It had been a particularly long day, and I was anxious to get home to put on sweat pants and enjoy a quiet dinner with my family. Our son, David, was only three years old, and he attended the preschool in the basement of the church where I was working. I walked down three long flights of steps and added his bags, artwork, and daily report to my already full briefcase. Juggling these things, I finally got him settled in his car seat for the trip home.
It did not take me too long as a parent to realize that somehow children learn at a very early age that it is in the car that there are few interruptions or distractions. Therefore, they often save their best questions while they have their parents trapped behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. To be honest, I do not remember a time that David has not been talking; and so on this particular day while we were trapped in the car together there was no exception to the rule.
Our conversation began with, "Mom, can we have a baby at our house?" Totally caught off guard, I stammered around until I came out with every parent's stalling answer of "Well, we'll see, David," to which he immediately asked, "How do we get a baby, Momma?" Not wanting to provide a biology lesson, I said, "David, God will give us a baby." "Well, Momma, where is God?" And I cringed as I heard my reply that lacked any evidence of my early childhood and religious education training. For I said, "David, God lives in your heart," to which David put his head inside of his shirt, "Hey God," he shouted. "Can we have a baby at our house?" And after a long expectant pause, David informed me, "God said, 'Yes!'"
Now as if this conversation had not been enough, the next afternoon we are once again in the car and the question came, "Momma, where is God?" And this time I was ready. I had a rehearsed answer, "Oh David, there is nowhere you can go that God won't be there. God loves us so much that God wants to be with us at all times." There was such silence in the car that I looked in the rearview mirror to see what David was doing. He was moving his head from side to side as if he were looking for someone. When my curiosity could not stand it any longer, I finally asked, "David, what are you doing?" "I am looking for God." "Well, Son, did you find him?" To which David answered, "No, Momma, my God ran away."
David's questions have helped me to remember that from the most sophisticated philosophical minds to the very young and naïve, in matters of faith, we are consumed by questions of what God might be like and what we can expect from God. Is God the knowable, ever-present, loving parent who graciously bestows his children with all their wants and desires? Or is God the stern, judging King who acts on whim and remains illusive even to those who are diligent in pursuing personal faith?
As the Israelites begin their wilderness wanderings, these questions resound in their concerned question of "Is God with us or not?" This question expresses the way we feel when we realize that our lives do not come with an instruction book in which we can read clearly the ways and workings of God or find illustrations to inform our imaginations or step-by-step one, two, threes that put things into a doable outline form. ("The Darkness of Faith," Allen C. McSween, Jr., Best Sermons, vl. 7, James Cox, ed.)
In his book The Great Mysteries, Father Andrew Greeley puts it like this:
Life is filled with so many senseless events. Mindless tragedies fill our newspapers every day--airplane crashes, the murder of innocent children, insane terrorism, natural disasters. And much in our own lives seems without purpose or meaning--like a rainstorm on a picnic day, a bad cold when we are having a party, a handicapped child, the early death of a parent or spouse, a broken marriage, a car that won't start in the morning, a wrong number in the middle of the night, the treason of friends and envy of neighbors.
We are often left to wonder why such things happen. Is there any point and purpose behind them? Are we alone in a universe that cares anything about us? Is the Lord with us or not? (McSween) Oh, this question of those thirsty Israelites does not remain in the pages of the Old Testament. It is a question we personally own and ask as well.
Now remember that the Israelites have just come across the Red Sea. It's early in their 40 years of wanderings. So they have recent, vivid memories of the miraculous presence of God who saves them through the plagues and rescues them from Pharaoh's army as the waters are split open for their escape across the Red Sea. They have been led by the pillar of fire and even receive manna and quail to fill their stomachs. So these Israelites, they have each experienced the work of God first hand in the darkest of circumstances. They have evidence. But what they want is personal satisfaction. (Gomes) "I'm hungry! I'm thirsty! I'm lonely! I'm broke! I'm hurt! I'm sick! What will you do about it God? Are you with us or not?" Suddenly wilderness is no longer a geographical place. Wilderness becomes a state of mind and spirit for anyone who attempts faith. (Terrence Frentheim, Interpretation)
Before we think "those silly, ungrateful Jews," perhaps we should stop and consider our own individual states of faith. Our faith is often about what we want God to do for us; how we want God to conform to our needs, our necessities in ways that make sense to us, and occur on our timetable. ("Tempting God," Peter J. Gomes, Pulpit Digest, March/April 1998) We often measure God's faithfulness in terms of God's ability to deliver the goods. God does seem faithful when we are getting what we want. (Chris Caldwell, The Minister's Annual Manual for 2005)
Like the Israelites, we don't want to stop long enough to consider what God has done in the past or consider the evidence that surrounds us of God's current, active presence. Our concerns are immediate and future oriented. We want to shove the issue at hand before God. After all, if God is all God is cracked up to be, what's my little problem to the One who has made the heavens and the earth? So we bring our desires and say, "Here's the situation, God; You solve it. And solve it before tomorrow, would You?"
