Well, we have all sat in shock and sadness at the scenes twenty four-seven on TV of the incredible suffering and death caused in southeast Asia by the recent tsunami. How could we react otherwise. And the outpouring of generosity along with the engagement of our government speak of the better side of our nature as human beings. Indeed, a friend in Israel sent an Email this week in which he urged me to call for prayers this morning for our country; so important to the world, given both its good will and resources.
But along with the terrible tragedy has come again the question as to the role of God in all this. An edition of the Wall Street Journal devoted pages to the question. “How can a loving God allow this to happen,” asked Alex Balasanthiran, apparently a citizen of that part of the world. Other media and press have echoed the cry of victims and onlookers. “Where is God?”
So perhaps we ought to revisit the question also even in the face of the incredible, not to diminish our shock and sympathy, but to ask how we might better respond when our day comes, as in one way or another it will. Father Greeley put the question well the other day. “How can one believe in a God who snuffs out hundreds of thousands of lives in a few terrible instants? Especially a God who tolerates the deaths of so many innocent children and tears apart so many families. If God is so wise and good, why couldn’t he create a world that didn’t require tectonic plates, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, hurricanes, plagues, famines.” But, he adds, “It is, at bottom, is it not, the question, why must we humans die?”
First of all, we need to recognize then that this question is nothing new nor are the tragedies that gave rise to it. Nothing new except that we can now watch such horror 24/7 on cable news. So has life always been. In the 14th century the Black Death killed a third of the people of Europe. In the 19th Spanish influenza killed 20 million in a couple of months. Think of the hurricanes and tornadoes, floods and earthquakes of our time that have wiped out millions. Or there are the man made disasters all the way from a million or so in Darfur right now to the fifty million victims of World War II.
But the question and issue are not simply matters of size and scale and media interest. The sufferings and contradictions are there equally in the challenges we all face in this the pain of a task that drags on, a hope that does not come to fruition, the debilitating body that will not function as it should, the empty space left by a friend gone to some other place, the lover who no longer loves but leaves, the son or daughter who goes crazy, the parent who wallows in late-life misery, the loved one whisked away to emergency or mortuary. Life is full of frustration and contradiction, pain and discomfort, body and mind.
And in fact, our response to tragedy and death, media size or close and personal, depends certainly in part upon how we answer the question. How does God relate to his world? The unbeliever, of course, has a simple answer. He doesn’t. He is a superstitious hangover from a less enlightened era. But listen to some remarkable words by one who gave his life to the service of his God, in spite of everything, everything that seemed to contradict the sense in believing. “We want to prove ourselves genuine servants of God whatever we may have to go through — patient endurance of troubles or even disasters, being flogged or imprisoned; being mobbed, having to work like slaves, having to do without food or sleep. All this we want to meet with sincerity, with insight and patience; by sheer kindness and spirit; with genuine love, speaking the plain truth, and living by the power of God. Our sole defense, our only weapon is a life of integrity, whether we meet honor or dishonor, praise or blame. Called “imposters” we must be true, called “Nobodies” we must be in the public eye. Never far from death, yet here we are alive, always going through it and yet never going under. We know sorrow, and yet our joy is inextinguishable. We have nothing to bless ourselves with, yet we bless many others with true riches. We are penniless, and yet in reality we have everything worth having.”
Now what enables a human being to talk like that, in this case the Apostle Paul to friends in Corinth? No stranger to troubles or disasters, he is patient and caring, sensitive and capable of sorrow, yet never a question about God’s presence in such a life and world. How? Why? Because he has become convinced that God is present to this unfinished and broken world even as he is present strangely enough in the awful death of Jesus of Nazareth. God present not as brute force to fix such a world, but as a presence in the midst of its agonies and troubles to enable us to go through it without going under, enabling us to know joy in the midst of sorrow, enabling us to bless others even in the midst of our own trials.
In the faith of Jesus on his cross we get a powerful clue as to how God is present to our world and life. Now let us face it: this is a very different God than the one we want when the roof falls in. That he is present may not even feel like it when the roof does fall in. It is counter-intuitive. It does not solve the mystery of pain and suffering. But when we trust the one present in that man of Galilee, things do happen that enable life in the midst of reality. Rather than bitterness and anger at God, rather than flight from pain, inconvenience, frustration, suffering, we learn another choice, another way. This most ancient faith first of all urges upon us acceptance of the disciplines of pain and confusion, patient endurance even in the midst of uncertainty and anxiety and loss as part of life, as inevitable as wintry weather and to be embraced in courage and hope and faith.
I think one of the most important lessons of life is the inner acceptance that even as in nature, the wintry side of personal life just is. James Du Pont of the famous family recalls an episode that happened to him when he was seven years old. He awoke one night out of a sound sleep. His mother was sobbing loudly. It was the first time he’d ever heard her cry. Then he heard his father speaking to her. Du Pont says, “My dad’s voice was low and troubled as he tried to comfort mother-and in their anguish they both forgot about the nearness of my bedroom. I overheard them. While their problem…has long since been solved and forgotten, the big discovery I made that night is still right with me. Life is not all hearts and flowers. It’s hard and cruel…much of the time.
Our faith urges this acceptance upon us because then our tragedies, our wintry days can begin to take on a meaning greater than that of the sunny uplands of summer, a meaning that makes them less painful and more bearable, enables us to find in them some good, some real treasure we might otherwise never know.
