Protection, Providence, and Misfortune
By Charles Rush
September 30, 2007
(mp3, 7.1Mb) ]
ve you ever felt like there are cosmic forces at work around you that are shaping your life in ways that you can't control but that have important implications for your personal destiny? Have you ever gone through a very rough time of your life, when things just seem like they are either bad or worse, and you found yourself wondering in a random personal moment of reflection, 'Maybe I'm being punished somehow for this one thing that happened way back when that I've ignored for lo these many years? Have you ever dodged a bullet- you just barely missed a very serious accident that would have killed you- have you ever wondered if there was a reason that the gods brought you through? Is there some purpose to this?
It is one of the most ancient
religious questions. Ancient people almost universally believed that we have
been given a fate, a Moira, as the Greeks called it. They thought that our
lives had already been measured and determined by the gods, even though the
exact parameters of this fate remain an inscrutable mystery to each and every
one of us mortals. But if we could unscramble our Moira, our destiny, then the
point of our lives, the purpose of our lives would become clear.
This is the subject of the movie 'The
Gladiator'. One of Rome's greatest Generals finds himself on the outs when
the Emperor he serves dies unexpectedly. The Emperor's son steals the throne
and tries to kill him as potential threat to his stolen rule.
The General barely escapes only to
find that his home has been destroyed, his wife and son murdered and through a
terrible turn of events, he is captured as an ordinary slave, forced to become
a Gladiator. He keeps wondering why? What had he done wrong to invoke the wrath
of the gods? What was he supposed to learn from all these bitter life lessons?
This is the question that the Romans
asked St. Paul to answer. The Romans already believed in fate. They wanted
to know about fate and the Christ. St. Paul says that "all things work
together for the good for those who love Christ". What does that mean?
Does it mean that all individual acts actually have a purpose or meaning if we
could see the big picture? Or is it more a statement of hope that all things,
even really horrible things, can
become meaningful because of the power of hope that is in Christ? Does
it mean that the hope of the Christ can redeem everything?
I was reflecting on this question
earlier this summer when we had our family reunion at the beach. No, this is
not what I generally think about at the beach… But the whole family was
together, except for one son who is in the Army and couldn't get off duty.
One day he called me, to report some
good news. He'd finally gotten his official papers that he was out of the Army.
He wanted his Mother to know just as soon as it was official. I think she had
told him literally about 10 times that he was to call her just as soon as he
had official documentation. Don't wait one minute. Don't stop on the way home.
Just call immediately, like right now… He was like "Mom, I got it."
What a relief… It is such a relief
that it is hard to put into words. Like an answer to prayer. It is an answer to
prayer. And his mother was indeed relieved. It was time to party. More than that, I think his Mother just wanted
to hold him…And party we did. The rest of our family was together, so we made
But the world
is more complicated than having a simple answer to a single prayer isn't it?
It's not so straight forward. My son called me back later that night for the
prayer list on Sunday. This son is not someone to routinely ask for prayer, so
I stepped outside in the dark of the night. He said 'Dad, one of our helicopters just went
down in Iraq… 14 soldiers were killed. 10 of them were in my unit. 4 of them I knew
pretty well…. One was a very good friend
that was always at our place. I have pictures of him with my daughter. All of
them had less than 30 days left in Iraq. Some of them were going to get out the
same time I am."
Little did I
know that about the same time we were beginning to celebrate, there was another
Father in California, a Father just like me with a kid in
Iraq. His name was Robert Paton. That afternoon, he had just gotten an invitation in
the mail to his son's wedding. Jason was a staff sergeant, an Army Ranger, and
he was going to be married this November 18th. He was probably thinking those
same things that all parents think when they get that invitation- how things
are coming together for their kids, how lucky they are to meet someone they
really love, how bright the future is, how fulfilling it is to see the next
generation getting started.
But before sundown, Robert Paton watched out of his front window as two Army officers
and the Chaplain knocked on his front door. Before they ever got to the door…
As soon as they got out of the car, he knew they had come to tell him that
there wasn't going to be any wedding.
Little did I
know that in Clovis, California another set of parents, Jeff and
Peggy Hubbard were also in for a bad day. They had lost
a son in Iraq in 2005 named Jared. Like so many of
our soldiers, Jared was a terrific human being. And after he died, his two
younger brothers enlisted, partly to honor their older brother.
