Saturday, January 17, 2015

Finding God In Everything

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 25, 2004

In 1775, a great earthquake struck the Portuguese capital, Lisbon. The devastation was just awful, and between 30 and 40 thousand people were killed. In the face of this terrible tragedy, the bishops of Lisbon issued a statement. They affirmed their faith that God is both all-powerful and all-just, and declared that “whatever is—is right.” Therefore, they said, the earthquake must be God’s punishment to the people of Lisbon for their sins.
(Leave it to a group of bishops to say the “right thing” at the right time…)
The bishops’ statement greatly angered the French philosophe Voltaire, and he wrote a poem, “The Lisbon Earthquake”, in response. After describing the horrible sufferings of the people of Lisbon, Voltaire wrote:
Say, when you hear their piteous, half-formed cries,
Or from their ashes see the smoke arise,
Say, will you then eternal laws maintain,
Which God to cruelties like these constrain?
Whilst you these facts replete with horror view,
Will you maintain death to their crimes was due?
And can you then impute a sinful deed
To babes who on their mothers’ bosoms bleed? …
Are you then sure, the power which could create
The universe and fix the laws of fate,
Would not have found for man a proper place,
But earthquakes must destroy the human race?
Will you thus limit the eternal mind?
Should not our God to mercy be inclined?
Cannot then God direct all nature’s course?
Can power almighty be without recourse? …
But how conceive a God, the source of love.
Who on man lavished blessings from above,
Then would the race with various plagues confound,
Can mortals penetrate His views profound?
Ill could not from a perfect being spring,
Nor from another, since God’s sovereign king;
And yet, sad truth! in this our world ‘tis found,
What contradictions here my soul confound!
“Where was God when the earthquake struck?” Voltaire was asking. It’s a question echoed throughout human history:
Where was God during the Inquisition? During the Holocaust? When Native Americans were massacred by Federal troops at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee? When firebombs reigned down on Dresden or Hiroshima?
Where was God when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into one great killing field? When Stalin sent trainloads to the gulag? When Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds?
Where was God when those airplanes hit the World Trade Center towers, and turned them into deadly infernos? When American bombs, dropped in our name, killed thousands of children, women, and men in Baghdad? Where is our “all-knowing, all-powerful God” in the face of the daily atrocities this old world of ours faces, now more than ever, it seems?
We are not alone, in our own time, in asking the question. We have comrades in scripture who have asked it, as well. There’s a whole book in the Hebrew Bible called Lamentations—a great, collective “Why us?” of the people of Israel addressed to their God. Job, of course, was sorely perplexed by trying to reconcile his view of the God who had blessed him, with the God who, in the blink of an eye, seemingly delighted in tormenting him. The book of Psalms is full of laments about the (apparent) absence of God at different times in people’s lives. In Psalm 69, the author cries out in anguish for some semblance of divine help:
“Save me, O God, for the waters threaten my life; I am sunk in the abysmal swamp where there is no foothold; I have reached the watery depths; the flood overwhelms me. I am wearied with calling; my throat is parched; My eyes have failed with looking for my God.”
The psalmist has gone blind looking for his God. He has looked—and looked—and looked—and God isn’t there. (Or doesn’t seem to be there, at least.)
The last words of Jesus on the cross, according to Mark, were words of lamentation: “Eli, eli, lama sambach tani?” (“My God, My, why have you forsaken me?”) “Where are you now, my God?” Jesus seems to be asking.
“God seems to have left the receiver off the hook, and time is running out,” Arthur Koestler wrote. More bitterly, Andrew Breton looked out at the injustice of the world and exclaimed, “For me, the single word ‘God’ suggests everything that is slippery, shady, squalid, foul, and grotesque.” Even Mark Twain looked out at the absurdity of the world, and decided that even he could have created it better. For instance, Twain wondered why, when God told Noah to take two of every kind of animal on board the ark, he didn’t tell him to leave a few behind—flies, rats, mosquitoes, perhaps. Think of all the plagues and diseases that could have been avoided then, Twain exclaimed.
Sometimes, we might feel anger toward God for the evils of the world, and in our questioning, and in our anger, there can be much health.
“I am a burning bush.
My rage is a cloud of flame,” wrote Marge Piercy…
“A good anger acted upon
is beautiful as lightning
and swift with power…
A good anger swallowed
clots the blood
to slime.”
At other times, of course, our sense of the presence of the Divine can be a delight and a pleasure to us. It inspires us and brings refreshment to our souls. Think about the joy our hearts will feel once again, not toolong from now (though at this point in late January it still might seem an eternity) when the first new shoots of spring break through the ground. As my colleague Beth Graham has written of the first crocuses:
“When their yellow faces pierce the earth each spring, my heart both breaks and mends. For coming out of the hardened earth, against the backdrop of March or April’s frozen terrain, there is this brilliance. This cheerful surprise. This unbridled joy.
“What stabs at me at such moments is that such simple beauty is so desperately needed by our winter weary souls. But what soothes me is that at that moment when the first splash of yellow stings my eyes, I am assured that more loveliness is yet to come. That life’s fullness is about to blossom again. That whatever struggles have occurred in the year gone by – beneath our feet, within our hearts, among our communities – they have not been purposeless. What takes my breath away is the mystery of why this is so.”
There is a God in nature who soothes our winter-weary souls. Hildegard of Bingen described this Spirit this way:
I am the one whose praise echoes from the trees.
I adorn all the earth. I am the breeze that nurtures all things green.
I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits.
I am led by the spirit to feed the purest streams.
I am the rain coming from the dew
that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life.
I am the yearning for good.

