Two weeks after 9/11, I began confirmation prep with my second group of eighth graders while serving at the Church of the Redeemer in Boston. I thought I would be edgy and start by asking the group how they can believe in God after what had just happened. To my surprise, I spent the hour listening to the young people articulately defend God as they found ways to explain where God was in the midst of the tragedy.
I think what the kids managed to do was quite remarkable, because one of the challenges facing most Christians today is defending God as we look back over the atrocities of the last one hundred years. These are atrocities that include the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as what Diana Butler-Bass has labeled the four shock waves of the last decade. Those events include, 9/11, the Catholic Church Sex scandal, Mainline Protestantism’s battle over inclusion and sexuality, and most recently the Christian rights take over of American politics.
As we add the ethnic cleansings that have recently taken place in Bosnia and Rwanda, those looking in from the outside and even we. . . have to ask where is God in the midst of all this violence. If we believe in an all powerful and loving God, how can God allow such massive violence to exist? After surveying the carnage of World War II, Nitsche declared God to be dead, after all, how else could such evil be allowed to reign havoc on earth.
But this is not the first time people have wondered where God is. As the psalmist finds himself in a place of total darkness and desolation, a place that feels completely devoid of the love of God he laments, “ My God, my God, why have you forsaken and seem so far from my cry and from the words of my distress? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; by night as well, but I find no rest.”
There is no doubt we have, at times, found ourselves in places of darkness or needing to work our way through events that feel as if God has abandoned us. It’s not far from the feelings we encountered as network cameras continually surveyed the devastation of 9/11 and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Where was God in the midst of all this devastation? Sr. Theresa of Calcutta asked the same question when she became overwhelmed with the poverty she found on the streets of Calcutta.
I found myself struggling with this same question during my second unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. I did this clinical unit at the State Facility for Adolescent Delinquents in Middletown, Connecticut. It was basically a reformatory for criminally adjudicated youth. It was truly a place emanating from the heart of darkness. During the three months I worked there, I got to know many of the youth. I was given the opportunity to read their histories and hear their stories. To say their stories were depressing is an understatement. Their histories were stories upon stories of neglect, physical and sexual abuse topped off with lives surrounded by inner-city violence. They were lives at fourteen, fifteen and sixteen of extreme loneliness and hopelessness. It was truly sad the day I realized for most of these young people, this was the first time in their lives that they were assured of getting three hot meals a day, and a warm, safe place to sleep at night. In fact, their lives were so bad, many quickly committed petty crimes after discharge in order to be returned to the safety of the facility.
During the first few weeks I worked there, I could literally feel the hope being sucked out of me and wondering the age old question, where was God in the midst of so much darkness, and I literally began to believe God had abandoned these young adults.
During this experience I related to the opening lines of this morning’s psalm. I found myself searching for the confidence the psalmist finds in God despite his desolation and despair. “You are he”, the psalmist writes,” who took me out of the womb, and kept me safe upon my mother’s breast. I have been entrusted to you ever since I was born, you were my God when I was still in my mother’s womb.”
Over the course of that summer, the answer I sought in my search for God came slowly as I began developing relationships with the various staff members. There was a middle aged Jewish woman, who seemed to be the de-facto house mother of the cottage. She worked second shift, and brooded over the twenty teens each evening, getting them to dinner and then supervising them as they prepared for bed. Then, at the end of her shift, wished them good night as if each youth were one of her own. And there were the Youth Services Officers, whose job it was to keep order and the youth from running. Despite their tough exteriors, these were tender men and women who truly befriended and earned the trust of the youth. These men and women were the ones who would often smile and cheer when someone got an A on a test, or was victorious at an on grounds competition. As I got to know the people who had devoted their careers to caring for incarcerated youth, I found God in the midst of the darkness.
As I have said so many times before, we tend to look for God in all the wrong places as we tend to look straight into the darkness of life. More often than not, however, it is not in the midst of darkness that God is found, but often at the edges, as the light that helps us to actually see the darkness. No God was not in the heart of each youth’s darkness, but stationed on the edges, offering each youth a torch to find their way out of the pit through the love of the line staff that cared so greatly for them. Yes, God was embodied in the staff who hoped every youth would accept the light of the Divine being offered them, and prayed they would use that light to begin climbing their way out of the darkness.
As I look back over the natural and human disasters that have happened this past decade, there is no doubt in my mind that God was banished from the cockpits of the planes that were crashed in New York and Washington DC, that God was not part of the human failure that allowed the levees of New Orleans to become too week to sustain the waters of Hurricane Katrina. And I also know, God was present after each event, pouring fourth from the people who rushed in to clear debris, to bring food to the affected, and worked to restore life in the midst of devastation.
I saw this clearly because the final place I found God the summer I worked among incarcerated youth was within myself. Like those who worked there full-time, I too was called to bring the light of God into that darkness. As I have looked back over that summer, I have gained a greater appreciation for Heidegger’s description of God as Being and we as the emanations, the sun beams of that being touching the earth. My ultimate description was far easier, God as the source of divine love, and I along with the staff that worked there the conduits of God’s love to the youth we served.
Through the waters of baptism each is made a conduit of divine love and commissioned to allow the love and light of God to flow through us to all with whom we come in contact.
I know that love flows through each of you. This past week I received testimony to this fact through the several thank you notes we received from those who received our services through the Help – A—Thon last month and for providing the Blessing of the Animals two weeks ago. Each of the notes attests to the warmth and the kindness we provided through our hospitality and the assistance we willingly and freely provided. Each of these notes attests to how we as a congregation and as individuals are touching lives with the love of the Divine.
In St. John’s Gospel we are told that the Light has entered the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. That light burns brightly because we let it burn through us. So next time, when you are in the midst of devastation and you feel God has forsaken you and feels so far from your cry. . .simply look within and into the hearts of others, and there you will find God.