Answering Nicki’s Question…”Did God Cause the Wave?”

Picture this scene… It’s from a movie and has been repeated a dozen times over;

 There is a young girl and her little sister walking down the busy main street of some small town somewhere.     As the camera frames them walking in the rain, you sense that there is a panic or a hecticness to their pace, with the older sister urging the younger one further.

As they reach the center of what would have to be Main Street, they turn and enter a little hole in the wall diner, and stand surveying the customers from the doorway.    Its there we notice, in a booth by himself is an older, gruff looking minister wearing a clerical collar.   When they see him, they bee-line straight to his booth, and after a second, and with a look of resignation and frustration, the minister peers up over his glasses at the girl.   “Can I help you?”, he asks.   


After a few seconds, the older girl looks to the minister, and says in a  matter of fact way:  “God and Cancer took our mom.   I want to know why.”   For a long time, the minister remains motionless staring at the two little girls.   Finally, with a roll of the eyes, he tells them to sit.    As they do, he takes off his glasses and proceeds into a great theological discussion about the nature of God, good and evil, and the problem of pain that last several minutes.    When he is finally finished, the girls look at each other and silently stand and leave the diner.     Back in the street, the youngest looks at her older sister, and asks a question; 


“He doesn’t know either, does he?”


 Many of you probably remember  a moment in our worship a couple of weeks ago, when I was talking to the children about the sad things that were going on in Japan, when a little one, cocked her head to the side and asked me directly:   “Didn’t God make the wave?”   It was a pure moment of that childlike faith, trust, comfort, and question that we are all supposed to be about.     It was a special moment when a child reminds us of what we all struggle with.


Since that Sunday, like the question on Forgiveness that was raised in the same service, part of me has been stuck in that moment.   How do you answer that question, whether it comes from a little girl, or an adult for that matter?    Week in and week out, we talk about how God is in control of everything.   If I believe that, how do make sense of what we see unfolding on the news each night?   At the same time, if I don’t address the question, what solutions do we come up with on our own?   How do we answer Nicki’s question?  


The ultimate truth is simply we don’t know.   We can’t answer the question.    No matter how faithful, or how theologically trained we are, we can’t make sense of the senseless.   We want answers, and yet, I stand here and tell you to want all you want, but there is none.


 But in the end, I know deep down, that saying I don’t know is simply not enough.     We need to reconcile the God who allows earthquakes and tidal waves, with the God that stands beside us on our day to day walk.   We have to try to understand, so that the littlest, and most innocent among us, may understand too.


Now, I could turn to the analogy of the gardener that most theologians use when faced with this question.   They tell us to consider the Tiger Lily in the garden.   There are few flowers that are as beautifully radiant as a Lily, but if you are not careful they will spread out and take over your garden.    With that in mind, we as the gardener, must be willing to pull them out by their roots for the sake of the garden.   


 In the end, the Lily doesn’t understand why one Lily dies or one is spared.   They don’t know what the gardener is thinking or how he chooses what lives and what doesn’t.   In the end, they will tell us that, we are like those Lilies and with God as our gardener, we are called to trust.


On some levels and for some people this is enough.   For me, it isn’t.     When it comes to the lilies, If we are not careful with this analogy, it becomes akin to saying that God used the tidal wave to “yank” people from their existence by their roots.   That’s not a God that I think I can worship and devote my life too.     We know deep down, that this explanation is not enough,   and there has to be a better one out there.   All the while,  we look at the footage of destruction, we keep asking;  “Did God Cause this?”


Its not just in the horrific incidents of Japan that we ask that question.   When earthquakes hit our own lives, the same question comes off our lips.   We demand an answer of God as to why we hurt, why we lost out, or why things are so messed up.    Why did he do this to us?


The scripture I read the morning, speaks to this very thing.   The crew that is around Jesus, sees among the crowd, a man blind since birth.   They turn to Jesus, and say “Rabbi, who sinned, this man, or his parents?   Who sinned so that he was born blind?”.


I think about the times that hit us when we question God, and I think that we come face to face with the overwhelming desire to want to blame someone.     It’s too often our practice to see the senseless and try to make sense from it.    We ask the same questions:  Who Sinned?  Why did God do this?   Who is to blame?


Sometimes it’s a passing of the buck.    We smoke for fifty years, and develop lung cancer or emphysema, and we question why God would do it too us.     We eat McDonalds 3 times a day, barely get off the couch, and blame God for the heart attack at 50.    We ignore our children, send them mixed messages, bark at them, and sometimes even hit them, and ask God why we couldn’t get the healthy well adjusted adult.   And sometimes, we built our lives either figuratively or literally on fault lines that are bound to shake.   Sometimes we build nuclear power plants in places that aren’t safe.   In the end, we ask or blame God, when a good portion if not all the blame falls squarely on us.


