A week ago Thursday, I was driving home to Seattle after a brief teaching stint in Vancouver, B. C. As I drove south, I heard news alerts about the collapse of a bridge on I-5. Then I got to thinking: Not only did I cross that bridge, but I crossed it within fifteen minutes — or maybe five — of the time it went down.
This kind of thing gives one pause. You think about “almosts” and “what ifs.”
You may think to yourself, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
But is that true? Yes, no and maybe.
Yes. because gratitude is always good. I’m certainly grateful I wasn’t right behind that over-sized truck. I’m thankful no one — amazingly — was killed. I’m grateful that I wasn’t caught in what must have been one hell of a traffic jam on the north side of the bridge.
But no, I don’t believe in a God who plays favorites or micromanages reality. Did God intend that I get through customs quickly enough that I was ahead of the bridge collapse and not a part of it? Did God nudge me ahead on I-5 so that the too-large truck that smashed into one of the bridge’s girders was behind me and not in front of me?
Though I believe in God and trust in some sense, in God’s providential care, I don’t think that’s how it works. I don’t think God, by whatever name, was pulling strings or levers to insure that I didn’t find myself in the Skagit River’s cold, dark waters that Thursday evening.
Because if I did believe that, the corollary is that God intended for others to go down with the bridge. Or worse, that God put the tornado in the path of an elementary school in Moore, Oklahoma or placed children in harm’s way in Newtown, Connecticut. And that is to make God into a monster.
I don’t believe in a God who provides special protection for those who are (or think they are) on God’s good side. That sounds less like faith and trust than selfishness. Faith, for me, has more to do with life’s meaning and purpose and with my trust in a grace and mercy that abide, mysteriously, in spite of human failure or evil.
Shortly after his son Alex was killed in a car wreck, onetime Yale Chaplain William Sloan Coffin tried to make sense of the tragedy in a sermon. At one point, he mentioned a “nice-looking, middle-aged woman who arrived at their home with eighteen quiches in hand.” As she passed by Coffin, she said, over her shoulder, “I just don’t understand the will of God” — implying that somehow it was God’s will that Alex die.
“Instantly I was in hot pursuit,” said Coffin, “swarming all over her. ‘I’ll say you don’t [understand God’s will] lady! Do you think it was the will of God that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper of his, that he was probably driving too fast in such a storm, that he probably had had a couple ‘frosties’ too many? Do you think it was God’s will that there are no streetlights along that stretch of road, and no guard rail separating the road and Boston Harbor?”
“For some reason,” concluded Coffin, “nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his finger on triggers, his fist around knives, his hands on steering wheels.”
While I agree with Coffin’s response to a theology that too quickly or easily specifies God’s will (and overlooks human responsibility), I also find I can’t fully buy the view that boils it all down to just us.
That’s where my “maybe” comes in. If I am reluctant to baptize this good break or that awful event as “God’s will,” I don’t want to rule out the possibility that God, or a Higher Power, or Grace can intrude into our lives in surprising ways. Sometimes these intrusions part a metaphorical Red Sea or roll a heavy stone away from some tomb into which we’ve crawled. Sometimes they bring two completely estranged people together and other times they make broken people whole. If we are unwise to call God into service of our self-interest, we are also unwise to rule out the capacity of a holy power, that we can’t fully explain, to mend broken hearts and a broken world.
In one of the New Testament’s more perplexing stories, a crowd confronted Jesus demanding an explanation for several recent incidents of death and mayhem (Luke 13: 1- 9). Those who confronted Jesus seemed pretty sure that the victims were somehow being punished for their sins. That is, they got what they deserved.
Jesus rejected their convenient equation of death and suffering with punishment. But then, in a move a bit like giving with one hand while taking with the other, he challenged the smug crowd, “But unless you repent, you likewise will perish.” What does that mean?
Perhaps this: When terrible things happen and we deal with our own fears by telling ourselves that “those people” got what was coming to them, we may really be insulating ourselves from an awareness of our own mortality, from our own knowledge of life’s fragility. In this little story, Jesus seemed to want people not to escape their fear, but to feel it; not to escape life’s fragility, but to experience it.
It is a scary thing to feel the fragility of life, to know that we survive — sometimes — by inches or moments. It is a scary thing, but not necessarily a bad thing. It is actually a good thing to feel, to awaken to — as an old prayer puts it — “the shortness and uncertainty of human life.”
When we say that such experiences as this one of mine (and that of a couple hundred other people on May 23) give you “pause,” I think that’s what we mean. They make you stop. They make you think. They make you realize that you are vulnerable, that life is a gift and not a possession. For such wake-up calls, we can be grateful.
A friend reminded me of a favorite story of his from one of Neil Gaiman's graphic novels. Sandman's sister, Death, is a wonderful character; kinda punky and cute, a big fan of both Mary Poppins and the Ramones. In one tale she greets a 19-year-old who has just died in an auto accident. When he learns that he is dead, he complains bitterly: "This isn't fair! I was supposed to get more!" Death is genuinely puzzled. "But Bobby, you got what everyone gets. You got a lifetime."