Archives For Evil

    14021732_10207304739360375_480901097151863019_n Here’s this weekend’s sermon on the Gospel lection from Luke 13.10-17. The sermon below feels incomplete without the rendition of South Park‘s Satan song “Up There” that preceded the preaching in worship. I owe the Scooby Doo angle to my inter-webs friend Richard Beck and his awesome new book Reviving Old Scratch.

 

When the Comedy Central animated series South Park debuted in August 1997- after a pilot episode the year before became one of the internet’s first viral videos- it created much controversy and met with many indignant complaints for the way it parodied Christianity generally and Jesus particularly.

For example, in the Y2K episode titled “Are You There God? It’s Me, Jesus” (my personal favorite episode) Jesus worries that for the new millennium we may crucify him again and, turns out, Jesus wasn’t so crazy about being crucified the first time.

So Jesus decides to do something cool to distract for us from crucifying him. He organizes a Rod Stewart comeback concert.

And in the pilot episode, “Jesus vs. Santa,” Jesus challenges Santa to a cage fight to settle once and for all, to the theme song from Mortal Kombat, the real meaning of Christmas.

The carnage doesn’t cease until Jesus and Santa are pulled apart by the gay figure skater, Brian Boitano, who teaches them that the real point of Christmas is presents, to which Kyle, the lone Jewish boy in South Park, observes “If you’re Jewish you get presents for 8 days not just 1.”

Naturally, the episode ends with all the children of South Park converting to Judaism.

When South Park debuted 20 years ago this week, it sparked heated controversy. The Christian Childcare Action Project protested that “children’s ability to understand the Gospel would be hindered and corrupted” by South Park.

While the Christian Family Network complained that South Park impeded their work to restore morality to our nation and protect the American family.

Twenty years ago this week, for many Christians, an animated television series posed an ecclesial emergency, threatening to inoculate us against the Gospel.

And, of course, the single cultural force that has done more damage than any other to our ability to speak Christian is a long-running animated TV show.

It’s just not South Park.

It’s Scooby Doo.

I mean, that’s obvious, right?

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     I didn’t become a Christian until I was 17 and, even then, I only did so kicking and screaming. I think my being born again was every bit as painful and drawn out as my initial birth because of Scooby Doo.

     I should’ve seen it coming. GI Joe, which came on every weekday before Scooby Doo, had warned me that “knowing is half the battle” and I knew how every episode of Scooby Doo was going to go. So I should’ve known Scooby Doo was forming me in such a way to make it impossible to read the Gospels rightly.

     Scooby Doo has aired continuously on television since 1969. It’s spun off into dozens of series and 37 films, including three due out this year.

Scooby Doo has been everywhere for a long time so, chances are, you already know all about Scooby Doo. You could probably sing the theme song right now if prompted, and now you’re probably singing it in your heads instead of listening to me.

Chances are, you already know that “the gang” is led by Fred Jones, the blond Hardy Boy lookalike who apparently owned not one orange ascot and white v-neck sweater but an entire wardrobe full and that, despite being a detective, seemed clueless about Daphne, the hot red head in the miniskirt who always played not so hard to get.

Scooby Doo has been around a long time so I’m betting you already know all about it. You know that Vilma not Ellen was the first lesbian on TV. You know that Scooby and the gang drove around in a van decorated with flower-powered artwork, constantly complaining of having the munches…so, no mystery there.

And you probably know that Scooby Doo would often feature crossover guest stars, like the Harlem Globetrotters, and characters from other non-animated shows like the Andy Griffith Show, which is odd and just shows how baked they were because, otherwise, you’d think it would’ve occurred to a team of detectives that the real mystery in Mayberry is “Where are all the black people?”

But that’s the problem, the Gospel-corroding problem with Scooby Doo. 

There’s never any mystery.

Not once. Not in any episode.

Is there any actual mystery.

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     * Every Scooby Doo episode follows the exact same pattern.

The sleuths of Mystery Inc. drive their psychedelic Mystery Machine van into a little town where a rattled resident lets slip how their quiet hamlet has recently been haunted by some ghost, spook, or monster.

Scooby and the gang then commence an investigation, examining clues and interviewing locals. Eventually- every time, every episode- contrary to common sense and all the previous episodes, Vilma will suggest the gang split up. Always a bad idea.

