It was nearly 20 years ago, and I still remember it as if it were yesterday. I was working as the on-call Chaplain at the Grand River Hospital in Kitchener. I had been paged to the emergency room to attend to a man who had accompanied a patient to the hospital, VSA, the code for Vital Signs Absent. Someone was waiting for me in the Quiet Room. The Quiet Room was a small ten by twelve room, into which loved ones of really serious patients were asked to wait for the worst possible news. They were kept there in the Quiet Room so that they wouldn’t be disturbed, but I suspect that the real reason is so that they wouldn’t disturb the less seriously ill patients.
Inside the Quiet Room sat one of the largest men I have ever met. He was about six-eight, with big broad shoulders. He wore blue jeans and a black leather jacket. He had long black hair and a bushy beard. He could have passed for the head of a biker gang and under normal circumstances, I probably would have been very afraid of this character. I introduced myself as the Chaplain and he just put his head in his hands. Chaplains are not popular people in hospital emergency rooms. People usually expect the worst when the medical profession calls in a chaplain. I took a seat and together we waited.
Slowly, this big bear of a man began to tell me what had happened. He said, that everything was all his fault; he was to blame. Anne, his partner wouldn’t be in the other room fighting for her life if it wasn’t for him. After years of being on his own, driving truck from one place to another, never really having a home, he had met Anne and she had changed everything. No more long hauls for him. He switched to driving locally. For the first time in a very long time he had a home; a home he and Anne had made together. She’d made him so happy. He loved her so much. Everything was going so well for them.
Why? Why did this have to happen? He knew he shouldn’t have allowed himself to be happy. It was all his fault. If only he hadn’t of stuck around. None of this would have happened.
Quietly, I asked him just what had happened. He explained that he had come home from the store. He’d gone out for a pack of cigarettes. Anne had asked him to quit. He should have quit smoking. When he got back from the corner-store he found Anne lying on the floor. He dialed 911 and started CPR.
They wouldn’t let him stay with her. Could I go and see how she was doing? I headed back to the resuscitation room. They were tidying up. The doctor said she had a massive coronary, she was dead before she got to the hospital, they had just been going through the motions. I waited while the doctor filled in the paperwork and then together, we headed toward the Quiet Room. The doctor didn’t say a word when we arrived, he let his face do all the talking and I watched as a giant of a man fell to pieces.
When he quieted down a little, he told me that Anne was one of the best things in his life and that he should have known better. It was all his fault. If he’d just left her alone she would have been better off. Mutual friends had introduced them just a year ago. He fell for her right away. He should have known it was too good to be true. It was all his fault. It was happening all over again, only this time he should have known better. Through his tears, he asked me, how I could believe in such cruel God. God took his son away from him and now God had taken Anne. He began to moan, over and over again, crying out for his lost son Billy.
It took about an hour for him to tell me what had happened, some 25 years earlier. His son had been playing with some friends down by the river. They’d made a makeshift raft. Somehow, little Billy had drowned. Just five years old and he was taken away. It was all his fault. If he hadn’t been such a lousy father, Billy wouldn’t have been taken away from him. After Billy died, his marriage fell apart. That was all his fault too. If only he’d been a better husband, a better man, God would have helped them to work it out. But clearly, God was punishing him for all the terrible things he had done in his life.
He should have known better than to take the chance. He just should have known better. If he had just stayed on the road. If he hadn’t tried to make some sort of life with Anne, she’d still be alive. God had really stuck it to him this time. This was his punishment for trying to be happy. He cried softly then. Over and over again crying out the names of Anne and Billy.
I quietly told this big bear of a broken man, that I didn’t believe in the kind of God that he was talking about. The God that I know wouldn’t do something like that. God is not that cruel. I told him that I believed that God wept for his son and for Anne, and that God knew the kind of pain that he was feeling. He just kept on sobbing, telling me that I didn’t understand, insisting that it was all his fault. Looking back, I realize that I was probably trying to convince myself at that moment that God was not some sort of monster. At that very moment I suppose that I felt like God was indeed some sort of monster. How could I have expected to help this man to reconcile the death of his son and his partner with the notion of a loving God? Surely that man was better off believing in a punishing God rather than an absent or capricious God who allowed the innocent to suffer? The man himself was willing to blame himself rather than to blame God. God, in that man’s mind, was just doing what had to be done, punishing a guilty man. He knew beyond a doubt that he was to blame. His crimes had caused the deaths of his loved ones, not God. Who was I to destroy his worldview? At least his reasoning allowed him to make some sense out of his life.
