The end of April has been devastating. The words that echo through my mind are, "Have you considered by servant...?" All types of people, aid organizations, and government entities will coordinate to bring support to men, women, and children affected by these storms. Moments like these remind me of the fragility of the human condition and how quickly life will become radically different. Undoubtedly, we will face the age old question of God's involvement in this difficult time.
What do we as Christians bring to families who have lost loved ones, homes, and a sense of security? Can we offer anything that transcends the ugly devastation which scrolls across television and social media?
Suffering is the opportunity to observe what a human can be when he or she considers the need of another greater than his or her own. The thunderstorms which moved throughout various southern States reminded us suffering does not exempt any person or community. Therefore, as suffering is indiscriminate, the response of humanity and specifically the Church must be indiscriminate. Suffering opens the door for men and women to enter a condition in which all type of persons with all types of beliefs stand in need of grace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer states, "the Church is unconditionally obligated to the victims of every social order, even when they do not belong to the Christian community."1 This week demonstrates a Church which responds to her obligation to offer good to all types of weather victims regardless of his or her commitment to the Christian community (Galatians 6:10, ESV). In the next coming weeks, all types of people will see beauty in the midst of the suffering.
We certainly ask, "Where was God?" It is a question that is being asked in tears, in disbelief, and uncertainty. Where was God? He was there the whole time and in ways which we can not understand. He is there as men and women run headlong into suffering to comfort and to be sustainers of people overwhelmed by destruction and death. He will be there long after the physical suffering gives way to renewal, to heal the emotional pain that will leave indelible scars.
There will be scars. Scars demonstrate that some type of trauma has occurred to the body. We all have scars. The scars which are visible are a testament of resilience and strength. Resilience in the fact the body endured and through a visible and invisible process the injury no longer influences the body. After the healing process the scar testifies to a new strength. Where is the beauty as we wrestle with the question of "Where was God?" and with the scars that come?
The only answer I have involves the suffering of a mother.
The young mother had the privilege of giving birth to her child in very difficult conditions but she was not alone. As time moved on, she was able to see and hear her child accomplish a lot of good for the community and the society. Yet through a series of events this mother once again found herself in a very difficult and harsh situation. Right before her very eyes she saw her child brutally murdered. The child she carried, nurtured on her breast, and set free to live in the world, was suddenly cut down. Mary surely felt powerless as she observed the death of her son. Yet in the presence of real darkness and real despair, God is there. Jesus on the cross and in overwhelming agony comforts his mother in her own suffering by calling John-the apostle who Jesus loved- to care for Mary (John 19:26-27).
In Mary's suffering, God is there to offer her compassion through the presence of another. What of the scars? Three days later God who succors in suffering, triumphs over suffering and death, announcing his eternal resilience and strength. What we know is that Jesus suffering comes with scars. Look at his hands and feet. Touch them. Understand that his scars tell all of us he knows suffering and he is willing to experience suffering with you. That is beautiful and this is the beauty the Church brings to victims afflicted by storms.
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center. New York: Harper and Row, 1978
One of the beautiful aspects of human life involves the desire to be in relationship with another person or group of people. People who design their lives to think, to communicate, to work, and to experience life as a unit, reflect the inward desire of a much larger reality. We human beings have been created to demonstrate communication as a choir, games as a team, and love as a couple. In each of these, we reveal ourselves and in that revelation intertwined lives are impacted.
What happens though when we look inward?
Our desire to be known and to know others, sadly experiences the detrimental influences of selfishness, isolation, and a willingness to brag on my own accomplishments. In those moments, we obscure the beautiful desire of honest relationship with a lattice of behaviors which prevent each of us from what we desire. So we recoil. We hide behind weakly constructed identities. We attempt to define ourselves by ourselves, inwardly knowing the life we construct is simply lonely.
Behind our weak and fallible lattices which cut each of us off from the opportunity to be fully known there is only despair. Have you ever seen the face of someone in isolation? Have you ever noticed the motion of the inward looking soul that rocks back and forth, side to side? A man or woman cut off from being fully known has no opportunity to enjoy a relationship with another, therefore he or she desperately seeks comfort and many times that comfort is sought in non-relational things.
One person may communicate to the air with waving arms and fits of rage. She may seek acknowledgement of her existence by the exposure of her body on social media and the confirmation of that existence is measured in “likes,” “shares,” and “viral posts.” It is the man who labors long days in isolation behind a computer, measuring financial statistics with the hope a financial windfall will initiate entrance into position of status.
Exile is a terrible place to live because the environment reveals a person who lives outside of relationship with others. Exile demonstrates an impotence within the individual because if possible and because of the despair, he or she would work to alleviate their burden. The closure of a person's exile which leads to being known, requires a person with potency willing to travel into and transform both person and environment into an synergistic healthy way of life.
Miroslav Volf states, "Because the Christian God is not a lonely God, but rather a communion of three persons, faith leads human beings into the divine communion. Communion with this God is at once also communion with those others who have entrusted themselves in faith to the same God. Hence one and the same act of faith places a person into a new relationship both with God and with all others who stand in communion with God" (After Our Likeness: Church as the Image of the Trinity, 1998).
Our poorly constructed lattices of isolation and exile which prevent us from being known fall to pieces when a powerful person chooses to move beyond the barrier to make him or herself known. My Christian faith tells the world God has made himself known to mankind through his son Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ uses his power not to isolate himself from people but uses his power to reveal the fullness of God and the result is many lonely and exiled people experience the joy of being known. They are known simply because God chooses to love and to acknowledge the existence of isolated people and transform their existence from despair to communion. We know God and he know us. Our communion with God is the experience of what healthy living truly looks like in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Volf states this communion or being known does not terminate in our vertical relationship but it extends horizontally to the men and women around us. Therefore, the man to my left, I invite him in to know about me and learn my life. The woman who worships besides you and yet neither of you have ever spoken; your shared communion with God will lead you to communion with each other. God's love that ushers in communion with himself provokes us towards transparency with each other.
Where do we go from here? Out there in our cities and communities, men, women, and children proceed through life in their own personal exiles aching to be known. They are wondering if anyone knows of their existence. Our communion with God reminds us that we were not created to exist as isolated beings but beings who are known to others. We create opportunities and spaces in which persons from all types of backgrounds, economics, and ethnicity discover the divine communion of God in the loving words and the loving deeds of others. Let us participate in renewing the lives of people and respond to the inward desire in all humanity, "I want to be known."