August 27, 2023
"Where Was God?”
Rev. Scott Landis
Most Monday mornings I get up very early, and after I walk and feed the dogs, I head up the beach to the Kīhei Canoe Club for a brisk morning paddle. I really look forward to Monday because it gives me a chance to unwind after Sunday and paddling allows me to think about my plans for the upcoming week. This past Monday was particularly lovely as there was quite a bit of rain over the Iao Valley and upcountry. Combine that with the rising sun and, well, you may have heard me singing my best rendition of, “Where I live, there are rainbows.” It began as the perfect day.
As I approached the club, I motioned to some of my buddies I saw at a distance to come toward me and see the beautiful view as the colors of the rainbow painted the West Maui Mountains – a much needed vision of reassurance after the all the horrible news of the preceding week. One of the approaching fellow paddlers seemed less interested in the view and instead, I could tell, had something on his mind.
“Hey pastor,” he stated, “I have a question for you.” An intro that always makes my heart skip a beat. He continued, “I want to know, where was God when the fire consumed that 14-year old boy who was cuddling his dog?” His sobering question felt like a punch in the stomach. This was not how I envisioned my Monday morning paddle would begin. He continued, “I’m angry. I’m angry at any God who would allow such a thing to happen. I’m angry that that young kid never had the chance to live. I’m angry and I cannot believe in a God who does such a lousy job caring for his creation. Where was your God?”
I’ve been thinking about his questions and heartsick comments all week. Truth be told, I’ve been haunted with similar questions and I’ve been asking them of God myself, many times in fact. Where were God? Where are God? How could God possibly allow any of this to happen?
When I returned home last Monday, I reread the story of Joseph as he reunited with his brothers. I will admit I had to cringe as I read some of the words that seemed to suggest an understanding of God that I struggle with. Words that I had not heard before as I did this time.
Famine had struck the land. They were already two years into a protracted drought that Joseph knew would occur from interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh – a famine he also knew would last another five years. When his brothers arrived in Egypt seeking help Joseph was overwhelmed with a desire to reconcile with them and offer them food and shelter to help them survive. While he could have resorted to revenge, ongoing hatred, or rejected reconciliation altogether, he said, “I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt. But don’t feel badly, don’t blame yourselves for selling me. God was behind it. God sent me here ahead of you to save lives.
Joseph believed God was “in it” all along. I was all God’s plan.
Really, I questioned. Do I believe that? Do I believe God causes these bad things to happen to demonstrate later a positive outcome?
You remember, his brothers initially set out to kill him. They threw him in a cistern thinking he would starve to death or be killed by wild animals. Instead, they elected to sell him into Egyptian slavery for 20 silver shekels and thought for sure they had seen the last of this dreamer, but there he was. Standing in front of them. Not only forgiving them – but giving them a another chance at life. And attesting that God was involved in the whole thing. “God,” Joseph said, “was in it from the beginning.”
At one level it’s a story of unmerited forgiveness – of grace – as modeled many times by God and in this case by one of God’s servants. That’s the nice part of the story. And the easy part to preach on. The more challenging aspect that I found myself drawn to and haunted by is my struggle with the comment that God was in it all. What does that mean – in this story – and to us today considering the horrendous tragedy that is unfolding right here in Maui? The reality of which prompted my friend’s question on the beach. Where was God?
While I am not in the business of defending God in light of human suffering, I do think that even our limited understanding of God is flawed if we cast God within the parameters of “cause and effect.” As I see it God no more caused these horrendous fires and their resulting death and destruction than God causes my favorite team to win the Super Bowl.
Human tragedy AND fortune are ongoing, occurring all the time - that’s all part and parcel of the human drama as it unfolds all around us, everyday. Sometimes tragedy has a direct blame. He was driving under the influence and thus the automobile accident. Which seems to make sense if the victim was the perpetrator but none at all if innocent child is struck by the same driver. That’s when we wonder, “where was God?”
By the same token, we may praise God if we win the lottery but was God in that? Is God in our victory over cancer but not in the sudden death due to acute leukemia. You see how complicated this all becomes when we reduce God to our human progression of cause and effect.
Here’s what I believe. We are human beings living in a very human world trying to make the best of our lives. In some ways we have done very well. The lives for many of us are quite nice, comfortable, and for the most part peaceful. But in other ways we have totally messed things up. Rather than living aloha – we have succumbed to an insatiable need to acquire and control rather than steward that which has been entrusted to us. Our desire to acquire and control (on a much broader scale) eventually leads to war, which necessitates spending a tremendous amount on an increased weapons arsenal, and limited funding for unlimited social concerns. Aside from all of that we have failed in our kuleana to be faithful stewards of our planet and we are paying a high price as the earth responds repeatedly to our continuous abuse.
In all of this we have free-will and we often make poor decisions. A whole host of which contributed to the fires here on Maui and elsewhere. I don’t for a moment believe that God causes these things to happen – the fires, the hurricanes, the earthquakes, the wars all of which impact the lives of innocent victims – but neither will God prevent their occurrence. So, like Joseph, I also believe — God is in it – all of it – in fact, all of life, the pain and suffering as well as the joy. But God doesn’t necessarily “cause” it. The cause, more often than not, can be traced right back to us in one way or another.
Many years ago, I read a vignette by Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, when he was asked a similar question that my friend on the beach asked me last Monday. While in Auschwitz he was walking to his work detail one morning and passed by a little boy hanging from a gallows – an obvious show of force and complete lack of regard for human life by the Nazis.
The person walking with Wiesel said to him, “Take a look at that. Where is your God now?” To which Elie responded, “He is up there, on the gallows, with that little boy guiding him to the eternal.”
Where was God? God was there in the fire. And just as we witness the incarnation of God weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, AND crying out in despair on the cross, so God weeps for every life lost in this senseless tragedy. Does that take the sting of loss away or explain why it happened? No way. But I believe our God understands everything about the created order, our joy and our sorrow – our ecstasy and our awe, as well as our inconsolable pain. And God is in it all.
Conference minister David Popham offered a prayer this week that speaks to the omnipresence of God who unites with us in sorrow – the ever-present God who is in it all. I offer his prayer to you as I conclude my words after which I invite you into a period of silence so we can open ourselves to God’s presence here and now.
E pule kākou,
Grant us space for tears, God of mercy and comfort.
Grant us a place for shock and horror, a place for anger and frustration.
And in that place, may we turn to you with our aching hearts and sorrowful souls.
When we grow fatigued with weariness, and all we have left are tears, grant us a place for weeping.
Nurturing God, gather our tears from the place of weeping.
Gather them and pour them upon the 'āina— a renewal of sister earth, welled up from within us.
Recovery will come, and we know you will be a part of that journey, for you are the God of pilgrimage.
But at this time guard our place of tears, guard our grief, let our sorrow not be diminished or dismissed.
Grant us the place for weeping— that place where your Spirit meets and sighs with our spirits.
The place where you join us in our sorrow and human and divine tears mingle.