Both of them
were in the 25th with my son Ian. Both of them were on that combat mission when
that helicopter went down. One of them was on that helicopter. The other
brother watched as it went down. Nathan Hubbard, aged 21, died that day. His
brother Jason, who watched it all from another helicopter, accompanied his
brother home. He brought the casket home to his parents.
When I think of
those parents, Jeff and Peggy Hubbard, I don't even have words to pray. I just
hold them up to God…
That is the way
it is in real life… very complicated. I will celebrate my son's safe return
because we have to go on. But I can't really celebrate until all of them come
home. I can't really be at peace… until we are all at peace… I can't really be
at ease… until Mother's of Iraqi boys that worry about their sons don't have to
worry like that anymore.
Dr. King once
said, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a
single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one of us directly, affects all of
us indirectly." That is what he was talking about when he said, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
We are all inner-connceted.
And isn't that
we all learned in that year after September 11th? You remember those obituaries
that were in the New York Times? They ran all the way through the following
summer. All 2,985 of them. For a long time, I started
each day reading through that list. I bet most of you did too.
startling how the 6 degrees of separation really made sense with all those
stories. So many people knew someone else who knew someone that died. Like a
lot of people, I had that experience of picking reading through those
obituaries the following March after the tragedy and saw somebody that I knew.
I didn't know him well but I hadn't heard that he was in the Towers that day.
He was so gifted, so full of life, and a great Dad.
I was in Cambridge, England that summer of 2002. One of the students was asking me about what
it was like, such a big city, so many strangers. I remember thinking that New York really wasn't like that at all. It's
not a big, anonymous city. It is 1000 villages crammed together. It is
labyrinthine and complex, but it’s a lot of people who know someone who knows
someone… Amazingly, we are all inner-connected. We are caught in an inescapable
network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
At some point,
I asked myself the question that so many people ask in these situations. Why
did my son make it and these other boys did not? What is it that us parents are all supposed to learn through this? This
answer had better be good because the only one that will do is the one you can
give to Robert Paton and his wife, one that you can
share with Jeff and Peggy Hubbard.
I did go round
and round with it irritated and uncomfortable, more irritated and more
uncomfortable, because even a wise answer to a poor question can only land on
the target between unhelpful and inane. I understand why people question God
when these terrible things happen. I understand why people are angry at God.
But I still don't think this is the question to ask.
question we can really ask is what we are going to do with it? What meaning can
we create out of it. At some point, we have to change
the question from God to us.
And this threat
is not only real, it is profound and deep. It is the question of whether there
is any substantial meaning that coheres in this world. It is a very modern
question. Really it was posed sharply for us in a collective way out of warfare
itself. Specifically, this is what happened in World War 1.
It was trench
warfare. It was the staggering level of destruction. It was the enormous loss
of life. And more than all of that, it was the experience of arbitrariness in
the face of death. It wasn't death itself that shook people so much but the
experience that one person could be with you for so long and suddenly just be
dead. That experience of arbitrariness was so well captured in "All Quiet
on the Western Front".
After the war
was over, so many people in Europe had been through this and it affected so many more families
who had lived through it indirectly, that after the war was over, people
couldn't return to normal life. After the intensity of the drama and tragedy of
death and the arbitrary, they couldn't find a meaning in the normal routines of
bourgeois life. They were bored during the day. They lived to go out at night
and lose themselves in drunkenness and the fleeting passion of a romantic
tryst. And it wasn't just a few people, it was
definitive for the whole generation. It was captured in the G version or the PG
version in the play Cabaret. But the lust and longing was palpable. These were
the inarticulate reactions of people that felt the question of meaning and
coherence eluding their grasp for good.
And it was in
the years following that War that the churches started to empty out in Europe. If God doesn't protect our nation,
my family, my friend, what is God good for? There was anger at God. But it was
more than that. I suspect that people were also rejecting the theological
answers to the problem of evil and providence that the Churches had been giving
them up to that point. Even a wise answer to a poor question is somewhere
between unhelpful and inane.
