The sermon I read on Sunday:
This coming Wednesday I will celebrate the birthday of my two beloved and long-awaited kids. And the following Saturday will mark 8 months since the passing of my son. (I’m not so angry as I used to be, but I still feel old, and weak, and ask ‘why?’)
Many people suffering a loss like mine, or the grief that follows it, or the mild depression that hangs over my head would likely have a difficult time getting out of bed in the morning. Questions might swirl around our sleepy heads, like, Why should I go on? What should I do? What could be worthy of my effort when so much has been taken from me?
But not me. Before I can get philosophical in the morning, I face a very pragmatic call to action: the grinning face of my daughter, and her whole-arm wave as I pry open my eyes. Before I can even think about it, I get up at first light every single morning, just b/c she needs me to. She is up and awake, eager to share a fat diaper of one kind or the other, and to find something to quell the pang in her stomach, and to satisfy the look of mischief on her dimpled face.
Now, there is nothing heroic about my service to her. I force myself to smile back at her, and groan as I move my old bones out of the bed and wordlessly carry her to the kitchen. There, she graciously allows me to pursue Priority #1 each day: Coffee. Standing in her playpen, she watches me heat the water and ready the pot. She tracks the beans as they move from cupboard to coffee grinder, then sings along as it makes its monotonous music. She watches me as I stare at the water, willing it to boil. Finally, she sees the cloud of steam when ground coffee meets hot water and the lid goes on the pot. Sometimes, as we’re waiting for the magic to happen, she’ll grow anxious. Some petulant whining, or perhaps some shouts of protest will leave her mouth. Coffee’s spell is temporarily broken, and she loses her composure.
At which point I will bust out my secret weapon: a simple song that includes pantomime and drama, tragedy and triumph, hardship and resolution, suffering and redemption. She might not know the words, but she seems to enjoy my dancing around the kitchen as I tell the age-old story:
The itsy-bitsy spider
Crawled up the water spout
Down came the rain,
And washed the spider out
Out came the sun,
And dried up all the rain
And the itsy-bitsy spider
Crawled up the spout again
It usually takes a couple of turns, but eventually, like the rain, her tears are chased away by my sunny-faced performance, and we can move toward the time when she finally gets some breakfast.
I know that someday, when she’s older, this little remedy will lose its effectiveness. By sheer repetition, she’ll grow bored of my little trick. Plus, I’ve peeked ahead in the parenting books, and know that there will be a time in her life when questions will be the center of our conversations. When the ‘why?’ will be thrown down at every opportunity, and I’ll be scrambling for age-appropriate explanations.
And I wonder what ‘why?’s she might ask of this story. Why did the spider crawl up the spout? Why did the rain come? Why did the sun come?
And, with my proclivity toward theology, I wonder, will I break out the God-talk just then? Will I say, “God brings the rain,” and try to expand on the goodness of rain to minimize it’s disorienting and displacing effects on our friend the spider? If enough farmers and food-eaters get a benefit from the rain, doesn’t that offset the rain’s detrimental effects on the spiders and playground attenders of the world?
Will I say, “God brings the sun,” and talk about how God is the source of all goodness in the world, and that God wants to help the spider by drying out our poor friend’s home? In which case, she should rightly ask ‘why’ the rain comes back, just as it does as I repeat the song again and again.
(And, if she asks why the spider lives in a downspout, will I rail about systemic injustice in the world, including homelessness, human trafficking, and economic disparity?)
Or, will I follow the lead of some parents and theologians and split the equation? Will I say that the rain just happens, but that God brings the sun? Will I engage in some fiery flourish of fundamentalism and suggest that the Devil sends the rain, but God brings the sun (and that someday, The Son will Reign over the Devil!). Or, will I speak as some TV preachers: God brings the rain as the punishment that we all deserve, and God brings sun as pure mercy (since we all deserve eternal punishment). And we’d better be good, and we’d better be thankful for the sun, or else we’ll get even more rain (which we deserve!).
At which point, I imagine my incessantly questioning girl will ask a few more questions, perhaps unintentionally pointing out that both the rain and the sun each possess both positive and negative traits: they work together to bring beautiful flowers, for example, and green grass and mint and Christmas trees. Too much of one means drought and melanoma, and too much of the other means flooding and grumpy spiders with eight soggy feet.
Theologians, of course, have had a lot of time to ask ‘why?’ and so have developed some theories and philosophical constructs. The one which the poor spider might cite is often referred to as theodicy. This is a formulation of thought that describes the following tension: if God is good, and if God is powerful, then how do we account for all of the pain and suffering in the world?
