More on the Problem with God

I thought I would add some reflections to my earlier thoughts on “the Problem with God.” Generally I noted there that “God is a problem,” because He is not me, He is free, and He is Lord. That’s more than having a bull loose in a china shop, that’s a God who is free in the universe.

I am convinced through the revelation of God in Christ, that this God loves me, but that doesn’t mean that I have a ready-made definition of love. Indeed, I would say that Jesus Himself is the definition of love. I also believe that when I give my life to God for my salvation, I have no idea what the consequences of that may mean on a daily basis, only that on a daily basis everything works for my salvation.

On a deeply personal level, my wife and I buried a child some 12 or more years back, a child we lost in about the 5th month of pregnancy. It was a hard time, bitterly hard for my wife and for me. But I remember at the time, through a lot of anger and tears, coming to a deep sense of the presence of God in the event. I’m not very good at cause and effect – I think it reduces things to much. Thus I did not look to God as the “cause” of my son’s death. But I did not look at my sons’s death as though it occurred outside the love of God.

I think I was crazy and more than a little angry for about a year. I know that I stopped preaching sermons “extemporaneously” for about a year. I could not get my emotions and thoughts sorted out enough to trust myself to stand in front of a congregation for that length of time without saying something that would be less than helpful. Thus I disciplined myself and wrote sermons for a while.

That has been some time ago. I have deeply appreciated my life as an Orthodox Christian. As an Anglican I felt free to pray for my son (that’s done by the Anglicans as well). But I have appreciated perhaps the “fullness” with which this is done in Orthodoxy. I like being able to light candles. I like to be able to remember his name at the Proskomedie (the service when I am preparing the bread and wine for the Eucharist). I like including his name when we pray for the departed at a Panikhida. Orthodoxy doesn’t just pray for the departed, we pray a lot for the departed.

I had an image that occurred during the funeral of my son. I had asked the funeral director to have the dirt placed next to the grave with shovels because we were going to fill in the grave ourselves. He said fine, but then he forgot. At the beginning of this fairly private event, he apologized to me and told me the dirt was up in the bulldozer about 50 yards away. I said, “Well, when we finish our prayers, have them bring the dirt down here in the bulldozer.” All of that seemed fine, though unusual to me. But I forgot to tell the dozen or so others gathered that day what I had just arranged.

So after the prayers, this bulldozer starts up and begins to head for the grave. Closer and closer it came. My other son, who was six at the time, watched in fascination, then in horror as the bulldozer was pulling right up to the grave. Just before it stopped, he screamed. He thought we were going to be run over.

We finished the funeral without further incident.

Later that week, the cemetery owner apologized to me. “What for?” I asked.

Apparently she had received a very nasty note from someone who attended the small service, whose business the funeral was not. I remember being frustrated that now I was going to comfort this funeral person, when I felt like I was the one who wanted comfort.

“The bulldozer made me think of God,” I told her to a look of utter bewilderment.

“Everything in that child’s short existence on earth was marked by events as unpredictable and seemingly out of control as that bulldozer, including his death. I thought at the funeral that the bulldozer was a clear a reminder of God as anything I could imagine.”

Now all of that his highly personal, and I apologize if I have offended anyone in sharing such a story. But it was the beginning of a revelation for me. We worship a God who is truly God and that’s not something (rather Someone) that we can control. God is free and that is a fearful thing.

But I remember what was said of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia, “He’s not exactly a tame lion.” But it was added at least once in that fine story, “But He’s good.”

And this is what I know of God. God is a problem because of my sin, and in my sin I fear the freedom of God. But I also know that He is good (though that goodness may remain a mystery at times). I do not want a life that has no bulldozers nor do I want a life that has no fear (in the proper sense). I certainly do not want a life without God.

Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him (Job 13:15)

19 comments:

  1. Father Stephen,

    Ouch!

    That one hits too close to home.

    Pray for me, that I may accept the freedom of God.

    Peace,

    Alan

  2. February 10, 1995 we lost our middle child of our 5, Seth, at 53 days old. I carried the casket alone, and they wouldn’t let me shovel either. Piecing your family back together afterwards isn’t a day at the beach after an event like that.

    In the 3 days between his death and his funeral Kyra and I studied death and the resurrection. Being in an evangelical church for many years, we had never heard of our bodily resurrection, and it came as a shock when we applied 1Corinthians 15 to our physical bodies. I left that church within a year; knowing something was wrong but not exactly what.