The gang will then encounter the ghost or monster in a hair-raising way, but eventually, after a suggestive hit or two of Scooby snacks and a comedic chase scene, they’ll nab the creature.

And always, every time, Scooby and his friends will unmask the monster, revealing- every episode, no exceptions- it to be not a ghost or a monster but someone from the town using the monster to scare people away from noticing their shady, criminal, very much human, activity.

At the end, unmasked, the crook will always walk off in cuffs grousing “…and I would’ve gotten away with too, if it weren’t…”

Fred, Vilma, Daphne, and Shaggy- they should drive a trippy van called the Secular Enlightenment Machine because there is never any mystery.

Every monster is just a man in a mask.

All Scooby Doo has to do, we’ve learned in every episode since 1969, is peek behind the spooky mask to learn what’s really going on.

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     Whether Scooby Doo has shaped us or whether Scooby Doo reflects us, we try to read the Gospel the same way.

We try to look behind the spooky, supernatural covering of a text to figure out what’s really going on.

And so when we came to the Gospel text where Jesus exorcises a Gerasene demoniac, who’s been left to wander a graveyard in chains, we pull away the spooky mask and we say that what’s really going on is that Jesus healed a man with a severe mental illness.

Or when we come to one of the many Gospel texts where Jesus heals someone of an unclean spirit, we try to pull away the mask and we conclude that what’s really going on is that Christ healed someone of epilepsy.

We try to pull away the mask on a text like today’s from Luke 13, where a daughter of Abraham has been bound by Satan for 18 long years, and we expect to discover that what’s really going on here is that Christ has healed her of an inexplicable paralysis.

Demons and devils- they’re just monster masks, we say.

And like in Scooby Doo if we but pull off the mask and peek behind it we’ll discover the human problem behind the spooky story, the mortality behind the mystery, the simple explanation behind what’s really going on.

Spirits and Satan- they’re just symbols, we say.

Except, by definition, symbols can never be pretend or make believe.

By definition, symbols (bread, chalice, cross,) always point to something real.

And that’s the problem with trying to pull away the spooky mask to see what’s really on in the Gospel behind it.

Because even if demons and devils, spirits and Satan, are just masks to you, even if you don’t think they’re real, that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus did.

“This woman is a daughter of Abraham whom Satan [with a capital S no less] has bound for 18 long years.” 

      Go back and look at today’s text.

That’s not the Pharisees attributing Satan to her paralysis. That’s not the Chief Priests saying she’s been bound by Satan. That’s not the disciples or Luke implying it.

That’s red-letter.

That’s Jesus saying that whatever has ailed this woman is because Satan has bound her in his captivity, and you don’t need me to point out that Jesus wouldn’t have bothered to say that if it wasn’t also true, in less obvious ways, about all the rest of his listeners.

Which, includes us.

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     Thanks to Fred and Vilma, we think we have to pull away the monster mask from the Jesus story in order to understand what’s really going on, when, in fact, it’s no longer possible to understand what Jesus thought was going on if you pull away the demons and devils from the story.

You can’t Scooby Doo-ify the Gospel.

Because when you pull away the monster mask, you tear off too much of the Gospel with it.

Call it what you will:

Devil

Death, as Paul does in Romans

The Principalities and Powers, as Ephesians does

Satan, as Jesus says here

Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, or the Adversary, as Jesus does elsewhere

Call it what you will, the sheer array of names proves the point. “The Devil,” as Richard Beck says, “l is the narrative glue that holds the New Testament together.”

     The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament you can’t speak proper Christian without believing in him.

Even the ancient Christmas carols most commonly describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of Satan’s territory.

Whether you believe Satan is real is beside the point because Jesus did.

To pull off the monster masks and to insist that something else is going on behind them is to ignore how Jesus, fundamentally, understood himself and his mission. It’s to ignore how his first followers- and, interestingly, his first critics- understood him.

The Apostle John spells it out for us, spells out the reason for Jesus’ coming not in terms of our sin but in terms of Satan. John says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.”

And when Peter explains who Jesus is to a curious Roman named Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter says: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who were under the power of the Devil.” 

When his disciples ask him how to pray, Jesus teaches them to pray “…Deliver us from the Evil One…” 

You can count up the verses.

More so than he was a teacher or a wonder worker. More so than a prophet, a preacher, or a revolutionary, Jesus was an exorcist.

