It was Saturday, the last day of the Youth Group’s D.C. mission trip. The kids were heading back home but my daughter Sarah and I were heading in another direction. Ron Schmidt dropped us off at Union Station before 6 a.m. so we could hop a train to the Baltimore-Washington airport and fly to Philadelphia to catch a flight to Minneapolis-Saint Paul to meet up with Deanne, Jack and Meg who had driven to Minnesota the day before. Complicated, yes; but that is now the way we roll.
Sarah and I arrive at BWI airport and begin to walk towards our gate. And we walk, and we walk, and we walk. We walk to a gate so far from the main hub that we begin to feel nervous. The shops and stores have vanished, along with the people. We take an escalator down into a hallway that leads to little doors with little planes outside the little doors…little planes with little propellers. They remind me of the balsa wood planes that allegedly fly under the power of rubber bands. You turn the propeller and the rubber band tightens and then you let the plane fly and off it goes…..straight into the ground.
When we at last boarded the plane we noticed duct tape repairs to the luggage bins. The stewardess cheerfully informed two passengers that their seats were broken and would they mind moving. Sarah, who has only flown on big jets, was getting more and more concerned that we would never get off the ground. Thankfully – and as evidenced by our appearance in church this morning – the plane held together and we made it to Philly where we boarded a “real” plane and flew to Minneapolis.
But back in the waiting area, all we could see, or rather all we could hear, was a man stretched out snoring. Eventually three other people joined us at the gate: a nice-looking older couple with what turned out to be their adult daughter. We exchanged pleasantries and returned to our gossip magazines.
Then their cell phone rang. And the adult daughter gasped and cried out “NO!” – and then began to sob. She said to her parents, trying to maintain herself, “Julius is dead.” And with that the older couple broke down and sobbed and wailed.
After a few moments I moved towards this grieving threesome and said, “I don’t mean to impose but I am a pastor. Is there anything I can do?”
“Thank you, pastor,” the older woman said. “Julius, our 6-year-old grandson, drowned in a pool…. He was in Florida with his parents – his father is a pastor who was preaching a weekend revival. Oh why, God, why God, why God? He was so precious and smart. Oh why, God?” And then she broke down again.
Why God, indeed. The tragedy of an innocent one – one moment alive and vibrant with his future ahead of him and the next – dead in a pool. Some might think that clergy get some special divine protection from these things. It is naïve and wrong but nevertheless common thinking – we joke about it all the time, this so-called special privilege. People ask, “Pastor, did you pray for sunshine?” as if we have better connections…and better insurance policies.
What are we to make of this? What are we to make of the gruesomeness of the killings in Copley? The surviving mother, whose husband and only son of 11 years old – shot and killed by the boyfriend of a relative. The Deeters were members of a Presbyterian Church in Kentucky.
What are we to make of this? The scenes of carnage in Norway disturbing our morning breakfast? And the murderer, believing that he was appointed by God to kill in order to save western “Christian” values from the encroaching satanic, secular, and Islamic, non-Christian hordes.
What are we to make of this? William Sowell convicted of dismembering 11 women and then sentenced to death.
I suppose we could just think happy thoughts and focus our attention on positive stories…and sometimes that’s what gets me through the night…but then there are times, like these times, for you and for me to plunge the depths, and look into the pits of despair, and admit how thin the barrier is that keeps us from devastation. And ultimately decide what are we going to give witness to: despair or hope?
The dangers of being forced to doubt the presence of God, the dangers of having to lay aside the well-meaning grasps at meaning: “It was part of God’s plan.” “Well, the Lord wanted to take so-and-so home.” The dangers of contemplating that God doesn’t protect you and me from anything because God either won’t or can’t .
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” David cries out. “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” I suspect Beth Deeter feels this way today, and the parents of the victims in Norway and the parents of Julius. “Why have you forsaken me?”
Have you ever felt forsaken? Felt the presence of God’s absence?
What got you through?
I get the question all the time about WHY? If God is good, how can he let this happen? And I don’t have an answer that will satisfy. There is no answer that will satisfy. God doesn’t need me to defend him, protect him, or explain him, and that is good because I can’t defend, protect or explain.
The Bible is full of stories that pull the rugs out from under our simplistic notions that we have much of anything to say about how God is present or not, and how God works or not. Bible stories abound that strip bare all our expectations – showing each of us to be, in reality, vulnerable.
