This past week, I came across an interesting article entitled "How Natural Disasters Test the Faithful." It went on to discuss how people of faith often find their faith challenged during times of tragedy and suffering, to the point they feel God has abandoned them. As we think back sixteen years ago tomorrow and the attack on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, Americans found themselves in the throes of just such a deep emotional and spiritual crisis. Our country no longer seemed as invincible as it once had, causing many to wonder how just a handful of terrorists could successfully bring down the world's most important financial center and paralyze the richest, most powerful nation in history. During the late sixties and early seventies, I watched from a distance as those twin towers rose over the Manhattan skyline from our home in New Jersey. Less than thirty years later, these SAME two eyes watched those two buildings burn and collapse in only a matter of hours. A couple of weeks earlier, I had taken my great nephew and great niece up to see the Windows On the World Restaurant that was situated atop the North Tower. I had members of my congregation who were in those buildings at the moment of impact and who managed to get out just in the nick of time. Two days later, we held a special memorial service for the victims in my church where people had an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings. The one question people asked the most was, "But where is God in all of this? What can God say to comfort us amidst such a great and terrible tragedy?"
The question "Where was God?" is one which many serious Christians have asked THEMSELVES at one time or another which is why we look at the author of Psalm 13, our Old Testament lesson, this morning. It seems he is near death although we are not given any information regarding the nature of his suffering. It begins with a fourfold lament, a series of questions in which he asks why he has been forsaken by God. It's not death or illness that he laments as his SENSE OF COMMUNION with God- "Where is God when I cry out to him? Why won't he respond? Does God even CARE about the trials and sufferings of his creation? Is God capable of hearing such cries?"- all THESE are implied in the psalm's opening verses. He does not want to feel separated from his God.
It is to also identify with JOB, a man who once railed against God for all the travail in his life, questioning why one as faithful as himself had been forced to suffer beyond all endurance. It is the same question many a parent has asked him or herself at the news that his or her child has suddenly developed cancer or a spouse is fatally struck by a drunk driver. It was a question that many Texans were asking themselves as they returned to their flooded-out homes and discovered they were not only uninhabitable but many of their most personal and priceless possessions were either missing or destroyed. Yet it DOES happen ALL THE TIME, forcing us to ask aloud, "Why God did you let this tragedy occur? We're supposed to be your children whom you say you love. Where WERE you when we needed you most?"
A couple of years ago, I received the bitter news that my dear cousin Alice had passed away. Although she was in her late sixties, she wasn't even SICK and yet without warning, her heart simply failed her. Alice had always been a special member of the Wood family. To begin with, she was my grandparent's first grandchild, the daughter of my father's oldest brother George, and the first grandchild, it seems, ALWAYS has a special spot in every grandparent's heart. Another reason is that Alice was the only girl in the entire Wood family- all the rest us being boys. This meant that she could be spoiled and doted upon in ways the rest of us couldn't. Fittingly enough, the day my grandmother died that warm Sunday evening in September of 1969, it was with Alice and her family she had spent her last day on earth with.
But life had often been anything BUT kind to Alice. On Good Friday of 1957, she returned home from church with her mother and brother to find her father's body hanging from a pipe in the family living room- he had committed suicide after being despondent over not being able to hold a job due to a drinking problem. In 1975, only three months after my own father had died, her mother-my Aunt Kitty--succumbed to heart disease.
Then ten years after that, her only sibling-Butch--who had been born with a defective heart, left home to buy a part for his car in N.Y. He never came back. For the next few weeks, his family went crazy wondering what had happened to him- they knew he would never just take off. In fact, his health was SO precarious, he had to carry an oxygen bottle with him wherever he went. But their desperate search ended when it was discovered that soon after leaving the auto parts store, he had suffered a fatal heart attack in a MacDonald's parking lot. However, due to incompetence on the part of the police who misplaced his identification, he lay in the county morgue unclaimed for more than a month. The morning his family finally learned of his whereabouts, he had been scheduled to be buried in a paupers' field as an unidentified person. Yet, the unkindest cut of all STILL lay ahead for Alice and her family when the following year, her second son, Joey, developed stomach cancer and after four months of agonizing pain, died in a N.J. hospital. He was only 27.
Alice was one of the most loving, most generous, most compassionate persons I have ever known and her passing has left a huge hole in the family. What greater epitaph can there be over a person's life! Her husband Fred and four children were about as close and supportive as any family could possibly be. They never took a vacation without also taking the entire family with them and more than once I have heard persons say, "How come I couldn't have a marriage and family like Alice and Freddy's?" She was a deeply devout Catholic who never missed Mass under any circumstance and remained active in all areas of her church's life. Her priest, who was also close to her son Joey throughout his illness, even came to her home and offered a private Mass in Joey's honor- one of the most beautiful, meaningful experiences she had ever had. She was in tears as she described it to me.
