I am not (generally) a fatalist, especially when it comes to God. I do not envision a God with too much time on his/her anthropomorphized hands, idly messing with human beings — poking here and there to see what jumps, steering a tornado into one group instead of another, giving one person a terminal disease while miraculously lifting a similar burden from another. In my mind, this kind of God is the creation of beings who take themselves entirely too seriously and think they are the true pinnacle of all creation. My God has better things to do than be arbitrary and human-like. And yet, there are days — moments, even — when I sit back and my best prayer is, “What are you DOING?” Case in point, a situation that happened the past few days that I haven’t even had time to unpack with my wife that makes me so put out with God that I don’t know what to do.
I got called out on a pastoral call the other evening — not unusual, except that I am not currently serving a church. At first, I thought it was a crank call or a drunken misdial. A young man slurred his words, but I could just make out a plea for help. I worked to calm him down and discovered that I was talking with a young man I met years ago when I was doing the spiritual seekers study for the General Board of Discipleship. He and his wife follow my blog, and I reconnected with them briefly about a year ago. They live close by, just outside of Madison (Wisconsin), and I guess I have been their last link with organized religion. Josh grew up in the United Church of Christ (UCC) and Megan was ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Both left the church during college, disillusioned that the churches seemed more interested in their own comfort than in doing anything meaningful. I connected with them because they had recently (2007) attended a United Methodist Church, but were turned off by us as well, so they were a perfect couple for my study (though they weren’t married at that time). They were devout Christians, seeking a Christian community that felt meaningful, relevant, and engaged, and they were poster-children of what every church says they want in young adults (but then find one thousand and one not so creative ways to turn away…). As I remember, we had a great interview and they remembered me favorably enough to contact me when I moved into the area. By last fall, Josh and Megan had married, Megan was pregnant, and they were happy as could be. Josh was working in criminal justice and Megan was in social work, specializing in immigration advocacy.
Monday I got the phone call from Josh asking if I could come to the hospital. Megan was in the last stages of brain cancer and wasn’t expected to make it through the evening. In fact, by the time I arrived at the hospital she was already dead, leaving a devastated husband and two-month-old daughter behind. I sat with them for a while, as well as with Megan’s parents — two very devout Lutherans who were very grateful that I came to pray with them. I left feeling completely useless — what do you say in the face of such sadness that doesn’t sound superficial and dismissive? Yes, God is with them. Yes, God can bring good things out of tragedy. Yes, Megan has passed beyond pain into what we believe is a better place. Yes, yes, yes. I realized I was shaking my head all the way home. I try not to question God, but WTH? The senselessness of much of life simply overwhelms from time to time. I talked with my wife on the phone later and she asked how my evening meeting went (I was scheduled to take part in an ecumenical roundtable on missional churches). I found myself without words to say what was going on inside me, so I lamely said, “Fine.” I actually lied to my wife, because I could not enter into all the mixed, messy feelings I was having. She returned home from a long drive back from South Carolina yesterday, and I still couldn’t bring up the subject. (She will read this before I get home, and we will finally talk, but I am still struggling with my ability to talk about it. So, I write therapeutically, still not making sense of something that just feels unfair, wrong, and tragic).
What something like this does do for me is clears away some of the clutter in my faith (or lack thereof). I have to completely back away from the “fair” and “just” side of the equation. God sets in place natural laws that impact us all. Good things happen to both good and bad people; bad things happen to good and bad people. Tornados and floods are part of the way the world works — they do not distinguish between who “deserves” natural disaster and who does not. These natural events — disease, disaster, discord — are the reason we need a faith that motivates us to exceptional love. We cannot make it alone. At least, we cannot make it as well alone. The Spirit of Love that is promised throughout our Christian scriptures is God’s gift to us to help us cope with the challenges and tragedies of our existence. It is why we should be ashamed of ourselves as “the body of Christ” when we waste so much time debating points of interpretation, pointing the accusing finger of judgment, or seek ways to alienate and damage those with whom we disagree. We reduce people and relationships to issues and behaviors so we can dismiss them. We add to the negative energy and spirit of the age instead of creating ways for people to experience the love of God. What possible good can be served by the tragic death of a faithful young Christian disciple dedicating her life to serving the poor and marginalized? There is no easy answer to this, but I can tell you for sure that Megan’s death has nothing to do with how much or how little God loves her. It just “is,” — it isn’t a judgment, a punishment, a message, or “God’s will.” In the wake of her death is when the witness to God’s love is made most real (or false). I lament for Josh (and Emily) that they do not have a congregation — a Christian family that can enfold them in love and support through this time. It bothers me that he and his wife both experienced church not as someplace where they found community, but where they found they could not fit in or be accepted.
My desire today is that we could all make a commitment to make our churches places where — first and foremost — people experience the LOVE of God. We’re human, we will fail, we will continue to have those who want law and judgment instead of mercy and grace, but if enough of us make the effort, they won’t have as great an impact. Watching a young man weep at his wife’s bedside, it called me to consider what is most important in our faith and in our world. To ease pain. To give comfort. To provide support. To give hope. To listen. To be present. There is so much good to do. Let us do the good — and stop doing the bad — for the love of God.