lives to Windsors while doling out brain tumors to Davies.
Let me back up and tell you a little story...
Late one night while I was serving as chaplain at a local children's hospital I received a call from a nurse asking me to visit a family of a child who was declining toward death slowly, but surely. When I opened the door of the dimly lit room a small, round woman rose and greeted me with a bright smile. When I introduced myself as the chaplain she hugged me tightly and invited me to sit. She returned to the stark white rocker that stood vigil at the bedside of a tiny boy engulfed in tubes. Machines made the only other sounds in the room and cast a rainbow of light on his translucent face. As I sat and faced mamma she turned and took my hands and said "God ain't gonna take my baby - I know cuz we been prayin' - we're good Christians and do right so God gonna spare my baby." I said "God loves you and your son very much." "Oh yes ma'am he does - maybe He been needin' to get my attention so that's why Davie gotta hurt so, but I been talking to Him non-stop and I know - I know God ain't gonna take my baby." I asked he if we could pray together, not entirely sure what to pray for - God I was green - but I asked for God's love to enter the room and wrap around this family like a quilt. She praised God for the suffering and thanked Him for sparing her son, like she knew He would. We stayed together for a while, mostly quiet after that, me holding her cracked and worn hands and little Davie's hand that was just a whisper in my own. She told me about her church life and all the good people in her life and I listened and just loved them both until my heart nearly broke. When I received a beep to go to a room where a child was coding I asked mamma to send for me if she needed anything at all.
Davie died two days later while I was off duty.
Now I don't presume to say that God could not or would not have spared her child, nor would I have, in a million years told her anything differently. We certainly see what appear to be miraculous recoveries all the time. But here is my anguish over an encounter like this, it is manifold to be sure, but two problems stand out: first is the teaching that this woman believed - that God would torture a 3 year old boy to "get her attention". She's been told that God teaches us lessons through the suffering of innocents. Second, she sincerely believed that since she was a "good Christian" that God would bless and not curse her, would not "take her boy." No, no, no. Neither of these is God, not even remotely - NO.
I have a few competing images of God that bump into one another and occasionally threaten to leave me a nihilist.
There is the God of my mother and her mother, the God I was given as a child and the God that we hear about every day on the streets, at the check-out line in the south and now from NFL end-zones. This is an all-knowing, all-powerful God who is also said to be all-loving - but grants glory on a select few. Those who follow the some sub-set of rules, pray exactly some right prayer in the right frame of mind will be blessed beyond measure. In this picture God rewards those God approves of and by all appearances punishes those who God despises. How can a God who is all good despise? Really this God is just the god we've fashioned in our own image. Anne Lamott said it quite well; "You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image, when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."
Our pat answers to grief imply the same loves and hates we as broken humans hold, as if the mystery of God can be contained in simplistic cause and affect.
But, in my faith I want to share with you the God I think of most often, the God I sing to in worship, pray to every day and try to emulate (but fall short of every day). This is the God of unimaginable love and radical hospitality. A God who IS love, present everywhere if only we open ourselves to perceiving. This God does not and did not plan for officer Thomas' demise in this way, at this time. God does not have a greater architecture of the universe that includes a young woman losing her mother in such a horrible way. Love Incarnate is not teaching you and I some lesson through the actions of a young drunk with no regard for anyone but herself. No.
If I look to scripture, well ok, WHEN I look to scripture as I wrestle with my faith and the nature of God, I often return to the story of Lazarus.
When Jesus, after much intentional delay, is headed to the tomb of Lazarus he meets meet angry and bereft sisters. In fact he meets a whole weeping community distraught at the loss of their loved one. Jesus, upon encountering such vivid human suffering - Jesus weeps. God with us, suffers with us. God on the cross is the ultimate image of a God who suffers with us.
Sigh, so here we are - when horrific things happen to people my desire to believe in God falters. But my longing for God is magnified and my deep desire to be in community with others asking these questions climbs out of my heart like kudzu consuming a tattered barn. When I see how God works through people in the soft words spoken in love, the hug around shoulders shuttering with grief or gentle hands wiping away tears streaming down twisted faces - belief is out of my control - thank God. In that space between grief and comfort, that space between you and I - in my longing and desire, the questions lived in community - that is where I find God.