Thursday, January 03, 2008

January 3, 2008 - Farewell, Santa

Interesting discussion, today, over at Leroy Sievers’ “My Cancer” blog. He’s reflecting on how many people he knows who have cancer. “How could this be happening to us?” he asks. “To so many of us?”

Leroy recalls an old episode of The Twilight Zone television show, one that took place during the Korean War. A soldier suddenly acquires the ability to predict when his comrades are going to die. He can see it in their faces, which take on an unearthly glow. Finally, in a typical Twilight Zone “gotcha” ending, he looks in a mirror, and realizes his own face is glowing, too.

Leroy’s voicing of the timeless theodicy question – the theological problem of human suffering – provokes an unusually vigorous and reflective run of comments today, from his readers. He’s evidently struck a chord.

I write in, too, citing Romans 8:31-19 (a text I’ve mentioned before, upstream, in my February 12, 2007 and November 7, 2007 blog entries). In the midst of a triumphant argument about God being in charge and that being a good thing, Paul inserts this incongruous line: “As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’” (v. 36). It sounds to me rather like Leroy’s anguished observation, “How could this be happening to us?”

Then, the apostle issues a defiant “NO!” “No,” he counters, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” – continuing on to proclaim that nothing, in earth or in heaven, can separate us from the love of God.

It’s a singularly realistic way of looking at the pain of this human life of ours. No rose-colored glasses, here. “Life’s an abattoir. Get used to it.”

But – and here’s the important point – all that slaughter, dreadful as it is, is not the last word. More triumphant, and more powerful still – more powerful than any other force in the universe – is God’s love. Love really does conquer all.

Is there an explanation for why some people get cancer? None that’s convincing (not that I’ve ever heard of, anyway). We need to face that reality head-on, and not try to obscure it with the smoke and mirrors of slick philosophical arguments. We face that reality with the love of God beside us. Supported by that all-conquering love, we ultimately prevail.

Lots of people still don’t get that, about Christian faith. They look at God as sort of a Santa Claus figure. Not that they believe in Santa Claus anymore – but, they look at Santa as kind of a minor-league wish-fulfiller, with God as the major-leaguer. Having become Santa fans at an early age, digging deep down into the toe of their Christmas stockings, they’ve transferred that naive, bless-me-now faith to their adult spirituality. Such a shallow spirituality may suffice for years, until something like cancer enters the picture. Then, it’s crisis time.

The God of the Bible is simply not like that. Sure, there are psalms that proclaim, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13), but there are plenty more passages that speak of the utter unpredictability and power of God. Jesus himself declares that God “sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). There are simply no guarantees that life will turn out exactly has we hope, or dream, or expect. The only certainty is that God loves us through it all.

There are some preachers who dispense, in lieu of real spiritual food, a sugary concoction some today are calling “the prosperity gospel.” It’s pretty much God-as-Santa-Claus, and it’s not biblical (although they do their best to make it sound like it is, quoting verses out of context).

I’m not one of them. I’ve prayed beside too many hospital beds, and stood beside too many open graves, to dish out that kind of junk food from the pulpit.

So, farewell, Santa. You taught me some things worth knowing, when I was a kid, and I’ll always think of you fondly. But, I’ve graduated, you see. To a God who lets some bad things happen, in life, but who loves us anyway. Even in the valley of the shadow of death. Even in the chemo suite.

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