Why Do Bad Things Happen?

Jurgen Moltmann spoke at Seattle University a few weeks ago about his 35 year old book called “The Crucified God”. One of the most moving moments was when Jurgen was asked whether God, as the author of all things, also is the author of suffering? His heartfelt answer, after all these years of reading, writing and praying, was “I don’t know. That is a question we must live with.”

Indeed, theologians, religious, chaplains and others have wrestled for millennia with the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or, “Why did the one I love have to die?” No-one has come up with an answer that musters much consensus.

Moltmann says that the “why?” questions are the wrong ones – they can’t be answered. The better question is “Where is God when people suffer?”

And we do know the answer to that one. God says, over and over again in the Bible, “I am with you.”

Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in [hell], you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

Query for prayerful consideration:

In my times of trouble, where has God been?

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Surely Goodness and Mercy Shall Follow Me

Hear and meditate upon God’s promise of abundance:

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

                                                                    Psalm 23 (NRSV)

For prayerful reflection:

God promises that I will be OK. God promises to restore my soul. God promises that goodness and mercy will follow me wherever I go in life. Let me accept that life truly is abundant, God!

Fear Not

My soul has continued to ponder how it can be that those of us who have a-plenty seem to spend a lot of time pondering how to safeguard our future. If I were to characterize the mood and mindset of people like myself, I wouldn’t choose words like “gratitude”, “joy” or “awareness of abundance”. I am also struck by how often people who live closer to the margins do seem to sparkle with joy about being alive, and sometimes even gratitude for having made it out of a life of bad choices and hard living.

It seems to me that our ability to experience life abundantly – or lack thereof – has little to do with the state of our checking account or what we own or will own in the future. Could it be that our ability to experience abundance is an indicator of the state of our soul? Is it true then, that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven?

Query for prayerful consideration:

What would/does it take for me to experience abundance?

Joyful Ineptitude

I’ve started taking piano lessions again, just like I did when I was a teenager. I played the piano for about three years back then, and then I quit because I wasn’t very good at it. You see, I’m pretty much tone deaf and I’m also rhythmically impaired. 

Now I’m playing the piano, not because I’m good at it, but because I enjoy it! What a spiritual awakening these piano lessons have been: It has made me aware just how often I try to be good at something. It also makes me aware how much those who love me also want me to feel that I am good, they want to build up my feeling of “goodness”. You see, when I talk about how bad I am at playing the piano, everyone rushes in to say “Oh, I’m sure you’re not that bad!”

The truth is that I am having a lot of fun with my piano-playing. It gives me so much pleasure to make noise, and whereas “not being very good” was enough to keep me from playing when I was a teenager,  it really doesn’t matter very much to me now. What freedom there is in doing something, not because I am good at it, but because I love to do it!

Is this a taste of the freedom God created us into? Galatians 5:1: “It is for freedom Christ has set you free. Stand firm, then, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!”

Friends, I am bad at playing the piano, and I am having fun. I am free!

Queries for prayerful consideration:

What freedoms might I be missing out on because I want to be good?

Abundance and LOTR…?

What do my thoughts about abundance and Lord of the Rings (LOTR) have in common (See post from 11/14)? 

J.R.R. Tolkien explained that although LOTR was published soon after World War II (1954-55), the books were neither a metaphor for the evils of war nor the evils the war was intended to conquer. Instead it was a commentary on industrialism and the damage industrialization did to rural living. So I think of LOTR as a parable about people becoming more preoccupied with industrial or commercial productivity and seeing the value of people, things, and time according to their place in “progress”. It is also about losing touch with nature, community, and all the things in life that aren’t productive. It is about wanting more, thinking we don’t have enough. The ring is the opposite of abundance, the ring makes us lose sight of the value of  “unproductive” things like love, compassion, sharing, giving, laughing, playing, resting, spending time in another’s company, just being.  The ring is the thoughts or actions that make us tense our muscles in fear and stiffen our bodies so that God’s abundant love can’t keep us afloat.

Like Frodo, we know that justice and our duty to God demand that we destroy the ring that we all bear, as members of a consumer society. Like Sam, we are filled with God-given love and loyalty to our own family and friends and sometimes the wider community. Like Gollum, most of us can’t even contemplate being separated from our house, car and other stuff – our passion and greed have a hold on us.

So which is ultimately more important in getting the ring into the volcano? Duty, justice, love, loyalty, passion or greed?

In Lord of the Rings, all of the characters and all of their qualities were essential to the destruction of the ring. In life, God can use all of us and all of our traits to destroy our addiction to things and the productive and consumer mindset. The ring will be destroyed, one way or another. As we all know, we can’t take “things” with us when we go. The question is whether we will lose our life and soul as Gollum did, a finger and our physical and emotional health like Frodo did, or lose nothing in Sam’s case (although he is burdened with sorrow for those he loves).

