God’s Ways…are NOT Our Ways

A few days ago I was reading the story of John the Baptist, holed up in prison for having irritated Herod because “The Baptist” disapproved of  Antipas’ marriage to his own brother’s former wife, and Herod feared an uprising, according to the historian Josephus. John the Baptist had apparently said, out loud, that he disapproved of Herod’s marriage “to your brother’s former wife.” That woman, then, named Herodias, hated “The Baptist,” and when her daughter Salome danced for her and Herod, Herod was so inspired that he said to Salome, “whatever you want, ask, and I will get it for you.” Herodias saw her chance, conspired with Salome, and with her mother’s prodding, asked for the head of John the Baptist’ head, delivered to her mother on a platter.

As I read that story, and talked about it with a few students, I asked them what they thought about what this story tells us about “God‘s ways.” Here sat John in prison, for doing what his loyalty to God and belief in God’s command to him to “speak truth to power,” and he apparently was not feeling the presence of God. His situation so bothered him that he sent some of his friends to Jesus, who was nearby, to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, or should we look for someone else?” That meant, to me at least, that John was feeling the absence of God when he needed to feel the presence of God most. His unasked question seemed to be, “would God really let this happen to me? Would God not send his son Jesus, who has done so much good for people he hasn’t even known, to rescue me or save me, at least, from death?”

Jesus answered, telling John’s “people” to remind “The Baptist” of how he healed the sick, made the blind see, helped the deaf to hear …basically giving a review of all he had done and was doing, which was not news to John. He knew that. His immediate unasked but internalized question, though, went unanswered. “Aren’t you going to save me?”

The answer was no. “The Baptist” was beheaded later that month, according to historian Josephus. God’s ways are NOT our ways.

There is value in studying God’s ways, even when or especially when, we do not understand something that is going on in our own lives. I would imagine that some of the parents of the children who were shot and killed in Newtown in December 2012 asked God something like, “Would God really have allowed this to happen?” I would imagine that the tragedy that left former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords to be shot and severely injured left someone asking, “Would God have allowed this to happen?” So many times, in so many situations, personal and public, things happen that make people who believe in God scratch their divine-leaning hearts and ask, “Where was God? Why didn’t God stop this?”

Richard Rohr wrote that we cannot think our way into doing something different; we must do some things to get ourselves into another way of thinking. I am still pondering that thought. How would doing that make us more ably handle the things that happen to us that we do not understand, and that either are unfair or certainly feel unfair? And if we were able to do that, when we would find ourselves in a prison of pain or confusion or grief so deep that we cannot reach the bottom, would there be a peace about us, making us know that our ways truly are not God’s ways?

The truth is, sometimes, perhaps many times, God DOES allow bad things to happen to us or in our lives. God allowed Joseph to be terrorized by his brothers, left for dead. God allowed Job to lose everything except his own miserable life. God allowed the children to die in Newtown, God has allowed racism and sexism and homophobia to exist, alongside white supremacy. God allowed the storm in Joplin, Missouri, that killed so many and caused so much destruction; God allowed Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, storms which absolute wreaked havoc on innocent people, many of them too poor to be able to even jump in a car and get out of harm’s way.  God allowed the Holocaust and the Inquisition and Crusades. God allows rampant gun violence in urban areas, responsible for the deaths of way too many children and young adults, but we don’t dare talk about ways to get handguns off the streets and out of the markets! God is allowing scores of children in our United States to suffer from hunger, even though it is said this country grows enough food so that nobody has to go hungry. God has allowed and does allow bad things to happen to really good people, and as we can see from the John the Baptist story, this tendency of God is not a new thing.

In a strange way, knowing that can give comfort. At least we know that this is really the same God that has always existed. Jesus’ answer to John, and God’s answer to Job, were not particularly comforting, in that neither God nor Jesus gave the hard, quick, direct answers that those men and we who have read their stories wanted. No, both deities recited all the divine work they were doing and had done…and apparently, freeing and saving John or giving Job an answer for his dilemma, was not in the Divine Planner.

And yet, these two men believed, as have countless people who have been in a fire of some sort and either come out burned or not come out at all. God blessed Job once his wager with The Adversary was done; John didn’t fare so well. But it is apparent that John, once he received Jesus’ answer about what he was going and had done, calmed down and rested in his faith.

So, since we will never understand God’s ways, we have an assignment to learn all we can about how to live in faith, regardless of what is going on in our lives. We still fight for what is right and just, because injustice is and always has been, a major problem in this world…but we fight for it because it IS the right thing to do, not because we think we are going to get a nice, succinct answer from God on why things are as they are, why they are so slow to change, or why God allows suffering to exist. We do it because by doing it it shows we are “righteous,” that is, in right relationship with God, and that has its own rewards.

A candid observation …


On Pastors Losing Faith

I read with interest a story today in The Huffington Post about pastors who lose their faith and become atheists.

It was intriguing, but not surprising.

