Category Archives: Reflections

A Lament

One of the students at our college recently suffered a truly heart-breaking loss, and I’ve been thinking about her all week, grieving with her as I grade papers and prepare lectures.  My life goes on; hers will never be the same.  I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to receive horrible news on a Saturday night, and go to some upbeat, seeker-sensitive attractional church Sunday morning.  I started to write an essay, but that wasn’t quite right, so I tried again as a homily, which was closer, but still not there.  It eventually wound up as a poem.  I don’t write poetry–not for years now, anyway–and I have a deep conviction that almost all amateur poets are awful.  This is probably awful, too.  But it’s the closest I can come right now to painting the picture I see in my mind.

A Lament

I shouldn’t be here.  There is no place for me here.

The polished plaque is crisp brass,
with letters tall and even:
Sanctuary This Way
Around these words I see my reflected face:
unshaven, dark
I scrape down the hall, clad in
yesterday’s shirt, Friday’s pants.

Sunbeams stretch through stained glass,
making bold the jigsaw shapes of
wine and bread, sheep and shepherd
casting kaleidoscopes on a cool teal carpet.
I sit in the shadows, among the shades.

The drummer keeps a steady rhythm
Guitarists smile and strum.
And Jim, who I once knew in school,
Nearly laughs as he lifts his hands
“Let’s give the Lord a praise offering!”

I am stone.

Around me are the winners of the world,
The beautiful, the well-dressed
And they sing

God is so good
God is so good
God is so good
He’s so good to me.

They sing

You’re altogether worthy
Altogether lovely
Altogether wonderful to me

They clap and shout.
I clench my teeth.

The pastor is telling a football story.
A marriage story.
An old, old joke.
He recounts a scene from a sitcom,
The one about the pretty girl
“But not as pretty as my wife!”
And the lucky guys
“But not as lucky as we are!”

Laughter spills down the aisles.

I shut my eyes.

I wander inside myself
Meditating on horrible, hallowed images.
Twisted metal
Jagged wounds
The ventilator keeps a steady rhythm.

Amen, someone says.

The lucky ones clasp hands, slap backs.
In the lobby, there are coffee and donuts

I shouldn’t be here.  There is no place for me here.
Not today.

I don’t have a praise offering.
I don’t have a testimony.

What I have is mismatched socks
A little whiskey on my breath
And a broken son on a hospital bed
A headstrong, rebel boy who vexes me
And who is more dear to me than my soul
A bruised and battered boy

A boy who can not wake.

But where can I go where someone else knows
What it is like to lose a son?


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“Need is Not Belief”

A friend sent me this poem by Anne Sexton.  I’m adding it to my contemporary psalter for the doubting hearts. “Need is not belief.” Amen.

 

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Filed under Noted In Passing, Reflections, This Is Good

The Nones

From the New York Times, an article by Eric Weiner: “Americans: Undecided About God?”

For a nation of talkers and self-confessors, we are terrible when it comes to talking about God. The discourse has been co-opted by the True Believers, on one hand, and Angry Atheists on the other. What about the rest of us?

The rest of us, it turns out, constitute the nation’s fastest-growing religious demographic. We are the Nones, the roughly 12 percent of people who say they have no religious affiliation at all. The percentage is even higher among young people; at least a quarter are Nones….

Nones don’t get hung up on whether a religion is “true” or not, and instead subscribe to William James’s maxim that “truth is what works.” If a certain spiritual practice makes us better people — more loving, less angry — then it is necessarily good, and by extension “true.” (We believe that G. K. Chesterton got it right when he said: “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”)

This is certainly my experience.  Young people I know are looking for a life path that will help them be better people.  They are often very interested in mystical, reflective paths, which they have often seen very little of in Christianity.  Buddhism holds some attraction because it looks like it will help them to be calm and focused, and to roll with the punches.  They are not interested in preventing homosexual marriage, are increasingly moderate in their abortion views, and would like to see real help for the poor and the sick.  You could possibly sell them on some specific Christian doctrines, but not until they have seen that there is a form of lived Christianity that appeals to them.  If you lead with praxis, you can eventually move into theology.  I, for one, don’t see this as a step backward.  Aren’t we supposed to be inculcating virtues anyway?  And aren’t things like peace and patience supposed to be the fruit of the Spirit?  The American church needs to make some major adjustments here, but nothing that isn’t the right thing to do for other reasons.

