Good writing, with a strong point and with life oozing out.

Wandering Home

June 26, 2006

One of my very favorite writers is Bill McKibben. In his lean and winsome book, Wandering Home, he writes about New Englanders trying to find a sustainable ways to live with each other and their land. Quoting a farmer,

“I’ve watched many intelligent people arrive and try to farm—they’re well capitalized and all—and most of them go down in flames,” said Granstrom. “And the reason, I finally decided, is that they expect things to go right. You can’t think like that. You have to expect things to go wrong. Like I used to sell apple trees. And when people would come to get them, I’d say, ‘You have to watch out for this disease and this scab’ and so forth. And they would look at me like ‘I’m a virtuous person, my tree’s not gonna get that.’ But they would, of course. I used to think that way, too—the rain was a blessing on my efforts. But what if it doesn’t rain? You’re cursed? You can’t think like that…

This hospital where I spend my days and some of my nights is a nearly perfect slice of life. To borrow a metaphor from Philip Yancey, it is like the DMV. Real people, living real lives, appearing exactly as they are. (I suppose the demographics of both the DMV and the Children’s Hospital are skewed toward people who can afford cars and health care, but still.) This is a place where people from every background, ethnicity, race, country, culture, class, religion and station of life realize that none of us are immune from big, hairy, stinky problems. And these problems are no respecter of our resources, our religion, our intelligence, or our level of faith. We can think that we’re too smart or too well-resourced or too lucky to get caught in places like this, but we’re wrong. Each of us will get our turn to face something that feels like it will kill us.

To put it in strictly theological language: Shit Happens. And when it does, you can blame fate, or bad luck, or yourself. Or you can blame God. Even in the Bible, there are plenty of examples of people doing just that. And God appears to welcome the critique, and be big enough to shoulder the blame. But I wonder if in some of those cases, God might rightly say, “yeah, that wasn’t me… It was you, or your neighbor, or that knucklehead in the other car, or it was some random occurrence.” Of course God could, in some senses, fix stuff, prevent stuff, or even turn back the clock and undo stuff. But it seems to me that while he engages with the world in ways he sees fit and when he chooses, most of the time he lets things spin out. Or blow up, or break down, or crumble into a million pieces. Or go better than we could have ever imagined (or often even notice, ungrateful creatures that we are). We can thank him for every good thing that happens to us, but that tends to suggest that we blame him for every bad thing, which seems uncomfortably dualistic (and manifestly unfair).

What kind of God is that? Dispassionate and disinterested? Cruel and heartless? Quite the contrary. He’s the kind of God who walks through that awful, stinky shit with us. He’s cleared a path through the mess, and knows the way. He’s no prima Godda who is comfortably ensconced—he’s always submitted himself to the whims of this world, and even the naked cruelties of this world. Certainly, he’s subjected himself to the feeble minds, disinformation, and even the meandering blog posts of the people he’s created. So he knows our thoughts; he knows our hearts and our hurts. Indeed, his son was born into straw and shit, and grew up with dirty feet. All of which culminated on the cross, when his dear son took on the absolute worst the world had to offer and was too good to do anything about it.

So if there aren’t answers, there is at least God. At least there is the cross. The cross stands over the shit of our world and our lives and gives us hope.

Posted in:

5 Responses to “Wandering Home”

  1. Mike Croghan says:

    Excellent theology, Mike. You’ve tied together the problem of pain, the Incarnation, and the Atonement: Shit happens, and when it does, God suffers with us. I agree completely, and would add that in this God is not merely helping us to make it through with some semblance of sanity intact, but is transforming and redeeming us, just as God’s Son did on the cross.

  2. Thanks, Mike.

    And an excellent addendum. True, true. I guess I’d be happy with ‘semblance of sanity’ just now, and don’t quite have the vision to see ‘transforming and redeeming’ (though I’m eager for that, too).

  3. Liz says:

    In my case, I wasn’t able to see the transformation or the redemption until years later. In some cases I’m still learning all the ways I was transformed and redeemed by the tragedies that have befallen me and those I love. As for sanity… that too I was only able to see in hind sight. Just remember that no matter how far away God feels; He is with you. We are all with you.

  4. WMS says:

    what a beautiful mess.

  5. Michael says:

    my question is how to “trust” in such a seemingly capricious creature. what does it mean to trust in someone who actually doesn’t promise to keep you safe or warm or even alive, who may or may not do anything about stuff and doesn’t bother to tell you why. is it supposed to be comforting that this guy wants to hang out with me in my troubles?

    i feel like i have no adequate theology for suffering, evil and injustice. they are just not explainable except to say that god shares our distaste for these things and is in the middle of a plan to redeem the world and end them all.

Leave a Reply