Who among us has not done the same when calamity strikes, wondering what we have done wrong to deserve our plight? Who among us at some time or another has not scrutinized our own behaviour, our relationships, our diets, our faith or lack of faith, hunting from some cause to explain our lot in the vain hope that we can find the reason behind our suffering? We are only human after all, less interested in the truth than in the consequences. What we crave above all else is to grasp for control over the chaos of our lives.
The anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Luke, does not divulge the motive of those who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices. The implication is that those who died deserved what they got, or at least that is the question Jesus assumed. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way that they were worth sinners than all other Galileans?” It is a tempting equation that solves a lot of problems. It answers the riddle of why bad things happen to good people: they don’t. According to this equation, bad things only happen to bad people. This equation punishes sinners right out in the open as a warning to everyone. It gives us a God who obeys the laws of physics. For every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. So there. It is all neat and tidy really. It is, after all is said and done, a very tempting equation, but Jesus simply won’t agree to it. “No!” Jesus tells the crowd, “ but unless you repent you will all perish as they did.”
What? This doesn’t make much sense to our ears. No! Their actions didn’t cause their demise, but unless we repent, we too will perish. I’ve lived long enough to learn that Newton’s 3rd law of motion, that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction isn’t exactly the full story; quantum physics has proved that Newton’s law only applies in a steady state, and so physics has moved on, even if most of us are more comfortable with the laws we learned as children. Theology has moved on as well, and when push comes to shove, no pun intended, we seem to fall back on childish notions of cause and effect. I no longer think of God as some grand manipulator up there somewhere, watching me, listening to me, and sending me just what I need. When tragedy strikes, I no longer ask, “Why did God let this happen?” I don’t believe that people get what they deserve or that what goes around comes around. I don’t think that God punishes sinners or rewards the good. Unlike the Apostle Paul, I no longer believe that God test us, but never with more than we can bear. I’ve lived long enough to know that the sun rises and sets on the good and the bad. I know that bad things happen to good people; that suffering is a reality in this world of ours and that the good they do die young. I also know that evil is all too often rewarded. We do not live in a steady state, so I don’t expect equal and opposite reactions.
But I’m still tempted to raise my fist at the heavens and shout “Why?” “Why did you let this happen?” A question that haunts us, even if we know that there is suffering in the world, not because God does or does not allow suffering. There is suffering in the world because there is a world. Suffering is part of the reality of creation. But, suffering is not our lot in life. Life is an amazing reality; your life, my life, every life, is an amazing reality that is part of the ongoing reality of creation. We are all intimately connected to one another in ways that will take more than our lifetimes to comprehend.
At the heart of the reality of creation, at that heart of all that is and ever shall be is the ULTIMATE REALITY that we call God. God is not outside of creation. God is not some other-worldly creature who sometimes intervenes to make things better. The LOVE that we call God, IS the very heart of all that is.
If the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus teaches us anything it is that LOVE comes to expression in, with, through and yes beyond us. As the mystics taught, “We are in God and God is in us.” We are part of something bigger than ourselves; something we are incapable of imagining. In us, in our lives, this SOMETHING finds expression in creation. Each one of us is an expression of the LOVE that IS. The ONE who is Beyond our ability to imagine or describe finds expression in, with, through, and yes beyond us.
When we speak of God, we do so with metaphors. Meta phor – the word literally means to carry beyond words. Our names and descriptions of this SOMETHING fail to capture what IS BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also! When we say that God is LOVE, we must recognize that the word “love” cannot capture the essence of God; for the word love represents only what we know of love and the LOVE that IS, is so much more than we know of love. Our metaphors can offer us only a glimpse of the ONE who is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also. Our metaphors about God cannot domesticate the REALITY that stretches beyond our human comprehension. Yet somehow each of us is called into relationship with that REALITY.
Just because our language fails to capture the essence of the ONE, does not mean that we cannot fully engage in relationship with LOVE. It does mean that the way in which we talk about our experiences of the ONE will need to change.
Years ago, when I read the words attributed to Jesus by the gospel-storyteller we call Luke, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way that they were worth sinners than all other Galileans?” “No!” Jesus tells the crowd, “ But unless you repent you will all perish as they did.” I heard the word “repent” and the rules I was taught as a child tied me up in knots. “Repent” for too long, the Greek word metanoiahas been translated as “repent” and defined in relationship to sin as a process of regretting and seeking forgiveness. But the Greek word metanoia can also be translated as “to go beyond the mind you have” or to change your way.
