Recently two of my grandsons have dealt with significant health issues. We have prayed for them, their parents have seen to proper medical attention, and the boys seem to be doing well. We can breathe easier. It seems that God has heard us. All appears to be well. We can trust God.
But what if something goes awry? What if their condition changes and their health deteriorates? What if our prayers do not receive the answers we desire? Can we trust God in that?
Almost twenty years ago, a dear friend of mine was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given three months to live. He was a devout Christian, and many of us prayed for his healing. His lovely wife and four young daughters loved and depended upon him for their care. He made it seven months and then died. We trusted God for healing, but got death instead. We found no answers to our questions about why such a good man had to die.
I've prayed for others over the years, including three more people who had cancer. One had a small tumor that concerned his doctor. The other two were given death sentences, but still underwent treatment. All three recovered. I cannot claim with absolute certainty why they recovered. Even with grim prospects for recovery, maybe the medical treatment won the day. Maybe God really did bring healing. All I know is that we prayed and they all got better. We were able to rejoice in God's goodness and trust that he heard our prayers.
Both of my grandsons had either birth difficulties or early-age medical problems that would have probably resulted in their deaths had they lived a hundred years ago. Our medical technology intervened and both have been enjoying robust lives. When I stop to think about it, I am grateful that they are in our lives at all.
So who do I trust in all of this? God? Science? Random flukes of the universe?
I need to mention that one of the three above-mentioned cancer victims did later die. His death was due to an accident in his home, not due to cancer. We prayed, he went through treatment, he recovered, and he died anyway. But that is the way of all people--of all living things--isn't it?
I can sit with my grandsons--talking, laughing, playing--and thank God for his care and love. I am grateful that I can trust God for all this joy. But could I sit at the graves of ones I have loved, and then trust God as well? Or is my trust linked only to the delivery of my expectations through prayer?
I think the answer lies in seeing God as trustworthy regardless of our expectations. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus (in Luke's gospel) are disappointed that Jesus didn't turn out to be the liberator that they had expected. They had trusted God, but he seemed to have let them down. The resurrected Jesus--the one who had just recently suffered and died--came alongside them to set them straight. If God is to be trusted, then our expectations and desires have to be subordinate to God's.
I'd like to be in the place where I trust God no matter what. If I (or the ones I love) live, then we trust our lives to God. If we die, then we trust that our lives are fully embraced by this trustworthy God, that we might one day enjoy him in the new heaven and the new earth.
Faith and Trust are interchangeable words in the Greek of the New Testament. But for us, faith can be purely cognitive. We can claim that we have faith just because we've ordered some information systematically in our heads. Trust, however, is relational. It comes out of full engagement with the trustworthiness of another. I can really only trust God within my relationship with him.
In the meantime, I still pray and hope. Within all that, I try to trust.
Yesterday I drove through the post office on my way to work and saw a booth set up on the sidewalk, sufficiently distanced from the post office door to satisfy any regulations about political affiliation. The booth had a nice little umbrella and several large signs around the sides inviting people to come and sign a petition to impeach the President.
Adjacent to each of those signs were large posters featuring a photograph of Mr. Obama and another man (I couldn't tell, from my car, who he was), both sporting Hitler-esque moustaches.
In our society, people are free to voice their opposition to all kinds of things, including presidential administrations, acts of Congress and decisions made by the Supreme Court. People can satirize our governmental leaders without fear of being arrested during the night or being banished to the wilderness of Iceland. We are free to voice our opinions, right or wrong, and that's okay with me.
I wonder why, every time a president does something people don't like, that president is equated with Adolf Hitler. You remember him, right? He's the German (Austrian, actually) dictator whose close followers revered as God, who took over the State Church, replacing crosses with swords and Bibles with copies of Mien Kampf. He orchestrated the deaths of six million Jews and thousands of others he considered ethnically impure. He invaded neighboring nations, absorbing them into his empire and planned to take over much of western Europe, if not the world, launching a world war that cost between 50 and 80 million human lives.
I have seen caricatures of US Presidents--both Democrat and Republican--with little Hitler moustaches on them. How is it that we equate our Presidents with someone like Hitler? How is it that being the President of a country like the US can instantly be the same as being a deranged European dictator? Given our system of government, is that even possible?
This is not a new thing. After shooting President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth leaped onto the stage of the Ford Theater, breaking his leg, and shouting (in Latin), "Thus always to tyrants!" It seems that, when we don't like our presidents, we equate them with tyrants and dictators. When you have demonized your opponents, you no longer have to debate reasonably. Raw emotion will do nicely.
The issue is summed up nicely in an exchange between six-year-old Karen and her parents in a clip from the UK comedy Outnumbered. Karen's father has just explained to her that it is important to respect and be tolerant of other people's views about life. Her response is thoughtful and helpful:
"What, even idiots? Even if they want to stab you in the eye with a pencil?"
"Love hurts, love scars, Love wounds, and mars . . ."
I like this Bryant and Boudleaux song (my favorite version is by Emmylou Harris). It sounds ironic, since love is supposed to be happy and joyful rather than painful.
But it's true. Love hurts.
Yesterday morning, just before stepping into a day full of meetings, Emily called me to say that our 12-year-old grandson just had a seizure and was being rushed to the hospital. Jacob is diabetic, and it turns out that he had a severe drop in blood sugar and his insulin pump wasn't connected. All his tests came out normal and he was home that afternoon.
But the news that morning disrupted everything inside of me. I dearly love my kids and grandkids. Jacob is the firstborn grandchild and was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes at age 3. He's a strong and brave kid, and all of the medical stuff he's had to endure gives him a special place of concern in the hearts of all the family members. Hearing that he had become helpless--even for a few minutes--and was at risk caused a physical sensation in me. It actually hurt. Love hurts.
I am reminded in this that we can avoid things like broken relationships, loss of loved ones, betrayal and so on if we could just not love. Without love, those things have no fertile ground. Without love, people cannot harm us. They cannot betray us. We won't feel the pain of loss when they leave or die. For those things to happen, love has to exist.
The pain that we all felt yesterday at the news of Jacob's plight was medicated in the afternoon by the sound of his voice on a phone, through our visits to see him at home, and a return to some kind of normalcy that let us rest for a while. But even this morning, the residual pain is still there.
We're told in the Bible that love is found, not in how we love, but in how God loves. All of the pain and loss we can endure and inflict comes after God has already loved. Much of what I've learned in studying the Bible can be summed up this way:
In our observance of Good Friday (also known as Great Friday, Holy Friday, and Black Friday), we solemnly view the suffering and death of Jesus with an eye to Sunday--the day that we celebrate his resurrection. We would never observe Good Friday and then skip Easter. Without Easter Sunday, Good Friday is just another day that a good person dies a bad death.
It is interesting to me that, in our debates about the Atonement (trying to answer the question, Why did Jesus die?), we sometimes act as though Good Friday is the most important part of the story. If the death of Jesus, by itself, accomplishes something for God (assuaging his anger toward sinful humanity, setting the scales of justice right, relieving the offense against God's holiness, etc.), then the cross is really where the story ends. The death of the Innocent One somehow fixes everything that has gone wrong. The resurrection is just a bonus.
It is significant to me that the church has traditionally tied the events of Holy Week together, culminating in Easter, then moving toward the observance of Pentecost and the movement into Ordinary Time, where we live out the implications of God's work in the world, one day at a time.
The death of Jesus is truly significant, but not when it is seen as an isolated, transactional event that satisfies a need that exists in the heart of God. The story is bigger than that.