Finding God when times are bad

Published 7:40 pm Friday, September 10, 2010

In our household, two events occur back to back – our son’s birthday and the remembrance of the attacks on the World Trade Towers. A joyful event and a terrible event – both important dates on our calendars. I am reminded of my mother-in-law’s story of going into Chicago to get her marriage license to my husband’s father. She spent a full day on the train into Chicago, doing the appropriate paperwork and back to campus on the train – arriving late that night to find her sorority house fully lighted and everyone awake. The news of the attack on Pearl Harbor was filling the radio waves and everyone was focused on the terrors of involvement in the war to come.

This is the way life often unfolds – life and death back to back, celebrations and tragedies hand in hand. In the time it takes you to read this column, there will be a new baby somewhere taking his or her first breath and an elder in some community taking his or her last. Our hearts rejoice and our hearts break.

These events draw some of us closer to the God that we worship, but make others question the love, care, even the existence of the God they seek.

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Babies come every day – some are wanted, some are not. Some are welcomed by a family with the open arms of several generations, some wept over by a lonely mother dreading the next day and the next. Babies come in the midst of war and peace, wealth and hunger, blessed by hope and cursed by violence. Where is God when a bomb or a stray bullet or a cruel adult takes that little one’s life?

Men and women die every day. Some surrounded by a loving family, others alone in an alley or on a battlefield. Some are released with a service celebrating their life here and sorrowing for their absence. Some are left where they lie, mourned by no one, honored nowhere. Where is God in the pain and loneliness of these deaths?

It is easy to see God when events are happy and promising. Seeing a picture of my husband holding his new born son is a joy to me. Knowing his son as an adult is a gift. I always feel lucky when his birthday comes around to celebrate and I can call him Son. It was harder to see God when I watched the smoke roiling out of the Twin Towers – or saw the long list of names of those lost. It is even more difficult when I read the list of names or see the faces of our sons and daughters lost or maimed in a war half a world away – and the desolate villages and anguished faces of our “enemies”. So much blood and pain and sorrow. When will it end?

In my heart, I know where God is. God is where I am, where we are. God is there in the joy and in the horror, in the blood of birth and death, with the well-comforted and the lonely. God is reaching out for us, with tears on God’s face and love in God’s arms to comfort and guide us. The God we worship is a God of peace, a God of love and community, a God who loves my enemies as much as God loves me. There is not a time or a place or an event that can separate us from God.

But this same God expects me to take the love that I am given and turn it toward others. God’s love is not a gift that I hoard and enjoy and pile up for show so that you know just how blessed I am. God’s love is for sharing and spreading around, especially to those I think do not deserve it. After all, neither do I. When will we ever learn?

The Rev. Jean Johnson

Rector, St. John’s Episcopal Church