Text: Deuteronomy 5:22-31
I Corinthians 4: 1-5
Annie Dillard, the essayist and novelist, says that she kept on her mirror, for several years, a newspaper article, with a photograph. The photograph is of a young man, heavily bandaged; only his eyes, she tells us, and down to his lower lip, are visible. He is a burn victim, for the second time in his life. This was years ago, when burn victims suffered even more than they do today. She tells of reading about burn victims who lay in their beds. weeping, as the drugs seeped out into the bandages, with no skin to hold them in. They often committed suicide, later. Because, she says, they didn't realize the world could include such suffering, "that," as Ms. Dillard puts it, "life would permit them personally such pain." "Why does God hate me?" the newspaper reports the burn victim asking. He had been burned by gasoline when he was 13; it took years of painful treatment and surgery to recover. And then a bowl of gunpowder exploded on him. He said that when he realized what had happened, that he was on fire again, he thought "God couldn't do this to me again. "
"Why does God hate me?" Paul tells us we are stewards of Christ, and that we must prove ourselves trustworthy. How do we answer this man?
Or consider: a young couple, happily married, decide at last it is time to have a child. But something decides otherwise, because try as they might, no child is conceived. Medical science is invoked, painful and expensive; a private task becomes a public commitment, other people, strangers, are involved; the struggle goes on, and …nothing happens. No child. They describe it, separately, to you as a loss, but what have they ever had to lose? There is no baby who suddenly stopped breathing in her crib one morning; no daughter who succumbed to a cruel illness, lingering to the end, while the parents wept; not even a fetus delivered still-born. There is nothing, and yet they mourn, and describe it as a hole they cannot see, can only feel around the edges, can only wonder as to what would have filled it, and how that would have felt. And they want to know: Why has God done this to us? Why does God hate us, that we are denied what others must struggle to avoid? They don’t want to hear about Abraham and Sarah, or Zechariah and Elizabeth. That stuff doesn’t happen anymore. They don’t want God to exalt them; they want to know why God has abandoned them.
Paul tells us we are stewards of the Lord. As Christ’s steward, what do you tell them?
Or what about the woman whose mother dies of cancer, in a long, lingering decay, a terrible wasting dance with death? A decent, God-fearing woman, a Christian who quietly and humbly loved Jesus, and lived as spiritual a life in this material world as a wife and mother can. A woman who survived the death of her husband to raise four children alone; who had to turn her house into a nursing home for first her own mother, and then her father, and even for her brother-in-law; and who was finally able to enjoy life on her terms, and spend time with her favorite sister, and enjoy the coming grandchildren. A woman who, just when life was leaving her alone to enjoy herself, got cancer. Why did God let her die so slowly, and in such pain, over such a long time? Why did God let her waste away, day by day by day?
Paul tells us that the Lord will come and bring to light what darkness hides. I certainly hope so.
Because sometimes it seems that whatever is in the dark is just too much to have to put up with. I understand why Annie Dillard would read that newspaper clipping every morning. As she says, this is the Big Time here; the real thing; it doesn't get closer to the bone than this. And yet we know we are called to be trustworthy; we are called to account by the world, by our families, by ourselves, as the stewards of Christ. If we don't answer, who will? And we don't know what to say. Annie Dillard asks that someone please explain to this poor bum victim just what in the world is going on. And send her a copy of the explanation. I don't think she's joking. But if she gets an explanation, I sure need to see it.
Paul, of course, is not talking about suffering in his letter to the church at Corinth, but then he seems to have a different worldview from us. He perhaps understands the place of suffering in the life of the individual. God, at least in the Old Testament, works through nations. When God speaks to Moses at Sinai, it is the nation of Israel that trembles, and asks Moses to see to it that doesn't happen again. The entire nation is scared witless by the noise on the mountaintop. And God understands; God tells Moses to tell Israel "Get into your tents again." God speaks to Israel, and bothers with individuals only to speak through them to the nation as a whole. Even Paul sends letters to churches, never to individuals. At least no such letters have survived.
But we cannot tell the burn victim, the infertile couple, the daughter of the cancer victim, that their suffering is illusory because God is only concerned with nations, and the nation did not suffer because of their loss. We cannot tell them that they are too individualistic, that they must look upon this from a larger scale, that people die every day, or go unborn, or suffer horrible injuries, and it was just their turn. We cannot say God didn't do it, that these things just happen. We are stewards; we must prove ourselves trustworthy. How do we answer?
God only directly answers the questions of a suffering person once in the Bible, and then out of a whirlwind. It is the answer of a God of nations, God's answer to Job; it is the answer of a God of the Cosmos. "Were you there when I laid the foundations of the world?" Well, no, obviously not. And so, the logic runs, you have no reason to question my actions. At least, that's how the book of Job puts it. But that is not the only answer.
The shortest verse in the Bible is: "Jesus wept.” When brought news of the death of his friend Lazarus, John tells us Jesus wept. An odd response, don't you think, from someone who could raise people from the dead. But Jesus didn't think of that, apparently; instead, he wept. What else would we do, in the same situation? "So pass no premature judgment, but wait until the Lord comes." Paul is talking about people in the church at Corinth thinking themselves better than other church members because of who they claim allegiance to. Paul is telling them they cannot judge themselves; it is for God to judge. So what does that have to do with suffering?
People are born to suffer as surely as birds fly upward, the book of Job tells us, and it certainly seems true. We have no answer to the problem of suffering; as if an answer would relieve the pain, anyway. We ask God why, and we get no reply. But long ago, we asked God to stop talking, because we feared what we heard. We went into our tents, and now we poke our heads out, time and again, and look around for God's presence. Since we hear nothing, we conclude God has gone on to other matters. Or we decide God has moved into the tent with us, and will take care of everything, that God is concerned, first and foremost, with our well being. After all, what could be more important? We follow the true God; those others, over there; well, one can't be sure, now, can one? We will prove ourselves trustworthy stewards and what could be easier? After all, God will take care of everything.
But Paul says we cannot judge, least of all what God intends, or another believes. And if we cannot judge whether you are as trustworthy a steward of Jesus as I am, I cannot judge even myself. Paul's robust conscience almost hides the fact; "I have nothing on my conscience," says Paul, "but that does not mean I am innocent. Only God can judge guilt and innocence. " There are things about myself hidden even from me, Paul writes. If we cannot know ourselves, how then can we know the reason for pain and suffering?
Annie Dillard wrote a letter to the burn victim, but she doesn't know if he got it. Nor does she tell us what she said. Doesn't matter. The attempt is enough; the effort to make the connection, to bridge the gap between two people, to try to show that suffering can be uniting, rather than closing one off from creation. Frederick Buechner tells us that God does not give answers to the world's problems and questions. God gives God's self. As stewards, we do not have answers; we only have offers: of hope, of love, of charity, of companionship on the journey. We can only offer God. And in the attempt, at least we can prove ourselves trustworthy. As for the silence, which is the presence of God in the world, the very being of God among us, sustaining us when all else seems to have failed, the words of Annie Dillard give some sense of direction. She says we are met by the silence of the world, an obdurate silence of the objects of creation that says precisely nothing to us. I say it is a silence thas. She says we must begin there, recognizing what is irrevocably true:
The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is God's brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blended note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even to address the prayer to "World." Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.