A slow start this week. Forgive me. Just too many things, too many images, too many ideas, too many questions spinning around in my head this week. Not just me, though. Someone came out of first service last Sunday morning and said “are we done with questions yet?” I know the feeling. I’ve been living with them for months now, preaching them for weeks. It gets to you, all these questions. Makes you wonder if it was a good idea in the first place. Sometimes it is better to let sleeping dogs lie. Most of the time it is better. But something’s bound to come along and rile them up again. Barking, barking, barking at nothing. Neighbors in the yard, traffic, low flying planes, bunnies invading their personal space. Stirring up those sleeping dogs seems awfully easy.
Sorry, got distracted there. Had to go rescue the neighborhood from no longer sleeping dogs. Where was I? Questions. For some reason that made sense at the time, I saved the hardest ones for the end. The questions that have no answer. At least no answer that will satisfy all the hurting hearts in this life. They are the “why” questions. Why did this happen, why did God let that go on, why, why, why. Hard questions. Ones that I used to think I could answer. See, I know stuff. I’ve studied, I’ve read, I’ve thought about all of this and have answers that make logical sense, theological sense. Answers that are true to the nature of God, at least as I perceive it. All sewn up in neat little packages.
Except that when I used to trot out these answers, hand over these neatly wrapped packages, they were invariably received as the proverbial lump of coal. They didn’t fit. They didn’t make sense. They didn’t heal the hurt behind the question. They were unsatisfactory to the moment. No matter how logical, how biblically sound, how theologically tested and tried these answers were, they were not the answers that were needed. Most of the time. In a classroom, a small group discussion, a disconnected intellectual inquiry, they were great answers. But the why questions don’t usually come in those dispassionate moments. They are ripped from broken hearts, they are wept out of red and swollen eyes, they reverberate from souls shaken, echo out of spirits emptied of meaning. And logical answers don’t wipe away tears in my experience, they don’t bandage wounds, or bring light to personal darkness. Only love can do that.
Hosea 11:1-9 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. 3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. 4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. 5 They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. 6 The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. 7 My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all. 8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.
Lat weekend I took both kids back to college; Rhys for the first semester of his final year, Maddie for the beginning of her junior year. Where did the time go? How did we get to this stage? Where they are almost unrecognizable sometimes, becoming something that was only hinted at for all those years when they were in our care. When we lifted them to our cheek, when we held their hands as they tested the strength in their legs, when we held them as they hurt and healed. I know this is what is supposed to happen. I know they aren’t really running away from me and from my love. But it feels that way sometimes.
But there are some who know the deeper pain of losing that child. That is where some of the questions for this section have come from. Why did God allow this? If Hosea is right, if God is so loving, if God would set aside judgement, would not execute wrath, but only want to embrace the child, then why? Why?
I sat feeding my mom like the babies I raised. She can’t hold a fork any more, doesn’t know how to grip it, how to use it. She wants to feed herself at times, picking up beans one by one, a finger full of mashed potatoes, a piece of the chicken patty I cut apart for her. Other times she let me feed her. She did ok, got more in her than on her usually. Single-minded focus moving each morsel to her mouth, no dinner table conversation, no asking about my day or hers. One afternoon when I was with her, the daughter of another resident came to visit her mom. There was a lot of in and out, I didn’t pay much attention at first focused on the task of caring for mom. But she asked me, “are you Mizz Weber’s son?” When I told her I was, she said, “I had her in school. She was my favorite teacher, she was so smart, but kind and helpful. I loved Mizz Weber’s math class and I didn’t particularly like math!” We laughed about that, and she told me a bit more before she turned back to her own mother seated at another table waiting for her supper.
She was smart, and kind, kinder than anyone I ever knew. Every now and then she breaks into tears and try as we might we can’t seem to figure out why, or do anything to make her better. We just tell her we love her while the sobs shake her shoulders. Maybe there is some physical reason, something happening in her that scares her or hurts her. But I tend to think that every now and then she realizes what she has lost and she mourns that loss in the only way left to her.
Why? Why do such things happen? Personal things, family things? Loss and pain, disease and injury, why? Why do such world things happen? Disasters and tragedies, wars and rumors of war? If God is really God, couldn’t it all be stopped, couldn’t the world be designed in such a way that terrible things didn’t happen? If God loves us like Hosea says, like Jesus says, why do we hurt? Why do we weep?
Because we do. Because things happen. I know, horribly satisfactory, right? Things happen because things happen. Not a lot of comfort there, I know. We live in a world where things happen. Terrible things, unspeakable things. But also wonderful things. We live in a world where love can happen. That’s the gift. That the promise and the presence. Love can happen.
It doesn’t always, that’s the tragedy. Even those who are supposed to love us, don’t love us the way we need all the time. Don’t recognize us for who we are and hurt us unthinkingly. But then we don’t always love like we should either. We’re shaky lovers at best. But how wonderful even that shaky love can be. How healing, how sustaining, how enriching. That’s the gift, that’s the possibility in this risky world, that we can love and be loved. That we can know what it is to love and can revel in it, even if it is only temporary, momentary. It’s still a gift. It is still a glimpse of heaven.
See, the why questions aren’t really why questions. They are, deep down, who questions. Who will love us now? Who will see us worth loving? Who will love us when we are broken, when those we love are broken? Who will be with us when we feel so alone? Who will see us as having value when we are told we are worthless? Who will gather up the ones that the world loses through accident or neglect or willful disobedience? Who will speak for those who have no voice? Who will stand firm and say there is hope still. There is possibility still. The sun will rise, the world will turn and you will find love again. It rings hollow in our ears at times. But that doesn’t make it any less true. We will find love again. We will be reunited with those we’ve lost. The wounded will be made whole, the broken will be mended, the lost will be found. Maybe now, maybe today. Or maybe in God’s great Someday. Until then, as Steve Curtis Chapman wrote, “while we’re waiting for that day to come / We’ve got a little more time to love.”
There’s a day that is coming / When all the last will be first / Every orphan will be home / And all will be filled who hunger and thirst / It’s gonna be a celebration / All of creation longs for / And while we’re waiting for that day to come / We’ve got a little more time // To do justly and love mercy / And show the love we’ve been shown / For we can only be the hands and feet of Jesus ‘til / He leads us home / He will lead us home