Friday, September 11, 2009

Hope and Outcomes - Part Two A

O God of patience and of peace, more than sometimes we get damnably busy, and enchanted with it, over-reaching and insensitive, vain and irritable, careless of all else save paddling on the rapids of our self-preoccupation and ambition, while being increasingly terrorized by whirlpools of emptiness and regret, feeling as if you have abandoned us to our own fretful devices. Then a chance to change bursts in ... on the peach-pink lips of a pucker-up day like this, snuggles against us in bed, tickles us in a joke on ourselves ... confronts us in an exploited person's just challenge, and the world swells with possibilities again ... grace teems around us like new galaxies, the first wave comes singing into our hearts, sets them to singing their own songs in the shower, in boardrooms, voting booths, and malls, and compassion comes in on the second wave, courage on the third, commitment on the fourth, You and peace in them all.
Thank you!" Excerpt from My Heart In My Mouth: Prayers For Our Lives.

My previous two blogs were about Christian hope not depending on hopeful circumstances or on particular, desired outcomes because that hope is not for something but in someone, namely God. In the last of those blogs I said that in this one I'd try to deal with the heavy questions of who or what's in charge of all this complicated tumult and uncertainty of creation and life? Anything? Anyone? Is there any purpose to whatever order and structure there is in our world?

The questions lead to the frequent lament: Why God does let bad, painful, what to us are obviously wrong things happen to us, or in the world. The old conundrum puts it this way: "If God is good, he is not God. If God is God, he is not good." The argument is about God being omnipotent or all powerful which must necessarily be what God is. So if God is good but can not prevent bad things from happening, then God is not really God, or there really is no God. But if God is God and could prevent those bad things yet does not, then he is not good and doesn't much matter. It's a simple argument and for many, it's persuasive. But if, or for Christians, since love is as essential an attribute or quality of God as is omnipotence, that simple argument gets less compelling.

At the heart of the issue is the truth that freedom is one of the greatest gifts love can give to the beloved. Amazingly, freedom is a gift laced all through creation, as physicists keep discovering. It includes the behavior of photons, atoms and galaxies as well as the material world we live in and it's creatures, and probably applies most emphatically to human beings as free will .

Of course, there are limits to that freedom. They provide the order and structure of life. Science has defined many of those limits as laws governing the universe and the world. That fact is the context that gives freedom its consequences. For example, for us humans the combination of freedom, limits and consequences means we are free to jump out of windows, but if we do, a consequence will be plunging to earth and being hurt or killed because we're not free to fly , at least without airplanes. Gravity limits that.

For us, then, the combination of freedom and consequences results in our having responsibility and accountability for our actions. We're free to think, choose, decide, act as creatures who are wondrously endowed and both remarkably free and independent yet inescapably interdependent and responsible. Mostly, we benefit enormously from being that mysterious mixture. In the process of living, it enables us to be creative, imaginative, inventive, productive, generous, helpful, ethical, cooperative, compassionate, communal and to enrich each other's lives as a consequence. In a vast majority of our encounters with each other we're supportive, caring, instructive, moral participants in the human enterprise.

At the same time, often in our encounters we make mistakes, bad choices, irresponsible decisions, betray, manipulate, unfairly discriminate, cheat or simply by chance, are at the wrong place at the wrong time as in the 9-11 tragedy. We can unaccountably suffer from a crippling disease, or cell gone wild or gene malfunction that severely restrict our lives. The same is true of other human beings..

So, as the saying goes, "S--- happens." We have collisions with other creatures like sharks, mosquitoes, infected birds, flocks disabling jet airplane engines, or with natural disasters like hurricanes, earth quakes, floods, epidemics. Most often our collisions are with other human beings: terrorists, exploiters, distracted drivers of cars, mean-spirited neighbors, bullying ideological or radical enemies at home or abroad, or just others like us who unfortunately show up in our lives at the wrong time and place, with emotions or motives at cross purposes with ours, or sometimes just innocently but which, either way, result in damaging collisions. Some collisions are small, others large, others catastrophic, some instructive but still painful and frustrating.

The point is, our control of outcomes is limited and yet not completely so. Never-the less, and this is a critical point, nothing happens that completely eliminates our freedom to decide how and what our responses to those collisions will be. That is the mystery of God's grace or love.

Probably the closest human example of such love is that of parents who nurture such freedom in their children while also exposing them to limits. They don't put their children in an antiseptic bubble or restrict them from any activity that may injure or harm them, as if that were possible. No, they nurture their children in their freedom by encouraging them to play with others, go to school, make friends, date, make their own choices, do risky things, make mistakes and discover the consequences, help children learn to think and decide for themselves, work out their problems, deal with disappointments and take responsibility for their own bad and thus become more wisely independent and responsible. Parents do that because they love their children and do not consider them pre-programed extensions of themselves.

All such analogies fall short but essentially that process and reason is what I believe God the Father-Mother of us all does as well. Love suffers as well as rejoices for the beloved. That's at least something of the meaning of Jesus' life and death. He confirms our love and yet critically redefines and expands it by showing that God's love mysteriously exceeds ours. That's why we call God's love ,"grace." In a nutshell, our love is always conditional because it's finite; God's is unconditional, infinite and unfathomable.

