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God’s tough love?

Posted by Ron George on August 31, 2017

Hurricane Harvey as seen from the International Space Station on Friday, Aug. 25. (NASA European Pressphoto Agency)

Comes a time when only sobs will do.

I was having a late breakfast after spending the relatively cool hours of Wednesday morning clearing yet more oak brush from our backyard. I read the story of Colette Sulcer, the 41-year-old Beaumont woman found floating dead in floodwaters with her three-year-old daughter clinging to her body.

Another kind of flood poured from my eyes as images of the rescue and recovery rose in my mind – the girl’s pink backpack, the narrowness of her escape, the first responders’ vain efforts to revive the mother.

As I write, Hurricane Harvey has caused no fewer than 22 deaths while leaving a path of destruction from Port Aransas to western Louisiana. Corpus Christi, too, braced for the storm as its wobbly path headed our way. For almost a week, now, we’ve been wont to marvel at having “dodged the bullet.”

Some say luck while others say providence kept Harvey from our town. As the hurricane became stronger, I was as fearful as anyone in Nueces County that this was The Big One we have feared since the relatively small but mighty Hurricane Celia hit Corpus Christi dead-on in 1970. I worried about flooding in areas that have never flooded before and how we would transport to safety my 94-year-old mother, suffering from dementia, if water began to rise in her home.

We holed up with her and her caregivers. We waited. We lost power. The wind blew; rain fell – but the hurricane made landfall 18 miles away. We were on the backside of the storm, the weaker side. No widespread flooding. Relatively little property damage. Five days without power wasn’t pleasant – but we weren’t running for our lives from rising water.

A blessing? If so, by whom or what? And then, the inevitable question, Why?

Rockport resident Steve Culver comforts his dog Otis on Saturday, Aug. 26, as he talks about the most terrifying event in his life. (CNN)

I’ve heard it said, and I’ve thought it myself, that we were blessed, somehow, to have been all but left out of the devastating storm. But if we were blessed, what of those who were less fortunate – less blessed, as it were – even cursed by this infernal Category 4 hurricane? It is obscene even to ponder the idea that Someone Supernatural “decided” whom to bless and whom to curse; or, more to the point, that Colette Sulcer and her daughter would be put in harm’s way.

Is it an opportunity for love to bloom amid catastrophe? Yes. Just see how volunteers and service agencies rush to the rescue and support of those beset by catastrophic weather.

Is it a bit of God’s tough love to remind us how dependent we are on each other and how we are, after all, at the mercy of nature’s way of taking care of itself? Is it a reminder that materialistic consumerism – laying up treasures on earth, as it were – is a form of vanity that, ultimately, leads to a dead end?

I guess any or all of that can be true, if that’s how one interprets reality. Whatever I say about God is from the perspective that we’re talking about a myth, a way of understanding and talking about life in this world that has no basis in scientific fact. It’s harder than ever for me to bridge the gap between scientific knowledge and my yearning for the spiritual to be not only true but factual.

Still, I found myself breathing the Jesus Prayer as I worked in the yard and around the house as we recovered from our minor brush with a major storm. Perhaps it was those heavy breaths of physical exertion that brought on an old memory – and a pleasant one – of feeling the presence of that which we Christians call “God the Holy Spirit” in the words and phenomenon of that well-worn prayer: “Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Again and again, one bead after another, for I imagined a rosary as I recited the prayer.

Then came Psalm 139, especially the last two verses: “Search me out, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my restless thoughts. Look well whether there be any wickedness in me, and bring me into the way that is everlasting.” That’s The Book of Common Prayer version, and it’s always sounded like truth to me. If God there be, it’s what I want God to do and to be.

Houston Police SWAT officer Daryl Hudeck carries Catherine Pham and her 13-month-old son Aiden after rescuing them from their flooded home in Houston on Sunday, Aug. 27. (ABC)

As a humanist, too, I must say it’s just as desirable that I know my heart, try my restless thoughts and root out the wickedness I know resides in the dark corners of my non-eternal soul. And, if God there be – and I want to continue to be open to that possibility – then I would want to walk in God’s everlasting way, a way of permanent value or at least as permanent as anything can be in this impermanent, ever-changing universe.

Perhaps it’s all this exposure to nature – and nature’s God? – that wrung those prayers from me. Perhaps existential fear and anxiety drove my subconscious hope that there is Someone who listens and hears the prayers of human beings in time of need. In any case, my prayer wasn’t aimed at survival or safety but just hope that God would be near – Emmanuel –  as nature took its course in the form of an ungodly powerful storm.

Yes, it brought peace to this anxious soul to recite these prayers and to continue saying them on behalf of those whose lives have been shattered by Hurricane Harvey.

If God there be, then God is surely present in all events regardless of whether we suffered with the passing of Harvey’s powerful eye and inexhaustible rain. The Christian witness is that, indeed, God in Christ suffers with us; and more, is present within the very pain and anguish brought about by current events on this planet. God in Christ, Christians believe – most of us, anyway – is in the pain of that starving child in Africa, the anguish of those Syrian refugees and the loss of everything that many have suffered along Harvey’s wayward path, including the death of Colette Sulcer and the survival of her daughter.

If that’s true, and if there be any doubt about whether God is or is not, then look where Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed – to human suffering. That’s where we’ll find authentic Christianity, in the face of suffering transmitted by our neighbors and our enemies, of all things. If God there be, God be there.

Is that the face of God’s tough love? Human suffering, which brings about our vocation in Christ to be part of the solution and not part of the problem? We simply can’t say why or whether God “allows” suffering in the first place; I mean, isn’t God omnipotent and omniscient? Yeah, or so we say; but we’re not, and we’re the ones who need to remember that love heals suffering, because it’s the only thing that ever has; and, don’t forget, we’re admonished by the Jesus Tradition that we will never have a world without suffering. The poor will always be with us – the destitute, the disenfranchised, the desperate, the hopeless, the lost.

Hurricane Harvey: A reminder that we at the mercy of nature’s way of taking care of itself. (Photo by National Geographic)

The myth of Eden is that humans are responsible for suffering. Sometimes, yes; but our so-called disobedience is not the root of suffering caused by natural disaster. Fortunately, we have evolved to become aware of our responsibility to alleviate the suffering of others. That was the sum of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” Love God, love yourself, love your neighbor – even and perhaps especially if your neighbor is your enemy.

There is nothing else of value if these values aren’t in play, because there’s no elevation without some species of love as its antecedent. Love is the motive as well as the outcome of what we ought to be doing with our brief time on Earth – and what a privilege it is to have that opportunity, especially if one is endowed with resources to share.

That’s the deal. Richard Rohr may be right about its all taking place within “the divine dance of the Most Holy Trinity” – everyone dances, everyone blesses or is blessed. There’s really nothing spooky or supernatural about it.

If God is Love, then that’s it. Period – and no need for an appendix of millions of words of theological discourse.

 

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