The Nature of God: Preacher vs Rabbi

May 30, 1999


The Nature of God: Preacher vs Rabbi

Two Sundays ago, when about 60 of us were in Oklahoma City for Gary’s ordination, my son begged Mom and Dad to stay behind and see first-hand what one of the worst tornadoes of all time had done to an Oklahoma City suburb. I was not especially eager. I explained to him that I had seen television images and newspaper pictures until I was saturated with the horror of that tragedy, but he insisted that there is nothing like being on the scene with the wide-angle view of one’s own eyes. So on a quiet Sunday evening, as the rest of you were returning to Wichita, we drove slowly around through that huge swatch of mangled homes. Thousands of words have been used to try to describe the reality of it, but what the two of us realized is that no words are adequate. Having spent much of my life in Oklahoma and Kansas, I have seen some terrible tornado damage, but never anything before on such a massive scale of utter devastation. I understand why victims of that storm sometimes give up their efforts to describe how bad it was, and say helplessly, “You just had to be there and see it for yourself.”
It was a strange ending to that love-fest at Mayflower Church, and it preoccupied my thoughts all the way back home. I kept thinking of a story I had read on the Eagle’s religion page about a month earlier, a story that disturbed me so much I cut it out for future use in a sermon….and the future is now. The newspaper story was about a new book by a Hispanic Christian evangelist named Luis Palau, author of a recent book entitled Where is God When Bad Things Happen? Some of you will recognize it as a takeoff on the title of a much earlier book, by Jewish rabbi Harold Kushner, entitled, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
Before I say why some of Palau’s book upset me so much, it might be helpful to describe Rabbi Kushner’s 1981 bestseller which I think everyone should read. He introduces us quickly to the personal tragedy out of which he decided to write. His first child, Aaron, was a bright, happy boy who before age two could identify a dozen different varieties of dinosaurs and then patiently explain to adults that dinosaurs were extinct. His parents had been concerned about his health from the time he stopped gaining weight at 8 months , and even more when his hair began to fall out after he turned one year old. Doctors they consulted gave first one name and then another to his condition, and assured the Kushners that their son would be normal except for being very short. But in Boston, awaiting their daughter’s birth, they introduced their son, almost three by now, to a pediatrician who was doing research in problems of children’s growth. Two months later — on the very day their daughter was born — the pediatrician came to the hospital to tell the Kushners that their son had a rare condition called progeria, or — less formally — “rapid aging.” He went on to say that Aaron would never grow much beyond three feet in height, would have no hair on his head or body, would look like a shriveled little old man while he was still a child, and would die in his early teens.
Rabbi Kushner, living a deeply committed religious life, found the tragic news incomprehensible. “I believed I was following God’s ways and doing His work. How could this be happening to me and my family? If God existed, if He was minimally fair, let alone loving and forgiving, how could He do this to me? And even if I could persuade myself that I deserved this punishment for some sin of neglect or pride that I was not aware of, on what grounds did Aaron have to suffer? He was an innocent child, a happy, outgoing three-year-old. Why should he have to suffer physical and psychological pain every day of his life? Why should he have to be stared at, pointed at, wherever he went? Why should he be condemned to grow into adolescence, see other boys and girls beginning to date, and realize that he would never know marriage or fatherhood? It simply didn’t make sense…..
“Like most people, I was aware of the human tragedies that darkened the landscape — the young people who died in car crashes, the cheerful, loving people wasted by crippling diseases, the neighbors and relatives whose retarded or mentally ill children people spoke of in hushed tones.” But that awareness, he admits, never drove him to wonder about God’s justice, until tragedy came into his own home. “Friends tried to help,” he writes, “but how much could they really do? And the books I turned to were more concerned about defending God’s honor, with logical proof that bad is really good and that evil is necessary to make this a good world, than they were with curing the bewilderment and anguish of the parent of a dying child.” Aaron Kushner died two days after his 14th birthday.
No one knew better than the rabbi how often Jewish Scripture promises that while bad people are punished, God always takes care of good people. It is an ancient approach to religion so demonstrably false, on any single day of human life, that one wonders why people reading it today do not start screaming in outrage and frustration. Long ago, of course, before the era of mass communication, it was easier to believe such promises. Isolated from the rest of the world, without newspapers, radio and television, one could shrug off the occasional senseless death of a local child or the terminal illness of a saintly young neighbor, but we know so much now about the tragedies that happen to innocent people all around the globe that questions about God’s justice force themselves upon thoughtful and honest people.
