When I was twelve I learned the meaning of despair. It was the Christmas holidays--a six-week stretch of summer days we filled with beaches, movies, and selecting two rand Christmas gifts for the nine members of our family. The closest shopping center was two suburbs away, about two miles, along the Main Road, in Claremont. We walked there and back. It took about half and hour at a brisk pace, weaving in and out of oak trees planted in British rows next to the pavement.
One afternoon I set off for Claremont alone. I'm not sure where Kim was, my other part. But no matter. I liked walking alone. I conjured up the lives of the people who lived in the houses I walked by. I wondered who put the shawl in the window, who drank all the beer in the bottles piled outside a gate, and why in the world would anybody own a Pekingese.
The walk that day took me past Newlands Cricket Club, where I caught a glimpse of the pitch as I went by the ticket turnstile. Suddenly, just as I started my hands running against the bars of the wrought iron fence, I stopped dead in my tracks. I couldn't move. I felt as if somebody had tied my insides to a stick and was slowly turning them, like I had seen Indian dyers doing to sheets of cotton streaked with indigo. Twisting, turning, wrapping my intestines round and round until all I could do was breathe. I sank to the ground, leaned against the bars, gripped them with my hands and squatted there under the trees. ( I would later become very familiar with but never accustomed to menstrual cramping, but this was my first severe attack.)
I waited for the pain to pass. It didn't. I made myself walk ten steps before sinking to the ground. I started to pray, to plead, to beg to anybody who would listen or could hear. To my mother whom I knew was at home, to the people driving by in the street not twenty feet away, to God who could pluck me up and transport me home if He really wanted to. I must not have been desperate enough. My mother never came. She didn't hear my cries as I was sure she would. Every moment of those two hours it took me to creep my way home I expected our red-and-white VW bus to pull up to the curb, with my mother rushing out, saying, "My darling, I heard you. I knew you needed me. I'm here." Even God didn't seem to see me, bent over double, hanging on fences and walls, as I tried so very hard not to cry out loud. All I wanted was the pain to subside so that I could run home. That didn't seem very much to ask. I held my breath after every wave, waiting for a longer break, for some sign that He had noticed me. But the pain continued to come, a relentless assault.
That was the first time in my memory I made bargains with God, bargains I fully intended to keep, and bargains that apparently fell on divinely deaf ears. It's been thirty years. I still remember the bewilderment as plea after plea floated uselessly heavenward. I couldn't quite believe He had acted so callously. I knew that if I had had a child, I could not have left her alone to suffer so. I carried the betrayal around with me for weeks, like a bruise in the center of me. What hurt most was the thin ribbon of hope that sustained me after every cramp/prayer combination, that perhaps that prayer was fervent enough, maybe this one was offered with enough faith to cause Him to turn His gaze my direction. Post-episode, I felt embarrassed, almost shamed at my neediness, at believing, so hopefully, that if only I prayed properly, He would come.Inevitably, I thought I was somehow less loved, less worthy.
It's a lonely place to sit in. That place where you meet the real God, not the fairy tale version. The God who does not come in on the white horse, charging to your rescue. The God who does not heal you, make it stop for you or work a miracle, delivering seagulls and parted seas on cue. The God who is not the heart of it all, moving pieces and parts to His pleasure, and whom we curse then abandon when things don't work out. The God who appears to forget His side of bargain that we've, unilaterally, made with Him. That place where you slowly realize that because he is God, He does not always act or intervene or even warn.
It's a terrible realization, arriving generally after significant pain, and at a significant price. A daughter is molested by a family member. A father backs his truck down the driveway and runs over his son, killing him. Parents are left with a shell of a child after a doctor infects the newborn with a virus that attacks her brain. A wife, faithful and true, is left by her husband after decades of marriage for a younger woman. A son is killed in war. Another son returns, maimed physically and mentally. Yet another survives unscathed. A bus driver over corrects and destroys a school bus filled with children. A single woman yearns desperately for marriage; a childless couple desperately for a pregnancy. A woman ends her own unwanted one. A child is born apparently defect. Hundreds of thousands of children die of starvation in the horn of Africa, while the U.S. government pays farmers not to plant corn. A young father contracts cancer and dies a protracted, painful death. A mine shaft collapses trapping miners underground, and collapses again, killing the rescuers. Or a young girl, hardly out of puberty, crouches, wracked with pain, on a busy public street.
Hardly seems fair. Hardly seems right. Seems completely within His power to change; and if not to change, at least to hint; maybe even just the slightest cough behind His powerful hand or a breath of whispered warning.
