Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Creation That Groans

As we read about the devastation and suffering wrought by the tornadoes in Oklahoma, we may feel frightened by the capricious of the creation.  We are reminded that in a stroke all we have and the settled patterns of our lives can be wiped away; most sobering is the realization that those we love and who love us can be taken from us in a moment.  We read of infants and seniors, mothers and children who were killed by the violence of the storm and realize that there are some pieces of creation that are not friendly.  The Apostle Paul told us as much long ago.  He wrote in Romans 8:

18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Something long ago went wrong in our world, so wrong that the creation itself is askew and seems to know it!  The creation “waits with eager longing” to be set free from this state of affairs.  It is “groaning with labor pains.”  Like us, the creation knows things are not the way they are supposed to be.  These tornadoes simply make vivid what we already knew.

I heard a story once about a father whose daughter was injured during a softball game.  The ball hit her square in the face, and she lapsed into a coma.  Her father sat by her hospital bed in agony asking himself heartbreaking questions:  “Why did this happen?  Was I not listening to God and this is God’s way of getting my attention?”  A friend walked in and said:  “Calvin, I can tell you why your daughter is lying there in a coma.”  The father thought that he finally would get an answer to his questions.  The friend went on:  “God has a rule.  A face and a softball cannot occupy the same space at the same time.”  The world in which we live is dangerous.  Sometimes we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the givens of our world hit us square in the face.  As the singer Mary Chapin Carpenter laments: “Sometimes you’re the windshield, and sometimes you’re the bug.”  This is not what we want to hear.  We want to hear that everything has a good reason; nothing is random.  This illusion gives us the false hope that we can control all those forces that affect our lives.  We want to believe that if we make the best, brightest, truest, holiest, most responsible choice every time, we can insulate ourselves from the vagaries of our tragically broken world.

Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of a hospital chaplain who was talking with a mother whose daughter had a brain tumor and likely would die.  The mother said that she knew why her daughter was dying.  God was punishing her, the mother, for continuing to smoke.  The chaplain assured the mother that God did not take the life of young girls because their mothers would not stop smoking.  The mother responding angrily, asserting that this was, indeed, what was happening.  Taylor observed that the mother preferred a God who punished a young girl for the nicotine addiction of her mother to a world where children get sick for no good reason.  This is how strong our desire is to make sense of the senseless.  We cannot cautiously protect ourselves from the senseless.

The Apostle Paul, after lamenting the futility of life at its worst moments, finishes by asserting: We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  Paul carefully avoids saying that God causes all things that happen or is pleased by all things that happen.  Rather, he asserts that God is Lord of all things that happen and can use them in redemptive ways to bring good out of them.  Tragic things are simply tragic.  There is no health in dressing them up as anything else; our faith does not demand that of us.  Rather, we accept that we live in a world where a softball and a face cannot occupy the same space at the same time; sometimes they collide.  We can become comfortable living in a world where we cannot insulate ourselves from all tragedy and loss when we come to believe that even in the worst moments God is working to redeem and renew.  Loss is not the last word, even in a world with tornadoes.

Yes, the creation groans and so do we.  We know that things are not supposed to be this way; something has gone wrong.  We, along with the creation itself, wait for that better day.  We call this patient waiting in hope “faith.”

“For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

James Kelsey
Executive Minister
The American Baptist Churches of New York State.