On a day when I saw with my own eyes hideously emaciated survivors of Nazi death camps, I remembered a preacher who told us that late one night after he had traveled 50 miles on lonely roads it was God who intervened to keep his right front tire from blowing out until the very moment when he came into a town with an open filling station. Some nodded their approval of his simple, trusting faith. I stared in disbelief, as I do still, every time I hear such comments. A God who steps in to handle a tire problem but does nothing to save 6 million Jews from extermination by a German dictator? Six millions Jews — related by genealogy and faith to the very one we call his Son — and God bothers to time a blowout but keeps hands off Hitler while he does ethnic cleansing on a scale that makes Milosovic look like a minor nuisance?
I couldn’t make sense of it. Reading about the millions of innocent children and righteous grownups killed over the centuries by plagues, volcanic eruptions, tornados and hurricanes, earthquakes and floods, I have marveled at the easy faith of people like the parishioner who testified that when she found her grocery store parking lot full, God answered her quick prayer for help by prompting a shopper to vacate a spot right in front of the door. On what basis, I would ask myself over and over, does God help with a flat or find a parking space while doing nothing to prevent or alleviate the tragedies of millions of others who are just as good and who have prayed with equal fervor for God to intervene and help them?
I have spent a lifetime visiting cancer wards, and institutions for warehousing the hopelessly deformed and mentally ill, and I have on certain days walked down the corridors of Wichita’s VA hospital and heard the moaning and screaming of people destined to spend their lives in hopelessness….and I have to tell you something: whoever wrote the 9lst Psalm was simply blind to the suffering and death of innocent over thousands of years. Listen to his promises to those who trust God: “He will keep you safe from all hidden dangers and from all deadly diseases….you will be safe in his care….You need not fear any dangers at night or sudden attacks during the day or the plagues that strike in the dark or the evils that kill in daylight. A thousand may fall dead beside you, ten thousand all around you, but you will not be harmed. You will look and see how the wicked are punished…. [But] You have made the Lord your….protector…. and so no disaster will strike you, no violence will come near your home. God will put his angels in charge of you to protect you wherever you go.”
Some old Jewish poet meant that to encourage people, but any honest person knows life doesn’t pan out that way. Rabbi Kushner knew himself to be a faithful Jew, inspired by great truths from the pages of Hebrew scripture, but he was unflinchingly honest about how wrong that ancient ancestor of his was who wrote the 9lst Psalm. He knew of nothing he had done to deserve the tragedy of his son’s rare illness, but even if he had overlooked some mistake in his own conduct, how could a loving God bring such terrible suffering into the life of his innocent child? And suddenly, as he thought about it, one child — his child — came to represent all the tragedies of other innocent people in life’s enigmatic tapestry — .and he no longer had glib answers to the mystery of undeserved pain and death.
When things go well with us, when what we prayerfully hope for ourselves and our loved ones is fulfilled, there is a natural temptation to feel we are God’s protected favorites and to forget the multitude of others who are just as good as we are, who pray just as earnestly , but who do not get the blessing they so desperately seek. With them forever fixed in my mind, I find it impossible to give easy answers to questions about God’s providential care — and this inability is not for lack of trying to figure out how things happen in this world. Early in my life, after acting in Thornton Wilder’s nostalgic play, Our Town , I turned with great anticipation to a novel he wrote called The Bridge of San Luis Rey — his attempt to explain the suffering and tragic deaths of innocent people. The basic plot, for those who haven’t read the novel, goes like this: One day in a small town in Peru, a rope bridge over a deep canyon breaks, and the five people crossing the bridge at that moment fall to their deaths. A young Catholic priest who sees it happen is deeply troubled and asks himself questions. Was it really God’s will, as some said, that those five people should die that way, or was it sheer accident? In the novel, he investigates their life stories, and comes to a conclusion that comforts him but didn’t do a thing for me. With a vested interest in defending God’s justice in the world, he presents fictional evidence that each of the five had just arrived at a perfect time to die. So, it was God’s will, and he had found a way to justify it.
