Published Sep 23, 2016 in the Ames Tribune
By Eileen Gebbie
I haven’t written a piece for this paper in some time. I scheduled myself for every month, and was succeeding, until members of my church began to experience an unprecedented wave of death, cancer and division. Not the kinds I usually write about, not the large scale losses and diseases of racism and poverty, but intimate and very present lives in ruins.
This means I have been spending more time than ever asking the biggest theological question of them all: “Why?” Not just why did a loved one die, why does someone have to have cancer, why doesn’t a relationship work, but why did God allow this to happen and why isn’t God fixing it all?
This makes sense to me. In crises we generally know who, what, when, where and how. Those are the sources of the pain. But the “why,” even when the concrete answers are bad cells or bad communication, seems to remain hidden behind a curtain. It is the same curtain that also seems to hide the divine.
I tread very carefully in trying to answer such whys. I began to leave the Christian tradition as a teenager after an accident at my school left nine people (seven teens and two adults) dead. With my family I attended a good number of the funerals and memorial services, hearing too many times that such loss was “God’s will” and not for us to understand. I heard the same thing six years later when my best friend’s mom, a woman who had endured years of domestic violence and gotten her kids to safety, died of cancer.
Such theology made me angry. Even then I knew it was an abuse of both holiness and humanity to ever say creation/Creator would intentionally inflict the worst kinds of suffering on specific people.
I know that some of my co-religionists say that “God’s plan” theology does not connote such specificity. Instead, they might point to life as it is and however it is as the plan itself. I’m comfortable with that, I suppose. But the word “plan” continues to rub me the wrong way, as I have seen it used to forcibly temper legitimate emotions and let humanity off the hook for our own work in preventing pain and having sympathy for the afflicted.
So what do I do now that I’m a formal religious worker?
I name what is real: Bodies are fragile and they hurt. Biology, be it mammal or bacterial or celestial, is powerful. Human hearts and psyches are easily bruised and broken and sometimes we prefer to let those wounds fester rather than help them heal. We all die, sometimes at times that feel unfairly too soon. There is holiness present throughout.
In Christian scripture and tradition, neither God nor our ancestors promises us lives of ease or longevity. Most of our stories are about betrayal and violence and disease and usury and abuse and domination and desperate attempts to control each other. God’s actual promise after apple and flood and faithlessness and execution is to remain present.
What good is divine presence rather than divine intervention?
As I sit with those who work, or watch, or weep, with the weary, the dying, the suffering and the afflicted, I would say that presence matters a great deal.
Theologies that accord God the status of planner and coordinator, or those that create a transactional relationship between those who pray/participate in religious life and those who do not, deny God. They deny God’s promise of presence. They also deny the people of God—which is all people—the comfort of that presence. As one of my congregants, Peg Powell, said recently, when we are alone in the hard work of dying, it is God that is always with us.
Why does God allow bad things to happen and why isn’t God fixing them? Because living comes with loss and in our lives we are the ones with the power to fix what needs to be, and what can actually be mended, like racism and poverty and hatred. It is despite our allowance of those losses and diseases and hurtfulness that the divine remains — remains life’s beating heart even when our hearts can beat no more.
Eileen Gebbie is the pastor at Ames United Church of Christ