Never Alone

Why? WHY? Anyone with a toddler knows how this question echoes—or anyone who practices science, philosophy, theology, politics, or just relationships in general.

Why implies purpose, cause and effect, and meaning. When people don’t have answers, as you know, they make things up, sometimes with sincerely good intentions and sometimes to manipulate advantage. We can’t ignore Why?

Theologically, the why question is the great dilemma of Christian faith itself, addressed in the book of Job, Paul’s letter to the Romans, and Dostoevsky’s epic novel, The Brothers Karamozov. We call it theodicy. It goes like this:

1. God is all-powerful, sovereign.
2. God is all-benevolent and loving.
3. Bad things, tragic things, unthinkable things, happen.

Philosophically, either God loves us infinitely but can’t do anything to stop #3, or God is not all-loving and caring. God could change the situation, but God doesn’t.

We think we must know. Why? It’s why well-meaning people say frankly ridiculous and offensive things at the death of a child in defense of the God who ultimately has to make sense: “Everything happens for a reason.” Or “God needed another little flower in the heavenly garden.” Excuse me, but I have no use for such a God. And that’s not the God revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The fact is, siblings, that the deeper a crisis gets—even as our default at tragedy is always “Why?”—the less we need answers and the more we need presence. P-R-E-S-E-N-C-E. The less we need why and how and the more we need Who.

When a child cries out in the night with a terrible nightmare, a parent rushes in and pulls the child close. They don’t launch into an explanation of why the dream isn’t real. It is the child’s reality in that moment. The parent doesn’t explain why God for some larger purpose might have sent such a horrific dream. No, the loving parent simply and lovingly holds the child close, enters their trauma, rocks them, and says “It’s okay, baby, Momma’s here. Daddy’s here. I am with you.”

Our funeral liturgy has a beautifully honest prayer petition, “Help us in the midst of things we cannot understand, still to believe and trust in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” While answers are helpful in many contexts, they are not foundational to human meaning. That was the serpent’s lie in the Garden. The forbidden tree was the tree of knowledge of all good and evil. Satan lied, “You’ll know everything and then be like God.”

God is clear, if not kind, with Job’s eventual demand to know why suffering, with the underlying assumption that knowledge is ultimate power and control. God gets downright sarcastic. “Hey, Mr. Job, before I tell you, remind me…where were you when I scattered the stars and filled the oceans and raised up the mountains and set the universe in motion since you demand to know why?” In other words, it’s mystery. Or as Isaiah puts it, “God’s ways are higher than my ways.”

While knowledge is a noble and necessary pursuit, it is not primary. Relationships are. Biblically and experientially speaking, I think we know down in our souls that relationships aren’t just primary. They’re everything. With God, with one another.

And Jesus comes to us not so much as the one with answers but to be for us, with us, God with skin on, to walk with us through the greatest joy and the deepest suffering, promising us that suffering will not, does not, have the last word. The worst thing is never the last thing. Our cruciform Jesus brings us a faith that hangs on to death and resurrection amid mystery, frustration, anger, emptiness, questions that receive at best a hollow echo in the void of answers as we see through a mirror dimly and yet echoes just as surely, “Nothing will separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” Presence. “I am with you, until the end of the age.” Never alone.

Even in the deepest darkness and emptiness and hopelessness, the God who in Christ enters fully into our deepest suffering in order both fully to know it and fully to overcome it comes to us with skin on, if not with all the answers, surely in presence. Pulls us close, rocks us, comforts us, reminding us, “It’s okay. Daddy’s here. Momma’s with you. Nothing can separate us.” Amen.

This reflection is an adaptation of a devotion I was asked to lead at the Lenoir-Rhyne University Board of Trustees meeting two weeks ago in response to the unexpected death that week of one of our relatively young trustees, the vigil of our new LTSS (Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary) rector and dean with his wife at that time in the last stages of her 11-year journey with cancer, and last week’s shooting and death of a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Walking with you,

NC Synod Bishop

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