And he understood his ministry as being not just for us but against the One whom he called the Adversary, the monster behind so many human masks.

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     Our impulse is to Scooby Doo-ify the Gospel, but we can’t.

The mask can’t come off because it does the Gospel comes off with it.

     If there’s no Devil, there’s no Gospel.

No Devil, no Gospel.

Because, according to the Gospel, our salvation is not a 2-person drama. It’s not a 2-person cast of God-in-Christ and us.

It’s not a simple exchange brokered over our sin and his cross.

According to the Gospels, the Gospel is not just that Jesus died for your sin. The Gospel is that Jesus defeated Sin with a capital S. Defeated, that is, Satan.

The Gospel is not just that Jesus suffered in your place. The Gospel is that Jesus overcame the One who holds you in your place. It isn’t just that Jesus died your death. It’s that Jesus has delivered you from the Power of Death with a capital D, the one whom Paul calls the Enemy with a capital E.

     According to scripture, there is a 3rd character in this story.

     There’s a third cast member to the salvation drama.

We’re not only sinners before God. We’re captives to Another. We’re unwitting accomplices and slaves and victims of Another.

And even now, says scripture, the New Creation being brought into reality by Christ is constantly at war with, always contending against, the Old Creation ruled by Satan.

And the battlefield runs through every human heart. Obviously, I realize that likely sounds superstitious to you. Fantastical.

But you tell me-

Take a look at the suffering and poverty and violence, the oppression, the hate, the exploitation splayed out all over your newspaper pages every day. And you tell me it doesn’t require an almost willful fantasy not to believe the human race is captive to some other Power, in rebellion still against God.

Genocide isn’t wrong; it’s evil.

So, you tell me the monster masks scripture gives us aren’t the best explanation for what’s really going on in our world.

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     Look- we’ve all been watching Scooby Doo since 1969.

There’s no way I can convince you today to stop trying to look behind the monster masks in these spooky stories. There’s no way I can make you believe in the Devil if you don’t already.

But maybe, I can show you why we need him, why, without this third character in the salvation story, the Gospel is no longer Gospel. It’s no longer Good News.

Because-

When we Scooby Doo-ify the Gospel

When we push Satan off the stage of the salvation drama

When we cut the cast down from three characters (God, Us, and Satan) to two characters (God and Us)

What happens is that we end up turning God in to a kind of Satan.

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     Just a few weeks ago, I received an email in my inbox, from someone I do not know. Sometimes having a blog has its downsides. The fact that the sender still has a hotmail address tells me plenty about them.

Anyway, the sender felt compelled to email me to tell me that he believed “God gave me incurable cancer because of my ‘liberal views on gays and Muslims.”

Nice, huh?

After I dug my fingernails out of the wood of my desk, I snarled the same four-lettered expressions you’re wearing on your faces right now.

But step back from the nastiness of it and it’s not that unusual of an assumption. I have cancer and the sender of the email assumed there must be a reason (from God) that I do.

A few days after I received that email, a woman came up to me, here in the sanctuary, after the 9:45 service.

She’s has a kid my son’s age. She lost her husband a a couple of years ago after a long illness. Only weeks after her husband died, she found out she had a serious form cancer. After surgeries and treatments, she’d thought she’d beaten it.

She came up to me after worship a few weeks ago to tell me goodbye. Her cancer had come back and it had spread. She was going home to her family, she told me, so that they could care for her daughter after she died.

Crying, she wondered the same question she’d asked when she was first diagnosed: Why is God doing this to me?

Not nearly as nasty as the email but it was the same assumption.

After I hugged her, before I could even get out of the sanctuary, a man came up to me and wept in a stoic sort of way, telling me how his college-bound daughter had fallen into addiction yet again.

And he put it into different words, but it was the same question with the same assumption lurking behind it, like a face behind a mask: Why is God doing this to us?

We talk like this all the time.

The difficult pregnancy or the scary prognosis, the marriage that can’t heal or the dream that didn’t come true even though you prayed holes in the rug-

LIFE HAPPENS

-and we think God must be punishing us.

That this is happening for a reason.

That this suffering is because of that sin.

That God is giving us what we deserve.

Life happens and we want to know why: why is God doing this to me?

We speak like this all the time, as if there must be a direct, causal, 1-to-1 correspondence between God’s will and every event on earth and in our lives.

There’s a reason for everything, we say.