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Of Myths and Monsters

I’ve been reflecting for a while on three different literary passages.  The first is from the Grapes of Wrath, a dialogue between poor tenant farmers and the wealthy land-owners and bankers.  The farmers have been trying to scrape a living farming a land that has been hit hard by drought.  The powerful wealthy folks are now about to remove them as tenants, and hire them as workers on larger, consolidated farmers.  Their small grip on autonomy is over–now they will work for wages determined by profit-driven land owners.  This is what Steinbeck wrote:

The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came…Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves…If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank-or the Company-needs-wants-insists-must have-as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time. Some of the owner men were a little proud to be slaves to such cold and powerful masters. The owner men sat in the cars and explained.

“You know the land is poor. You’ve scrabbled at it long enough, God knows.”
The squatting tenant men nodded and wondered and drew figures in the dust, and yes,they knew, God knows. If the dust only wouldn’t fly. If the top would only stay on the soil, it might not be so bad.

The owner men went on leading to their point: “You know the land’s getting poorer. You know what cotton does to the land; robs it, sucks all the blood out of it.”

The squatters nodded-they knew, God knew…

Well, it’s too late. And the owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were. “A man can hold land if he can just eat and pay taxes; he can do that.”

“Yes, he can do that until his crops fail one day and he has to borrow money from the bank.”

“But-you see, a bank or a company can’t do that, because those creatures don’t breathe air, don’t cat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat. It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so.” …The bank-the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.”

The squatting men looked down again. “What do you want us to do? We can’t take less share of the crop-we’re half starved now. The kids are hungry all the time. We got no clothes, torn an’ ragged. If all the neighbors weren’t the same, we’d he ashamed to go to meeting.”

And at last the owner men came to the point. “The tenant system won’t work, any more. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop. We have to do it. We don’t like to do it. But the monster’s sick. Something’s happened to the monster.”…

The tenant men looked up alarmed. “But what’ll happen to us? How’ll we eat?”…

“We know that-all that. It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster.”…

“Sure,” cried the tenant men, “but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours-being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.”

We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you’re wrong there–quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.

The second is a speech from President Eisenhower, delivered in 1961–the speech where he coined the term “military-industrial complex.”

Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

I have been reading those passages in connection with a third passage, from chapter two of Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.

13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

The monstrous bank. The misplaced powers of the military-industrial complex.  The elemental forces and authorities of this world.  In different ways, all three passages are warning of the same thing.  When humans combine in organizations, something sometimes emerges that is no longer human, and no longer cares about humans.  It’s made up of men and women, but it isn’t interested in them.  The men and women who keep it running, cogs in the machine, may even hate what they are doing, but still it gets done.  No person wants war, but munitions manufacturers need clients.  No one wants to remove people from their livelihoods, but the bank must turn a profit.  We gather together–bankers and analysts and manufacturers and generals–and together something is formed greater and more terrible than the sum of its parts.  The elemental forces.

You can name the forces easily enough: Money.  Power.  Adulation.  Strike down any one of these demons in one place and it will shift form and come back somewhere else.  You can’t destroy it, because it’s made of people–people who are each doing the thing that seems sensible at the moment, and who together are pillaging the world.

Such monsters, our modern idols, demand sacrifice, just as much as Molech or Baal ever did.  We must give the bankers their bonuses, and we must keep them afloat–they are too big to fail.  If we have to cut unemployment benefits or Medicare to do it–well, that is the sacrifice we make to feed the monster.  In return, the monster promises that this will somehow create jobs.  War is expensive, in many, many ways, but the monster need new planes and new missiles, and new brave young soldiers, and so we feed it.  In return, it promises to safeguard our freedom.

It is the nature of nations (and none more than America) to present themselves as gods.  We won’t let a president claim divine status (though sometimes we edge near that line), but letting America herself be our God seems like the right thing to do.  America, and Capitalism, and Our Brave Men and Women in Uniform Around the World–our holy trinity.

Gods appear where questions cease and myths arise.  America has many potent myths.  They have titles like “The Military that Only Fights to Protect Your Freedoms,” “The Greatest Healthcare System in the World,” and “The Land of Opportunity.”  To question is heresy; just bow and nod.  Write your check; send your sons and daughters.

