In what can only be described as a moment of appalling judgement, I was asked to deliver the message in the campus chapel service this morning. I remain convinced that virtually anyone on or off campus would have been a better choice for the gig than I am, but the campus pastor asked me to do it, and I like him, so there you go.
I felt awkward throughout, being at least significantly aware of my own depravity and unworthiness to be at the lectern for a service. Like a lot of academics and a lot of writers, I’m susceptible to the impostor’s syndrome, and if anything, being asked to do this particular task underscored it. I have no problem talking about stories or poems or movies — I know stuff about those things. But being a Christian? Fumbling my way toward God and being the recipient of unfathomable Grace? I approach that from such a posture of ignorance and wrongness and mistake upon mistake that it borders on the ridiculous. They may as well have let Manson up there.
So for my message, I adapted an old post from this blog, and here’s the version I delivered today. The chapel didn’t collapse around my ears, so maybe it’ll be useful.
And if it isn’t useful, maybe it’ll get me off the hook for the next thirteen years. Here you go:
Lawrence Block is one of my favorite authors (and he’s a fine gentleman as well — I was lucky enough to spend some time with him some months back.) His best known series character is Matthew Scudder, a private eye and recovering alcoholic. Scudder spends a fair amount of time at AA meetings, and in one of the books, he describes a scene at a discussion meeting:
[…A]n older fellow named Frank, sober since the Flood, said there was one prayer that had served him well over the years. “I say. ‘God, thank you for everything just the way it is,’ ” he said. “I don’t know what good it does Him to hear it, but it does me good to say it.”
It seems to me that the assumption that underlies this prayer is that God knows that things are the way they’re supposed to be, even (and perhaps especially) when we don’t.
This is one of the lessons of Lent, I think. Whether we submit to a discipline – giving something up or doing something positive but out of our comfort zones – during this time or not, we acknowledge that we are not really the masters of our world. We acknowledge that role belongs to the God Whose suffering and sacrifice we faintly imitate, as our efforts to control our world are faint imitations of the work of creation.
I think understanding this may be the key to achieving that serenity that many participants in recovery groups pray for. In any case, like Block’s fictive Frank, the prayer made an impression on me, and I’ve used it a fair amount over the years. I even try to mean it — but it isn’t always easy.
On 12 June 2009, something hideous and shattering happened in and to my life. My brother Michael murdered our parents. It remains the loudest thing in my life even now, and it will have a significant place in whatever of my life is to come. It happened as the result of deliberate action, and it took my considerations of sin and evil from the academic interest it had been before to vital aspects of who and what I am and will become.
The question of why bad things happen to good people is one we’ve been wrestling with since before Job, and we really haven’t made much progress in answering it, any more than did the Old Testament author who passed Job’s story to us. Now as then, the temptation is to listen to Job’s wife and (in the words of Edwin Arlington Robinson) “seizing the swift logic of a woman,/ Curse God and die.”
But I don’t find myself willing or able to do that. It isn’t that I’m a pillar of piety — those who know me know better. But I’m blessed enough to continue to believe. A dear friend of mine asked me how I maintain my faith under these circumstances. I told her as I told you, that the faith isn’t mine to maintain — it’s a gift I’m given without deserving it. But if I can’t explain that (and I can’t — it’s beyond me, literally), I think the answer lies in Frank’s prayer and in Book III of Paradise Lost.
In a way, I think part of my faith may be tied to my notion of self. I refuse to believe I exist without purpose, and I absolutely refuse to believe that the people I love are/were so much meaningless white noise. Deeply flawed though I may be (and I am more aware of my flaws than I’d care to be), I know I matter — I’m part of something bigger than random electrochemical processes. None of this excludes what science teaches us — that’s about the how, and while I think that’s fun to know, it doesn’t say anything about the why. Too many people confuse those questions.
But something can only have meaning if it’s part of a context. I think that larger context is God’s plan for the universe. But if God has a plan (which I believe He does), and God is omnipotent (which I think is a definitional quality), but evil exists (which it does), how can we — how can I — reconcile all this? One answer would be that God is a malign thug. I know too much love to accept that answer. A second answer is that components of the plan fail sometimes (because of active choice or general human fallibility/depravity), but because God is a better engineer than we are, he will work with/around these failures and accomplish the plan anyway.
In Paradise Lost, Man is created “sufficient to stand, but free to fall.” But without the Fall, there’s no need for a Redeemer, so even the Fall becomes an opportunity for God to do something even more kind and glorious by redeeming us. (There’s actually a heresy that claims we should be as sinful as possible so as to give God a chance to be even flashier when he forgives us, but that’s about as pure a form of presumption as I can imagine, and reminiscent of Jesus’s words to the Devil — “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”) Even the evil we do redounds to goodness. An alternate take on this would be that evil is merely an absence of good, as cold is an absence of heat, or darkness the absence of light. God’s infinite goodness can/will expand to fill the gaps we create.
So what has this to do with my personal situation? Michael chose to embrace the absence of good — his bad choices and pathologies turned him into a failed component of the Plan. And God understands what it means to lose his children to violence and evil – he has lived through my pain and that of all those who suffered before me. But because God is not only Good Shepherd, but Great Architect, and Supreme Artist, I believe not only that there’s a backup strategy and/or workaround, but that He will use even failed components for a composition that one day we’ll be able to see, understand, and love. And when a day comes when everything is revealed, I think part of the reward will be knowing we had/have a part in this wondrous composition, and finally being able to understand the whole thing. That’s where I find hope, and that hope reinforces my faith, and helps me try to be thankful “for everything, just the way it is.”