Yet, there are other times when things are not that clear.   I know deep down that my God doesn’t create cancerous lesions in the lungs of a man who never smoked.    He doesn’t give a birth defect to a child so they stay with us only for a few days.     He doesn’t make the drunk driver hit one family over the other.   He doesn’t cause the earthquakes, fires, tidal waves, tornadoes or hurricanes that spread such destruction.   That’s not my God.   Yet, these things are so wrong, and so senseless, how can we not ask God?   When they happen to us, how come we can’t blame God?


I think of the story I once heard about a six year old boy.  He idolized his father, who was one of his country’s finest and most regarded leather smiths.   That little boy was no different than any other little child.   He worshipped his father, and spent all day following and pretending to be him.    He even picked up the same mannerisms as his father.     All the while, every time the father saw the boy, he smiled and called him over.


On one occasion, the father quickly scratched off a random pattern on a scrap of letter, and gave the young boy a dulled awl, and pointed over to a corner of his workshop out of the way.    He told his son that he needed help with this new design, and asked if he would mind helping.   As you can imagine the boy beamed and practically burst with excitement.    I think of the many afternoons I had Annie or Sophie nailing nails into scrap wood as I did some home repair, and how they were simply on cloud nine to be allowed that opportunity.


The boy found his corner, and as his father watched ,the boy slowly and deliberately started to hammer that awl, and carve out the design on the scrap of leather.     Yet, on the third swing of the hammer the unthinkable happened.   As he lifted the hammer up, he accidently hit himself in the eye.    With a horrific scream the workers knew that the boy had seriously hurt himself.   After several days in the hospital, the boy ended up losing his eye.    All the while the father, in both guilt and anger, would cry out to God; asking him, even yelling at him;  “Why did you do this to my Son”.


Did God do this that innocent boy?   Was God punishing him for some past sin, or sin of his parents?   What deed did the boy or the father commit to cause such a horrible thing to happen in that workshop?    And what about the blind man in Jerusalem?   What did he do?   What did his parents do?


The answer that we hear in scripture, and the answer we need to remind ourselves is simple.   Jesus tells them that neither sinned.    Instead there is another purpose.   That blind man was there so God’s glory, perfection, and power could be seen.    In that blind man, we see what and who God is.    God is not the judgmental, arrogant, self important Pharisee.  God is not the angry, vindictive, or egotistical ruler of all.    God is about something else.     God comes to heal.     In the senselessness of the blind man, we see God’s true purpose; not to punish sinners or to carry out some hidden agenda; but to heal.      God comes in the moment of our darkness, most empty times.  God comes in our times of blindness to heal.   What we need to remember, and what we need to be about is not taking the first way out.   When we start looking to cast blame, or point fingers we miss the healing that possible.


 Back to that little boy hurt in the leather smith’s workshop.   Despite the injury, the boy grows up.   Its not easy for the boy as he becomes a man, but when others were playing or apprenticing for their fathers, that little boy became an avid student.    He loved to read, to study, to explore.    He was a young man when he decided he was going to become the next great poet, doctor, lawyer, or whatever.   


He enrolled in school, said good bye to his parents, and began the week long trip to the university where he planned to spend the next few years of his life.    On the trip there the weather was some of the worst in years.    By the time he got to the school he was sick as a dog.     Upon his arrival, he fainted and was immediately brought to the hospital.   


Suffering from scarlet fever and pneumonia, he laid in that hospital bed for weeks.   Although he did get better, while he was there, he got an infection which ultimately and sadly cost him his remaining eye.    Although he got better physically, he was broken spiritually and mentally.     Now instead of his father, it was him that screamed out constantly to God;  “Why did you do this to me?    What did I do to deserve this?    Why me, God, Why me?”


What we miss when we hear this story, what we miss when we see the images from Japan, and what we miss when we take stock of our own brokenness, is that its not God that is causing the pain and the hurt, its God that arrives to insure the healing.


 In our scripture, how does God heal?   Through spit and mud.    Imagine, you and I trying desperately to fix the broken pieces of our lives stumble upon a stranger in the street.   The fullness of our gut is telling us to blame God with all our might, but that stranger tells us that if we want to cure our diseases, fix our families, or repair our lives;  we need to take some of his mud and spittle.  


What would our response be?    We would think the man mad and walk away.    In contrast to what likely would be our choice, in that moment, the blind man chose to believe.  He could have continued on his way, believing that he did wrong, and his fate was his cross to bear.  Instead he chose to listen and believe.   

