Storm Center. (When Bad Things Happen)

By Gomes, Peter J. | The Christian Century, May 31, 2003 | Go to article overview

Storm Center. (When Bad Things Happen)


Gomes, Peter J., The Christian Century


Set a straight course and keep to it, and do not be dismayed in the face of adversity (Ecclesiasticus 2:2, The Apocrypha, Revised English Bible).

AFTER A CHILD has been baptized in the traditions and liturgies of the Greek Orthodox Church--and by "child" I don't mean a squalling seven-year-old but a real infant, literally still damp--the minister or priest or bishop takes his very large pectoral cross--twice the size of mine--and forcefully strikes the little child on its breast, so hard that it leaves a mark, and so hard that it hurts the child and the child screams. In the West, we give the child roses. What is the difference here?

The symbolism of the Eastern baptism is clear. The blow indicates that the child who has been baptized into Christ must bear the cross, and that the cross is a sign not of ease or of victory or of prosperity or of success, but of sorrow, suffering, pain and death. By the cross those things are overcome. The symbol of our Christian faith is the cross--visible on the holy table, carved in a choir screen, worn around the necks of many of us and held in honor and esteemed by all of us. It stands to remind us of the troubles of the world that placed our Savior upon it for sins that he did not commit. Like those Greek Orthodox babies, then, we Christians ought to expect trouble, turmoil and tribulation as the normal course of life. We don't, however. We have been seduced by a false and phony version of the Christian faith that suggests that we are somehow immune to trouble.

Because we have been nice to God, our thinking goes, God should be nice to us. Because you have interrupted your normal routine and come here today, God should take note of it, mark it down in the book and spare you any trouble, tribulation or turmoil. Tribulation happens only to bad people--shouldn't it therefore be happening in spades to all those people who are not here this morning but just getting up out of bed, recovering from a night of pleasure and satiety? Tribulation happens only to the nonobservant and the bad people. When, as Rabbi Harold Kushner so famously noted, bad things happen to good people, we feel that something has gone terribly wrong. God is not supposed to behave that way. That's not part of the deal, and we ask, "Where is God?"

The answer to that conundrum is not a false conception of God. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the so-called death of God, and everything to do with the life and the faith of the believer. It is not the death of God that should concern us; it is the questionable state of the life of the believer. God does not spare us from turmoil, as even the most casual observance of the scriptures can tell us. God strengthens us for turmoil, and we can find that in the Good Book as well. It is a shabby faith that suggests that God is to do all the heavy lifting and that you and I are to do none. The whole record of scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, and the whole experience of the people of God from Good Friday down to and beyond September 11, suggests that faith is forged on the anvil of human adversity. No adversity; no faith.

Consider the lesson from the ancient Book of Ecclesiasticus. Could it be put any plainer? "My son, if thou comest to serve the Lord, prepare thy soul for temptation. Set thy heart aright, and constantly endure, and do not make haste in time of calamity." You don't need a degree in Hebrew Bible or exegesis to figure out what that is saying. What is the context for these words? Trouble, turmoil, tribulation and temptation: that's the given, that's the context. What is the response for calamity? Endurance. Don't rush, don't panic. What are we to do in calamitous times? We are to slow down. We are to inquire. We are to endure. Tribulation does not invite haste; it invites contemplation, reflection, perseverance, endurance.

When the Jewish people celebrate the Days of Awe, beginning their new year and atoning for their sins, they always remember two things. …

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