Wednesday, June 11, 2008

God and Agony

One of the things that is very difficult to address on any level, is the sheer scale of a genuine catastrophe. My cancer diagnosis hit me hard, but at least it was just me and did not threaten my familt. When Hurrican Rita blew through in 2005, it was a mess and gas and power were out for a time, but I was confident that the basic structure of things was sound. When I look at the devastation from the earthquakes that shook the Sichuan region of China, however, I am all but silenced by the scale, the vast size and numbers of the destruction. It’s as if your house burned and every house in your neighborhood, and the fire and ambulances could not get through because the roads were destroyed, and you could not call for help because the phone lines were gone, not merely down but the towers and grids also destroyed. You could not ask your boss at work for a loan to get back on your feet because the place you work had also been destroyed, and you could not file for insurance because the insurance company was also gone. You had no idea where your family was, and no way to find out. You had nothing to eat or drink, no way to cook it, and no safe place to live. That gives you a small idea of just what has happened. It’s all gone, everything these people knew as their home towns and communities. I had not posted in a while about the earthquake, because frankly the sheer size of the thing made me feel that my words were inadequate, but saying nothing is worse. Therefore this poat, an admittedly poor attempt to examine the disaster from different perspectives, in the hope of finding, well, hope itself.

For today, the perspective is God. That might seem a bit strange at first, especially for those people for whom such a thing as an earthquake seems to suggest that God does not exist or worse, that if He does that he is some cruel overlord, unconcerned by the suffering of people. I lack the intellect to prove the case beyond doubt I confess, yet I must speak in defense of the truth I know.

All humans suffer. We are born in pain, and we die in pain. In between we experience all manner of difficulty, from common hunger and injury to extremes caused by accident or malady. Some few are blessed to never suffer serious deprivation or illness, while others must experience ghastly suffering, either in scale or duration, and far too often there is no justice apparent in the suffering. Some philosophers have argued that this is why we believe in God, in the hope that there must somehow be a right behind it all, beyond our understanding but there all the same, waiting to make things right, for everything to somehow make sense, lest we lose our sanity among other costs. I understand the argument, but it fails to sway me. Other religions besides my own Christianity have tried to address suffering. From what I understand, the Muslims believe suffering is God’s reminder to Man that God is Sovereign, a position I find untenable to my sense of Reason. The Buddhists believe that suffering exists in order for people to address it, for there to be a clear good cause for anyone with a mind to help his neighbor, and I sense that is closer to the truth. With God the all-powerful and perfect creator, how can any mere human hope to understand what He is about, what He wants us to be, unless we first take care for those among us who need help and healing, especially those in pain? Yet even there, I sense there is more than that.

It comes to this: I believe that Jesus Christ did indeed walk among us, as one of us, because of the courage and faith of His disciples. Peter, James, all of them who followed Him became convinced that he was indeed the Messiah, so much so that they would die rather than deny Him (post-crucifixion and resurrection you understand, and mere delusion would not explain the change in Peter, in Thomas, in James). This was not simple hysteria or the normal psychosis of hallucination, for the faith of the early Christians was – so far as anyone has been able to tell – one of significant practicality, humility, and peace. Would that we Christians today were of like faith! The skeptics try to suggest that Christ did not really die, or that he was made up, a fable to teach a moral lesson only, or some such story. But the faith and courage of the early Church, which survived and even prospered despite cruel persecution for over a century, this comes from something real, and something undeniably essential to the human soul. And I think it is this; that Jesus did not merely work among us and teach, He did not merely accept a mortal life, but one of poverty, of the social outcast, even of accepting punishment for horrific crimes He did not commit, in order to prove to any man that He bore our sins and punishment, for the sake of our very soul. Before we even knew Him, he loved us and died for us.

But it is not merely the death which I speak about. It is the life before it, the acceptance of every hardship without complaint. He was hungry and tired as anyone, but never complained. He was mocked even though completely right, He was insulted even though by right He deserved the adulation of every living thing. He took no wife, indeed He had no romance, because he belonged to all of us and therefore could not have the things granted to ordinary men, though He was fully human. He hurt, He suffered, He bore every slight without complaint, though not one was merited. And when His mission here was complete, His disciples began to understand. And they lived as He did, out of that same love, a love born not out of hope of reward or fear of suffering, but in hope of helping others and bearing suffering in order to help others who suffered.

Suffering seems to know no limit. I cannot imagine what it is like to rebuild everything you know, but I note and applaud the spirit of those who take on the challenge. Some may say that they have no choice, but I say that such who take up the difficult work become who they were meant to be in such work. And it is our place to help them, and so become who we are meant to be.

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