For us, the choice is the same.    We can turn away, chose to continue and blame God so we can sleep more soundly, or accept that which doesn’t always make sense, or at least makes as much sense as the mud and spit.   We can choose to put our trust in the God who is in charge of the answers we may never get.    We can believe that our God is there, despite the destruction that surrounds us, or how hard he is at times to see.     As people of faith, we are called to put all of our burdens, all of doubts, and all of our questions on the altar, and trust God.

In the scripture we read, the religious leaders saw the healing that Jesus performed and reacted with anger.    They believed he wasn’t the same man, that it was a royal con job.    They believed he was a different man, because it didn’t fit with their theology.    They kicked the man out of the synagogue, because like so many of our neighbors, they were blind to God’s very existence in their midst.   They decided to continue to blame God, while he stood right there.    We can’t fall into that trap.   Heller Keller once said “the greatest pity is that so many of us have sight, but just can’t see”.    When we become about the blame game, we miss out the healing.    We become blind.

That boy, who lost his eyes?   He spent the next few years in a hospital.  People would feed him, bathe him, and they would baby him.   He gave up on living.   At several points he fought with the idea of suicide.   He was as broken as he could be, and he cursed God with every breath.

That all changed one summer day when a nurse rolled him out into the garden of his hospital so that he could enjoy the sun.  Instead, he silently sat in his wheel chair praying that God would take his life.   He prayed that God would end his suffering and his misery.      He laughed at the thought of thinking that there was even a God, especially one that cursed him so greatly.   But all he had left was his prayers, and he prayed for death with all his might.   He prayed until the tears were flowing from his sightless eyes.

As he wept in the son, someone looked his way.   A young boy whose family was visiting another patient was playing in the garden, and noticed the man crying.    Slowly and quietly the boy made his way to the man in the chair.    When he reached the man, he innocently asked the man if he stopped crying he would give him a present.   Perhaps it was the very bribe he heard from his parents a million times before.    Surprised that he was not alone, he was momentarily caught of guard, and he stopped crying and strained to figure out where the boy was.   

Before he could be sure, he felt the little boy’s hands reach up and grab his.    He slowly opened the blind man’s hand, and into it, he put the small gift;   “It’s a pine cone,” said the boy, “and its beautiful.”  With that he walked away.     The man confused, surprised, and perhaps embarrassed sat there for a long time with that pine cone.    After several minutes, he moved it about in his hand.  He felt every contour.  He held it to his face.     Softly, after a long time, he spoke under his breath;  “It is beautiful”

It was the middle of the 1800’s and that man, with the pine cone in his hand was a blind Frenchman by the name of Louise Braille.   The pinecone, with its ridges became the source of his idea for the Braille alphabet.   He realized that his fingers were now his way of experiencing the world, and he turned to a skill learned in that workshop so long ago to make his first alphabet.    He used a awl, the same tool that blinded him, to hammer out a series of dots, that would reopen his world, and save his life.         

So this morning the question remains.   Where was god in the tidal wave?   Where is God in the Cancer?    Where is God in our brokenness?  I don’t know, and I don’t think I can even begin to answer Nicki’s question.

There are pieces of her question I can though.

Can goodness come from the darkest of moments?   Yes.

Does it always?    From our vantage point it’s hard to say.   Perhaps we are like the lily and we need to trust the gardener.    Maybe in the end, good people die for no reason that will make any sense for us.    Maybe there will always be tidal waves and earthquakes.   I have to have faith that God is there and in control.   I have to take my burdens and put them on the altar and trust that someday, God will give me the bigger picture, and live my life trusting that one day I will get that opportunity.   

Where is God in Japan?   

Where is God in my hurt?  

Where is God?

I cant know for sure, and certainly don’t have the answers to put the argument to rest, but as people of faith we need to be the people who look for him not in the destruction, but in the still small voice that follows.   We need to be those that expect him to show up in a million different forms from the miraculous to the pine cone.    We need to be the people who expect for him to come, who watch for him to show up, and who recognize him when he’s there.  


We need to trust the Gardener.   


Note:   There are several sources that need proper attribution from this message.    The Gardener Metaphor was told to me in this form by Dr. Ellis Larsen from Wesley Seminary, but also appeared in similar context by C.S. Lewis in his work, The Problem of Pain (Highly Recommended!) Additional credit goes to Leonard Sweet who provided some of the overviews to the scripture passages in his NT Study Collection.   The detail on Louise Braille’s life and accident are from the book;  Yesterday by S. Simonds

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