Humans are highly susceptible to these myths and monsters.  If the powers tell enough people in the loud enough voice that Exxon shouldn’t have to pay any tax, because they stimulate our economy; or that mega-rich Walmart should get a subsidy from our city so that they can sell us cheap things, then we tend to believe and fall in line.  My gods provide the fuel that makes my car run.  My gods give me cheap toys from China and cheap shirts from Mexico.  Who am I to question their benevolence?  Cut their taxes again.  My gods kill people in Afghanistan so that I can have freedom of speech here.  How that works is a divine mystery, but it is the story we live.  Goodbye, my son; we thank you for your service.

Steinbeck and Eisenhower warned us, but it made no difference.  Everything they feared has come to pass, and more.  No one wanted it to.  The monsters are made of men, but they aren’t like a man.

What Christianity should do is provide us a myth to believe that breaks the power of the other myths.  When your story is “The God Who Rejected Power Even Though It Meant His Death,” or “The God Who Shows His Love Through Service To The Weak and Poor,” then the world-shaping abilities of the elemental forces have met their match.  What Christianity ought to do is give us an alternate story to live–the story of the cross.  And from the vantage point of Calvary we can see how sick and shameful the monster-idols of the world actually are.  We can expose the true names of Money, Power and Adulation: Greed, Oppression and Deception.  It may–may–be possible to do that without an alternative story, but I’m not convinced that there is any such thing as a person who isn’t living out a story, consciously or not.  And if we are going to choose a story, better to choose the one that stands against and breaks the power of the stories that keep breaking us.

And here the church has failed miserably, shamefully, horrifically.  Rather than rejecting and denouncing the monsters of national pride, military conquest and corporate greed, the church has partnered with them, supported them, and fought for them, spending so much time dining with idols that she has cheapened herself and drained her own power.  We set the flag on a pedestal beside the altar, pray for our troops and curse our enemies, support the machinery of torture and death, and do our best to be sure that we have our share of Money, Power, and Adulation.  Tacking Jesus’ name on to that prayer only adds blasphemy to the heresy we’ve already adopted.  By leaving the path of the cross, the members of the church become cells in the ever-expanding bodies of the monsters.  We may hate what they do, but they are us.

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Aidan is Two

My son just turned two years old this week.  He is happy, healthy, funny and full of energy.  The kid is a constant delight to me, except when he starts yelling because the food isn’t coming fast enough.  It’s truly amazing how much that boy can eat.

I don’t think a single birthday of his will come without me thinking about his rough beginning, and the two weeks he spend in NICU.  I thought I remembered blogging something about it, and it turns out that I did.  The as-it-was-happening report is here, “What I Learned After Four Days of Visiting the Intensive Care Nursery.”

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Should Tsunamis Bother Me More Than Other Deaths?

My old (at least five years old than I am!) colleague Dan Bouchelle has a thoughtful post on his blog on the topic “Why The Tragedy in Japan Doesn’t Shake My Faith in a Loving God.”  I think it’s fair to say that mine was one of the Facebook posts that prompted Dan to compose this response.  He was the most helpful of my interlocutors on Facebook, and I hope that our interaction proves useful for both of our readers.  You really should read what he has to say.  I’ll wait for you to process his thoughts.  Just click.

Hey, welcome back!  Pretty good stuff, huh?  You could get some book length treatments on the topic of theodicy that would cover the terrain deeper, but for a short-form response to the topic, that’s really about as good as you’re going to get.

I would like to work through his whole post eventually, but I have a busy, busy week ahead and I don’t know when I’ll get to it all.  I do want to tackle the first critical question that he raises, though, which I’ll paraphrase as:

Why do thousands of deaths in one place at one time bother you more than thousands of deaths scattered across the world each day?

Dan:

First, let me give some perspective here. We live in a world where tragedy and death are the daily norm. On this day, like every day, between 150,000 and 160,000 people will die. That is one person every 5 seconds. This doesn’t even count all the victims of tragedies that do not kill the body. There are countless victims of disease, crime, accidents, and abuse every second of every day. Slavery, esp. sexual slavery, is very much alive all around the world. The evil humans will do to each other is mind-numbing if you pay attention. The amount of pain in the world is staggering. Just in the United States alone, one in three women will be victims of sex crimes at some point in their life and one in eight men. Hunger, sickness, you name it, we have it in abundance every day.

