The God Who Drowns

I’m driving into work listening to 1010 WINS. The news coming out of the Gulf Coast is nothing less than horrific.

Pulling into the parking lot I listen to a man describe how his boss listened helplessly as his elderly mother, trapped in the rising floodwaters at her nursing home, pleaded for help….

“The guy who runs this building I’m in, emergency management, he’s responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St Bernard nursing home, and every day she called him and said, ‘Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?’ And he said, Yeah, Momma, somebody’s coming to get you.”

“Somebody’s coming to get you on Tuesday.”

“Somebody’s coming to get you on Wednesday.”

“Somebody’s coming to get you Thursday.”

“Somebody’s coming to get you on Friday’”

Then, with keening sobs, the man wails, “And she drowned Friday night.”

I shut the radio off and kill the engine. I have tears in my eyes. Tightness constricts my chest. I imagine it’s my mother pleading for her life. I try and shake the imagery out of my head but I can’t. Adrenaline pumps through my system. My hands start shaking. Sick desolation spreads out from the pit of my stomach.

I remember the last time I felt like this – when I stood on the banks of the Hudson and watched the Twin Towers fall, thinking about thousands of frightened people dying at the same time, my sense of helplessness in the face of something incredibly huge and evil. That was almost four years ago. The old woman’s pleas bring those sensations flooding back with a vengeance.

There are times, if you think about life, that the world is a cruel and horrible place.

I realize I’m in no shape to go to work. I have to get a grip or I’ll snap at the first customer who complains about some petty nonsense. There’s a church near my job. It’s open during the day. I duck inside and grab a pew in the back.

The coolness of the hushed church, the smell of incense lingering in the air, envelops me. I gaze down the length of the church and fixate on the tabernacle. The place where, when I was little, I believed God lived. I haven’t sat in a church in a long time. My mind is a sickened blank. What to say? What to ask the Almighty?

Almighty my ass. What a sick joke. When was the last time He saved anybody?

This exercise in futility, I think to myself. I don’t believe God answers prayers. I haven’t in a long time. I think back to when some kids were abducted earlier this summer. Both sets of parents pleaded and prayed for their child’s return on national TV. One was found alive, the other dead in a ditch. The mother of the recovered child said, “I tell you today that God answers your prayers!” But what did that other mother think? Was not her child just as special? Why didn’t God answer her prayers? Does God play favorites? And don’t tell me its part of some Divine plan because if it is I want no part of it.

I’m sure that old woman prayed for her deliverance as the waters rose. I’ll bet she was praying right up until the fetid water filled her lungs and snuffed out her life. Goddamn it. No one deserves to die that way. But ask any cop, he’ll tell you – people die scared and alone everyday. So much for praying to the Almighty. You might as well be praying to the Easter Bunny for all the good it’ll do you.

But we want God to come and save us. In times of desperate horror we become childlike. We want a bearded man in flowing robes to swoop down from heaven in Spielbergesque fashion and save us. But he won’t. God doesn’t stop levees from failing, he doesn’t stay the force of tsunamis, and he doesn’t stop planes from smashing into buildings. Deus Ex Machina is overrated.

Suddenly the door to the church noisily swings open. I look up. An old woman shuffles in and laboriously makes her way up the central aisle. She smiles as she passes me. I smile back. This old lady’s like a hundred and two. Her head’s drooping below her shoulders, her womanly form obliterated by age and gravity. I watch her slow progress as she marches to the front of the church. I shake my head. To be that old, that frail, that weak. Then I remember something I read in seminary long ago…

“God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us.”

The guy who said that was a Lutheran pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was executed by the Nazi’s for trying to assassinate Hitler. This man knew Evil up close and personal. But he still cherished his faith in God and his belief in the goodness of the world. How did he do that in the face of such monstrosity?

Because he realized that God was not all powerful. He knew God wouldn’t swoop down and save him from his jailors. He understood there’s no division of sacred and profane, any secular and divine. He saw there’s only one reality and he believed that reality was God. And from within that insight he wrestled with the mystery of suffering.