But think about it- a world where there’s a reason [from God] for everything is a world where there is no gap between the already of what Christ has done and the yet of what Christ promises still to do.

     A world where there’s a reason [from God] for everything is a world already exactly as God would have it be.

     But that’s not the world as scripture sees it.

But you can’t see that world when you reduce the cast of the Gospels’ salvation story to two, God and us.

If there’s only two characters in the drama, then of course God must doing X, Y, or Z to you. There’s no else to blame.

The world as the Gospels see it is not a world where everything is exactly as God would have it be or where everything that happens to you is because God willed it upon you.

There is a third character in the story.

The world as the Gospels see it is a world still in captivity to the Principalities and Powers, still in rebellion to Sin. Still in bondage under Satan. Creation is at best a shadow of what God intends.

The world of tumors and tragedies, addictions and atrocities, is NOT a world where everything is the unfolding of God’ will but a world still alienated from him because there is Another, an Adversary, always contending against God.

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     “This woman is a daughter of Abraham whom Satan has bound for 18 long years.” 

Notice, unlike so many of us, Jesus doesn’t say God gave her her illness. Unlike so many of us, Jesus doesn’t blame it on God.

You may not believe in the Devil, and I can’t convince you today.

But you need the him.

You need the Devil to remember that whatever you think God is doing to you God isn’t. God isn’t your Accuser. God isn’t a kind of Satan. God doesn’t cast blame upon you or dole out to you what you deserve.

      You may not believe in the Devil, but, trust me, I hear enough people ask ‘Why is God doing this to me?’ to know that you need to recover that third cast member in the salvation story.

You need to get Satan back on the stage.

You need the Devil to remember that God never gives us what we deserve and always gives us more than we deserve- God responds to the crosses we build with resurrection.

You need Satan back on stage in order to remember that if there’s a reason for everything in our world and in our lives then, as often as not, those reasons are NOT God’s reasons but Another’s doing.

You may not believe in the Devil, but you need him.

You need him in order to remember that no matter what your life looks like, when God looks upon you God sees a prodigal child for whom he’ll never stop looking down the road, ready to celebrate.

You need to stop trying to look behind the mask.

You need to get Satan back on stage.

Your salvation drama is incomplete without a cast of three.

Because when you pull away the mask, you tear off the very best good news there is:

When you look upon a face of suffering you do not see the face of God.

You see the face of his Enemy.

 

 

 

 

I’m so, so afraid of appearing to be pillaging tragedy for traffic that I’ll keep this short and sweet.

Most of the regular traffic on this blog aren’t (my) church folk, but many are members of my church and my community.

Those unfortunate enough to be in the latter already know that Hannah Graham, the abducted UVA student whose remains were discovered late last week, was a member of our community.

Pastors will know what I mean when I say she’s one of those faces you know and have seen many times before: in church, introduced by a friend, out and about, at something like a baccalaureate…how do I know her?

I’ve since communicated with her friends many times and to her family just a few. Both those many and the few lead to this often on my mind: ‘Please, don’t make me do her service…’

The downside of being in one church for so long is that I’ve (and, let’s give credit where its due, my church) caught more than my fair share of shitty funerals. The car load of girls who die on graduation day. The 6th grade confirmand who haunts my dreams. The too-young addict Dad who dies, leaving his family in the lurch. The older folks I’ve grown to love (no hyperbole) in 10 years and don’t want to see gone.

But with Hannah this feels different. It is different. I knew it when we held a vigil for her and I found myself unable to participate in the very liturgy I’d composed. It’s different because…why?

Because Hannah inserts a giant ‘WTF are you talking about?’ comment into all my theology. I’ve got nice, tidy Thomistic (see: Aquinas, Thomas) definitions for evil and sin.

I’ve got scripture at the ready to buttress my argument. And I’m versed in all the competing views too.

Here’s the THING- I still think the Thomistic view of evil to be right.

But ‘right’ and sufficient are hardly the same thing.

So I received it as good news this past week when reading over 1 Corinthians 12 to prepare for my sermon. I’ve read over Paul’s list of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and his analogy to the parts of the body for the members of the Church so many times it barely registers anymore. ‘Boring’ doesn’t begin to describe my knee-jerk reaction to this text.