So how does this make an argument for a loving God in the face of massive disaster? Well, it doesn’t exactly. But it does say that our problem is not just with the big tragedies but with the daily realities of a broken world. Suffering is the backdrop to all human experience and must be accounted for in every worldview. As hard as it is to face, what happened in Japan did not have much impact on the amount of daily suffering in the world.  If your faith cannot deal with the daily evil in the world, you need not worry about the big disasters. Why do the daily 150,000 plus deaths not create the same concern? Why does the suffering of one displaced family in your city not count as much as any family in Japan today?

I don’t mean to be flip here, but I’m really not sure what this particular line of reasoning accomplishes for the Christian apologist.  It seems to me that there’s one quick and obvious response that takes this off the table: “Huh.  Now that you mention it, that really is pretty terrible.  Not only is the problem as big as I thought, it’s really much bigger, and every day.  Now I have even less reason to believe in a benevolent God.  I appreciate you pointing out to me the fuller scope of suffering in the world.  That’s a lot more evidence for my doubts.”  Really, what do you say to that?

In reality, there is a lot of ongoing pain in the world that, for most of us, becomes a sort of background noise that we become accustomed to.  But there are some things that I do tend to track in an ongoing way: global economic injustice, human trafficking, third-world starvation, what the fat-cat investment bankers on Wall Street did to the rest of us with their risky schemes.  More than most, I think I’m tuned in to the larger, systemic problems.

But even if I weren’t, I think it’s a little dodgy to set rules for what people are allowed to be troubled by, and I think it’s completely legitimate to say that certain enormous tragedies raise questions in a more urgent way, or even raise different questions than the ongoing suffering in the world.

Let me give you an analogy.  Picture  the world of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which I confess I haven’t read in twenty years, so I could be off on the particulars.  At any rate, picture a farm full of sentient, talking animals of various kinds; except instead of working out political theory, these little piggies and horses are grappling with theology. Here’s their story:

They believe the following:  (1) A loving, benevolent, but unseen farmer with ultimate power created their farm, as well as all others on the world.

(2) His care for them is really far too large for words to express.  He provides their food and their shelter, in his unseen ways.

(3) For deep theological reasons, he allows all animals to choose whether to love and follow him, and he doesn’t interfere with free will.  He also doesn’t interfere with the natural processes of sickness and death, or, for that matter, the work of the butcher and the glue-factory man.  But one day he will make everything right, in a restored cosmos without sausage and without steak.

The animals, with a very few exceptions, are pretty happy with this teaching.  It forms the core of their weekly worship, which takes place on Thursday, for reasons humans can’t figure out.  When the butcher comes, they remind the surviving animals that God loves them, but he won’t stop the butcher.  When a beloved mare passes away in old age, they sing out that their friend is now experiencing at least a taste of the restored cosmos that God wants for them all to have someday.  Keep believing, they say. Hold on.

But one night lightning strikes the barn. Most of the calves and ponies burn to their deaths in the resulting fire, and the ones who remain are badly wounded and in great pain.  The fire spreads to the hen house, where all of the chicks are lost.

Then they cry out: “We understand that you won’t stop the butcher, and we know you won’t stop old age.  We were able to believe that you loved deeply but had to let those things happen.  But it’s hard to believe that you love us and won’t stop lightning.  Lightning has no heart, no soul, no afterlife.  There’s nothing to be lost by crippling its power, and everything to be gained.  Now that we’ve undergone this tragedy, we have to rethink whether it ever made sense to believe in your benevolence at all.  Even the butcher would have put out the fire, if he could have.”

The problem with a tsunami is that it makes some of the standard Christian answers either obsolete or much more of a stretch to believe than under normal circumstances.  I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a person to say: “I believed in a benevolent God who seldom intervened, but now I’m being asked to believe that God is powerful, benevolent and never intervenes.  Or worse, if I believe my pals at church, he helps rich Americans get promotions and big houses, but won’t stop a quarter million poor people from dying in one day when the tsunami hits Sumatra.”  I really don’t see how it’s inconsistent to say I can deal with sickness, old age and even murder, but I am having trouble believing in a God who does nothing at all–especially when the Biblical story is that he loves us, provides for us and is always working for our good.  That doesn’t match the reality of the world around us.

It occurs to me that Dan is also going to wind up arguing with the prophets. (Which is fine–I like to do that myself.)  They clearly thought that the invasion and destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians raised much bigger questions of God than did the common losses of each day.  I don’t recall anyone in the Old Testament saying “The loss of our entire nation shouldn’t trouble you if the ongoing losses of the decade before didn’t.”  No, it was the guys who were presumably closest to God who themselves raised the question.  They wanted to know why God was doing this?  Where is he? Has he deserted us?