God, Bonhoeffer would say, suffers with us. He shares in our pain. If you’ve ever been to a child’s funeral you know the only thing you can do is cry. God is like that person weeping in the funeral parlor. It was God who was pulverized when the Towers fell, it was God who burned in the Nazi’s ovens, and it was God who drowned in that nursing home in New Orleans.

That’s a hard lesson to learn. Maybe it’s not an answer at all. But the older I get the more this explanation makes sense. It is the only way I can wrap my mind around children dying and old ladies drowning.

But within Bonhoeffer’s words lies a challenge. Since God doesn’t come down in a blizzard of special effects to bail us out – we have to help each other. We recognize the suffering of others and are moved to relieve it. We can’t coop ourselves up in our apartments, churches, and mosques wishing all the bad things will go away. There’s no room for childish magical thinking. We have to act. The rescuers of 9/11 and the Gulf Coast understood this without all the fancy theological reflection. Bonhoeffer would say when we help each other that is God helping us. The human heart is moved by weakness not by strength. It is our brokenness, not power, that binds us together. Perhaps our weakness will be our salvation. Maybe that is how God “can be with us and help us.” Who knows? I’m only a waiter.

I begin to feel better. Things make a bit more sense. I close my eyes and relax.

Outside the church the world goes by. Someone blasts rap music from their car. I hear a man and woman argue. A girl laughs. I smile to myself. Lovers still cry out in joyous embrace, babies are born, children play, boys stride onto the world of affairs, and old men still dream dreams. The world, in spite of everything, is unfolding as it should.

I hear the old woman get out of her pew. I watch her travel down the length of the nave. She looks at me and nods. Her eyes have seen everything I’m going to see. She’s wisdom wrapped up in infirmity. Perhaps, just perhaps, in the paradox of God’s weakness lies his greatness – and the seeds of our own.

Looking at my watch I realize I’m late for work. I genuflect and head out the door, into the swirling mystery of a terrible and beautiful world.

24 thoughts on “The God Who Drowns”

  1. Caro says:

    Wow, what a beautiful post. I like your views on God and as an atheist, they are just so beautifully crafted. Doesn’t make me want to convert but allows me to understand that there are good reasons people believe in what they do – except if they’re really, really, really, ignorant and unforgiving fundamentalists. It hurts when someone tells you that you are scum just because you don’t believe in God. I can do perfectly fine without him; have been for the past few years.

  2. Kacie says:

    This post moved me to tears. I almost skipped over it when I read the first paragraph, as I didn’t feel like reading something sad- but you moved from the sadness and suffering to the beautiful truth of God, the world and existence.

    I also believe that God suffers with us, feels our pain, sorrow and our joy. God experiences through us. This is the whole point of our existence.

    Your eloquence is inspiring. Thank you!!!

  3. marc says:

    this is one of the better essays on god that i have ever read. thank you so very much.

  4. invisible says:

    Me, channeling THE ALMIGHTY:

    Well, so far, no religion has gotten much right. They are ALL an abomination to Me. Do NOT get me started!

  5. Todd says:

    “God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us.”

    I have never heard that before, but rest assured I will memorize and keep that with me from now on.

  6. Sandy says:

    Had to comment on this beautiful post. I, too, was moved to tears by your words. Thank you.

  7. Anonymous says:

    As others are moved to comment by beauty, I too am moved to comment at the unending supply of exuses and rationalizing Christians do to support their belief in God. Due to situations like the trigger event for this I can neither logically nor illogically belive in a supreme being. Seriously. He’s a supreme being, but “God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us.” Yeah. right.

  8. Barbie says:

    Sorry to those of you who will disagree with this post, but I have to disagree with you all. GOD is not powerless, nor less powerful for being in the world with us. Someone else’s god may be weak and powerless, but not my GOD.

    My GOD numbers the hairs on my head and clothes the lilies of the field in finery better than royalty; and He answers ALL prayers–the answer isn’t always what I would want it to be, and I don’t always understand the answer, but there’s always an answer, even when the answer is ‘no’.

    If this world was all there was to life and eternity, what a sorry thing life would be. But my eternity will be spent in Heaven with my Savior, not here on earth where Satan rules with GOD’s permission, temporarily. Don’t blame GOD for the bad things that happen-he wants only good for his children, but not everyone is his child. If they were, the world would be a better place, where elderly mothers aren’t left alone to drown.

