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A God who Hides?

In a New York Times op ed piece this morning, Pooja Bhatia, a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, quotes a pastor preaching on the streets of devastated Port au Prince:  “It seems like the good Lord is hiding, but he’s here.  He’s always here. . . .”  Bhatia goes on to say, “Why then turn to a God who seems to be absent at best and vindictive at worst?  Haitians don’t have either option.  The country has a long legacy of repression and exploitation; international peacekeepers come and go; the earth no longer provides food; jobs almost don’t exist.  Perhaps a God who hides is better than nothing.”

Members of our churches, like all of Haiti’s neighbors, are overwhelmed by the magnitude of destruction being reported from Haiti.  Some have very personal reasons for concern as congregational mission trips over the years have nurtured relationships with school children, hospital patients, church members, and countless humanitarian entrepreneurs who have heroically tried to fill the gaps in Haiti’s fragile to non-existent educational, social, and medical infrastructure.  Others have learned about Haiti through the enormously popular book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, a fascinating account of the work of Dr. Paul Farmer.  And still others are encountering Haitians here, especially through contact with their growing number of Haitian immigrant congregations in the United States.

This Sunday pastors will be lifting up the people of Haiti in pastoral prayers.  Some will name persons who have become colleagues and friends, not knowing whether they are injured or dead.  Many will reflect on the especially devastating loss of leaders experienced by the Roman Catholic Church  Congregations will be receiving special offerings to assist in the short and long-term relief efforts.  But what of the theological task?  How do we help the person in the pew sort through the questions posed by the premise of a “hiding God” who is, perhaps at best, better than nothing?   And how do we respond to the deep discouragement of those who have seen the sweat equity of countless mission trips wiped out, or to the anxious fear of those who worry over the fate of beloved Haitian colleagues?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that “Christ helps us not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. . . .   Only the suffering God can help,” (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 360).  To those who yearn for a powerful God who might coerce nature and history to serve our proximate ends, theologian William Placher responds with a portrait of the “vulnerable God.”  “God can help because God acts out of love and love risks suffering.  A God defined in terms of power is precisely not a reliable rescuer, because power provides no guarantee of concern, and power, in the way most cultures have most often used the word, too often grows out of a fear of vulnerability that makes really reaching out in love, with all the risks entailed, impossible, (Narratives of a Vulnerable God, p. 18.”

Theological education aims, in part, to equip leaders who can help people interpret the mysterious narratives of their lives, particularly in the midst of the tumultuous, frightening, and often demoralizing events of history.  One hopes that graduates of schools like CTS are able to help their members sift and sort through the possible options for moral and spiritual response when rage or resignation are all too easy.  Perhaps drawing on the insights of those who have thought deeply about theodicy, they might point to someone like C. S. Lewis who once wrote that “to love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything, and your heart will certainly be rung and possibly be broken.  If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one. . . .  It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable,” (The Four Loves, p. 169).

A few weeks after the tsunami that devastated much of southern Asia I visited a group of patients in a hospital in the southern most tip of India who were still living in the wards, still recuperating from injuries or simply too traumatized to return to the temporary shelters erected near the spot of their now vanished fishing village.  In a language we could not understand they shared story after story with us of a loss we could scarcely comprehend.  My colleague wore a large silver cross.  Patient after patient reached out to touch the cross when she sat with them, as if to be reminded that God was not hiding, but was there loving, suffering, rescuing, and that this simple visit of church leaders from far away was a reminder to those who had seemingly lost everything that the value and dignity of their lives in the eyes of God remained.

The Haitian preacher is right.  God is neither hiding nor vindictive.  Haiti is in crisis today because it lies on a geological fault line, has been the victim over the centuries of enslavement, colonial exploitation, and corruption, and endures endemic poverty that the world all too easily tolerates.  Theologies that glibly blame God’s wrath, God’s impotence, or God’s indifference all too easily ignore our human complicity.  And they allow us to miss the wonder of God’s vulnerable love in just these moments, a love that calls forth not only our doxology, but also our participation.

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