In that case, the answer was, essentially, that Judah had rebelled so badly that this was the only way that God could wake them up and bring them back to righteousness.  I don’t think anyone other than Pat Robertson is likely to say that the same reasoning holds in Japan, but I guess it would at least be a shot at a Biblical answer.

For those who would say that tsunamis shouldn’t bother me more than any other kind of loss, I would pose a related question:  Is there any conceivable tragedy so large that it would be legitimate–not just understandable, but theologically, philosophically, intellectually justified–to question whether a benevolent God exists?  Let me give you a worst case scenario.  I mean, literally, the worst case I can think of.  A massive comet slams into the eastern seaboard of the United States.  The impact kills hundreds of thousands instantly.  Massive tsunamis kill millions within minutes.  Debris in the atmosphere clouds the sun, causing a global ice age within months.  Things spiral out of control.  This threatens to become a global extinction event, not just for humans, but for everything alive bigger than a cockroach.

In a cave in Mongolia a man huddles alone with his four-year-old daughter.  They haven’t seen or heard from anyone in months now.  He believes that they are the last ones alive in Mongolia, and possibly on Earth.  And he is dying.  Food is scarce, and what they have he gives to his child.  He is fading fast, and knows that he won’t live more than a few days more, maybe a week.  And when he dies, his daughter will be be utterly alone in the world, destined to starve, too.

Is it justified for him to question whether God both exists and loves humanity?  Is global extinction sufficient reason to question whether there is a God after all?  If not, then I think we are pretty close to discovering that the atheists are right, and there is no evidence that will make the devout rethink their faith.  It’s unfalsifiable, and really not an intellectual position as much as a personal preference.  If global extinction actually would count as a better reason to question God than everyday suffering, then we have to answer the question of scale.  Where is the line between “okay, this still fits the Christian worldview” and “hey, now, wait a minute–I didn’t sign up for this!”  If there is a line somewhere, eventually, no matter how far out–if at some point the bodies stack up high enough that you agree it’s now reasonable to rethink God’s nature and existence based on tragedy–then let’s stop telling people what they should and shouldn’t be troubled by and deal with the other issues. This one doesn’t really get us anywhere.

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Tsunamis and the Irksomeness of Prayer

This is the continuation of a conversation that began with my frustrated (and none-too-gently worded) outburst on Facebook that I’m not going to pray for Japan because the best thing that God could have done is prevent the tragedy to begin with, and if he’s not interested in doing that, I don’t see the point in trying to talk him into helping with the clean-up.  Yes–shocking, I know.  Please feel free to assign me whatever label seems fitting.

One of my friends wrote something in response which prompted me to write a string of sentences too long for Facebook, so I’m posting it here, with everyone’s names omitted or obscured so I don’t implicate innocents in my own heresy.

Your comparison of the church’s explanations for God’s lack of visible activity to the explanations that allow children to maintain belief in a non-existent Santa Claus—which I denounce as heretical and well beyond the bounds of civil discourse, and for which I label you a heathen and miscreant—gets close to what is troubling me.  Everyone’s belief system is internally consistent.  It might have huge gaps, it might be based on error, it might pointedly fail to notice certain phenomena and it might consign a great deal of important questions to the category of unknowable mystery, but it’s internally consistent.  This is true of Republicans and Democrats, Anarchists and Fascists, Hindus and Buddhists and Christians whether fundamentalist, evangelical or liberal.  I once preached for a church that had two members who were diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.  Their beliefs were irrational, but completely consistent.  One dropped by my office on a pleasant Monday, complaining of having been shot by a spy who had taken over the body of one of our elders.  I was willing to go along with the idea that the elder in question was an enemy agent bent on destroying the church—it explained a lot of what I had experienced, too—but it was obvious that my troubled friend had not actually been shot.  When I asked him to show me the wound so I could help him bandage it (because I’m sneaky that way) he told me that it was a new kind of bullet whose wounds closed immediately, leaving no trace.  Completely internally consistent.  There weren’t in cracks in his worldview; or if there were, they didn’t last long before an explanation was devised.  The human mind is remarkably good at resolving inconsistency.  That’s even true for very troubled minds.  Actually, it’s probably especially true for very troubled minds.  Healthy people can temporarily carry inconsistent conclusions around before they find a way to resolve them, but they will resolve them, eventually.

