Recently there has been a pile up of grief and sadness in my extended family. Marriages in crisis, impending deaths (yes, plural), relationships fractured, persons feeling lost, hurt, isolated, strained, etc. Being who I am, I am simultaneously a member of the family and the pastor for the family. To me, it’s no different than the lawyer in the family who gives legal counsel for free or the nurse in the family who listens, pokes, and prods to see if someone really needs to go to the doctor. I am a pastor and I might as well put my training to good use whenever and wherever I can, especially for the persons I love most.
So here we are, walking through this valley of the shadow of death (see Psalm 23), and I’m having deep conversations with loved ones – on the phone, in person, via text message and Facebook and e-mail. One of these beloved family members talks about how he deals with all of this is because he knows everything happens for a reason. He shares his experience of another family member who should have died a few times, but didn’t, and here we all are today.
I understand where he’s coming from, but I can’t agree. There are many days when I would like the world to be straight-forward, trusting that God’s purposes are being worked out according to God’s plan. But I just can’t. So I’ll write here, with a little more context, what I shared with my family member.
I just can’t believe that everything happens for a reason. Out of my experience, in my line of work, I get to walk alongside pain and death because those are often the places where people remember they need God the most. So I’ve seen the family that has nearly nothing because the system is broken. I’ve seen the children who have lost their parents because someone else chose to drink and drive. I’ve seen the baby who dies for no known reason. I’ve seen the child, parent, grandparent with cancer. And I can’t – don’t – WON’T believe that this is what God had in mind.
I believe God had in mind an idyllic paradise, something like what’s written in Genesis, a garden where we walked with God and talked with God, where the food was so bountiful that you just had to reach out your hand to take it, and we all lived in harmony – the people and the animals and the earth.
But I also believe that God gave us a generous portion of the imago Dei, and for me that looks like creativity and free will. So we used our free will, we made choices and screwed it up (sorry for not being gentler with that), and now here we all are – daughters and sons many generations removed dealing with the great snowball of corporate sin – the bad decisions and the hurtful actions and all the greater evils of leaving the right things left undone. So no one starts at 0 in life when it comes to good and evil; we all start in negative numbers because we all own this evil that is.
But I also believe that God is working mightily to bring about God’s purpose for creation. I don’t know why God created all this; I only know that the God I come to know through the Spirit as I read scripture is a God who will bear all kinds of pain to be in relationship with us. Jesus tells a story, a parable, about a father who forgives his sons who do all kinds of stupid stuff – one squandering his inheritance and distancing himself from his family, the other failing to really be in relationship even when he’s at home and then refusing to forgive his brother (see Luke 15). The father in the story runs to his son. He runs, rejoicing that there is the opportunity to be in relationship, to love one another again.
So God bears with us in our decision-making, even when it is obviously not what God would want for us. It’s like when my son decides to run full speed down the driveway and I hold my breath, hoping he doesn’t fall and split his lip or worse. I imagine God watching all of creation with bated breath, wanting to reach out to steady us, but at times holding back, knowing that we are created imago Dei, we have to make our own choices, our own mistakes, so that we can enter into the love of God of our own free will. That is how it means something.
And when we line up our lives with God’s hope for our lives, it doesn’t mean there won’t be pain and suffering. As Westley says in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Even as good and faithful people, we are still going to be impacted by other people’s bad choices. We get to deal with that, too. But for us, as persons who believe in the love and grace of God through Jesus Christ and stand in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are those who are built on a solid foundation (see Luke 6). The winds come and howl about our ears, the rains come and we sway with the mighty current, the earth trembles and shakes everything we’ve built our life upon, but this one thing, this one relationship, can endure and never disappoint.
I feel all of this because I’m in the boat with my family, too. Even as I struggle to stand apart just a little bit, offering a listening ear, a loving heart, and very little advice, I feel every bit of it. And it’s so much harder, dearer, and awe-full because it is my own family. I tremble, shake, and cry, but keep leaning on the grace of God. While I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, I know God will make the best of it all, working with creation, with each and every one of us, until we are reconciled and made new (see Revelation 21:5). Glory be to God.