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way that they were worth sinners than all other Galileans?” “No!” Jesus tells the crowd, “But unless you move beyond the mind you have, you will all perish as they did.”
The old ways of thinking won’t solve the problem, you will indeed perish. Unless you go beyond the mind you have, you will remain trapped in the quid pro quo world of sin and punishment.
The ONE who IS is beyond our equations. We need to go beyond the mind we have, to change our way of thinking. The MYSTERY we call God comes to expression in each of us. Every atom in our bodies was created in a massive explosion in a star billions of years ago. The Spirit of the ONE has been at work for billions of years working in with, through, and beyond creation to bring human form to be out of the very atoms of the starburst. In you and in me the Spirit of MYSTERY comes to visible expression in human form, when we LOVE, when we touch, when we laugh, and when we cry.
When we look back at the life of Jesus of Nazareth, we see ONE in whom the visible expression of MYSTERY was so very tangible. Just as we look to Jesus to learn about the character of the LOVE that IS, we can look to one another to see the ways in which LOVE is expressed here and now, in this place, and in this time.
So, we must ask ourselves what is it about the LOVE that IS that our lives reveal? What will people learn about the nature and character of that which IS, from the ways in which we embody the MYSTERY that IS LOVE.
Everywhere we look the PRESENCE of the DIVINE comes into visible expression. Each one of us can provide opportunities for LOVE to find expression in the world. We can live and love in LOVE, and LOVE can live and love in us. Sometimes we fail to recognize the tender touch of DIVINITY, when the Idol that we have created with our formulas, equations, doctrines, and metaphors set up an idol god as a judge, arbitrator, or king, up there in the heavens, apart from us. This Idol that we have created is far too grand and glorious for us to ever approach intimately and so we busy ourselves being humble, lowly sinners, in need of this Idol’s redemption and we fail to notice DIVINITY when LOVE is standing right in front of us, or when LOVE opens LOVE’s arms to embrace us.
Our failure to recognize LOVE at work in our sisters and brothers is one thing, but our failure to open ourselves to our own power to give expression to LOVE is a deeper pain; a pain that pierces the very heart of the ONE who IS. Each time we fail to reach out beyond ourselves to encourage, help, or hold one of LOVE’s beloved, we stifle the ONE who is was and ever more shall be LOVE.
Our LOVER weeps in, with, through, and beyond us just as surely as our LOVER loves in, with, through, and beyond us. When we come to understand that the CREATOR of ALL that IS finds expression in us, we know the power of LOVE working in, with, through, and yes beyond us to console one another and we know that only when LOVE finds expression in, with, and through us, will the world be made whole again, and again, and again.
I bore witness to LOVE making the world whole in a hospital years ago. It happened when a broken and grieving William was embraced by Anne’s two teenage children. William had asked me to stay and help him tell Anne’s kids that their mother had died. William was worried about how to tell them that he had failed to take care of their mother. When they arrived, Anne’s children ran to William and held him. I was impressed with the way this unlikely trio cared for one another. Over and over again, one or the other of them would tell me how good William had been to their mother.
Together we went into the resuscitation room. Together we prayed and then each of them kissed Anne good-bye. As we walk into the bright sunshine, Anne’s daughter told me that her mother had suffered from heart disease for the past twelve years. She said that, this past year was the happiest she had ever seen her mother. William had made her mother happier than she had ever been. Anne’s son agreed and added that he didn’t know what they would have done if Billy hadn’t come along. Billy put one of his big burly arms around each of the children and told them they didn’t have to worry about anything because he wasn’t going anywhere. Under my breath, I quietly thanks for Billy. Bad things happen to good people. We cannot make life safe; nor can we figure out some reasonable equation that explains it all.
Our God is not the Idol we have created. Our God is not a monster. Our God is not an avenger, punishing the wicked. Our God is neither capricious nor absent. But unless we repent, we too shall perish; perish in a cruel world. For unless we repent, move beyond the mind we have, begin to imagine new ways of understanding reality, we will miss the LOVE that lies at the heart of creation. The LOVE that found expression in Jesus; the LOVE that continues to be, right here in the midst of creation, finding expression in, with, through, and beyond us.
May God continue to work in, with, through, and beyond each one of us to heal the broken and make whole what is incomplete. May it be said of you and of me, that in us the wounded encountered the LOVE that IS. Be the answer to one another’s needs, the response to one another’s prayers. Let LOVE find expression in each of us.