But with Hannah on mind and the giant ‘WTF?’ looming over my mind, I noticed something on Paul’s list 1 Corinthians 12 I’ve never noticed before:

Faith

Right there alongside wisdom and interpretation and the other gifts the Spirit brings to believers whenever they gather together in worship, Paul lists ‘faith.’

That is, these aren’t permanent, personality-trait gifts Paul lists. They’re ways the Spirit temporarily manifests among Christians during worship. In other words, on any given Sunday, in any given worship setting, the Spirit only gives ‘faith’ to some of those gathered to confess that Jesus is Lord.

So often we make faith the amorphous pre-req to count as a Christian and then we beat ourselves up when we (often rightly) feel like we don’t have enough of it.

But Paul doesn’t expect all of us to have it all of the time.

Paul, I think we can wager, expects us those other times to have more than our fair share of doubt and second-guessing and just raw, righteous anger at the God we may or may not believe in.

Faith is a gift, every time we have it, because every time we gather the gift is only given to ‘some.’

Admittedly, most days and weeks that may sound like bad news to me. But not lately. Not at all.

Untitled10111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the earlier installments here.

Here are questions 27-28

I. The Father

27. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing then what is evil?

There are two kinds of evil: evil suffered and evil done.

To evil suffered we give the name ‘creation.’

To evil done we give the name ‘no-thing.’

Evil suffered is what comes to a creature from outside it, the evil that happens to a thing for which it is not itself responsible.

Evil suffered is relative in that the suffering of one creature comes about by the flourishing of another; for example, when a lion eats a lamb the evil suffered by the lamb is real but it comes about by the lion simply fulfilling its lion-ness.

Evil done is particular to responsible beings, as in, wickedness.

Evil done is ‘nothing,’ meaning it’s an absence or privation within a person.

A wicked person does not possess within them something called wickedness. There’s no such thing as ‘wickedness’ in and of itself. Rather a wicked person is someone with an absence of good, a person who fails to be fully human.

If we were ‘free’ in terms of being independent from God, then evil suffered would present the only problem of evil, for God, having no control over our free actions, would not be able to prevent evil done.

However, since God is the cause of all things, both evil suffered and evil done present problems for believers in God.

“He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”    

– Matthew 5.45

28. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, is God responsible for evil and suffering?

Responsible? Yes.

But guilty? No.

If God is the cause of all our actions, even our ‘free’ acts, then God is the cause behind both evil suffered and evil done in that God has created all things in the world and continually holds all things in existence.

In the case of evil suffered, God has created and continually holds in existence a world in which the flourishing and fulfillment of one creature leads to the suffering of another. A tumor flourishing as a tumor leads to the suffering of the person with cancer.

A lion fulfilling it’s lioness leads to the suffering of the lamb.

So God is responsible for much of the evil suffered in the world, but God is not ‘guilty’because there is not another kind of world God should have created. A world where God stops the lion from eating the lamb, for example, would be a world where God prevents the lion from fulfilling its lioness. In other words, a world of machines rather than a world of creatures.

In the case of evil done, God has created and continually holds in existence every person who commits evil. Even as those people commit evil, God holds them in existence. Their evil acts are never ‘free’ in the sense of being independent from God so in this sense God is responsible for evil done.

However, God is not ‘guilty’ of evil done for evil is not a thing which God has created. Evil is a privation, an absence, identifiable only in relation to the good God has made. Evil is a defect, the failure of people to flourish and fulfill their humanness.

Whereas there does not seem to be another world free of evil suffered that God should have created, it does seem possible that God could have created a world where humans do not fail to fulfill their humanity.

That God did not create such a world is a deep mystery to which we can only reply by way of the Cross.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12.21

Slaughter of the InnocentsI started this blog six months ago and the first post then was about another mass shooting. The one in Colorado.

I was in Guatemala until the Sunday before Christmas. I missed both the media coverage and the national grieving that occurred after the Newtown shooting- though I was greeted at the Guatemala City airport with a copy of Prense Libre, the Guatemalan newspaper, whose cover story reflected on why American culture is unique in producing spree killers.

Because I away before the holiday, and missed whatever grieving and theological wrestling my congregation did while I was away, it felt a little odd to return to church on Christmas Eve and celebrate.

I’m only now processing it.