The story of the almost-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis – how could God ask a Father to kill his son? To test him? YUCK. Is that a God you trust?
The story of Job – that is a weird and horrible story. Take everything away from a righteous man on a bet? “What a mighty God we serve,” huh?
The story of Jesus – the Messiah, the one who reveals the face of God – according to our faith – hanging from a cross, helpless, dying, using the same words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Why am I even a Christian? Why do I put my trust and hope in this kind of God? God did not even protect his own son, so why should I even think that God will protect me?
Personally, the only way I begin to move beyond the tragedies into some kind of hope is to start at the foot of the cross.
The cross, which some in the Christian church have turned into a weapon of separation – saved or unsaved – believer or non-believer, heaven or hell.
So much of the Christian church has turned the cross into a spear of judgment – God is really an angry God and you and I are sinners – deserving of the very worst because God cannot look upon sin and unholiness – and therefore Jesus has to interpose his precious blood to appease God – and you had better get right with God before something tragic happens to you. And this is said with sincerity and even compassion – but it is heinous.
The only way I begin to move beyond the reality of horror is by looking at the cross as the ultimate witness of God’s presence in the absence – the divine, the one whom we call God, yes even the God who we trust made the heavens and the earth – spread his arms to take in even senseless evil, and the grossest tragedy. It is a philosophical and theological leap, certainly – maybe too much for you today – but God at the cross, to me, takes all of the suffering, tragedy, despair and claims it, put divine arms around it.
There is no part of reality that God is outside of – God doesn’t turn her back on evil, doesn’t separate herself from pain and tragedy and despair, doesn’t protect anyone from their own personal horrors…but doesn’t expel anyone either. Everything and everyone is taken up in the embrace of divine arms.
The cross, to me; Jesus, to me; shows the only hopeful reality. And I find some comfort in the words of St. Paul:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, not things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Death is not the end. Evil does not have the final word. Sin gets not the curtain call, horror will not define the kingdom, separation is not eternal. Because there is the fragile chord of hope called the resurrection.
Fragile, because that is the leap of faith we take, because we can’t prove it. All I know is that it offers, for me, some glimmer of hope and beyond, not only in the bye and bye, but in the today and tomorrow.
I remember that scene from the third Indiana Jones movie about the Holy Grail. Indiana is on the precipice, on the edge of a cliff overlooking the endless chasm, and his instruction is to “Take the leap of faith.” And finally closing his eyes he steps into the void and what he finds is that there has always been a bridge, camouflaged, completely hidden – but nevertheless there – enabling him to walk across the chasm of despair to the cup of hope.
And that is pretty much all that we have too – into the void we step but with our eyes on the chalice of hope that God does not desert but rather God is in the pain, and God is in the tragedy, and God is in the horror. And whatever reality we find ourselves in, no matter how horrible, is somehow not outside of God’s creation.
As the Psalmist writes:
“If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
The Psalmist, you see, never dismisses, never trivializes, never explains away Sheol, or darkness…never.
We cling to a narrative, a storyline of faith, which tells us about the bridge of hope and the cross of love. And, we have had experiences that confirm the narrative, for we have seen people reaching out in compassion, and we have been part of communities that weep with those who weep and laugh with those who laugh, and will not let us go alone into the dark, and we have heroes who seem to grasp the presence and power of a God even in the dark night of the soul – they keep the lamp of hope alive for us who have no match to ignite the wick for ourselves; they represent hopefulness to us who do not have hope…yet.
We have nothing. No guarantees. We have no claim upon anything – we jump into the mystery and horror of God – knowing we shall either be crushed when we hit bottom, or find some hand catching us, or we will discover against all odds that we have been given wings to fly, or at least given a community that continues to be present, representing a God who is present, who is absent, who is nothing, who is everything.
For Julius’ family, for Beth Deeter, for the parents and friends of the Norwegians who were killed… it is time to act and show the other side of God that we gladly confess – God of compassion, God of gentleness, God of generosity, God of community – it is time to move from doubt to hope, from despair to whatever positive meaning you can make.
It is time to put away foolish notions that God protects, but perhaps we can show that God is present in the living community of those who haven’t given up hope; and that is very powerful indeed, perhaps the only way.