There is often no satisfying explanation of the hard spots, the painful parts of life. But we can ask what they may do for us. They may be the making of us. “So we want to prove ourselves genuine servants of God whatever we may have to go through…All this we want to meet with sincerity, with insight and patience and kindness, and living by the power of God, always going through it and yet never going under.”
This is a hard but necessary truth — that none of us would amount to much as human beings, would grow into people of integrity and caring, without some measure of struggle and adversity. We do not develop inner resources, learn staying power, generate courage and hope, without some effort to survive and thrive. We don’t need to go looking for trouble to acknowledge that it has been precisely the hard times in our lives ‘til now that have made us what we are, that have developed patience and fortitude. Provided that we embrace these difficult days and seek to learn from them.
There is a lovely passage in Haim Potok’s In The Beginning. “All beginnings are hard. I can remember my mother murmuring those words while I lay in bed with fever. ‘Children are often sick, darling. That’s the way it is with children. All beginnings are hard…I remember bursting into tears one evening because a passage proved too difficult for me to understand. I was about nine at the time. ‘You want to understand everything instantly?’ my father said, ‘Just like that? You only began to study last week. All beginnings are hard. You have to work at the job of studying. Go over it again and again. The man who later guided me in my studies would welcome me warmly into his apartment and when we sat at his desk, say to me in his gentle voice, ‘Be patient, David.’ The midrash says, ‘All beginnings are hard. You cannot swallow the whole world in one moment.’”
Again, the sufferings and contradictions of life in this fallen world, if accepted and embraced, can grow us toward one another. Ever notice how it is in snow storms that we get to know our neighbors or that people seem more willing to go out of their way to help people in trouble. Even more so it is in life, or can be if we embrace the pain of life with and for one another. But this is a kind of suffering we especially seem to have trouble with in our affluent and rather comfortable age. Sigrid Linscott writes, “About a year ago, our child became suddenly, desperately ill. Recovery could not, as one doctor put it, be ‘guaranteed.’ These days, thank heaven and modern medicine, the illness seems to be abating. Though we can’t predict the future, we are hopeful, very hopeful. For the child. I’m not sure about the rest of us. Perhaps the worst, the most puzzling side effect of this long illness has been the disappearance of our friends. After initial expressions of sympathy, they drew back from us and I am still trying to understand why. We have unfortunately landed in an upper-middle class community where, I once believed, no one ever dies, and women never come outdoors without a painted smile. Misery is out of place here; we’re not zoned for it.”
Life together, with one another, for one another, does mean the embrace of the wintry side of things. Real love is never easy, and can be painful and exhausting. Janet O’Day writes, “While I was recuperating from surgery, my mother and mother-in-law both offered to help with my very active two-year-old. My mother came first. Five exhausting days later, she got in the car with my husband to drive to the airport where his mother was now due to arrive. “Where are you going?” a neighbor child asked. In a tired voice, my mother answered, ‘He’s taking a used grandma to the airport and picking up a fresh one.’”
But if we are available and willing to share the hard times as well as the good times, our relationships can take on a quality and depth they would never have if all our times together were sunny and easy. Suffering shared is suffering that can be less burdensome and painful, and suffering shared can make our relationships more deep and meaningful. And more than that, the way we deal with our difficult hours can be the greatest gift we give to one another. A major meaning of our life may well be this: the inspiration and strength we provide one another by the way we bear our pain and endure our struggles. The faith and hope with which we embrace our wintry hours can be the greatest gift we give to one another. Those who have not known pain, trouble, reversal, heartache, can do less for those who do. As an old saying has it, only wounds can heal wounds. “We have nothing to bless ourselves with, yet we bless many others with true riches,” writes Paul to his friends.
The dark and tragic side of life can grow us. The dark and tragic side of life can grow us toward and for one another. The dark and tragic side of life can grow us toward God. As with the mighty storms of nature over which we have little or no control, so all the storms of life lead us to the reality of our limitations as creatures, the reality of our dependency upon another, upon a power greater than our own. In resisting the trials and troubles of life, in the denial of their reality, we are in fact resisting what God seeks to give us in and through them, the experience of his power in overcoming, the experience of joy in his presence with us even there. “We know sorrow, yet our joy is inextinguishable,” writes the Apostle. “We are penniless, and yet in reality we have everything worth having.” Which is the certainty that on days both sunny and sad we are in the loving care of the one who rules our future.
A Lutheran minister faced one of the most difficult times a human being can face. He lost his eighteen-year-old son by suicide. He did not hide himself away from the world; he did not skirt the terrible questions. He did say, “I cannot describe my grief, nor can I understand what prompted Andrew to take his life.” But then he continued, “Christians are not known for giving up. We are often at our best by the grace of God when everything else is at its worst. When others give up, we go on! For we believe that God still loves the world. We believe that the future is still in God’s hands. And because we have this extravagant belief, we will work, and we will pray, and we will hope. And God will be there.”
In the winter of our pain and trouble we find ourselves, we find the means to help others and we find our God…and so learn the true and deeper joy of real life. On the night before he was to die, he held a dinner party for his friends, the celebration of the great feast of freedom of his people. And during the meal he said, “In this world you will have trouble, but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world.” And then he took the bread and wine of sunnier days and bound them together with the broken body and shed blood of a wintry tomorrow. As if to remind us that all the seasons of life are in his hands, and therefore we may embrace each one as it comes with a song. Having sung a hymn, it says, they went out into the night.