“Where and Who is God?”
Texts: Romans 8: 38-39, 9:16-18
38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
16 So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. 17 For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.
I am often engaged in some public wrestling over the ideas of what kinds of influence and to what extent God influences our world and our lives. As part of that public wrestling, I often ask questions about God in our lives; and it seems every time I ask a question, I can only answer the question with more questions or with a ‘sometimes’ or in most cases a yes and a no answer. I’m not finding very many absolutes when we dive into these waters.
In spite of the lack of answers, however, I feel it is a good exercise for us to be engaged in. It is food for our souls and it enriches our faith journey. I don’t believe the point of these periods of questioning are really to find one true answer; quite the contrary as a matter of fact. I believe each of us may encounter a slightly different answer that resonates with us and if that answer is true for us, then it is truth. I believe in a God who affords us that level of flexibility and that level of responsibility.
That being said, let me also say I am offering my insights and personal struggles with these questions for encouragement for you to come to your own conclusions – to work out your own answers to questions like these. I do not claim to hold any answers that are right or true or absolute; they make sense for me, and I hope they can act as a catalyst to enliven your spirits and cause you think, so you too, may find answers that are right for you.
Today, I want to ponder a question that often arises in our lives; what is the relationship of God to natural or personal disasters? If you are like me, sometimes we struggle to understand the earthquake, the volcano, or the mass shooting. Then when personal tragedy strikes, it makes the question even more relevant. Perhaps another way of asking is to say; did God single me out for this?
If you feel a little confused by this questions, take heart – I think you are in good company. The texts that I have chosen for today I did so because I believe they reflect for us some of the same kind of confusion. In other words, if you feel confused, don’t feel bad, because I think Paul was confused as well. Consider that late in chapter 8 of Romans Paul wants to reassure us that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. And he lists all kinds of disasters that we might think could separate us, but he says no – nothing can separate us. Then just a few verses later – early in chapter 9, Paul claims that the very reason God created the Pharaoh was to harden his heart and in essence, separate the Pharaoh from the love of God. And most of us are familiar with the long list of disasters and plagues that followed that separation.
You may not see any contradiction here or confusion on Paul’s part, after all, the Pharaoh was Old Testament and Paul is New Testament. That is true. But what Paul is talking about is the character of God – the nature of God – who God is. If you are comfortable with a schizophrenic God who is one character early in our history and then changes to another character later on, then go for it. But for me, I choose to believe in a God that is more stable than that. I choose to attribute all the emotions of anger and wrath and the flip-flop on positions found in the Old Testament to people, rather than to God….in spite of what the Bible says.
So who is God? And what relationship does this God have with personal or natural disasters that impact our lives?
I have found that it is sometimes easier to create for yourself some things that you believe to be true about the nature of God first; and then compare your experience or other’s experiences to that character of God you have created and see if the experience and the belief are compatible.
I don’t have time in just one setting to give you all of the things I believe to be true about God and to talk about each one as well. So I want to offer just one of the things that help me define God and also help me to live with the experiences of my past. That one thing is this; I believe God to be a radical egalitarian. That is God treats everyone equally. God does not play favorites. God would not do something for one and not the other. Now let me give you the conflict.
In the late summer of 1990 on a lonely stretch of highway in central Oklahoma there was an automobile accident. My sister was driving a mini-van returning home to Texas after attending a class reunion in Iowa. There were three children in the car, two of my sisters and one cousin who had come along just for fun. My mother was also riding along. As my sister drove along in the doldrums of a late summer afternoon, she fell asleep at the wheel. The vehicle left the highway, just missing a guard rail and then plunging off the side of an overpass. The three children in the back of the mini-van were all thrown from the vehicle, with just one being hurt seriously. My sister, in the driver’s seat was bruised severely, but survived the accident. My mother in the passenger seat did not survive and was killed.
We dealt with the tragedy as any family would. We counted our blessings when we considered how much worse the accident could have been. We took solace in the fact that my mother had lived a full life and that she was doing what she loved to do, traveling and being with grandchildren, when the end came.
About 10 years later I was in conversation with a clergy colleague of mine. We were discussing the same kinds of question we are looking at the today. The discussion came around to the idea of a guardian angel – an agent of God – that keeps you from danger. I told my colleague that I had a little trouble with that idea – and she said that she used to, but now she knows for certain that they exist. “For certain?” I asked her – “that sounds a little far fetched to me,” I said. Then she told me a story about when she was driving alone on the interstate with the cruise control engaged. She too, fell asleep. For an unexplained reason, the cruise control disengaged at that moment and the jerk of the vehicle beginning to slow down is what woke her up. She is convinced it was a guardian angel that disengaged her cruise control.
I tried to explain to my colleague that if her story was true, as she told it that would mean that God was willing to wake her up but not willing to wake my sister and that presented a problem.
“It’s true for me,” she said; “I’m not asking that it be true for you.”
That is why each of us must do the work ourselves and be encouraged to ask the questions, and find the answers mostly on our own. The answers are borne of our experience, shaped by our thoughts and perfected by our theology. The answers are unique and personal for each one of us. There is no single right answer; you must find your own. Go in peace and go with God – you have work to do. Amen.