Sunday, March 30, 2014

I Don't Know

The older one gets and the more of life one sees and experiences -- what the hell, I’m talking about myself, not some impersonal “one” -- the longer I live and the more I see and live into, the more I come up against the problem of theodicy and the more and better I understand those who simply walk away in disgust and dismay. Theodicy is the issue of who and where and what is God, as Rabbi Harold Kushner put it, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” In parish ministry I always had extra copies of Kushner's book by that title, for grieving people who were struggling and wondering “why” and “where was God?” in their face of the worst that life can bring. 

Yesterday I understood yet one more time again as I tried without success to choke back tears and the terrible hurting swelling in my throat when a friend told me about the deadly medical diagnosis of -- for privacy I’ll call him John, a sister’s boy. The child is eight years old and has been diagnosed with cancer for which prognosis is very poor. I don’t know the little boy, but I have had and known and loved and cherished little boys and girls that age, and younger, and older. I have buried some of them, holding my composure for the sake of grieving loved ones. I have personally carried a tiny casket down the aisle, determined for the sake of my ministry to the sobbing parents walking behind me, to hold until later --

And then to go off by myself alone to sob and rail at God, and shake my fist at the sky. Futilely at the heavens. Is that where God is, up there? If not, where did my prayers go? My unanswered prayers: that’s the problem of theodicy. I remember once, years ago, preparing to officiate the funeral of an outrageous and unnecessary death, clenching my fist and yelling toward the cross on the Altar and at the heavenly stained glass window above it, “What the hell’s the matter with you?” To whoever thinks that’s a no-no or disgraceful or blasphemy I can only say, whoever you are, your God is too small.

Jesuit priest Rev. Pierre Wolf has written a little book, half hour to read, max, May I Hate God? Someone called the title “electrifying” and indeed it is to us pious. I first read it years ago, but I still have a copy and I notice it’s still available. May I Hate God? Father Wolf answers his question, “... yes, we may hate God, for He is all loving and all merciful ...” And before Wolf finishes he says that if we may not hate God then God is not unconditional love as we thought. Unconditional love, the Grace that Ronald M. Hals says is God’s one single sole, solitary characteristic (Grace and Faith in the Old Testament). Hals asserts that the Lord who brought Israel out of Egypt is the same Lord who raised Jesus from the dead. Why Jesus, and the boy in Nain, and Talitha, and Lazarus, or the blind man in today's gospel (John 9:1-41) but not this child here today?

Why must we grieve and sorrow? Why do terrible things happen, to us, and to those we love, and to strangers whom we do not know but whose tragic stories bring us to our knees weeping in sadness? Why? Grieving the death of his 14 year old son Aaron who died of progeria, the rapid-aging disease, Harold Kushner finds that there is no answer to "why?"and that the question is not “why?” but discovering how to go on “when,” how to go on with God "when." The Reverend John Claypool (Tracks of a Fellow Struggler: Living and Growing through Grief and many other powerful, excellent and helpful books) said that we have no entitlements, the child was not ours but God’s, a blessing, a gift from God that we never deserved or earned, a gift, sheer grace, a gift to know and love and cherish. In that, Father John found peace after the death of his eleven year old daughter from acute leukemia. 

The question is hard, theodicy is impossible and there are no answers, and many faithful have been driven away and even turned against God. Bart Ehrman, N.T. scholar and professor of religious studies at Chapel Hill, describes his life beginning as a most fervent literalist fundamentalist Christian, slowly making his way, and his education, and his faith, and his life, into and up through Christian conservative and Christian mainline churches, and ending up agnostic -- “not knowing” (an agnostic is not an atheist as fools condemn, but one like St. Thomas who finds that he does not and perhaps cannot know) -- because of the unanswerable problem of theodicy. 

My anguish at yesterday's news reminds me yet one more time again that I myself have had the “faith crisis” several times, including and especially and most painfully to me in the death years ago of William Hall, seven years old and a second grader at my school. William was the age of my niece Megan, he would be 22 now. The question I confessed to my congregation at the time was, “Can the faith of Tom Weller survive the death of William Hall?” I wasn’t sure then, and I’m not sure now some fourteen years on, and my anger stirs anew every time I look out on the soccer field that we named for him, William's Field. But I think I’m making it, because we have a choice, we have to choose, and Joshua isn’t the only one who says “Choose,” life itself forces us into that corner. I have chosen, not in certainty but in faith as the Bible offers it to me: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1 even as I weep and rage and curse and wonder and hope. And as I cling to the assurance of Psalm 116 in the Good News Translation, "How painful it is to the Lord when one of his people dies!" And as I remember a poem and song from summer camp, "God has no hands but my hands to do his work today" and a poem by St. Teresa of Avila, "Christ has no body now on earth but yours, No hands but yours, No feet but yours, Yours are the eyes through which is to look out Christ’s compassion to the world; Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good; Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now."

And fear that He is only here in me, angry and weeping. And I must become Christ for others.

This is where I am.


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