I read a powerful book about a month ago: The Judas Field, by Howard Bahr. (I'm working my way through his series of Civil War novels.) Bahr described, more truthfully than most things I have read, the proper place of God and his connection to our human existence. This particular novel follows the journey of three Civil War veterans who return to a battle site twenty years after the war, accompanying a childhood friend suffering from cancer, who is gripped by a desire to unearth the bodies of her father and her brother who died at Franklin and bring them home. As the veterans wander through the battlefields--both real and remembered, they try to make sense of the carnage and waste war requires. Included in their reverie was a question asked of God: "Where were you?"
"Well, where was He?" asked Lucian [an orphan newly conscripted to the company]."He was there," said Roger [a piano teacher ill-suited for war]. "He was there all along, watching and grieving. If we live, I will take you over the next field myself, and maybe you will learn what you can only learn the hard way: that God is there with you, and whatever sorrow you are feeling--well, how infinite must the sorrow be in His heart? It is the only way. Once a man decides that God planned all this, once he points to God as responsible, then his faith is gone. No mortal can bear that, no matter what he says. We have lost pretty much everything, but faith we cannot lose. That is why we pray, and fervently--but not for preservation, mind. That article is left to you and your pards, not to God. To ask Him for it, and be spared when so many are not, will only doom your faith."What do you ask for then?" said the boy.Roger pulled the quilt around his shoulders. "To be forgiven," he said.
After the battle, Lucian, the orphan who has joined the company, wanders, dazed and deafened through the battlefield:
Lucian knew Cass [self-appointed, reluctant guardian of both Roger and Lucian] spoke to him, but he was still deaf and couldn't hear his voice, only felt it. He couldn't hear, but he could see, and he could smell the odor that hung over the battlefield as if the earth itself were bleeding. . . .what Lucian beheld by [the illumination of the torches] was more terrible than anything old Pelt [the preacher at the orphanage] had ever told of hell. He remembered how the little ones of the orphanage had listened to old Pelt. They cowered and were silent, and later in their dreams they saw once more the torn and blistered souls consumed in flame, burned and swollen to bursting, only to be made whole again, to burn again. Still that was only imagination. Now, at Franklin, the boy . . . had come to that place old Pelt had spoken of, and he knew [Roger] was right: God, if he loved as He was said to love, could not be blamed for this, could not have planned this back when planets were still being flung across the sky. Something else--vanity, madness, illusion, he would never know--had risen from the Will of Man and laid all this under the moon. God grieved among them, as bent and helpless and alone as any, while each prayer of the dying pierced Him like a nail. God suffered more than any, for He had seen this countless times before and knew He would see it again and again, and the hammer would ring again and again. God was greater than them all and must suffer more than any, and suffer for them all.In the closing moments of the book, Cass, the sole surviving soldier stands in the cemetery at the grave of his adopted son Lucian, watching a cat play death games with a mole who has surfaced, unluckily, in just the wrong spot:
In spite of all he had seen, Cass still believed in the fundamental decency of cats and men. He knew that God believed in it, too, in spite of all He'd seen--in spite of all His grieving and all the lies told about Him down the bloody ages. He was God after all, and had made all creatures, and He had taken the noble chance of granting to one of them a will of its own, and in the end, the gift had been worth all the trouble. Maybe the right to choose was the best gift of all and the best proof of love. It was more precious even than life itself, for without the possibility of defeat, the victories would have no meaning.
The realization that God does not always deliver us from evil, while costly, is perhaps the most liberating of all realizations. Why? Because then it's not all His fault. It's my fault. It's my neighbor's fault. It actually is, despite my protestations about the system, my child's fault. It's a random universe. It's Matthew's rain that falls on the just and the unjust. It's Job's trouble and sparks flying upward. It's the shadow cast by other's self-absorbed choices. It's the evil, vanity, and selfish will that can rise up in all of us and wreak havoc--loud, bloody destruction or quiet, multi-generational, rippling havoc.
The price of this realization requires me to give up my notions that God controls my world; that He sat idly by, blithely playing the fiddle while my world burned. It requires me to place myself fully centered in my own life, responsible for my acts and reacts. It forces me to abandon my anger that God didn't intervene. It does not allow me to abandon Him in a pique of self-preservation or indignation. Now, there is no reason--unless one can fault Him for the gift that allows us all to become, in all our terrifying, glorious forms. Because I know this, now I must ask the right questions. Not, where were you? Or, how could you? But, what have I done? What can I do? How can I help?
(Title: Rod Steward, The First Cut is the Deepest)