One of my best friends Crystal once described faith in God as being much like the ocean tide – it goes in, and it comes back out. Sometimes, it comes in smoothly and laps against the soft sand, and other times, it comes angrily back toward the shore, crashing in gigantic, looming waves that look as though they are going to eat you alive. I love this metaphor, especially as a seminary student preparing to graduate and enter full-time hospital chaplaincy, which is chock full of crisis, end of life situations, trauma, and horrible, tragic, and for some, imaginably Godless (?) dark places.
For many who know me best, I’ve been there. I’ve walked my own path along the shoreline of lapping tides and crashing riptides; I’ve had moments where it has seemed incredibly difficult to imagine God’s face, filled with loving grace in the midst of the deep, dank, darkness, where nothing seems possible. In the midst of a diagnosis, no diagnosis and every diagnosis, some treatment, no treatment, and a scary, and very FINAL treatment that involves regular follow ups for the rest of my life, imagining and feeling God was at times, interesting to say the least.
And yet, God. Was. There. Some have asked whether it was because I already had faith to begin with, and because my faith was strong, because I had something for my faith to stand on.
Others have asked me whether it was because I was a seminary student, with ample theological and scriptural training, with lots of resources, support and a community to bolster me.
But I wouldn’t place my credit in such earthly or vain places. Yes, it did help that I was in a place where others could help me reason out my heart’s deepest longings, and that I had a community who could be there through it; yet, location isn’t everything. It also greatly helped that I had faith before I got sick. Yet context isn’t everything, nor is history or past.
My very Reformed beliefs teach that God never goes away – no matter what, no matter when, and no matter how horrible the situation, no matter how terrible the circumstance. I am not going to tackle the issue of theodicy (aka why bad things happen, and what role God plays in these unspeakable things…that’s NOT for this blog post…that’s for another blog post entirely), but rather, where God goes (or doesn’t go?) when that bad stuff happens.
It begins with understanding this God. Back during Lent, I blogged on Deuteronomy, and especially on chapter 31. Chapter 31 talks about the character of God, especially during times of adversity and struggle. Verse 6 says:
“Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.” (NRSV)
See, God sticks it out – He’s there, not failing the suffering, not forsaking them, even when it is really impossible, dark, terrible, when all seems lost. But it seems to imply that we – the suffering – are supposed to respond and be something…do something. Be strong. Be bold. That seems rather tough, especially when things are difficult.
Even Christ felt forsaken by God, HIS FATHER (ok, trinitarian theology time, Christ IS GOD, but also human…), on the Cross, just as he was about to be crucified.
“At three o’clock, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34, NRSV)
What’s up with that, God? Did that REALLY have to happen? Did you really just forsake your human/incarnate son?
The thing is, God is still there. God hasn’t abandoned Jesus, nor has He abandoned the audience of Deuteronomy 31; He just is exercising his authority to let things play out. He is still present, still being the divine pastor, the divine counselor, the divine presence. But He simply cannot be the puppet master, intervening in each and every negative, dark and icky aspect of our lives as faithful members of the body of Christ. God simply CANNOT be that type of Father, that type of creator, or that type of anything. It is irrational and impossible to expect that God can protect us from everything that happens, or only make the light, bright, shiny things happen in life. That would be nice, but not the reality – scripture shows us that cannot be so, and our lives are the living evidence.
What he can do is this:
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28, NRSV)
Stuff happens. Bad stuff, dark stuff, evil stuff, really unspeakable, at times seemingly God-lacking stuff happens, and yet, GOD IS STILL HERE, no doubt about it. We are undoubtedly shaped by our dark stuff, by the icky stuff, by the rough and bumpy stuff. It makes us who we are, it informs our journeys, and shapes our call narratives, as it undoubtedly has mine. I would not have come to the conclusion that I am called to ministry, let alone called to a particular area without my ick, my tough, my dark.
And yet, we must persist in looking for God in the dark. The ick makes us whole, but only by the grace and love of God. If not for God, we are only ick, unhealed, unreconciled and frustrated. God gives the words, frames and shapes a story out of the ick. Makes the brokenness a message, a story, and most importantly, a foundation upon which to stand.
The dark stuff is a part of our walk with God – it isn’t God-given, nor is it God-created. It isn’t punishment from God, a message from God, nor is it a trial from God. It isn’t God testing us to see if we are strong enough to walk with God. The God of the Bible DOESN’T work like that. Stuff happens, and God walks with those going through the stuff until they emerge on the other side – or don’t. But either way, God is there. Because our God is the God of Deuteronomy, of Mark, and of Romans. God is a God who isn’t afraid of the Dark, nor is He afraid of the Light. He is capable of being a shepherd, a persistent Father, a loving pastor, a graceful and tender hearted protector, and a stronghold until we are “good” again.
But what are you going to do with it? This darkness turned into light journey with God? Will it be empowering? Or will it be paralyzing? Will it be the story that informs the rest of your walk with God? Or will it be the thing that causes you to flee? Will it be the very thing that puts pen to paper – for your sake or the sake of others?
What will you do and God together with it? Because you sure as heck are not going to go into the darkness alone. God as your guide and shepherd will be there every step, shuffle and crawl of the way.
Thanks be to God.