    The contemporary answer that Seth is in heaven I found cheesy and unsatisfying. My question was; Why is he dead in the first place? Contemporary Christianity is incapable of anything beyond personal choice, and Seth had no choice. I started reading theology, like alot. Then I started into Church history. It is inescapable not to run into the western doctrine of original sin and its implications, such as St. Augustine’s doctrine and his condemnation of unbaptized infants. My earlier swipe at him on this board was because no man has ever caused me as much pain as him, because as an evangelical I did not baptize my deceased son. With all of the history I was reading that was melting my protestantism, the towering figure of St. Augustine was blocking my path and leaving me in an ecclesiastical barren wilderness. It took 5 years from his death until I became Orthodox, and every person I knew was trying to block my path.

    The Eastern Fathers, most notably St. Athanasius, provided me with more than just a way out. They remade how I view the Trinity, sin, prayer, sacraments, the judgement, etc. By the time I found St. Gregory of Nyssa’s ‘On Infants Early Deaths’ it was only icing on the cake. Infants die not because they are guilty and under judgement; they die as the consequence of Adam’s sin, not because they inherited his guilt. Why my son, in particular, died is a mystery that only God knows. The consequence of his death, thus far by my count, stands at 11 conversions to Orthodoxy; one of which is on the verge of the priesthood. We contemplated not having any more children when Seth was born, but we went on to have Maggie and Liam. God has His reasons.

    I pray for my deceased son regularly, but it doesn’t stop there. I pray for every dead person I know. God is not bound by death or sin, and He is free to forgive whomsoever He chooses and whenever He chooses. In the case of my son I pray looking forward to his bodily resurrection, and I can’t wait to see it. That is where I find solace over Seth, standing over his grave and looking east towards the Second Coming. Job 19:26 is on his headstone; “In my flesh I shall see God.”

    I almost laugh now when I see a graveyard, because I know God will one day empty all of them. I don’t just see death there, I see hope.

  3. Fr Stephen, I have a strange question coming from a Catholic. I have been Catholic for only about a year, converting (well, reverting) from an evangelical Protestant tradition.

    My wife and I lost a child in pregnancy last year and struggled more than we could have ever imagined with the loss. The physicality of lighting candles has been a blessing. And Prayer and the Communion of Saints has been a blessing – more than I can say, really. But my question is How does one pray for the dead? Specifically for the death of a baby?

    I hear often that I can and should pray, but then often find myself at a loss of what to say as I light a candle. I usually pray that God tell our baby girl how much we love her.

    We really know very few Catholics – all our friends and family are Protestant, determinedly so. And in the South, Catholics are the minority. It is difficult to find anyone to talk to about this situation.

    Thanks.

  4. “And memory eternal for the dead boy!” Alyosha added again, with feeling.
    “Memory eternal!” the boys joined in.
    “Karamazov,” cried Kolya, “can it really be true as religion says, that we shall all rise from the dead, and come to life, and see one another again, and everyone, and Ilyushechka?”
    “Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been,” Alyosha replied, half laughing, half in ecstasy.

    Dostoevsky had his own “problems with God.” How difficult it must have been to write this scene after burying his own 3 year old son, Alexei.

  5. Scott,

    I pray all good things for him. His name is Michael Seraphim, angel names, since I suppose he will be quite familiar with them in his time. He needs far less prayers from me than I do for him. He is with God, I offer prayers, mostly, the traditional, Memory eternal!

  6. It is so powerful and beautiful to read the father’s side of this story, I am the mother’s side and while I lost two early pregnacies and we found this to be devastating enough to cause us not to try after the healthy birth of our son; he is actually a middle child, I still think of my two tiny ones. I know I never got to feel them move but I heard their heartbeats and they were there for a little while and we knew them and loved them all the same. We miss and still grieve the lost possibility of their lives and sometimes I think of how nice it would have been to have had three instead of one…
    I never named them and I never got to bury them because doctors like to euphemistically “clean you out” so that you can start over as soon as possible and I was young, so very young…
    Now, I know what they do when you sign those consent forms and they take the remains of your unborn baby, these are things I wish I had never known, in fact had never experienced but I have and they indeed helped me turn from the self-centered secular life towards Orthodoxy.
    I, as others here don’t like to speculate on what God has in mind, I have no mirror, I just know that I am not as selfish as I once was and that there is a purpose to all of this and that our prayers are working throughout God’s time.
    Memory Eternal, Michael Seraphim, Seth and to Scott’s little one, and to my tiny ones too!
    The prayer goes something like this: Baptize them O Lord in the sea of Thy compassions and save them by Thine inexpressible grace. Amen.
    with love in Christ,
    Mary-Leah

  7. Father,

    You remind me that Hope and Patience aren’t the rejection of anger, pain, loss, confusion, but simply showing up to Church.

