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³What About Suffering?´
While surfing through various channels last night, looking for something rather mindless to watch in order to relax before going to bed, I came across a special on CNN on the tornadoes that have hit the Midwest and South this May. Amazingly, they had film footage of some of the tornadoes as they moved across the countryside ± though from my perspective, fortunately they didn¶t show much of the destruction actually taking place. After the videos of the tornadoes themselves, they naturally showed the destruction on the ground ± the missing neighborhoods where nothing is left but rubble and foundation pads of peoples¶ homes. They focused on Joplin, Missouri and the destruction that took place there. CNN also interviewed doctors who worked at the hospital in Joplin that was destroyed, and various other members of the community. I¶m sure you¶ve seen the pictures and heard similar interviews. It¶s heart breaking to see the destruction and know what that means to the people who lived and worked in what used to be. It¶s heart wrenching to hear the survivors talk about the ones they¶ve lost, the ones who covered them with their bodies, the ones who were killed only hours after high school graduation. It¶s also heart warming, to hear the people talk about rebuilding and moving forward with their lives, even as they sort through the rubble that was once their home. As I watched the CNN Special Report, I heard many of the survivors thank God for having saved them from tornadoes¶ destructive power. I understand that many of those who survived are very faithful people. Their faith in God is deep, and strong, and I myself and glad of that. I certainly believe that they¶ll need a strong faith to carry on their lives following the devastation to Joplin. Last I heard, 142 people were killed and there are still nearly a hundred unaccounted for. Most in Joplin will have lost family members, or friends, or co-workers, or those with whom they did business. Even those who were away from the physical destruction of the tornado will suffer from the emotional devastation the tornado caused. So I¶m glad that so many have such strong faith in God. Let me also say that what I¶ll preach to you here this morning is not what I¶d preach if I was in Joplin. If I was in Joplin I¶d preach God¶s comfort, God¶s presence in the midst of the darkest night. I¶d preach about anger and fear and sharing one¶s pain with friends and clergy. That¶s what I¶d preach if I was in Joplin. But since I¶m here in Chico, I¶ll preach something different. As I watched the interviews on the CNN Special last night, 2 thoughts came to me. First, while I affirm the faith of those who suffered massive loss, and the faith of those who seemingly miraculously survived the tornado, I¶m not sure that God specifically saved those who survived. Let me also say that I¶m not sure God didn¶t miraculously save them either. One elderly man said that he was sucked through a wall of his house, and it was only because of God that he survived. And he may be right. But as I heard his story, I thought of the young man who¶d just graduated from high school who was sucked out of his car and ended up dead in a pond. Why would God save the elderly man and allow the high school graduate to die? And then I pushed the question a bit. Why was Joplin hit by such a destructive tornado and not the open countryside where there would be much less destruction, much less loss of life? Why did God save an elderly man, but let the tornado destroy have of Joplin, and let the tsunami hit Japan, and hurricanes do their damage, killing many and spare even more. Looking at the destruction in Joplin,
I¶m surprised any survived the tornado. In many ways, I¶m thankful all the residents were killed after seeing what happened. Which brings us to the whole question of suffering, doesn¶t it? Many answers have been given to the question of suffering, but few have been totally comforting. The classic story of a good man suffering is the story of Job in the OT. More attempts have been made to understand and interpret Job than perhaps any other book in the Bible. Many biblical scholars believe that the book wrestles with the problem of evil and suffering but offers no explanation that¶s satisfactory. Rabbi Kushner in his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, feels that the author of the Book of Job is forced to choose between a powerful God who isn¶t totally good, or good God who isn¶t totally powerful1. He selects the latter, choosing to believe in God¶s goodness. God doesn¶t will tragedies and sufferings to his people. Misfortunes don¶t come as punishment from God. God is a God of justice, but not a God of total power, or at least not a God who chooses to use total power. God is a God of love and not a God of vengeance. From this perspective, we can gain some relief in realizing that God isn¶t testing us when we suffer. After all, why should God need to test us when God already knows everything? We can also take comfort in the fact that we can therefore turn to God, knowing we¶re accepted and that God isn¶t angry with us. Further, we can begin to find some justification for our anger at the unfairness of life, knowing that we¶re sharing God¶s anger at injustice and God¶s indignation at it¶s unfairness. While there are some things we can¶t yet know when it comes to understanding the meaning and purpose of trouble and suffering, there are other things we can know, and need to know. I¶ve already mentioned the first: We don¶t have to blame God. God is love and God cares about us. Jesus said that God knows when even a sparrow falls. If God cares for the birds and the flowers, how much more does God care for us. If we can get ourselves straightened out about who God is and what God wants of us, we¶ll quickly learn to stop blaming God when things go wrong. Second. While