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.