  8. Goodness. I guess that’s what a parent fears the most. I know I do. Recently there was a double-murder of a brother/sister here in Knoxville and even that made me think. Part of it was the grisly nature of it.

    It seems that every day I find I need to pray for the protection of my daughter. Part of it is just raw fear, the other part of it is the separation from my daughter because of my divorce.

    When I was first separated from my ex-wife, I was terrified of what might happen to my daughter when I was not with her (she was six weeks old at the time). I began to believe in guardian angels out of necessity. I was a wreck. But I held on to the fact that there was a large guardian angel guarding her with a big fat sword.

    Eventually I made my way to the Orthodox Church. On the day of my daughter’s baptism (and my chrismation) I received an icon of the guardian angel from her godmother. I had found what I had been looking for ever since she was itty bitty. Even thinking about it now makes me want to cry out of thankfulness.

    Reading some of the responses in this thread makes me wonder if we come to Orthodoxy not out of preference, or because of our opinions, but for our sanity.

  9. I need to apologize. My post was posted in a spirit of self-pity and that’s not very productive for me. Getting divorced is really nothing like losing a child. Losing a child is no one’s fault. Divorce, at least mine, was largely my own fault.

  10. No need to apologize Steve. Grief comes at us from all kinds of directions. Sometimes it’s partly or all our fault. Sometimes not. I accidentally ran over my youngest daughter once. Only by the grace of God was she unhurt. It could have been the beginning of a long insanity for me. I still shudder at the thought. We live in a world where goodness (as it appears to us) is very fragile. Only the reality of God can give us any hope. But don’t apologize for your griefs or fears. We all have them, and we all need God. Nobody gets a corner on this stuff.

  11. Being the “better half” of Don the loss we both experienced was overwhelming at the time when Seth died. Who knew that pain could be that total and encompassing? But on the flip side of that coin, who could have ever imagined a grace sufficient to gather both of us up and actually have us able to come out the other side with an ability to see “the blessings” out of something so horrific?

    Without being too cavalier, I recall the line from the Sound of Music where the Mother Superior says, “When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.” Our door may have been closed, and our house dark and blackened for sometime, but today, many many windows stand open as a result, cross breezes abound as we have found Orthodoxy, seen so many conversions for others who also at the time had seemed to have lost their ways and we find outselves having been blessed with two more children. I do not begin to think that the windows are done being opened….what more miracles will God work? We would have never set foot into an Orthodox church if Seth had not set our feet to this path to begin with. So every breath that we take within its walls, every prayer, every house blessing, every prayr for the dead, every veneration, evertime it is done with a small reminder that he was that tiny spark that set off a forest fire. Of course, God is our fuel and our source, it just took Seth as our one match to move us.

    I recall walking into our first service at an Orthodox service when Don had explained to me that Orthodoxy does not believe that the dead are speparated from us, when we are in church they worship and pray along side us. They are, in effect there with us in spirit.
    I stood there feeling as if, for the first time in five years, that I had my son back. I prayed for him to him for the first time that day. I asked him to pray for me. The calmness that came over me assured me that he already had.

    When my Godmother died just a few short years later, not long after my christmation, another loss that devestated me, I thought of the many times when we had talked of Seth. I realized that day that she had finally met him. It still overwhelms me that he is with her and they are together.

    I have seen my darkest day. I know God’s grace can meet any need. I know that I will again see my son in his flesh and I know that the peace that I have now…even over something so terrible to happen truly has its reason….even though we may never know why.

  12. Blessed is our God, now and ever and to ages of ages!

    Father Stephen, Don & Kyra,

    How comforting today are the stories you have shared. Today my wife and I learned that our fourth child has died during the third month of pregnancy. We do not know if the child is a boy or girl.

    I consider it a great sign of God’s love, mercy, and providence that I found this site and read your stories before today’s diagnosis. I will get to my light my first candle Friday night in Vespers. Pray for me.

    Praise be to God for He is good; His love endures forever!

  13. Kirk,

    We will very much have you and your wife in our prayers. MAy God support you in a difficult time. How hard. His love indeed endures forever.

  14. Kirk, my prayers for you and your wife, and for your children, including the newly-departed little one. The righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance…

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