I’m not sure how well that would comfort bereaved loved ones left behind, and like Rabbi Kushner I find such speculations unsatisfactory. For the five pedestrians on the rope bridge, substitute 250 passengers on a plane that crashes and kills all aboard. It strains the imagination to think that every single one of them has just arrived at the perfect time to die. In fact, newspaper biographies of the victims will suggest that many were in the midst of terribly important and unselfish work, and that most left behind families who loved and needed them. Real life is never as neat as an author’s imagination can make it. Real answers are never as easy as the ones people give who are determined to avoid challenging conventional ideas of God.
It’s impossible to think of these things without finally having to confront a problem which has bedeviled theologians for centuries. God has been defined for ages as both all-loving and all-powerful. If God is love, pure and absolute love, it’s hard to imagine that God would want the innocent to suffer as millions have done. But if God does not want them to suffer, and is all-powerful, then of course God can prevent the suffering. Admitting this, someone says, “Well, the suffering is God’s way of teaching us” — which begs the question, of course, because if God is all-powerful, then God can find other ways to teach us — which throws us back to our anguished question: Why doesn’t He?
Someone replies, “Well, God gave us free will, and once we had that God could not control what we do, so some of us do bad things to others.” The argument is incomplete. For one thing, it deals only with what we do to one another; it does not explain a created world full of natural disasters that take millions of innocent lives. Like many other devout believers through the ages, Rabbi Kushner has no easy answer to the problem of innocent suffering. Knowing that it’s impossible for many thoughtful people to believe in a god who is absolute love but allows horrible things to happen which in his absolute power he could have prevented, the rabbi comes down in favor of a God who is not omnipotent after all, a God in whose world the kind of accidents happen that Jesus mentioned in [the reading you heard earlier] or [Luke 13]. But the preacher’s book I mentioned has no room for accidents. Written to contradict the rabbi’s reading of life, evangelist Luis Palau [loo-ees puh-lah-oo, Robin…accent on last syllable of each name] solemnly tells us: “ There are no accidents.” I believe nothing is an accident, and that God rules and oversees what’s going on.” He includes not only suffering caused by human evil or blundering, but even a;; the killer storms, plagues, floods, volcanoes and earthquakes which through the centuries have filled millions of graves. Mr. Palau calls these dreadful catastrophes “quick sermons from heaven,” sent to wake us up.
How any man alive could have walked through Moore, Oklahoma on the morning after that tornado and called it a “quick sermon from God to wake people up” is beyond my comprehension. But the preacher has an explanation: such an accident, he says, may be the only way God can get our attention. I hope you notice that this statement itself limits God’s power! If such an accident is “the only way” God can get our attention, then God is not all-powerful after all, for if God is truly omnipotent he could get our attention in less horrifying ways….and chooses not to do so. I hope it has occurred to you that if smallpox, or polio, or the horrendous ravages of the Black Death in centuries past were all part of God’s plan to preach a quick sermon, our efforts to wipe out those diseases goes against God’s will!
You have every right to disagree, but we are, I think, too glib about what we call “the will of God.” A thoughtful modern philosopher, Dr. Lin Yutang, writes: “God is certainly not anybody’s private property. Nothing makes me more disgusted than the egotism of people who think they can use God to make it rain, or stop raining, to make crops grow or fail, or especially to spare their own personal lives in a disaster. My family and I were in a train wreck a while ago in France. I had taken two of my children into the dining car ahead for some ice cream and we left just ahead of the wreck which killed a great many people in our car. Some of my so-called Christian friends talked about it as though we had been especially preserved and protected by God. What egotism, to assume that God loves you more than those who were horribly killed.”
This is strong language, and you may prefer, as many do, to view yourself as God’s favorite when you survive while others die. Since I cannot make sense of this kind of selective providence, my conflicted heart is grateful for that moment in Christian scripture when a man brings his faith-doubt tension to Jesus, saying, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” If you ever feel the same way, by all means read Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People . It is refreshing in its honesty, provocative in its response to a question almost every believer asks at some moment in life: Why me? A brief sermon on a Sunday morning is not enough: if a day comes when you need it’s help, the rabbi’s book can bless your life.

In this world, so beautiful and terrible, so tender and cruel, guide us, gracious God, into the love and compassion that make sense of it, through Christ our Lord. Amen.