Primitive religion is not believed, it is danced!

Arthur Darby Nock

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Elizabeth Browning

Sunday, January 29, 2012

When Life Caves In

I heard a story about a girl from a poor family that had an alcoholic and abusive father. The mother died when this girl was eight, and two years later the father abandoned the two children. Shortly after the two kids were sent to a foster home, the brother died.  And on top of all that, earlier at the age of three, the girl was having vision problems which eventually became worse in spite of multiple surgeries trying to save her sight. Her vision became so bad that they had to send her to the school for the blind. I remember asking myself, what kind of God would let this happen to an innocent girl?

I read another story of a  black eight year-old girl, also from a poor family, who was molested and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, which psychologically traumatized the girl who became mute? Years later when she was 17, she became a single mother and had to work as an exotic dancer to make ends meet. What kind of karma could she have gotten as a little girl to deserve all this?

It happens so often.  At one time I was an optimist, but life has battered me down enough times to temper this optimism down a bit. I try to balance being an optimist with being a realist, but sometimes I find myself being quite pessimistic.   People are in accidents, people get ill, people die, people are abused.  Good people.  Innocent people.  And the more that I live and see what Life can do to people and what it already has done, the more I question.   Sometimes I question the notion that God cares.  Sometimes I even question the notion of God.

As I question and struggle I think, if I am honest, I find myself at least a little disappointed with God.  Ever find yourself there?  I think almost all of us do at times!  And in our pain and confusion we cry out!  “Why?” we ask, “Where are you God?” we demand! 

When we are in this place, we are in good company.   Since the dawn of time people have  been frustrated and confused by God.  Even the most dynamic and faithful of God’s people have had their moments.  David, for example, in a moment of despair cried out to God:  “Be merciful to me Lord, for I am faithful; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony, my soul is in anguish.  How long, O Lord, how long?  Job, a man of great faith was driven to say, “know that God has wronged me and drawn his net around me.  Though I cry, “I’ve been wronged” I get no response; though I call for help there is no justice.”

It seems almost inevitable.  There will be times when faith is shaken and battered by what happens to us, or around us.  It is not really a question that moments like that will come.  The big questions seems to be, what do we do when such times come?  How do we respond when life caves in, and God seems unfair, or silent?

We can be pretty creative in trying to deal with this reality.  I Goggled “bad things and good people” and found a whole series of sites that used a very interesting approach to deal with this problem.  Here is a sample from one of those sites.  “Technically speaking there are no good people. The Bible says in Romans 3:12, “All have turned aside. Together they have become useless. There is none who does good. There is not even one.” The reason there are none who are good is because God alone is truly good… God is the standard of righteousness, and all of us have fallen short of that standard (Rom. 3:23). Therefore, there really aren't any good people and bad things to happen to them.  OK, I’m sorry, that doesn’t help me. 

Others try to make sense out of what has happened.  They decide that God must have had a reason for allowing this thing to have occurred.  This is the causal question, the question of “why?”   And it is a powerful and important question.  

But I would like to suggest that to begin by focusing on the causal question may be to make a profound mistake.  For the “why” question is often unanswerable.  Sometimes we simply will not be able to make sense of the things that happen to us or around us.  In fact scripture warns us that it will be this way.  “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” declares the Lord.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”

Chances are we will never understand.  So if we begin our efforts to deal with our struggles by trying to answer the question of “why” we will never get beyond the question.  And getting stuck on the question we will get stuck in our disappointment, our confusion and despair.  And, we will be frozen.

I think this suggests we need a different starting point.  Let us look at the case of Job.  Now Job has all kinds of complaints and questions.  “Why, Why, Why, Why….. Its not fair!”  Are his questions really answered?   Ever?  No!  Job is never given a reason for all that has happened.  His losses are staggering.  7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 5000 oxen, 500 donkeys, servants, 7 sons, 3 daughters, his health… but no one ever tells Job why it all happens.