  9. Brynn says:

    The moment I saw the sequence of “Someone’s coming to get you”, I could hear that interview and it made me cry all over again. I had to look it up because I remember it was someone official – it was the president of Jefferson Parish. Nearly three years and it’s like I just heard it. . .

    Man, the comments about God in this post are all over the place. Which sounds about right as a cross-section of humanity, come to think of it. I just wish there was less hostility in it, both stated and implied in responses less to you and more to invisible others. I have felt that fear of the religious/anti-religious expressions of others in my own heart over the past few years and it saddens me greatly. I’m not sure how it happened, it’s very frustrating.

  10. Chimericalus says:

    Wish I could believe in a God.

  11. Anonymous says:

    God believes in you.

  12. Anna says:

    You’re a great write. I think, because, you touch the “human-ness” in your writing. Bravo. I’m so glad I found your site and I’m looking forward to reading your book.

  13. LovelyLillith says:

    If one stuck their right hand into a vat of acid, and found it to be an unpleasant experience, would it be logical to stick the other hand in as well, expecting a better result? No?

    Then why do people continue to build their homes and place their trust in places where earthquakes, flooding, fires, tornadoes, tsunamis and the like are known to recur? Or why do they stay when they know something bad is coming down the pike, and are shocked when something bad actually happens?

    Does anyone truly and logically believe human choice of this sort is somehow God’s fault?

    If a tsunami happens in the middle of the ocean, no one thinks twice about it. If it crashes against a populated shoreline, it is a disaster. What is the difference? The presence of people. God did not choose to kill the people, people chose to roll the dice on something that was bound to come up snake eyes by sheer odds at some point.

    For those that don’t believe in God, you can attribute this sort of thing “survival of the fittest” or “plate tectonics” or “global warming” or “probability” or somesuch – none of which are a result of God wanting to put the smackdown on old people or children, all of which have the potential for causing death. Yes, it is cruel to consider, but so is a world without a loving God.

    There is also the fact due to man’s free will, there are people that devise evil or cruelty in their hearts, make dumb mistakes (sometimes grave ones), plain bad luck and other things in this life that make living hard. None of this is His fault either.

    The devil is throwing his own monkeywrench in the works as well. He “steals, kills, and destroys”. That is not my God.

    But Steven’s question was on why doesn’t God deliver. He does. He also warns people about things, too. Do people hear Him? Sometimes. Do they expect to? Even rarer.

    God warned me about a deer standing in the middle of a curvy country road at night ahead of where I was driving, so I was able to bring the car to a stop preventing me from smashing into it.

    God told my SO that the flight we were going to board “would never leave the ground”. As it turned out, an engineer found something wrong with it after we’d been sitting on it for 20-30 mins, and all of the passengers were sent off of the plane to another flight. Who knows if the mechanical failure would have been fatal – I am just thankful that someone was doing their job. Had something actually happened on the plane to cause injury, we would have had that warning that something was wrong, yet stupidly we chose to board anyway. Sometimes people choose the wrong thing – and sometimes we get lucky that it works out.

    We were asked to pray for a baby who had a fever and as a result, got kidney damage. The doctors said surgery would have to be performed. When the surgery took place, the doctor opened her up and saw where the ureters had shriveled up from the fever and had become useless. Alongside these, another pair of functioning ureters had grown up to take their place. Seeing this, the surgeon simply stitched the baby back up, and she recovered.

    He instantly healed my ankle after having stepped in a hole and twisting it the night before, and it being swollen and in pain all that night. It went from barely being able to put weight on it to perfectly whole in the time it took me to stand up from being seated on the ground.

    No, I can’t flip a switch and get delivered instantly and miraculously from everything bad that comes my way, whether through my own stupidity or not, and I can’t explain why; I know that Christ himself cried out to be delivered from the cup that was set before him, but for the greater good of humanity, he had to endure – and I know I am far less worthy of favor, compared to many people. But neither can I explain the mechanics of dark matter or nuclear explosions, yet I can still believe they are there and see evidence of them.