Query for prayerful consideration: 

How do I want to live my life? Will I fall into Mount Doom holding the ring on a finger I bit off? Will I lose a finger and live a sort of a life? Or will I follow love and loyalty wherever they lead me? 

Abundance

Abundance.

What a difficult concept for a financially comfortable person to comprehend!

As I let myself sink down to float on the ocean of God’s abundant love, my mind encounters thought after thought that causes my muscles to tense with fear and my body to stiffen so that the waters of God’s love can no longer hold me up.

“What if my husband doesn’t desire the same simplicity God invites me to? What if my choice to live more simply causes problems for my children? What if my choice eventually means they can’t go to college – or can’t go without incurring debt? What if our electrical system gives out – where will the money come to pay for it? What if I give more of my money to alleviate poverty, will I have enough to live on when I retire? What if …?”

Am I really that enslaved by fear? Can the power of fear really be stronger than the power of God’s love? 

Take a deep breath, Susanne. Nothing is more powerful than God’s love. Nothing. This is not a question of whether God’s love is powerful enough to cast out fear. Instead it is a question of whether I can release my fear to God.

The story of Frodo, the hobbit in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, comes to mind. (Warning: I am about to reveal how the story ends.) Frodo has come by a ring that gives its bearer incredible power, and of course all the bad guys want the power the ring will give its owner. Frodo knows he must destroy the ring and has been traveling for thousands of pages to get to Mount Doom, a volcano into which he must throw the ring to make sure it is permanently destroyed. Frodo has two companions on the way. One is his faithful friend Sam, who would do anything for Frodo, and indeed has to carry a weakening Frodo the last part of the way up Mount Doom. The other companion is a despicable critter called Gollum, who once owned the ring. Gollum is really only coming along in the hopes that he can get the ring back from Frodo. Frodo is disgusted by Gollum, but he also has compassion once he learns that Gollum used to be a nice little hobbit before his craving for the ring turned him into this disgusting creature. Frodo can relate to Gollum – he knows first-hand how powerfully seductive the ring is and how it weakens its bearer’s will.

On to the climactic ending of the story: As Frodo stands on the edge of the volcano with the ring, he can no longer resist its seductive power and puts it on instead of throwing it into Mount Doom. Gollum bites Frodo’s finger off to get the ring back, but then falls into the volcano holding the ring. The ring, and Gollum, are destroyed. Frodo and Sam go back home, but Frodo never recovers from the spiritual damage the ring did while he owned it and finally goes off to another land, hoping that he will be healed.

And now I will leave you wondering what the point of telling this story was and how it relates to abundance until my next blog entry. Until then,

Queries for prayerful consideration:

Who is most helpful in the ultimate destruction of the ring: the just and dutiful Frodo, loyal and loving Sam, or passionate and greedy Gollum? And what trait is most helpful in the destruction of the ring: justice, duty, loyalty, love, passion or greed?

The True Treasures of the Church

This is the story of St. Lawrence the Deacon, adapted from Wikipedia:

In 258, the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence turn over the riches of the Church. Lawrence asked for three days to gather together the wealth. Lawrence worked swiftly to distribute as much Church property to the poor as possible, so as to prevent its being seized by the prefect. On the third day, at the head of a small delegation, Lawrence presented himself to the prefect, and when ordered to give up the treasures of the Church, he presented the poor, the crippled, the blind and the suffering, and said that these were the true treasures of the Church. Lawrence declared, “The Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor.” For this Lawrence was martyred.

Once again, here is a story that took me a long, long time to understand. How can the poor, the crippled, the blind and the suffering be the true treasures of the church?

Here’s what I think it means: As I recently heard someone say at a conference on homelessness, the condition of the poor and the marginalized tells us most plainly what the moral condition of society is. Indeed, that is the message of the prophets throughout the Old Testament, and that is what Jesus explained to us in Matthew 25:40. What we do for the “least” of our borthers and sisters, we do for God. If you and I, as reasonably financially comfortable persons, want an objective view on whether we are living in right relationship with God and God’s creation, all we need to is look at how well our society is taking care of its “poor, crippled, lame and suffering”.

The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann was in Seattle recently, and he said it in a similar way: The perpetrators of violence want to forget what they have done. Perpetrators of injustice need the victims to remind them of their wrongdoing.

The poor, crippled, lame, and blind among us are beloved children of God in their own right. They do not merely exist so that I may get a chance to get things right. As beloved sons and daughters of God, they and I – we all – deserve love and support because we are created with and for love by God. Nonetheless, one of the ways the poor are the true treasures of the church is that they help us to see ourselves as God sees us, examining how well we are doing at loving God, ourselves, and our neighbor.

Queries for prayerful consideration:

What is this treasure that the poor have given to me?