GOD”S PRESENCE: FOR BETTER AND FOR WORSE
First Presbyterian Church, Post
March 11, 2007
Kyle gets upset with me at times because he says I don’t have a filter and what thoughts I have at any given moment often come out of my mouth very uncensored. If my dear husband is not around threatening me to be nice or if I don’t have time to consider the scope of the situation, then I sometimes do not bite my tongue. On the spur of the moment when someone says something so ridiculous, from my point of view, I don’t always respond as appropriately as I would like.
On one such occasion several years ago, I was sitting in a long, boring team meeting at Hospice of Lubbock, where we discuss our patient’s physical, social and spiritual needs. When we began to talk about one of our more difficult patient situations, I perked up. We had a patient in East Lubbock who lived in a known drug house and each time a nurse got called out in the middle of the night, she was supposed to call the Lubbock police and they gladly agreed to provide our dedicated nurses with a police escort for their safety.
During the team meeting, one of our best Hospice nurses admitted she had been called out several times in the night to help the patient with pain control and defiantly bragged that she didn’t need a police escort because she had a strong Christian faith and knew that God would protect her because she was doing God’s work. I remember the room getting silent and me getting an incredulous look on my face before blurting out, “Sandra, God gave us each a brain and if you want to not be shot in the line of doing God’s work, then a police escort might increase your odds of living to your next paycheck. Jesus never promised his disciples that if they sought God’s kingdom and ministered to the many needs of the multitudes, they would be protected from suffering, sickness, hunger, tragedy, or death. His only promise to them and also to us was that God would be always with them. And sometimes God’s grace and presence is not enough to protect us from random acts of violence or an untimely, tragic death.”
At first, I was horrified that a person of faith who cares for sweet, blameless, seven year olds, dying of cancer and who remembers the innocent victims of September 11,th could possibly believe that because they are doing God’s work, they are somehow exempt from the acts of random violence that happen to the good, the bad and the ugly and remind us just how precious and fragile God’s gift of life to us really is. After I settled down, I realized Sandra’s response is often how we keep ourselves going in the face of much suffering, violence and threats of death. I was probably being too harsh on Sandra and when I apologized to her, we talked about how we wished that bad things only happened to bad people, sinners got what they deserved, and God protected innocent, blameless people from suffering, disease and untimely death.
Because we are nice to God, our thinking goes, God should be nice to us. Because we interrupt our normal routines to attend church, give to our favorite charities and find ways to be examples of God’s love to others, God should take note of it, mark it down in the book and spare us of any future trouble, tribulation or turmoil. Tribulation happens only to bad people who do not find room in their lives for the practice of faith.
When faced with sudden tragedy and disease, most of us have a great need to get a grip on the catastrophe and our first response is often “Why, God? Why, me? Why do bad things happen to good people?”
When tragedy strikes close to home, “even those of us who claim to know better, often react the same way. Calamity strikes and we wonder what we did wrong. We scrutinize our behaviors, our relationships, our diets, and our beliefs. We hunt for some cause to explain the effect, in hopes that we can stop causing it. What this tells us is that we are less interested in truth than consequences and what we crave, above all, is control over the chaos of our lives.”
In our Gospel lesson for today, Luke does not divulge the motive of those who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices but the implication is that those who died somehow deserved what they got. At least that is what Jesus intuited because he quickly responded, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus clearly tells us there is not any connection between the suffering and the sin and then went on to further clarify his point by describing another act of random violence that caused the death of innocent people. “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them---do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (Excerpts from Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon, Life Giving Fear, p. 69-72 in Home By Another Way)
The good news of this scripture is the reminder that there is not usually a connection between our suffering and our sin and God is not the Great Disciplinarian in the sky who punishes us for our mistakes, blames us for our failures or judges us for our ignorance. No, we can heave a huge sigh of relief that God does not cause bad things to happen to good people. But before we get too comfortable, Jesus goes on to say, “Unless you repent, you are going to perish like the unfortunate victims of Pilate or the unlucky corpses buried under the ruins of Siloam!” What could Jesus possibly mean by these unsettling words?
In a sermon entitled, “Stuff Happens,” the Rev. Susan Andrews, explains that to repent means to turn towards the God who can and will sustain you. To repent is to turn away from the “why” question, “why do bad things happen to good people?” and turn toward the “how” question, “how do we live and endure in a world where stuff simply happens?” She says, “God will hang from the crosses of your tragedy and your deception, your doubt and your despair. God will weep with you and God will never, never abandon you. You will suffer and you will die. But you will not perish, unloved and alone, when and if you turn and stay close to God.”
Once people stop asking the futile question, “Why is this happening to me?” and begin to ask, “How do I live with faith, hope, and love and endure in a world where bad stuff happens to us all?” then they can experience the God who is with them in all things and through all things. So often in my work with dying people I must address the misreading of the Christian faith where Christians live with the notion that they are entitled to a “Get out of Jail Free Card,” an exemption from the world of turmoil and tribulation. The dying people I talk to often wonder what they have done to cause their disease or they have horrendous guilt that something they did years ago is the reason they are now being punished with death. I have found that once they are able to accept the truths that we all must die sometime, the rain falls on the just and the unjust, and that bad genes and bad luck more than anything they have done, have contributed to their situation, then they can turn toward God and allow their faith to inform not just their dying but how they will chose to live out the rest of their days with integrity, love, healing and gratitude.