I’m open to persuasion (maybe too open, some would say) and I’d be happy to reassess this conclusion, but it looks to me like what most Christians say about the work of God in the world is exactly what they would say if there were no God at all.  Well, no, he doesn’t intervene to prevent tragedy because (1) he honors our free will, (2) he wants us to learn from our suffering, (3) he works through the church to love and comfort people, (4) the age of miracles has passed.…etc.  Well, no, there’s no obvious sign of his existence because (1) you have to have the eyes of faith to see it, (2) he doesn’t want to coerce anyone’s faith, (3) faith does mean believing in the unseen, after all….etc.  You ask me how I know he lives?  He lives within my heart.  Several times I’ve been in a situation where a young (under 45) person was dealing with a potentially fatal illness or accident, and, inevitably, every possible sign of good news was taken as evidence that God was healing the beloved person.  Most of the time, the patient eventually died, and when he or she did, the new story was that “God has answered our prayers by healing our friend completely, and taking them into the presence of Jesus.”  No one ever seems to notice that just yesterday, death would have been seen as a complete failure on the part of God to give us what we were asking for, which was full, physical, right-here-on-earth healing.  Once death comes, it’s like we all agree to forget what we really wanted, and act like that’s what we had in mind all along.  No one says (even me, although I’m thinking it) “just two days ago, the consensus was that the new test results meant that God was healing our beloved!  Either God was just toying with us, (in which case, he’s a sadist more deserving of rebellion than worship) or we were interpreting ordinary, natural fluctuations as divine intervention without sufficient cause to do so.  We were prayerfully, honorably, reverently wrong.”

Well, it’s a new kind of bullet, you see.  Not one that you’ve heard of before.  This is the kind of bullet that leaves no wound.  This is the kind of healing that looks just like death.  This is the kind of love that looks just like apathy.  This is the kind of intervention that looks just like stillness.

Once you decide to accept the truth of Christianity, you learn to make these little adjustments.  Nothing can disprove the faith, because either we’ve already got an orthodox reason why it looks (to people who don’t have the eyes of faith!)  like God isn’t doing anything or we announce that we don’t need to try to defend or explain God anyway, and it’s ultimately a mystery.

But if you step outside of the internally consistent Christian worldview (of whichever variety) and ask: what about other ways of viewing the world?  If I adopt the mindset of an atheist—just to try it on for a second and see how things look—it turns out that’s it’s internally consistent, too!  It also accounts for everything I see.  It also explains the world.

And, as everyone now knows, I get a little frustrated on occasion (just a teensy bit, mind you) with pious pronouncements in the wake of horrific tragedy.  This week, I’m even frustrated with prayer.  Not yours or D—’s or anyone else’s, but certainly with mine.  I look at the images coming in from Japan and start to try to form some petition to a God that, if he exists, certainly could have stopped it all from happening, and I don’t even know what to say.  His kind of caring is so different and alien from anything that I know as caring that communication seems impossible.  (Yes, I know, we have an answer for that one too–the Holy Spirit will intercede on my behalf, with groanings I can’t hear.)  What I want to pray is for him to undo the whole mess, and maybe give us that unshakeable Earth that the psalmists are always singing about.  But we all know that that isn’t going to happen, so we’re left praying for things that we can’t see either fulfilled or unfulfilled, or things that are sufficiently vague that we can interpret the evidence to fit our desired outcomes—comfort, peace, healing.  If you’re the kind of person who is calmed and made peaceful by prayer anyway (i.e. the polar opposite of me), then your outcome is sure from the start.

I’m more like the pastor that Annie Dillard describes in Holy the Firm except not so obviously full of Jesus.  She writes:

There is one church here, so I go to it. On Sunday mornings I quit the house and wander down the hill to the white frame church in the firs. On a big Sunday there might be twenty of us there; often I am the only person under sixty, and feel as though I’m on an archaeological tour of Soviet Russia. The members are of mixed denominations; the minister is a Congregationalist, and wears a white shirt. The man knows God. Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world–for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained, succor to the oppressed, and God’s grace to all–in the middle of this he stopped, and burst out, “Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week.” After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer. Because of this, I like him very much.

I’m having my own outburst at the moment, “Lord we bring you these same petitions every week!”  And yet this week looks like last week, and like the one before that, and the one before that, and on and on and on for as far into the past as we can see.

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