Where is God? A Response to Charleston
Last Wednesday night I was at bible study. There were eight of us. We gathered outside for a cookout, followed by bible study. The Vicar from our church even put a sign out by the road, with an arrow, “Cook out and bible study this way,” in case our neighbors walking by wanted to join us. We had started this summer bible study in the evening because a young single mom had asked us to. She works during the day and could not attend our morning bible study. “I could really use some strength from God’s Word to help get me through the week,” she had said. So we did. We had a great discussion around the picnic table.
The next morning I got up early, as usual, for my morning prayer. My cell phone buzzed. I thought, “It must be a pastoral emergency for someone to text me this early.” I checked the message. It was from the young mom: “Pastor, have you seen the news? A gunman shot and killed nine people at a bible study last night. How eerie. That could have been us.”
That WAS us.
My gut reaction was, “Another example of people being persecuted for their faith.”
But then I read that this was yet another horrific act motivated by racism, by hatred. How long will these acts of racism go on? How long, O God?
Why? Why? Why?
The age-old question. Ironically last weekend’s first lesson was from the book of Job. Job was a righteous and faithful man, who loved God with his whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loved his neighbors, yet horrific things happened to Job, and he asked God, “Why?” Why do horrific things happen to good and faithful people? In response to Job’s question, to OUR question, God comes to Job in a whirlwind (see Job 38), and says, “You want to duke it out with me? Gird up your loins like a man, and tell me, ‘Where were you when I created the cosmos?’” God waxes on about God’s creative power and all God has made, and in the end, face to face with God who is Mystery, we read that Job worships God. But Job and we never get a satisfying answer to this theodicy question (why does God allow evil to happen, especially to good and faithful people?)
My friend Steph Smith (Pastor at Cathedral in the Night in North Hampton, MA) came to visit last weekend. We stayed up Friday night drinking tea (Steph) and wine (me) and talking about Charleston. Steph said, “Maybe ‘why’ is the wrong question. Maybe instead we should be asking ‘where is God in all of this?’”
I immediately was taken back to a little book I had read in college for a course on the holocaust. It is a book by Eli Wiesel called Night. Eli Wiesel is the winner of the Nobel Peace prize. He was a prisoner at Auschwitz when he was a little boy. One day when he was ten years old, some prisoners tired to escape. They were captured, and hanged. The prison guards forced all of the other prisoners to watch as those who had tried to escape were hanged on the gallows. Wiesel writes that as he stood there watching something no ten year old should ever have to watch, he heard a voice behind him ask, “Where is God in all of this?” Then he heard another voice respond, “There. God is right there, hanging on the gallows.”
For those of us who are Christian this is reminiscent of the cross. Human hatred and racism and inhumanity hanging a human being on a cross. But God, with us, in our suffering. God taking all that is horrific and violent and hate-filled in us, onto God’s very self, forcing us for all time to look at our hatred and racism and violence.
But God-with-us also saying, “This is NOT the final word.”
Last weekend the assigned Gospel was perfect too because it was the story of Jesus and his disciples out in a boat. Jesus is asleep on a cushion, when the boat becomes swamped by a tremendous wind storm. His disciples try to wake him, screaming, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” That is a question many of us asked God this week: “Do you not care that our black sisters and brothers are perishing? Why are you sleeping? Wake UP!”
In my sermon I asked people to think about Charleston. I also asked them to think of something overwhelming and horrific from their own life.
For me the thought of deep and tumultuous waters is horrifying. When I was a little girl, my adult male swimming instructor kept me after class, I thought for private instruction. No, he took me into the deep end of the pool. I could not swim, so I had to cling to him as he molested me. I never went back to swimming lessons. I never learned how to swim. For forty years I was terrified of deep water, water over my head. Then I went on sabbatical. We travelled in the footsteps of Saint Paul around Turkey and Greece. When sailing in Turkey, in the Mediterranean Sea, on a scorching hot day, our guide put down the anchor in water about a hundred feet deep, and asked if any of us wanted to jump in for a swim. The other folks, all significantly older and less athletic than I, jumped in and frolicked in the sea. I was gripped with fear. “Do you have a life preserver? A float?” I asked. “We have noodles.” There I was, while everyone else frolicked, clinging desperately to my noodles for dear life. Ted my husband, stayed right by my side.
Later, back on the van, an older couple, a wife and husband who are Episcopal priests, came over to me. “Linda we noticed that you are terrified of water.” “I had a bad experience when I was a kid,” was my stock answer. “Well, we have a healing prayer ministry at our church, and if you will let us, we would love to pray for you, that you will be healed of this fear that overwhelms you.” I thought to myself, “I am fifty years old. It is time. It is time to be set free from this.”
I said yes. They and Ted laid hands on me and prayed. At one point during the prayer the male priest said, “O God, help Linda to forgive whoever did this to her,” and my whole body clenched up with anger. “Like hell I will forgive him,” I thought to myself. The priest must have felt my body tense, and prayed,”Not to ever condone what he did, but to set you free.” For some reason, maybe my forty year journey in the wilderness, I opened my heart. At the end of the prayer they anointed me with holy oil.
Our trip ended, those people went home, and Ted and I continued on to Greece. While in Greece, we were on a sailing vessel in the Aegean Sea. It was a scorching hot day. Our guide put down the anchor and asked, “Anyone want to jump in for a swim?” Ted looked at me and said, “Now we will see if you are really healed.” I did not jump in. But I climbed down the ladder. No life preserver. No float. No noodles. I pushed off, and swam. I kept my eyes on a tiny white chapel on shore, like so many tiny white chapels sprinkled all over the Greek countryside. I focused on the gold cross on top. I swam. I swam to shore. Later I swam back again. As I felt the water surrounding my body, it no longer terrified me. I had been set free.
I share this story because horrific stuff happens in this life. Horrific like Auschwitz. Horrific like Charleston. Horrific like child molestation.
I do not know why God allows horrific stuff to happen. But I do believe, in fact, I know, that God is with us, right there, beside us, in the horror.
I also know that fear of the horrific can cripple us, as it crippled me. But I also know that God is able to bring some transformation, some healing, some resurrection, some new life even from something horrific. I know this because there have been countless times in my life when another victim of child sexual abuse has been crippled, and I have shared my story, and it has helped to set her, or him, free.
We cannot let the horrific cripple us from being bold, from being courageous, from living our faith in this world despite the horror, from helping to set others free.
Today our world needs to be set free from racism and hatred. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, we cannot overcome evil with evil, nor hatred with hatred. That only contributes to the arsenal of evil and hatred. Only good can conquer evil. Only love can conquer hate.
May you be at peace.
May your heart remain open.
May you know the beauty of your true nature.
May you be healed.
May you be part of the world’s healing.
Linda Forsberg, Copyright June 23, 2015 For a preached version, go to http://www.firstlutheraneg.org and click on this week’s sermon. Unfortunately in the preached version I left out the Eli Wiesel story.
Photo credits: White Sands, New Mexico; Kitchen Mesa, Ghost Ranch, New Mexico; Ghost Ranch, NM; the Cave of Saint Tekla, Turkey; Christ in the Desert Benedictine Monastery, Abiquiu, NM; Box Canyon, Ghost Ranch, NM; Me with my noodles, Turkey; the chapel on the shore, Greece; set free, Greece