Not protected, but encouraged

By Stephen T. Lane

Like many people, I’ve spent much of the last two weeks reflecting on my belief in God and on the nature of Christian hope. The seemingly inexhaustible horror of a magnitude 7 earthquake near Port au Prince, Haiti, has left something like 3,000,000 Haitians refugees in their own land. 1.5 million are homeless. All need water and food and medical care. Because most goods and services reach Haiti through Port au Prince, the whole country is at risk. As people flee the city, they take their needs, their hunger, to regions that have few resources to help. Television dissects the disaster in excruciating detail.

Observers have complained about the slowness of relief efforts, the lack of leadership and coordination, but the truth is that this is the greatest disaster to occur in one place at one time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even if the world does the very best it can, it is an open question if the world can feed, clothe and house 1.5 to 3 million people on a daily basis for months to come. In the face of such a disaster, words fail. The only appropriate response is a deep sense of grief: grief for the dead, grief for the injured, grief for the loss and devastation, grief for those we know, grief for those known only to God. And it is no surprise if we wonder about the love of God.

What we’re talking about is called, in theology, the problem of theodicy. Simply stated, in the face of disaster, God is either incapable of acting and is therefore impotent, or God chooses not to act and is therefore indifferent to human suffering. An all-powerful and loving God would not permit such a disaster. As I read the press and blogs, pundits everywhere are pointing either to irrelevance of faith in God or looking for some way to explain why God might want to punish the Haitians.

But such an understanding of belief, in particular, of Christian belief, rests on the theological speculations of fourth century theologians, early fathers of the faith, whose view of the cosmos and knowledge of science was very different from our own. In the fourth century, many things that we now understand as naturally caused were ascribed to God’s actions. It was an easy step to theologize that God caused and controlled everything.

Yet if we look to our Holy Book, there is nothing in scripture that suggests that God was or is able to prevent people from experiencing the consequences of living in a real world. Indeed, most of scripture is an extended reflection on how to live with the pain and the suffering of life in a real world.

The fact is that God created an ordered and predictable universe. Scientists have been working for centuries to understand that order. But with or without science, we can usually predict what will happen in our world. We can predict what will happen if we step off a cliff or in front of a bus. We know what will happen if we build homes on a flood plan or a fault line. We know what will happen if building codes are inadequate or there’s too much sand in the concrete. We know what will happen if we put a lot of people in a place with too little water or food. The world that God created is open to us and allows us to learn about it and to grow and organize our lives so as to live better.

And in this ordered world things collide – tectonic plates, weather systems, people and objects, ideologies, and nations – and when they do the consequences are predictable and often destructive. The Bible is the story of a people who conquered Palestine and then were themselves conquered over and over again. They saw their cities and their temple destroyed. They were carried off into exile. They were restored by foreign powers. They rebuilt their cities and their communities. Then they were conquered and nearly taxed into oblivion by the Roman Empire. And through it all, scripture says, God was with them.

Our faith is not that God will protect us from life in God’s ordered and predictable world. Our faith is that in the midst of that life God is with us to help us endure and to encourage us to live in ways that are closer to God’s intentions. The question for us is how do we connect more deeply to that life, how do we live more in tune with God’s intentions?

For the exiles returning from Babylon to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and restore the Temple, it was the keeping of the Law of Moses. Indeed the physical walls were a symbol of the wall created by the Law. The Law was the gift of God through Moses to God’s people. It gave the people an identity and an ethic, a way of life. Keeping the Law kept the people in touch with God’s intentions and distinguished them from those who lived outside the walls.

Paul doesn’t speak of a walled community, but he does speak, in equally concrete terms, of a body. The Christian community is like a human body, and all who are parts of the body have a role. People have many different gifts, but all can be used and, in the context of the body, none is superior to any other. Being part of the body connects us with Christ and distinguishes us from those who are not part of the body.

But the question remains… is this connection with God enough. Can it give us hope? What about being a walled city or a body can give us hope?

Those who have the Spirit of the Lord, who obey God’s law, who join with Jesus in fulfilling God’s intentions for the world, proclaim good news, freedom and recovery. They proclaim a world in which every person is part of God’s jubilee, the shalom, the harmony, which God intends for the cosmos. And they and God are working right now to make it happen.

Last Wednesday, the eighth day after the quake, I watched as a search and rescue team from New York freed a young girl and her little brother from the rubble of their home. As the young boy was raised from a hole in the ground his face broke into a huge grin and his arms were flung open wide in a spontaneous expression of the victory of life. At the joy of this rescue, all gathered broke into a roar and applause. That, for me, is our hope: not that the world will suddenly become magical, not that we will no longer suffer the predictable consequences of life in our world, but that, in the midst of death, life will emerge again. And we will have a chance, again, to live in harmony with God and one another. That’s the Good News – that God brings life from death and we can share in that life.

In our Baptismal Covenant we commit ourselves again to work with God to bring life from death, to be signs ourselves, of the hope that is in us. Does it make our lives easier? No… Indeed, it may make them harder. Does it make our lives safer? No… it may prompt us to take great risks. But it aligns us with the One whose will is to free and to heal and to recover. It will join us with God in God’s hope for the world. It joins us to a world in which the lives of 3,000,000 Haitians are essential to the harmony of our own lives. It joins us to a world in which new life rises from a hole in the ground. May it be so.

The Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane is the Bishop of Maine.

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