This is God’s answer to his complaints. . .  “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Tell me if you understand.  Who marked off its dimensions?  Surely you know.  On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?”

The passage goes on and on, but you get the point.  What is God saying?  Look not at the event.  Look not at the causal question.  Look – at me!  Who am I?  What have I done?  What am I like?  What can I do?  Look at me, and believe, and trust, and keep living.

The same dynamic was present in the upper room at the last supper.  This was not the romantic, wonderful time we often try to make it.  It was dark, ominous, confusing.  We have Jesus talking about betrayal, defeat, and yes, death.  And the disciples are bewildered and frightened.  All their hopes and expectations have begun to crumble beneath the harsh realities of rejection and betrayal.  Their very souls are screaming… This is wrong!  This is not fair!  This can’t be!

How does Jesus respond to their dilemma?  Does he offer another explanation of the ways of God?  Another theological dissertation on the implications of the cross?  An apologetic?  A reminder that there “are no good people?”  No, he simply says, “trust in God, trust also in me”   Wow!

Trust in Me.  Remember, who I am, what I am like, what I have done, what I have promised.  Look at me, put yourselves in my hands, and keep moving!  And you and I will go through it all, the good the bad, the ugly….. together. 

Ann Lamont, in one of her books, talks about a time when she was having a Job moment, a moment of confusion, frustration, and hopelessness.  She said to a friend, “I want to know what to do!”  He answered,  “left foot, right foot, left foot, breath.   We breathe, we eat. We remember that God is present whenever people suffer.  God is here with us when we’re miserable.”  “But” she said, look at the suffering, it seems like people are abandoned by God.  How do we not lose our minds?”  The friend replied, “you take care of the suffering.”

In short, you keep living, and loving, and caring, and helping.  You keep going with God.  As the story unfolds Ann goes to a store that day, and in an odd twist of luck, wins a ham.  A huge ham.  She hates ham.. but she decided to be positive, so she acted excited and loaded a huge ham into her cart, and headed into the parking lot.  She said to herself “If God is giving me a ham, I’d be crazy not to receive it.  Maybe it is the ham of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

In the parking lot she ran her cart into a car, an old rusty wreck.  She then noticed that an old friend was at the wheel.  It was a woman that she had known for years, who had gotten sober with her, and had a child at the same time she did.  Ann said to the woman, “Hey,” how are you, it’s my birthday.”  The woman responded, “Happy Birthday” and then started crying.  After a moment she said, “I don’t have money for gas,  or food.  I have never asked for help from a friend since I got sober, but I’m asking you.”  “No the woman said, “I don’t want a handout.  I just need gas”  Ann responded.  It’s not a handout, it’s my birthday present.  And she thrust money into the woman’s hand.  And then she said, “Hey, do you and your kids like ham?”  And when Ann gave the ham to her the woman cried again, for a different reason.

Ann did not let the fear, the anger, the disappointment, the frustration win.  She trusted God. She trusted, and kept loving God, and with God’s help kept moving, kept loving, kept caring for others… and she touched another life. . . she became a healer.

It works that way.  I have always loved the words of Paul.  “All things work together for good for those who love God.”  Not all things are good.  But out of whatever happens, God begins to draw forth, something new, fresh, good.

There is more evidence.  Remember the stories of the two girls I used at the beginning of this talk? The orphan girl that was becoming blind did not lose her vision completely, and she eventually became the valedictorian of her class. Eventually Anne Sullivan became a tutor and mentor for the blind, and her life experiences helped her to connect to this one particularly difficult blind, deaf, and mute student named Helen Keller.

The mute girl that became a single mother is not a mute anymore and eventually moved on into theater, music, and poetry. Her words have been credited to heal and inspire many generations of people. She has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. She has been on two presidential committees and even read one of her own poems for a presidential inauguration.  Maya Anglou touched many people’s lives.

When we go with God, gifts, graceful surprises emerge, even when everything is going wrong.

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