This sort of presumption supports our faith as long as results are immediate, but what about the long pauses of silence and stillness when darkness descends and there is no response from Heaven? What happens when the promotion doesn't come or we lose the championship game or the diagnosis is cancer or the marriage cannot be saved or your child will never get well or you are in the wilderness without a water fountain in sight? "Is the Lord among us or not?"
The life experiences that I share with my congregation teach me that those who survive the suffering of this world are those who see God not as a solution waiting to happen or a quick fix to numb the pain. Rather, God is seen as present in and with our challenges. Suffering is not allowed to be some suburban hype or angst, but rather suffering is welcomed as an opportunity to discover the presence of God. (Gomes) When this happens, we practice what Paul encourages in Romans 5 that God neither leaves us in our problems nor attempts to solve them for us, but that God joins us in our darkness. Through God's presence, we become much more than either our problems or their solutions. Thus we understand when Paul says,
We rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. (5:4-5)
Who really rejoices when they suffer? Who believes that endurance produces character? Who believes that character produces hope and that hope keeps disappointment from us? Who believes that there is good to be found in adversity? Who believes that adversity will make you stronger? Who believes that, really? The same people who have no proof but who with confidence say, "I know that God is with us."
I recently viewed the movie "Hotel Rwanda." It is a powerful film about the genocide that occurred in Rwanda. The main character is a resort hotel manager named Paul, who ends up protecting over twelve hundred refugees on the grounds of the hotel.
Throughout the story, Paul never loses hope. On his face, viewers can observe the determined belief that help will come and even if help never arrives, then there will be a way for him to use his resources to constantly provide, as the movie says, a "cool oasis in the midst of hell." There are no overt references to the faith of Paul and his family, but around his wife's neck is a gold cross on a gold chain, but for me, it represented a silent message of the source of their hope and strength.
Paul's family, exhausted by the daily bartering and the constant threats of civil war just beyond the hotel gate, gather in one hotel room to sleep. In the dark and long hours of the night, Paul lies in bed and allows his mind to face the stark realities of protecting his family as well as the refugees. With his wife next to him, he reaches over and rubs the cross around her neck. No verbal testimony is given; there is only that touch. It is a simple recognition that real faith is not acknowledging an obvious God. No! Real faith is clinging for dear life to a deeply hidden God in the midst of the darkness of a sometimes appalling and cruel world. (McSween)
I used to believe that Christians were so privileged that we lived in the light of God's presence most of the time with only visits of spiritual darkness or brief wilderness wanderings or seasons of doubt or however else best you describe it for yourself. I am, however, changing my mind and wondering about just the opposite. It seems to me that our spiritual lives are more characterized by living in a darkness that is so rich that we can almost taste it. It is a darkness that surrounds and overwhelms and threatens us as much as those Rwandans were surrounded by the chaos and hate of their national strife. Yet in that darkness, there are moments where glimpses of God's glory are so intensely bright that they blind our eyes with light. These glimpses of glory hint of a deeper joy and peace that represent more than anything we have yet known. They are glimpses of grace that shine in the darkness like fireflies on a summer's night.
My childhood memories are full of wonderful warm experiences that I shared with my siblings. And although we were five years apart in age, my brother and I often played together. There were the Sunday afternoon football games where he ran on his knees so as to keep from having an unfair advantage. There were the Saturdays that we built forts in the backyard. Baseball was banished after I failed to catch one of his throws with my hands and instead, caught it with my mouth and ended up with blood everywhere.
But there is one particular night that stands out in my memory. It was summertime because I remember being barefoot in the newly cut grass. We had already bathed and were in fresh pajamas. It was barely dusk and the coming on of night beckoned us outside for one more adventure before going to bed. It was that night that Jim taught me how to catch fireflies. They were lighting up our yard, and so he showed me how to cup my hands around them so as not to hurt them and then to stand in wonder when they flew away blinking their lights into the dark. I was completely fascinated. So, of course, I wanted to capture and keep these little treasures. I took a glass jar and began to deposit the fireflies within. We took them inside and placed them next to my bed.
After my mother came to kiss me goodnight, I turned to watch the glow of the tiny insects. But they weren't lighting up. "Jim! Jim! My fireflies must be dead; they are not lighting up." Quietly, Jim tiptoed into my room. "He laughed and said, "Don't you know they can't light up if they can't fly." And so he unscrewed the lid of the jar. I do not remember when Jim left the room, but I do remember falling asleep watching for and seeing those tiny lights blink off and on in my room...filling the darkness with light for just a moment, reminding me of their mysterious presence and ability.
I think perhaps that this is a parable of what God's grace is like. If in our dark wanderings and questions of "Is God with us or not?"--if we will but keep our eyes open in anticipation and not shut them in fear and dread--we will see glimpses of God, moments of joy that will take our breath away and bring tears to our eyes. For faith does not shut its eyes in the darkness. Rather, faith keeps its eyes open and focused and watching for the miracles of grace that punch holes of light and hope into the darkness. (McSween)
So should we be riding in a car together and you were to ask me, "Is God with us or not?" I know what my answer would be. But do you know yours?