Here are the pointers toward God—toward good—we all experience in our lives:
  • Where, in your life, do the really good things come from?
  • What brings them into your life?
  • What gives you a real and abiding “high”, which the world can neither give nor take away, and which remains still when the moment passes away?
  • From whence comes the beauty in nature?
  • The deepest loves you feel?
  • Your artistic or personal creativity? Your imagination running wild?
  • Your sense of mystery? Your call to serve others? Your compassion, your altruism, your empathy?
  • What brings a lump to your throat and a tear to your eye? What gets you through the hard times and gives you faith, and hope, and a deep and abiding sense of grace?
These are our “pointers” to God. They are the reasons many of us cannot let go of God, even when we are mired in the Februaries of our existence, even when “night has been too lonely and the road has been too long”. There is a love that will not let us go, and a great sea of mystery in which we swim.
Sometimes, it might seem as though there are two gods at work here—one of creation and another of destruction, or despair. We might envy our polytheistic brothers and sisters around the world for having a different God for every situation in life. The ancient Mayans believed each day was a separate, different god—and you could never know what each god might bring. It’s a view that might make sense to us, as we experience this topsy-turvy, roller coaster ride which is our lives. As Annie Dillard wrote: “Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each God, I praise each day.”
There is a somewhat different way to look at it, I suppose, and that is the way of panentheism. Not “pantheism”, which says that “everything is a god”—every rock and tree and mountain. But panentheism, which says that “God is in all things.”—that every day might not be a separate god—but that God is in each and every day—in each and every aspect of creation and experience. In this view, God both transcends the natural world (God imbues the natural world with meaning and purpose), yet God is also immanent within the natural world—“the great and fiery force, breathing in everything that is,” to quote Hildegard once again. A old Welsh poem presents a lovely portrait of the panentheistic vision of God:
I am the wind that breathes the sea,
I am the wave on the ocean,
I am the murmur of leaves rustling,
I am the rays of the sun,
I am the beam of the moon and stars,
I am the power of trees growing,
I am the bud breaking into blossom,
I am the movement of the salmon swimming,
I am the courage of the wild boar fighting,
I am the speed of the stag running,
I am the strength of the ox pulling the plough,
I am the size of the mighty oak,
And I am the thoughts of all people,
Who praise my beauty and grace.
God is in all aspects of the natural world. But this natural world in which we all live has its own laws—and these include things like disease and natural disasters and earthquakes and storms. We accept these aspects of life as part of the price we pay for being alive.
“We, who are held in Creation’s hands, are surrounded by the inexplicable,” writes Beth Graham. “There are sights that make our spirits soar… and there are realities that crush our hearts, that can never be fully accepted.”
For some of us, God is there as we struggle with the hard and harsh realities of life, as much as God is present in the glories and wonders of this beautiful Creation.
You can’t have the best of life, without the rest of life.
Phillips Simmons was a Unitarian Universalist who lived in Sandwich, New Hampshire. About twelve years ago, at the age of 35, he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, and given just five years to live. He passed away a little over a year ago, shortly after the publication of a book of essays, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life.
After being diagnosed with the disease that would kill him, Simmons could have just cursed God—or Fate—or bad luck—and given up on life. Instead, he chose to live fully in the heart of a life that had brought even suffering his way.
“I want to choose the world in such a way that I am choosing God, too,” Simmons wrote. “…We must love the world with a child’s love for its parents, a love immediate and unreserved, no matter that the world gives us both blueberries and the black flies that torment us as we pick them. We must love the world with the love of a mother or father for her or his two-year-old child, the one with the scabby knees and runny nose and the lungs of a future opera singer running toward us now with whatever gob of creation—wasp nest or worm or wisteria—it has clutched in its gleeful fist. We must love the world as new lovers do one another, as if to be in the beloved’s presence is to walk through a world made newly luminous, finding that every ordinary gesture—the way he drops his car keys on the table, the way she raises a cup to her lips—is holy and part of a sacred dance. Mystic vision is a lover’s vision, and despite the pain love brings, to see the world through a lover’s eyes is already to have chosen it.”
I’m sure that many of you, perhaps, have seen the poster—or the t-shirt—or the bumper sticker that reads: “Please be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet.”
Perhaps this can be our view of life, especially when things aren’t easy: “Be patient, God isn’t done yet.” So—“Let’s reach out and lend a hand to help finish the job.”
When we reach out—to God—to one another—to brothers and sisters the world over-- to all those creatures with whom we share this Earth—then the loads we carry are made lighter, and we move beyond despair and isolation and toward connectedness with all that is.
At the end of the play, J.B., Archibald MacLeish’s modern retelling of the story of Job, all has become darkness, and Job cries out to his wife, Sarah, “It’s too dark to see!" To which, she replies:
Then blow on the coal of the heart, my darling.
It’s all the light now.
Blow on the coal of the heart.
The candles in churches are out.
The lights have gone out in the sky.
Blow on the coal of the heart
And we’ll see by and by …
We’ll see where we are.
The wick won’t burn and the wet soul smolders.
Blow on the coal of the heart and we’ll know…
We’ll know …
We cannot control everything that happens to us in life, nor can we choose a life free of heartache or pain. But we can choose how we will respond to life. We can choose to let go and let God. We can choose to reach out to the Hand of Life, and let the power of Love heal our souls. We can choose. 

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