Why does God
cause this and not that? This is a huge cosmological question of the
relationship of ultimate causes to proximate causes, mediate causes and
accidents viewed as a whole? There is a place for understanding this huge,
complicated question of free will, agency, transcendence, but even those of us
who have devoted years of scholarship to thinking on this subject quote St.
Paul, "Now we see through a glass dimly, but one day we will clearly even
as God see us." And it still doesn't answer the more important question of
what we do with it.
And I think the
direction for answering the question of what we do with it is already given us
in scripture. It is implied in all of those books of the bible that we call
"The Prophetic writings". The prophets weren't people
that predicted things that would happen far in the future. These were people
that had lived through horrible experiences: marauding armies, rape, pillage,
the destruction of the farms, starvation, becoming homeless in mid-life. These
are the horrible experiences that cause people to question whether there really
is any meaning, whether God really even cares about us at all.
When you read
their pieces, they have that bitterness that these experiences cause in people.
They have the full threat of meaninglessness right on the tip of their tongues.
But they don't lose meaning, although they could. They don't.
return to is a simple, but profounder appreciation of the tender images that
keep our life grounded and purposeful. They have all of these humane images.
They look forward to the birth of a child, to a mother nursing. They look forward
to a world where people build houses and are able to live in them. They see a
world where we live long enough to see our grandchildren grow up, a world were
everyone has a fruit tree in their yard, a world where there is peace. It is a
world where everyone finds their place and there are no strangers. It is a
world where justice and peace kiss in that lovely line from the psalms. These
images are tender, warm, humane.
And they aren't
a pipe dream. They aren't the overly optimistic visions of the religious. They
are supposed to keep us focused back on what is important, on what is humane.
They are expressing their deepest spiritual commitment to a humane dimension of
living in the midst of the threat of degrading, humiliating destruction. The
world continues to be filled with suicide bombs and IED's,
with wars and wanton violence. In the midst of this, the spirituality of humane
civility and love stand in poignant counter-point healing.
visiting an elderly gentleman in a nursing home. When I got there he was
watering these lovely flowers. I didn't know him very well, so I said one of
those throw away lines, like "Geez, you must
love flowers." He was peering over his glasses and said, 'tending to flowers that live is more important to you when everything
around you is dying.' And so it is.
surrounded by a cacophony of competing interpretations of the War in Iraq. Realists tell us it is about the
balance of powers in the Middle East. Idealists say it is about bringing democracy to the region
through one country. Cynics tell us it is about controlling oil. Communitarians
tell us it represents the collective failure of the CIA to provide intelligence
and the inability of the Pentagon to tell Political leaders the truth. Crass
pseudo-psychoanalysts suggest that it is one Son's attempt to redress his
Father's slight. We could go on, for this litany of explanation is long at the
present, since we are in the middle of it and no one can see the big picture
with any clarity… They are partial truths at best and will be only sorted out
with the perspective of history, long after we are all gone.
In the midst of
the going, if our religious tradition is any guide, and I am quite sure that it
is, let's stay focused on what we know to be true, those things give us humane
authenticity. I was listening to James Gandolfini
interview these soldiers that have been blown up, their personal stories of
ordinary, gutsy courage and the way that it has permanently changed them. He is
getting pretty close to that humane dimension. And if you could deepen that
with interviews of all the different people involved, with all of their simple
human aspirations and hopes, all of their disappointments and the ways that
they have coped, their rage and their love, their pettiness and their
If you could zoom out on this complex
interwoven network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny, you would
see us as God sees us. God is like a good Mother that sees us for what we are
and hopes for us what we can be, that we will corral our destructive selves,
and let our humane, loving side develop and flourish so that understanding,
reconciliation and bits of peace might break out in our midst, so that we might
give birth to cooperation, harmony and synchronous justice where people find
their place. That is the hope of the Christmas story, the precious wonder of
the birth of that baby in the war zones of our world.
For the bible tells us that authentic
humanity is the telos of existence. Whether the
situation we are born into is tragic, booming with prosperity, or just as
boring as a small home town. Cultivate the humane and celebrate it whenever and
wherever you can, work so that your corner of the block and your immediate
people actualize more of it. That you can do. Note to self as you begin the
next week: Keep the faith, nurture what is humane, and water it with meaning.
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