Here’s a theological reflection from the NY Times by Father Kevin O’Neil, Maureen Dowd’s, priest:

When my friend Robin was dying, she asked me if I knew a priest she could talk to who would not be, as she put it, “too judgmental.” I knew the perfect man, a friend of our family, a priest conjured up out of an old black-and-white movie, the type who seemed not to exist anymore in a Catholic Church roiled by scandal. Like Father Chuck O’Malley, the New York inner-city priest played by Bing Crosby, Father Kevin O’Neil sings like an angel and plays the piano; he’s handsome, kind and funny. Most important, he has a gift. He can lighten the darkness around the dying and those close to them. When he held my unconscious brother’s hand in the hospital, the doctors were amazed that Michael’s blood pressure would noticeably drop. The only problem was Father Kevin’s reluctance to minister to the dying. It tears at him too much. He did it, though, and he and Robin became quite close. Years later, he still keeps a picture of her in his office. As we’ve seen during this tear-soaked Christmas, death takes no holiday. I asked Father Kevin, who feels the subject so deeply, if he could offer a meditation. This is what he wrote:

How does one celebrate Christmas with the fresh memory of 20 children and 7 adults ruthlessly murdered in Newtown; with the searing image from Webster of firemen rushing to save lives ensnared in a burning house by a maniac who wrote that his favorite activity was “killing people”? How can we celebrate the love of a God become flesh when God doesn’t seem to do the loving thing? If we believe, as we do, that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, why doesn’t He use this knowledge and power for good in the face of the evils that touch our lives?

The killings on the cusp of Christmas in quiet, little East Coast towns stirred a 30-year-old memory from my first months as a priest in parish ministry in Boston. I was awakened during the night and called to Brigham and Women’s Hospital because a girl of 3 had died. The family was from Peru. My Spanish was passable at best. When I arrived, the little girl’s mother was holding her lifeless body and family members encircled her.

They looked to me as I entered. Truth be told, it was the last place I wanted to be. To parents who had just lost their child, I didn’t have any words, in English or Spanish, that wouldn’t seem cheap, empty. But I stayed. I prayed. I sat with them until after sunrise, sometimes in silence, sometimes speaking, to let them know that they were not alone in their suffering and grief. The question in their hearts then, as it is in so many hearts these days, is “Why?”

The truest answer is: I don’t know. I have theological training to help me to offer some way to account for the unexplainable. But the questions linger. I remember visiting a dear friend hours before her death and reminding her that death is not the end, that we believe in the Resurrection. I asked her, “Are you there yet?” She replied, “I go back and forth.” There was nothing I wanted more than to bring out a bag of proof and say, “See? You can be absolutely confident now.” But there is no absolute bag of proof. I just stayed with her. A life of faith is often lived “back and forth” by believers and those who minister to them.

Implicit here is the question of how we look to God to act and to enter our lives. For whatever reason, certainly foreign to most of us, God has chosen to enter the world today through others, through us. We have stories of miraculous interventions, lightning-bolt moments, but far more often the God of unconditional love comes to us in human form, just as God did over 2,000 years ago.

I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them. Second, I don’t look for the hand of God to stop evil. I don’t expect comfort to come from afar. I really do believe that God enters the world through us. And even though I still have the “Why?” questions, they are not so much “Why, God?” questions. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not.

One true thing is this: Faith is lived in family and community, and God is experienced in family and community. We need one another to be God’s presence. When my younger brother, Brian, died suddenly at 44 years old, I was asking “Why?” and I experienced family and friends as unconditional love in the flesh. They couldn’t explain why he died. Even if they could, it wouldn’t have brought him back. Yet the many ways that people reached out to me let me know that I was not alone. They really were the presence of God to me. They held me up to preach at Brian’s funeral. They consoled me as I tried to comfort others. Suffering isolates us. Loving presence brings us back, makes us belong.

A contemporary theologian has described mercy as “entering into the chaos of another.” Christmas is really a celebration of the mercy of God who entered the chaos of our world in the person of Jesus, mercy incarnate. I have never found it easy to be with people who suffer, to enter into the chaos of others. Yet, every time I have done so, it has been a gift to me, better than the wrapped and ribboned packages. I am pulled out of myself to be love’s presence to someone else, even as they are love’s presence to me.

I will never satisfactorily answer the question “Why?” because no matter what response I give, it will always fall short. What I do know is that an unconditionally loving presence soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life. This is a gift that we can all give, particularly to the suffering. When this gift is given, God’s love is present and Christmas happens daily.