But what about God's omnipotence, God's power. Why doesn't God intervene to bail us out of those painful, bad things that happen? Well, think of it this way: suppose that God uses power not to control everything or everyone, but that God uses power to cope with everything and everyone. I believe that is what God's love or grace means. It isn't about whether God has power but it's about how God uses that power; it isn't about whether God loves or is good, but how God loves and is good which is different, more, than how we would be or do it. Humility is essential here because, all claims to the contrary, no one can fully know the how of God's ways. We only have important and sufficient clues enough to trust.

Consider two events in Jesus' life as examples. One is in Gethsemane the night he was taken to be crucified. He knew the extreme danger he was in and prayed, "Father, let this cup pass from me. Never-the-less, not my will be yours be done." The other is as he was being executed and prayed, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Two painful, bad things happening to Jesus and God didn't bail him out. What's the deal?

The deal is that for God there are no dead ends. That's what resurrection demonstrates. How's that for omnipotence and goodness? God copes by continuing to give us options and choices. That's what I was suggesting before in making what I called a critical point, namely that nothing happens to completely eliminate our freedom to decide how and what our responses to those collisions, those bad, painful things will be. Even death itself does not eliminate that freedom. That's the mystery of God's grace. I believe that the process of growing, changing, learning and dealing with our own challenges and relationships in all their marvelous, grace-full complexity will continue after death because I believe that's what God's purpose is. But that's a mystery. It's enough to trust will be with God, and God with us, in a different way than it is this side of death.

But on this side, we cam choose to trust that God responds to us by continuing to give us options and alternatives. Isn't that really our experience if we honestly reflect on it, namely that nothing deletes our freedom and responsibility to choose and action? That truth is the core of Christian
hope. It means we can grow wiser and more compassionate through experiences of trial pain, whatever bad things that happen because God gives us that choice again and again. Struggle, yes, and disappointment as well as delights, broken dreams as well as mended hearts, frustrations and accomplishments, injuries of body and psyche but through it all come unexpected possibilities, options, choices and chances for us because, by God's grace there no dead ends!

A true story from Sports Illustrated, August 24, 09 puts it powerfully. Marc Buoniconti was a outstanding college football player at The Citadel when he suffered a severe spinal cord injury in a game in 1985. He nearly died, spent months in a immobilized in a Stryker frame and was left a quadriplegic. He was consigned to a wheelchair which he moves by blowing through a tube. He'd been a careless student, a wild party guy, even a borderline delinquent as well as great football player. His father, Nick, had been a Hall of Fame player for the Miami Dolphins and the family joked with some justification that if Marc hadn't been paralyzed he would have ended up dead or in jail.

"If Marc hadn't been paralyzed ..." Well, maybe, even probably. But then who really knows what would have happened? What we do know, however, is what really did happen for Marc. According to the SI story, was this: "Once he felt himself he stopped grieving, once he felt himself cared for by so many selfless people, saw so many strangers give time and money to help cure him, Buoniconti began to believe: Being paralyzed didn't end his life. Being paralyzed saved it."

He became involved with the Miami Project a scientific research and treatment institute for paralysis including that of children Then Marc organized the Buoniconti Fund to raise money help push for a cure. He said, "This chair made me grow a conscience. I never had one before."
One of Marc's old teammates says of him, "He's more of a man in that wheelchair than I'll ever be with two arms and two legs. Because when he enters a room he changes people's lives. When they hear him speak, people want to be part of what he's doing,. Can you imagine being in a wheelchair 20 years and having the courage to say, 'I don't think there's any help for me, but I want to get other people out of wheelchairs.'"

God is sneaky and there has been help for Marc -- God's quiet grace. Marc's body is paralyzed but his soul flies. Grace gave Marc options and choices after his terrible injury and Marc responded in ways that change his life and made him "more of a man ..." which, man or woman, is much of what faith, hope and love are about. Marc significantly partnered in his own healing which, you see, is also a gift of grace. And through his responses, Marc became part of God's own work in the world. No dead ends for him, or for us. Just grace, powerful grace and choosing to be part of God's kingdom day by day.

Think about it. Ted

P.S. Friends,
This will probably be my last posting until at least mid October, maybe longer. I know I ask a lot of those who access and read my blogs. I know they are long and challenging. I know they are not typical down and dirty, quick and easy which I guess is the typical blog format. So this may not be my medium. Any comments you care to share on that would help me decide how or if I will proceed. If what I write helps anyone, that's very important to me but I'm not sure if that is the case. Blessings and courage and joy to you. Ted


  1. I, for one, appreciate posts that have some "meat on the bones" - posts that provoke thought, raise questions, challenge assumptions. It is clear you put so much into a post and I can understand that you could be rethinking it as a forum for you - however, I would be deeply disappointed if you stop.

    BTW, I would no longer consider myself a practising Christian - but I am very interested in any writings that explore the human quest for understanding and meaning. Yours have much merit.

  2. I am very thankful for the depth and length of your writing. I feel starved these days for comprehensive communication: from any of the media, emails, friends,family, or foes! Thought-full conversation and reflection seem to be fading into the past. I feel our culture is poorer for it--- we hardly know what we think or believe much less are able to articulate it communally. Your words, as always, help ground me. This is grace in my life.