Not long after Joey's passing, I enjoyed a wonderful dinner at her home. After our meal, I noticed it was getting late and began preparing to leave. Alice insisted on walking me out to my car where she wanted to talk to me in private. She said, "David, I know that you are a man of faith and that you love God. That's why I'm asking you to pray for me. I've been strong all my life- I've had to be, for the sake of my mother, my brother, and now my family with Joey's death. But David, my strength is now gone. Every night, I cry out to God and ask, "'Why, Lord? Why did you have to take Joey? I've always loved you, served you, worshiped you, tried to be as obedient a child of yours as I possibly could be- yet my life never gets any easier.'" Then she said, "David, I have such anger towards God. I don't know where my faith is any longer. Yes, I still go to church but it's not so much out of devotion as it is for the sake of my family- I want THEM to go. Please pray that I recover my faith, Dave."
It was a very emotional moment and I again realized how much I loved my cousin- for her vulnerability as well as for her many strengths. I can't recall specifically what I said but I DO remember reassuring her that it was perfectly OK to be angry at God, that rather than FAITHLESSNESS, such anger reflects the very OPPOSITE- the presence of a vital and dynamic faith underneath it. You see, apathy, indifference, a complete loss of feelings- THESE are what characterize a loss of faith while anger speaks of living in relationship with the one you are angry with. Like a modern-day Job, you may feel frustrated with God; you may be annoyed by the lack of clear answers, yet the lines of communication still remain open. Pure and simple, that's all faith IS- an open signal between God and ourselves through which we express our anger and our hurt as well as our love and dependence.
As I drove away from her home, I prayed for her and her family wishing that I could be HALF the Christian she was. I also knew that no amount of time could ever erase the hurt of losing a loved one, ESPECIALLY a son or daughter. Yet I knew that with God's continuing faithfulness and presence in her life, she would survive and become even STRONGER for it. In time that in fact DID happen and I know she became an empathetic presence for so many OTHERS who lost a child and had had difficulty dealing with tragedies of their OWN.
I relate this story about my cousin because in spite of her unresolved questions and troubling doubts and anger over the loss of her son, she never stopped looking to God for his strength and grace and love. Instead of feeling aggrieved over life and retreating within a prison of her own pity and private hurts, she CONTINUED to worship with God's people, CONTINUED to volunteer at church functions, and CONTINUED to be the very best friend she could be to all she met. She remained obedient to her calling as a child of God REGARDLESS of how hard it was to believe at times. Her faith and its habits were so ingrained within her that this was all she COULD do while intuitively knowing that this was the only way she would ever find healing and wholeness in her life again.
It is inevitable that ALL sincere persons of faith are going to confront at one time or another great and often intractable questions about God- questions of WHO God is, WHERE God is, and possibly IF God is. Even JESUS in the garden of Gethsemane, with the lengthening shadow of that cross looming ever closer, had his OWN questions and fears to contend with. As I close, I want to leave you with three essential truths which remain central to my OWN faith. The FIRST is that OUR FAITH IS ALWAYS DEEPER THAN OUR DOUBTS.
In my first pastorate in Pennsylvania, I had to break the news to a family who lived a few houses down from me how less than an hour before, their only son had been tragically killed when he fell into a sawdust bin at the local mill and smothered to death. It was an unfortunate accident and I can still hear his mother imploring over and over again, "WHY, God? WHY did you let this happen? WHY did you allow my beloved son Sam to die!" Yet, she and her husband, like MOST people who experience a terrible tragedy in life, DID eventually come to terms with his death and make peace with God. The following Sunday and then the next and every Sunday AFTERWARD, they could be found back in their church, praising and thanking God for the life of their dear son Sam and for the opportunity they'd been given to raise him as their own. But that's the way it is with FAITH- once you've been in possession of it, it gets IN you and takes HOLD of you so that it becomes IMPOSSIBLE to rid yourself of it, EVER. As one of my seminary professors used to put it, "I could never NOT be a Christian. I've got God too much in my CELLS."
The SECOND point is that if faith is always stronger than our doubts, then in those times when we no longer think we have such faith, when it seems our confidence and ability to trust Christ's words has become weak or depleted, we can always take heart in the fact that GOD'S FAITH IN US IS ALWAYS GREATER THAN OUR OWN FAITH IN GOD. There is nothing more defeatist than to think the Christian life must be spent trying to find and hold onto God's hand with all our might lest we let go and lose him altogether when the truth is just the OPPOSITE- God's finds US and holds OUR hands and promises he will never let US go. We can be assured that even in our periods of greatest doubt, God promises to be there for us, to bear us up in the face of those doubts, and to carry us through to a living faith once again.