For generations, those who think about God and yet who at the same time live in this world of death and divorce, and earthquakes, and tsunami have tinkered with these ideas, and suggested some ways to relieve the tension. Some have said that God doesn’t exist, which may certainly be true, and which certainly solves the problem. Others have suggested that God’s goodness or power may be muted in some ways, or brokered or mediated imperfectly, such that the fullness of these realities aren’t evident to us creatures. Maybe God can’t, or won’t act, or maybe we can’t or won’t see what God is up to, or maybe we can somehow prevent God’s goodness or power from happening. Of course, the challenge faced by most of these thinkers is to not malign God, or to speak ill of God as they face this conundrum. Most everyone is eager to stay in a safe range of speculation – the kind of ‘right belief’, often referred to as ‘orthodoxy’– so that they can avoid being labeled a heretic.
But recently, I came across a refreshing catholic philosopher who isn’t quite so constrained. In his book, “The Weakness of God,” Jack Caputo boldly suggests that God is good, but God is in fact not powerful, or at least not powerful in the way that we’d often like him to be. To the spider, and to my daughter, I imagine Caputo bending down, smiling, and saying, both the rain and the sun just happen. It’s not exactly fair to God to blame him or praise him for every little thing that happens in this great big world. From homeless spiders to parking spots, from shooting sprees to tsunamis, it’s just not right to ask the question, ‘where was God?’. Using Caputo’s philosophical terms (borrowed from physics), God is not a strong force, but a weak force. Instead of picturing God as a giant with his sleeves rolled up, reaching down to move and tweak and shape the world, we might better view God as an underlying, pervasive, weak force that brings goodness from the bottom up. God is just as big and just as powerful (maybe bigger and more powerful!) because God is almost endlessly diffused throughout the universe, rather than localized in any one realm. We live in, and walk through, a God-soaked world that is being inexorably reshaped and reborn into the fullness of God.
Which might seem a little scary and uncertain, but which adds new freshness to Bible passages like 2 Corinthians 12:
1I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. 5I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.
7To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
And in a more general sense, as Paul points to the upside-down and completely unexpected nature of God’s interactions with the world:
1 Cor. 1: 18For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”[c]
20Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.
26Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29so that no one may boast before him. 30It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”[d]
So it is strength, yes. But it is a different kind of strength. Broad, rather than localized. Diffused, rather than focused. Unexpected, rather than predictable. But exponential, and overwhelming, when you think about it. God is powerful, and God is not, all at once.
Doesn’t Jesus suggest as much? In our accounts of his teaching, he’s always talking about tiny seeds that grow into huge plants, and to invaluable treasures that crop up in the most unexpected places. He spouts off economic nonsense about leaving 99 sheep to pursue a solitary lamb, and about a crazy father ignoring his loyal, dutiful son to wait in agonized vigil for his hell-raising, rebellious punk-kid. Jesus talks about daylilies that enjoy and provide unspeakable splendor, and about ubiquitous birds that somehow, some way, always find something to eat.
Which might seem inconsequential in our world of fusion and genetic engineering and information ad infinitum, but I ask you: Can we in all of our ingenuity create a flower or a tiny bird? Can we count them all? Can we even calculate the required resources and organization involved with feeding and growing all of the lilies and sparrows in the world?
Jesus describes a Kingdom, but it is not what his followers expect it to be—- they wait eagerly for him to grab the reins of power and lead a rebellion, and he provides the ultimate disappointment, a shameful display of weakness: an embarrassing and ignominious death on a cross. No, Jesus’ Kingdom is one of daylilies and sparrows, of widows and orphans: the powerless overcoming the powerful forces set against them, even if it takes millennia for the whole system to be overturned one pebble at a time.
I was thinking about this last Friday, a day very different than today–a day of April showers that was dreary and dark. I looked out the window and watched the rain fall. On a day like that, spiders hunker under leaves, little girls have to wear hats, and bedraggled teachers and caregivers need to entertain children indoors. But I also realized that same rain nourished the flowers and green grass we see today, and created the stunning palisades at Great Falls, and even the Grand Canyon. It’s just rain, yes, but it is powerful when it is consistent and pervasive.
I looked out that same window, and thought of my son. I miss him, of course, and would give anything to share another day with him, whether sunny or rainy. One would expect that thinking about a weak God would foster negativity, hopelessness, Nihilism. But somehow, deconstructing my expectations of God creates hope and optimism. Adjusting my expectations of God’s interventions, and of the nature of God’s work in the world reduces my anger at him for not reaching down to change our fortunes.
And it gives me strength, even if it is only the strength of a daylily.