[Beliefnet, July29, 2002] “God Gave Us a Miracle” reads the sign outside a diner in Somerset, Penna. But did He? Did God personally deliver the nine miners trapped 250 feet below ground? Would he have done it even if we hadn't prayed? “I don't think we got his attention,” a friend tells me. “I don't think he said, 'I'm busy over here creating a solar system, but I'll take a minute and help you out.'”
[From “The Illumined Heart”, Paraclete Press, 2001]* Selected for Best Christian Writing, 2004* The first time Jesus appears, in the first Gospel, the first instruction he gives is “Repent.” From then on, it’s his most consistent message. In all times and every situation, his advice is to repent. Not just the scribes and Pharisees, not just the powerful—he tells even the poor and oppressed that repentance is the key to eternal life. In an incident that would make modern-day spin doctors frantic, Jesus even advises repentance in response to a horrifying atrocity. Some in his audience tell him that Pilate has murdered some Galilean worshipers, spattering their blood on the animal sacrifices. Shockingly, Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Apparently he is not concerned about how this will play on Mt. Peor.
[Beliefnet, March 1, 2002] Months after their deaths, the five drowned Yates children still linger at the edges of our minds, like silent, patient ghosts. The whole tragedy is a mystery. We can't imagine how any mother could do such a thing. We can't understand why the shock of the first limp body didn't stop her from killing any more. We can't even picture how she was physically able to do it. Those maternal arms look so thin; how could she hold a squirming 7-year-old under water for all those endless passing minutes?
Beliefnet, February 15, 2002] Greta Van Susteren took a look in the mirror not long ago and didn't like what she saw. “God, how did I get to be 47?” she says she thought. So she had cosmetic surgery to tighten up the skin around her eyes. “I just did it on a whim,” she told People magazine. Leave aside the question of whether someone who whimsically has her face permanently altered can be relied on for more sober judgment about, say, Al Qaeda. The bottom line is that the deed seemed so out of character. Greta's was one of the few really authentic female faces on television. Her face was interesting because it was unattractive, and attractive because it was so interesting. It was a startlingly real face in the world of artifice, a face that could attract and pull you in.
[Christianity Today, February 4, 2002] Forget what the Billboard charts say; to judge from church ads in the Yellow Pages, America's favorite song is “I'm Mr. Lonely.” Churches are quick to spot that need and promise eagerly that they will be friendly, or be family, or just care. Apparently this is the church's principal product. When people need tires, they look up a tire store; when they start having those bad-sad-mad feelings, they shop for a church. Here, for once, denominational and political divisions vanish. Churches across the spectrum compete to display their capacity for caring, though each has its own way of making the pitch. The Tabernacle, a “spirit-filled, multi-cultured church,” pleads, “Come let us love you,” while the Bible Way Temple is more formal, if not downright odd: “A church where no stranger need feel strangely.” (The only response that comes to mind is “Thank thee.”) One church sign in South Carolina announced, “Where Jesus is Lord and everybody is special,” which made it sound like second prize. And one Methodist congregation tries to get it all in: “A Christ-centered church where you can make new friends and form lasting relationships with people who care about you.”
[Beliefnet, December 15, 2001] Close the damper, quick! If there's one thing your kids don't need this Christmas, it's Santa. The notion that someone, somewhere, has access to unlimited material goods, and can shower them around at will, would be hazardously intoxicating to just about anybody who believed it. (Picture it: your boss sends around a memo that the magic Lexus fairy will be visiting the office Christmas party with goodies for everyone.) Yes, you can have Christmas without Santa. Yes, you should. Here are a few why's, followed by a few how's.
[Touchstone, October 2001] On the day after the tragedy I drove through Washington, surprised to find it uncongested and tranquil. I drove past the battered Pentagon, where cars crept along the interstate at a few miles an hour as people craned their necks to see and comprehend our national wound. A few miles further, down among the suburban office towers, is a tiny old white clapboard church. I stepped inside the cool interior, which was dimly lit and covered on walls and ceiling with paintings of Christ and the Apostles, of biblical figures and heroes from long ago. I took a seat to wait for my spiritual father and looked around. I saw faces of men and women who had known suffering, much more severe than what I had ever experienced, even as rocked as I felt just then. They stood serene around the walls, many holding symbols of victory.
[Citizen, October 2001] Here’s the problem. The audience, a couple of hundred doctors and nurses, are clustered along conference tables and in rows of chairs all around the room, waiting for the next speaker. But he’s still a good twenty feet from the podium. Between him and that microphone, up on a raised dais, there’s a short flight of stairs. And that’s the problem.
[Beliefnet, September 20, 2001] Here's a checklist for post 9-11: Rescue survivors. Comfort the bereaved. Execute strategic response. Revise security protocols. Repent. That last one clangs like a cymbal in a flute solo. We're Americans; when slapped by suffering, we get practical. We move ahead soberly and briskly, confident with resolve. Introspection isn't our style. A call to repentance may even seem cruel, as if it implied that this disaster was our own making. When we can see hard-faced mugshots of killers on TV, we're not confused about who the bad guys are.
[Beliefnet, September 16, 2001] When it hits home, we reel back. Thoughts explode in confusion: I trusted God, where is he? If he’s all-powerful, why didn’t he stop it? Maybe he doesn’t love us. Maybe he is punishing us. Maybe he is weak. Are we really so alone and endangered? Can we not trust him? Are we so terrifyingly alone? Suffering on this scale is new to us. But it is not new to the weary human race, and countless men and women before us have tried to understand God’s presence in times of horror.