And THIRD point I would leave you with is this, that GOD IS AS PRESENT AND ACTIVE IN THE WORLD TODAY AS HE WAS YESTERDAY AND WILL BE TOMORROW, ENDLESSLY OFFERING US HIS PERSONAL PRESENCE. God is present in and through the hearts and hands of his Church--the Body of Christ--who are PARTICULAR agents of his love during times of crisis. Fr. Michael Judge was a Catholic chaplain who was also well known throughout NYC for ministering to the homeless , the hungry, recovering alcoholics, people with AIDS, the sick, injured, and grieving, immigrants , gays and lesbians and those alienated by the Church and society. He once gave the winter coat off his back to a homeless woman in the street, later saying, "She needed it more than me." When he anointed a man who was dying of AIDS, the man asked him, "Do you think God hates me?" Judge just picked him up, kissed him, and silently rocked him in his arms.
Upon learning that the World Trade Center had been hit by the first of two jetliners, Father Judge rushed to the site. There, he was met by Mayor Guiliani who asked him to pray for the city and its victims. Judge prayed over some bodies lying on the streets, then entered the lobby of the World Trade Center North Tower , where an emergency command post had been organized. There he continued offering aid and prayers for the rescuers, the injured, and the dead. When the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 am, debris went flying through the North Tower lobby, killing many inside, including Judge. At the moment he was struck in the head and killed, Judge was repeatedly praying aloud, "Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!" To those firefighters and policemen who knew him, he was the living incarnation of Jesus Christ to them.
But God was ALSO present through those cops and fire fighters, those first-responders and volunteers who were more concerned about the health and safety of others than their OWN. God is present today through agencies like FEMA and the Red Cross which will be busy offering disaster relief for years to come, and in those many volunteers who helped to rescue persons trapped in homes and on rooftops throughout the Houston and now Florida regions. There's an old joke about a religious man on top of his roof during a great flood. A man comes by in a boat and says "Get in, get in!" The religious man replies, "No I have faith in God, he will grant me a miracle." Later the water is up to his waist and another boat comes by. The guy steering it tells him to get in but he responds that he has faith in God and God will give him a miracle. With the water now at about chest high, another boat comes to rescue him, but he turns down that offer again because "God will grant him a miracle." With the water at chin high, a helicopter throws down a ladder and they tell him to get on. Mumbling with the water in his mouth, he again turns down the request for help because he's convinced that ultimately GOD will save him. Eventually the man drowns after which he arrives at the gates of heaven. There, with broken faith, he says to Peter, "I thought God would grand me a miracle and I have been let down." St. Peter chuckles and responds, "I don't know what you're complaining about, we sent you three boats and a helicopter." The fact is that God works through humble, selfless, faith-filled people who become his hands and feet and voice in a terribly fragmented world.
Many Christians mistakenly believe that everything that occurs in the world is the will of God, and that includes terrorist attacks and natural disasters. Some even go so far as to assert that such events represent God's wrath against a particular group of persons or a particular set of behaviors, such as Jerry Falwell who once attributed AIDS as God's wrath against all gay persons. Well not for a MOMENT do I believe that God either willed or condoned the attacks on the World Trade Center nor any of those natural disasters we have experienced for the past couple of weeks. Rather, scripture teaches us that the world is broken and doesn't work the way God originally intended it to, that tragedy and suffering are an essential part of the human condition. However, when such events are viewed through the eyes of FAITH, we are then able to sense how God is present EVEN DURING THE MOST TERRIBLE OF MOMENTS. We are somehow aware that his grace and forgiveness and love is abundantly available to help bring some healing to all our woundedness. We see such faith in the author of Psalm 13, how in spite of the mystery and questions he has regarding his plight, he refuses to give in to cynicism or despair. He CONTINUES to trust in God's love and rejoices in his salvation REGARDLESS of how dire his situation becomes, ultimately confessing how "God has dealt bountifully with me."
In the same way, despite all the mystery and lack of clear answers, God exhorts US to remain faithful. We are encouraged to trust in God's presence and goodness IN SPITE OF his perceived absence for in the moment of our greatest need he is there all the same, holding us tightly with those invisible arms of support. God was present with each of those victims on 9/11 and he grieved with their families in the days that followed. Likewise, God mourns with the families of those lost in LAST WEEK'S flooding and he stands alongside the great tide of those left homeless by THIS WEEKEND'S devastation. In times such as these, there will doubtless be some frustration, anger, and resentment and much of it will be directed towards God. And though we may think that God has ABANDONED us or perhaps that our own faith has LEFT us, I can assure you that God HAS NOT and NEVER WILL abandon us- EVER, ESPECIALLY in those moments we need him most, and of THAT, we are promised. Let us pray...
Heavenly Father, may we never fail to draw close to you when life becomes hard or even takes a tragic turn. May we always be confident in knowing that your faith and love in us far exceeds our faith and love in you, and that not even our anger or fear or extreme doubt can possibly separate us from your abiding care. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.