    I’m sorry for those whose circumstances or theological explorations have caused them pain and doubt somewhere along the line about God. He is real, and He delivers, whether people care to believe that or not.

  14. Max says:

    Sometimes, I wish I could believe in God too. But I can’t. I don’t. I never will. And that is that, I suppose. If belief gives some people hope, good. But I just can’t stand being told how “fantastic and wonderful” religion is, especially when it’s not something I can be a part of.

    Then again, I can always remember The Crusades…

  15. pelon says:

    You were in the Crusades, Max? Wow, you must be wicked old. And you ‘can’t’ believe in God? I think you mean ‘won’t’. To believe in God is to believe in something Greater than yourself, and put absolute Faith in that Creator, allowing His Love to guide you in your humble life. Anyone ‘can’ do that, but others ‘won’t’ it is simply a matter of how you are willing to live, because if you are willing, you can. You also used the abstract absolute ‘never will’ in conjunction with ‘I can’t, I don’t.’ This is a very negative outlook (though given the frequency of negativity in your previous posts, this is not surprising) and I hope you can find Peace in your life, rid yourself of the baggage from the past, and most importantly, Forgive. Forgive others for their transgressions, and Forgive yourself for yours. I know God and/or Jesus will forgive you; it is Their Job, but it is so much harder to let go of your own sins and forgive yourself. Peace be with you on your journey through this life.
    Waiter, excellent blog, by the way. It is so nice to see another server with deeply held religous convections, as it is a bit of a rarity in this industry.

  16. ZanTx915 says:

    Oh, wow, this is the 2nd time tonight your post has brought me to tears. I was raised by a preacher (my grandfather), and after he died my aunt and uncle, who are also Christians, took over my upbringing and instilled in me the faith that, even though I have not seen the inside of a church in years, still remains in my heart to this day. True, there are things that occur that make me question my faith in God. I have asked, “What kind of God allows babies to be killed by their own parents?” “What kind of God allows big corporations to rob their employees of their careers, their life savings?” I can go on and on with this, but like you said, we as people were put on this earth to carry on what His son taught ages ago, and it is up to us to follow in His spirit.

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  19. leithold says:

    i realize this is an old post but i am compelled to leave a reply.

    holiness makes good men, while religions make zealots and fanatics.

    might be too broad a generalization, but nontheless true to some extent.

    awesome post by the way. i sometimes sit inside a church just to make sense of the madness outside it. you speak out for the minds like us. thank you.

  20. jazz says:

    It’s really easy, you’ll find it in Genesis. We caved in to temptation, sin entered the world, this resulted in theft, murder, drunk driving, global warming, men flying airplanes into buildings etc. God cries along with us, He gave us a choice and this is how we chose. Waiter, when you spoke about the two little girls, one who lived and one who died, you should know that Gods heart broke just as much as the mother of the one who died. Why because He knit her together in her mother womb, He had a plan and a purpose for her life, not to harm her, but to prosper her. Sin entered the picture. When? In Genesis

  21. Jason says:

    Thank you for introducing me to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I have never been able to square the so-called “Problem of Evil” with the notion of an all-powerful and all-good supreme being. For me, the answer has been a hope for an all-good but not all-powerful being that/who needs our help. This being derives its power from our goodness.

    Great post.

  22. JULIAN says:

    I was so moved by this monograph.
    I too struggle with faith in divine goodness and also believe God suffers alongside us.
    At times he does ome through
    at others the answer seems to be silence.
    The issue of faith is believing in the tough times when He appears to be absent
    this is the theology of paradox .
    i have some thoguths on this on my website

    God Bless!

  23. Jenny says:

    I’m a few years behind, but catching up, and just read this post. This correlates directly back to one of my favorite quotes, which is part of JFK’s inaugural speech.

    “…With a good conscience our only reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

    WE are the embodiment of God. When we say that we were created in his image, we must understand that this applies to our characters, as much as (if not more than) it does to our physical selves.

  24. BLAH says:

    It’s sad how an atheist believes to be an authority on God. Do you really think your puny brain shaking your puny fist can grasp his magnitude and vision? Get over yourselves.

    1. waiter says:

      Wow, you’ve got me pegged!

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