Once we are able to accept the fact that there is usually not much that we can do to prevent what is happening to us, whether it be illness, death, terrorism in our midst, or other unspeakable tragedies that come our way, then real faith can be nurtured and we can begin to find God in the ruins of our lives. Day after day, I am to be able to witness and acknowledge the faith that is forged in difficult times and flourishes in the ruins of our lives. When I am invited into the home of a 17 year old basketball player at Coronado High School with bone cancer, a 45 year old special education teacher at Rush Elementary with a brain tumor, or an 89 year old farmer with bladder cancer who lives with his wife of 63 years in the country beyond Morton I am reminded at a gut level that God does not spare us from turmoil but rather strengthens us for turmoil.
In our scripture lesson for today, Jesus finishes by telling the parable of the fig tree. The Rev. Susan Andrews says, “Jesus tells this story in order to remind us what kind of God we have. God is not like a landowner who rips us out and throws us away when we do not produce good fruit. No. Instead, God is like a wise and patient gardener who gives us a second and third and fourth chance to root ourselves in holy ways. This God prunes, digs and fertilizes us and then waits for the seeds of divine creativity in us to finally blossom into fruitful life for the world. Yes, far from a God who topples towers and murders innocent Galileans, our God is a gardener who has all the time in the world for us to grow into spiritual maturity and ripeness. And, who knows, in God’s wisdom, the stuff that happens---the seemingly unfair pain and suffering and distress in the world---this stuff may just be the manure that gives nourishment to our developing souls.”
Often we bumble through life with little or no need to consult God on a regular basis and then the rug gets pulled out from under us in one way or another and we feel guilty and embarrassed turning to God. A 55-year-old man recently told me that he had lived as though he were in total control of his destiny and had not talked to or listened for God in years. As he lay dying in his home from the debilitating effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease, we talked one day about the guilt he had in now turning to God. I told him that God is always there for us and then read him these paragraphs from Peter Gome’s article in The Christian Century, entitled, “Storm Center.” (May 31, 2003)
“Be certain of one thing: we should not be embarrassed that in adversity we seek the God whom we had forgotten in prosperity; for what is God if God is not to be there when we seek him? We should not be embarrassed that in trouble we have remembered one profound theological truth: that God is to be found where God is most needed—in trouble, sorrow, sickness, adversity and even in death itself. Over and over and over again the psalms make this point, as in Psalm 46, which says, ‘God is our refuge and strength; a very present help in trouble.’
When we pray to God for comfort we most likely do not know that the word, “comfort” means to fortify, to strengthen, and to give courage and power. The God of all comfort is the one who supplies what we most lack when we most need it. As Paul puts it, God gives sufficient capacity that when we are knocked down we are not knocked out. The God of all comfort is not the god who fights like Superman or Rambo or Clint Eastwood. The God of all comfort is the one who gives inner power and strength to those who would be easily outnumbered, outmaneuvered, outpowered by conventional forces and conventional wisdom. Inner strength is what is required when we do not know where to turn or what to do.
Gomes believes that inner strength comes from the sure conviction that God has placed us in the world to do the work of life, and not the work of death. This is what St. Paul says: ‘We are always facing death, but this means we know more and more of life.’ Faith is not the opposite of doubt or of death, but the means whereby we face and endure our doubts, difficulties and deaths. We believe that the faith we discover in the ruins of life gives us the endurance and perseverance we need to keep going and keep affirming the love and the life we also find in the rubble of our lives.”
In the book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, the rabbi, Harold Kushner tells the story of Martin Gray. Martin Gray was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Holocaust. Following World War II, Martin married, raised a family and became successful in business. But then, once again, tragedy struck in his life and his wife and children were all killed in a forest fire that swept through their home in the south of France. Martin was distraught after this senseless loss and friends encouraged him to launch an investigation into how and why this horror had happened. Instead, Martin Gray began a passionate movement to protect nature from future fires. Martin explained to his friends that an investigation would focus only on the pasts, on issues of pain and sorrow and blame---on accusing other people of being responsible for his misery. He was not interested in asking “why?’ He was only interested in asking, “now what?” How can I live into the future in life affirming ways? How can I live for something and not just against something?”
On this day, may we be relieved that God does not cause bad things to happen to good people, may we want God more than we want answers and may we be open to the many ways God comes to us and seeks always to give us life and healing. AMEN
Great God of life, love, and hope,
We gather together on this day with an awareness of our need for the things in life we can’t get anywhere else but in your midst with other fellow strugglers in the faith. We come seeking for love and grace, for community and direction, for healing and forgiveness, and for a closer relationship with you. If we are honest with ourselves and with you, O God, we must admit that we often find it difficult to experience you in our present everyday situations. The noise of our busyness, the distractions of our pain, fears, and motivations, and the clutter of our everyday lives all hinder our openness to the unexpected surprises of love and our availability to the affirmations of life you seek to give to us here and now. We are always thankful for reminders that our sufferings are not usually caused by our sins and that you continue to find ways to open our lives to you grace and presence.
As we pause this week, we are reminded that our openness and availability to you guides our relating and our doing and is infinitely more important than what we have or what we leave or what give away. Whether our past has wounded us, whether our future scares us, or whether or not we succeed or fail in our present work and relationships, our openness to you reminds us that we are loved and cherished and that you, O God, will be with us in the good times, in the difficult times, and in the ordinary in between times. Come to us again this day, and startle us with how much you care, how much we are loved, and how much you have to give to us here and now.
We pray that because of your generous love to us, our thankful hearts and blessed lives might enable us to be extensions of your light, your grace, and your presence to those who live in darkness and experience much pain, chaos, and suffering. May all our loved ones experiencing grief, illness, despair, and hurt know your presence with them and experience glimpses of wholeness and healing in the midst of their anguish.
In our openness to you, O God, may we give thanks that you are, that we are, and that your presence, love and life shall be with us when time itself shall be no more. On this day, at this time, enable us all to be more open to the God of all life, hope, and love. As children of God’s promise, let us pray together, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”