This morning, I am playing hooky from church. There will be hell to pay for this, not on account of church, which has always been pretty gentle about attendance, but on account of my nephew, who will perseverate and badger my friends, and when he sees me at noon, will immediately ask why I was not there.
I haven’t decided whether to confound the felony of skipping church by lying. My students make “I overslept,” do duty for “I could not face one more day of Walt Whitman,” although they sometimes also use “I had a headache” to good effect.
What I will not tell my nephew is this:
Sometimes, when your heart hurts, church is the last place you can be. This morning was our children’s Christmas pageant, and I’m sure our kids were adorable. I love them, and normally I love the Christmas pageant in all its tinseled glory. But not today.
Three Sundays ago I sat behind my mother in her hospital bed, holding her head so she could breathe. She could not talk to me. I think I heard her voice for the last time on November 24th. She died in the wee hours of November 26, in the arms of a young woman who loved her but not in mine. I have put that into a mental file of things I’ll think about someday.
I find myself putting the tragedy at Sandy Hook into that same category. If I need to sort it out in my own mind, someday I will. I watch people on Facebook pile that grief onto themselves, as if that helps, and think about how we have shrunk God to some impotent little feel-good deity who watches as helplessly as we do, when awful things happen.
I do not believe in that god.
What I do believe is that we are truly free moral agents. We can choose to do right things or wrong things, and God has chosen not to stop us. Anyone who thinks that’s not fair should try living in a cage for a while, because that’s what not having free will is. But we have it, and the price we pay for having it is, and always will be, the suffering of the innocent. This is the rot at the core of the apple, the dark stain on the soul of humanity, the thing that kills us as surely as a bullet from a madman.
Badly. Well. We do the best we can, and it is not good enough. We cry out to God to fix the madmen and the politicians and the broken hearts, and we miss the point, the reason we need God in the first place, the reason Christianity isn’t just another religion in a crowd of religions. Guilt and grief don’t just go away. Someone has to fix the soul, not the circumstances. Alone among religions, Christianity puts the burden of that repair on the deity, where it belongs.
A strong person who makes a weak one do all the work is a bully. God is not that. God did all the work and said, “Here. Take my teaching; it’s easy, and the burden is light.” God did not say this so that we could live happy-shiny lives with no pain or suffering, but so that the rot at our cores can be cleaned away, and we can live with the consequences of our choices, and other people’s choices, without wacking out.
People who dismiss God as some kind of divine nut job who could prevent tragedy but doesn’t, have missed the point. Santa Claus is the one who delivers all the presents; God is the one who meets the need – God alone has the ability to redeem the bad choices, to help us forgive ourselves and other people. God has done everything God can do to teach us how to live, but God will not force us to live that way, or to accept forgiveness or to give it. What God will do is give grace we don’t deserve, over and over and over.
Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person; it’s just the last thing. The worst thing that can happen is living in the dark stain of anger, fear, hatred, self-loathing, ignorance . . . all those wrong choices that pile up on us an suffocate our souls.
Sometimes, I won’t tell my nephew, you have to sit alone in your dining room and sort that stuff out in your own mind.