God can do many things, God doesn¶t do everything. God doesn¶t break the laws of nature that God has established. God doesn¶t over-rule human freedom and over-ride human will. God doesn¶t always make our sicknesses go away, no matter how sincerely we pray and ask God to do so. Miracles do occur, and people do survive tornadoes. But many, many more don¶t, even with the most effective prayers on their side. Here we¶re face to face with a mystery, and the best we can do is bow our heads in thanks when we experience a miracle of any kind, and never, never begin to think that our prayers, our contributions, or our change of heart are what made God perform the miracle. We don¶t know why some people died in the tornado in Joplin, while others walked away with a few cuts and bruises. Does God hear the prayers of some and not of others? I can¶t believe that. All we can do, when we¶re miraculously spared from some catastrophe, is to offer God our bewildered gratitude. In fact, God may not have very much to do with automobile accidents or plane crashes or tornadoes, any more than God has to do with people getting cancer or multiple sclerosis. As much as we¶d like to believe that we¶re in control, that if we¶re good nothing bad will happen to us, that¶s not the case. Random acts of violence are a part of nature. There¶s a risk of being in a tornado, if you live
Kushner, Harold s., When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Anchor Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., New York, 1981. 2
where tornadoes occur. If you live in the Mississippi River flood plane, your home may be flooded. If you live in an earthquake zone in here in California, there may be an earthquake. But we may be in a car accident on the way home as well. Random acts of violence are a part of life. These acts are not caused by God. This takes us to a third truth about suffering and tragedy, and that is that sometimes we¶re called to share in the redemptive work of God by voluntarily assuming a measure of the world¶s suffering. Just because we don¶t know the meaning behind suffering doesn¶t mean that suffering is without meaning. Occasionally, occasionally, that meaning is for more than just ourselves. It¶s for the world. The highest example of redemptive suffering is in Jesus¶ voluntary suffering on the cross which became the instrument of the world¶s redemption. This supreme act of sacrificial love is the greatest the world has ever known because it was done for the world and offered as a means by which the world could be saved. Standing up for truth, speaking out for justice, defending the poor ± these can all lead to suffering on our part as the world turns against us. A very minor example of this is the reaction of a few to the ³We love our Muslim Neighbors´ message that we/I posted on our signboard. I¶m still getting e-mails from a lady who thinks Muslims are Satan incarnate. And there have been those who¶ve left this congregation because we seek to love and support all people, not just some people. Those examples don¶t really count as suffering, because first of all, they¶re minor, and second of all, the overwhelming majority who¶ve contacted me have been very positive. But they do suggest that speaking out for justice can bring us suffering. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the other ministers who spoke out for the rights of African-Americans during the Civil Rights movement. To speak God¶s truth can bring about undeserved suffering. Finally, let me suggest that with all this, we spend as little time as possible on the why of suffering and as much time as possible letting that suffering lead us to the light of Jesus Christ. The question isn¶t ³where did this tragedy come from?´ but rather ³Where will it lead?´ How can I use this time of darkness for good, rather than letting it use me for destruction? We turn to God in the knowledge that God will be with us and help us to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit, even in the midst of the darkest hour. Says Kushner: ³We do not love God because God is perfect. We do not love God because God protects us from all harm and keeps evil things from happening to us. We do not love God because we¶re afraid of God, or because God will hurt us if we turn our backs on God. We love God because God is God, because God is the author of all the beauty and the order around us, the source of our strength and the hope and courage with us, and of other people¶s strength and hope and courage with which we are helped in our time of need. We love God because God is the best part of ourselves and of our world. That is what it means to love. Love is not the admiration of perfection, but the acceptance of an imperfect person with all their imperfections, because loving and accepting that person makes us better and stronger.´2
Kushner, p. 160. 3
Can we then forgive and accept in a world that isn¶t always perfect, a world that sometimes brings us unfairness and cruelty? Can we forgive and accept in love the people around us, even if they hurt us and let us down by not being perfect? And can we forgive and love God even when God seems to let us down and disappoints us by permitting bad luck and sickness and cruelty in God¶s world? If we can do these things, perhaps we¶ll be able to realize that the ability to love and forgive all things, even God, is one of the greatest weapons we have in helping us to live bravely and fully in a less-thanperfect world. True faith is quietly trusting God, just as Jesus did as he prayed to be spared from the cross. But when he was not spared, he continued to trust God and committed his life and spirit into God¶s hands. True faith is offering our very lives up to him, content in whatever comes to us, and asking only that we never lose the sense of God¶s nearness and God¶s love.3
Kushner, pp. 161-162. 4
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