I’ve been spending time these last few weeks reading entries on a caring bridge website for a six year old boy named Isaac. In May 2011, Isaac was diagnosed with brain cancer. Because the odds were very much in his favor, Isaac’s parents decided to go with the full treatment plan in the hopes of chasing this cancer back into remission. For 15 months, Isaac endured rigorous chemo and radiation treatments and in answer to so many prayers, in September of this year, Isaac was declared a cancer survivor. There was much celebration, as you can well imagine. Then the first few days of November, Isaac began complaining about back pain. Days later he couldn’t walk without dragging a foot and within a week doctors discovered cancerous tumors running up and down his spine. Isaac returned home last Tuesday.....just in time for Thanksgiving. A cruel irony. Isaac's parents are hoping for a few more months together and are working to make the most of every hour of every day. They write beautifully and with much vulnerability on their caring bridge site. Even though my connection is far removed and I have never met any of them, I have felt welcomed into their sorrow and I join with the members of Isaac Nation around the world in praying for Isaac and his family.
When we are faced with hardship and heart break, the natural impulse is to look for meaning, some sort of higher purpose in our suffering. We look to God for answers. This is actually my Thanksgiving blog post, and I will get around to that. But first, this is what I’m not thankful for.
Isaac’s Mom writes about her anger when a woman cornered her older son (a 3rd grader) two weeks ago at the Ronald McDonald house where they were staying and asked him all sorts of questions about Isaac. The lady concluded the conversation saying, “If you pray hard enough, he’ll be just fine.”
I am NOT thankful for all these flimsy theological structures we build around God, cunning illusions that cause more suffering, not less. I’m not thankful for the image of a tyrant God who demands a ransom payment of prayer for our lives or our children’s lives. I’m not thankful for the image of an ineffectual God who wrings his hands and cries big tears, helpless to intervene in life and death situations. I’m not thankful for the image of a judgmental God who punishes us seemingly out of all proportion for our infractions. I’m not thankful for the image of a patronizing God who assures us that someday all this pain and suffering will make sense in a bigger picture we can’t yet see. I’m not thankful for the image of a God who plays favorites, rewarding the just and punishing the guilty.
These human constructs of God are not worth our time nor are they worth the heartbreak they leave in their wake. And yes, we can find each of these questionable gods reflected in our scripture texts. Because scripture is humanity’s testimony and witness to God, it behooves us to be on the lookout for all these little gods masquerading as the Real Thing. Thankfully, God can also be found in the Bible, though sometimes you only catch glimpses, written in, between the lines.
Revelation 1:8 (among many other scripture passages) voices the understanding that God is not of this temporal world in the same way we are. “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” God works through time but is not of time. God was, God is and God always will be. So God is perhaps less being and more presence, less other and more essence. And if we truly believe God is Love, than this makes sense. Love is surrounding, guiding, holding, Isaac and his family. Love is not making their life any easier. Isaac’s parents feel like their hearts are being ripped from their chests. But love is that force that will help them survive. Love has been present in their lives from the moment each was born. Love is holding their fragile selves together in the present. Love will be with them when they say their goodbyes on this side of life’s elusive veil. Love is channeling itself through Isaac, so much so that his parents derive some of their resolve from their son’s inner strength. And while I don’t know this the way I know certain indisputable facts about our natural world, still, I have faith that at some unknown point in the future, Isaac will continue to be one with a Love that always was, always is and always will be. For this I am more thankful than words can express.
Restoration is also a common theme in the Bible (see Psalm 126 and Joel 2:21-27 as recent lectionary examples). Because time means something a little different in the context of God, it comes as no surprise then that not only is our understanding of restoration a pale imitation of God’s version, our experience of it is as well. Restoration in this life is like a mended toy, never quite as good as it was before it was broken. When we have a falling out with someone we love, how wonderful it is when that relationship is restored. But those relationships are mended with the emotional baggage still in tact and so there is a fragility about the repair. Many people look to our criminal justice system for restoration, believing when a loved one is murdered, restoration means imprisonment or even capital death for the perpetrator. But in the end, there is no act of restoration that will atone for a dear one’s violent departure. And really, even our best attempts at restorative justice don’t, in the end, restore trust or innocence in the way they were experienced before the crime was committed.
The Bible has a different take on restoration. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away (Rev. 21:1-4).’”
New Jerusalem is a symbol for that moment of perfect restoration. Last week I mentioned evolution and the belief/hope that humanity is evolving, moving towards greater understanding and goodness. I think maybe it’s helpful to imagine this process as a circle. In the very beginning was one, complete unity of purpose and mind. Then, for whatever reason, came either a fall, a disturbance, a big bang, a progression that shattered that original unity. And so the arc began. Our evolution is a continual pushing out of this curvature that will eventually meet itself again, forming a perfect circle, a time when once again all is one and there is complete unity of purpose and mind. The New Jerusalem. What sets this moment in time and space apart from all others is that restoration will be complete for everyone. Now, we celebrate happy times of Thanksgiving for all the blessings in our lives. But true restoration means everyone sits at the table and rejoices. Now, we lift up broken relationships mended, happy reunions, but true restoration means a reuniting, reknitting of all humanity. Now, we have parents whose children are spared the ravages of cancer. But true restoration means all are spared.
Until then, I am thankful for every little reminder I have of restoration in the works, of a force of Love that is pushing/carrying us along. I am thankful for kairos moments in every shape and form. And I recognize that all too often these precious glimpses come packaged in searing grief. Isaac’s mother speaks hard won words of truth when she writes that it doesn’t take Disneyland to make moments magical. Magic is having her son squeeze her hand three times repeatedly, even during painful procedures, communicating to his mother, I.....Love…You. There is God again, between the lines. And she is thankful. For those moments chiseled into memory. For Isaac’s love so generously given. For the reminder that her precious son is still there with her, for yet a little while.