The article (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/01/clergy-lost-faith-family-jobs_n_1465953.html#es_share_ended)  featured a Methodist pastor, Rev. Teresa MacBain, who “came out” as an atheist at an event sponsored by The Clergy Project, which exists for pastors who, like MacBain, have lost their faith. The Clergy Project is an online support group, and pastors, apparently go to the site and express their thoughts and issues as concerns their faith – or lack thereof.

When these pastors “come out,” the article said, they suffer; members of their congregation experience a range of emotion, from anger to a sense of having been betrayed. Few, it seems, are able to sympathize with their former spiritual leaders.

The article made me wonder if part of the reason pastors (and others) lose faith is because we do not understand it. We thrive on words from the Christian gospels, which say, “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.” We have been taught, I am afraid, to interpret that phrase in very human, materialistic terms, when what it actually pertains to is a person asking for, looking for and knocking on the door of – God. If we ask for God, look for God and knock on the door of our own doubts and concerns, we will find God.

We haven’t been taught that, however, and so when we ask for things – like, for example, that a beloved child or spouse not die and he or she dies anyway – we become disillusioned. We read about the miracles which seemingly happened in seconds in the Bible, and when we don’t see that in our own lives, we begin to doubt.  Less than moral and ethical televangelists realize that people are struggling on this issue, and perform instantaneous miracles on television – feeding into our spirits and beliefs which are theologically wrong – and they make an economic killing.

We pastors see so much that bothers us: bad things happening to really good people; children dying too young; people succumbing to illness, physical and/or emotional, and despite our best prayers, no good seems to come to the suffering.

Because we have a sense that God exists to do our bidding, we become angry and disenchanted. We begin to believe that God is not good, nor is God fair. The book of Job resonates with us, his questions become ours, and if we are not grounded in something other than the capacity and veracity of human analytic capability, we become lost, and some of us lose God.

Surely there are reasons. Elie Wiesel’s Night describes the tortuous journey of a religious Jew who experienced the horror of the Holocaust and his tortuous faith journey as well. Writes Wiesel: “Have we ever considered the consequences of a less visible, less striking abomination, yet the worst of all, for those of who have faith: the death of God in the soul of a child who suddenly faces absolute evil? …Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.” (p. xix)

Wiesel writes, “I was the accuser; God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man…” A little later, he writes, “And I, who believe that God is love, what answer was there to give my young interlocutor whose dark eyes still held the reflection  of the angelic sadness that had appeared one day on the face of a hanged child? Did I explain to him that what had been a stumbling block had become a cornerstone for mine? All is grace. If the Almighty is the Almighty, the last word for each of us belongs to him.”  (p. xxi)

Well, the last word belonging to and coming from God is what apparently sets so many of us in faith crises. We need for God to answer in a way pleasing to our liking; we need for our God to be a God that sets the crooked places straight and make rough places smooth. God does not do that, and it upsets our capacity to believe.

It occurs to me that we are not taught an honest religion. We are taught to pretend that all is good when all in fact is far from good. InNight,Wiesel describes an angry moment, one of many he had, I am sure, where he asks, “What are You, my God? How do you compare me to this stricken mass gathered to affirm to You their faith, their anger, their defiance? What does Your grandeur mean, Master of the Universe, in the fact of all this cowardice,this decay, and this misery? Why do you go on troubling these poor people’s wounded minds, their ailing bodies?” (p. 66)

Indeed, haven’t many people of many groups uttered such despair and disillusionment with God?  Lie Wiesel, we feel “great voids” opening within us, deep voids which cut to the core of what we have always believed. Our God does not behave; this God allows people to suffer for nothing; this God allows the wicked to prosper and the expense of the poor and downtrodden.

And yet, this God allows some victories to come from the most abject suffering. It was children, young children and young adults, who broke the back of Jim Crow in Birmingham, Alabama. Little children allowed themselves to be bitten by dogs, and beaten down by fire hoses even as government, as in the case of the Holocaust, remained silent, and so did, it seemed to many …so did God remain silent. When the Holocaust was over, the world decided it had been silent too long when it came to discrimination toward Jewish people; when the demonstrations in the South were over, African-Americans were one step closer to being treated as human beings.

The fact, though, that so much suffering precedes the smallest victories, with God apparently allowing it, is mind-boggling and faith-shattering. We do not understand this God, not at all.

Just today I shared with a friend that all I have is faith. There are so many things not right in my life, and yet, at the end of the day, all I have to hold onto is my faith in God, a faith that says to me that God hears and God cares.

Anne Frank said that “despite everything, I still believe that people are good at heart.” I believe that, despite everything, God is present and God cares. It keeps me going.

I understand disillusionment; I understand feeling alone, betrayed, not understood. I hate to see good people suffer. I hate it that God will not and does not do the bidding of people. I understand how and why some pastors would become atheist.

But I also understand that faith has kept me alive emotionally; it is what motivational speakers call “positive thinking.” Call it what you want. I call it faith. I have to.

A candid observation …