It was just a normal early morning walk for me. Add in some cold wind and a frisky doggie leading the way to find the perfect spot. It is typical for me to be the first one up in our home. Sometimes I resist being the first dog duty walker in the morning. A warm robe and a cup of coffee seems more delightful at first thought. But it is more often the case that nature finds a way to bless me when I brave the early morning task. The sunrise and day's dawn always call my name. I find the awakening of the day to be a rousing welcome to my heart to carry on--to make meaning and embrace divine essence.
In Barbara Mahany's book, "The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God's first Sacred Text," I find her words about the dawn compelling.
It's my holiest time of day, the dayspring, the squinting hours near sunrise, just before the light comes, before the trace of familiar makes itself known. Nothing draws me into the arms of God more fully than standing here before the world starts its whisper. It's all about scale, all about understanding how evanescent this world and this life of ours is. How briefly we're here, and how little we are, us with our big giant dreams and our hopes and our infinite prayers. Sometimes that fires my soul. Makes me realize I'd better get to work. Get churning. Put grease to those gears and do those one or two things that might make a difference, might leave even a trace of a clue that I was here once, that I tried to put muscle to God's holy ask. This is the hour when I distill all my prayers, when day after day I can aim once again to lift up this day, to infuse it with God-driven purpose. Holy resurrection every time.
Here I was, soaking in the morning's gifts and listening for the silence to come alive with the animals and birds stirring, when all of a sudden there was an incredible ruckus. It was my owl friend, Franklin, making a kill in the bushes right beside where I was walking. I did not know how to feel. Was this moment beautiful because I was seeing nature at work? Was my heart broken because the poor little cottontail was meeting its demise? Should I celebrate that the owlets would now have a feast and live to see another day? Was this the balance of nature in the natural order of things that I should admire? Was I to grieve the loss to the bunnies left behind? Would they survive without their family member? It was if there was a loud screech and sudden interruption and abrupt stop to my peaceful, silent, beautiful morning walk.
As this owl/bunny scene unfolded right before my eyes, I couldn't help but think of how our lives can be turned upside down with unexpected happenings and tragedies. We are just rocking along and, then, like witnessing the great horned owl swooping into action, we are surprised, shocked, and even overwhelmed when the harshest of life events arrive. It is hard to know how to feel much less make sense of things.
Recently, tragedy struck our community with the loss of a young father and his two children in a head-on collision on Thanksgiving Eve while going to see family. His wife has survived with severe injuries but is now facing a life without her family. It is an unspeakable tragedy and all of us who love this family are hurting so deeply with and for them. Life changed in an instant. It was NOT the natural order of things for this to happen.
How do I see God in this moment? I see God with a broken heart as well. I experience God as walking with us as a compassionate, fellow sufferer who understands our grief. I cannot embrace the idea that God caused this or had some reason for this tragedy. I do not see God as having created the world and us and then just spinning us out there to be on our own. God is not one who is detached and watching from a distance. God is in the thick of it with us, helping us to love and care for one another. I experience God as a compassionate, empathetic, and supportive companion who offers guidance, not as one imposing a tyrannical will on us.
In such moments of loss, I think the most important question is not why did this happen but what am I to do with it? What can I do to offer comfort and care? How can I be present in love for others? What can I give as a friend who loves and believes in hope beyond hope? Can meaning possibly be found in suffering? In time, with faith and hope, I believe that such healing can happen and offer a direction and transformation but it is far from instant and should never be treated with pat answers and timelines.
Franklin was doing what Franklin was supposed to do. The sun rose anyway. The bunny is gone. The circle of life keeps circling and circling. I tell myself to keep breathing. Keep taking steps even if they are ever so small. Tomorrow the sun will rise again. There may be clouds but the sun is still there, as is God.
Prayer: Help me O' Lord, to put muscle to your holy ask. Help me to lift up this day and infuse it with your love and light. Help me to live in faith faithfully even when life does not make sense. Amen.
When Life Does Not Make Sense
"In such moments of loss, I think the most important question is not why did this happen but what am I to do with it? What can I do to offer comfort and care? How can I be present in love for others? What can I give as a friend who loves and believes in hope beyond hope? Can meaning possibly be found in suffering? In time, with faith and hope, I believe that such healing can happen and offer a direction and transformation but it is far from instant and should never be treated with pat answers and timelines." (Nita Gilger)
The moment to which she refers is the untimely death of a young father and his two children in a car accident. In a certain way, it is also the untimely death of a mother rabbit in the claws of an owl, leaving her bunnies behind.
Are these deaths untimely for God, too? The answer, I believe, is: Yes. This is the case if, as she proposes, even the Holy One, even God, is affected by our sense of untimeliness, imbalance, and tragedy. We do not know if, even in God, things seem untimely. What we know, what we trust, is that our sense of untimeliness is known and respected by God.
Imagine you are the parent of a young child who has lost something dear. She comes to you crying, as if her world has fallen apart. You may feel that the world has not fallen apart, the sun will rise again. And yet her pain becomes your pain. The world has come to an end, in you, too. You, too, know the untimeliness, even as you may or may not have more perspective than she. And so it is with God, says Nita. We do not really know what God's perspective is. And we do not need to know. What we need to know is that God is with us, in our pain. It is God the Companion, the fellow sufferer who understands, who is our healing balm.
So often, and too often, theologians ask: Could God have prevented the tragedy? Some say yes, and some say no. But Nita suggests that this question is, at some level, a waste of time. The better response is: "God, be with us in this time when life does not make sense. And help us to be faithful to You by offering whatever light we can to a world in need."
I write this not in the aftermath of an untimely death experienced by Nita, but during the untimely deaths in Israel-Gaza, a time when life does not make sense for so many, including me. Nita's prayer is mine, too: "Help me, O Lord, to put muscle to your holy task. Help me to lift up this day and infuse it with your love and light. Help me to live in faith faithfully even when life does not make sense. Amen."
The holy task is not to solve the problem of evil; it is to respond to tragedy, again and again, with tenderness and with an impulse, where possible, to reduce unnecessary suffering, never being entirely clear what "necessary" means.
We do not really need to understand what is "necessary." Perfect clarity is the luxury of people who need to feel in control. Faith is the depth of living without being in control and not needing a God who is control, either, It is God the Companion, not God the controller, who receives the prayer.
It is possible, says the philosopher Whitehead, that the love in the prayer, given to God, passes back into the world as enriched by divine energy, helping us to put muscle to the holy task. Whitehead writes: "By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love in the world passes into the love in heaven, and floods back again into the world. In this sense, God is the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands." Here the fellow sufferer becomes sustenance for the only work that really counts: love.