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God Not Feeling Omnipotent

October 10, 2013

Several years ago I came across a cartoon that I liked so much that I tracked down the artist – Portland’s own Shannon Wheeler – and sent him a check to buy a good quality .jpg of the cartoon. I knew that at some point a story would arise for me that would be a match for the cartoon, and that story and image together would help me understand God more deeply. My first class at seminary was the setting for making this connection, though it was with a story I had already known.  With that teaser, here is the cartoon … (click for better resolution, then back-tab to return)

God Not Feeling Omnipotent-Compressed

This story itself goes back to 1998, when I directed a consulting practice that operated up and down the west coast.  One of my managers at that time, named Dan, was married to a woman named Kerry, who was a newly minted pediatrician; they lived in the East Bay area of northern California.  One day Dan came home from work to find Kerry dead on their kitchen floor, murdered (as it ultimately turned out) by a carpet cleaner who had been working in their home.  I got the news from Dan via voice mail late that night.  It fell to me to organize coverage for Dan’s work responsibilities, to handle communications around our practice regarding what had happened, and to provide counsel to all who sought it.

At the end of the week I flew to Portland to spend the night with Diane, then the two of us flew to the Bay Area the next morning for Kerry’s funeral. All this time I was struggling to find words that could console Dan in any way. No one seemed certain what faith tradition Dan followed, if any, though some thought he might be Christian – which, as it turned out, he was. While I thought his faith might prove to be a source of consolation, I thought it was just as likely to be a source of anguish, that he might be asking “What kind of God are you that you would let this happen, or even cause this to happen?” Of course, I was wrestling with the same questions myself.

On the flight down I composed a Dear God letter, as I often do when I have no answers.  What rose for me then was a powerful response to the question “Where were you?” I had a vision of the actual attack, a vision of God speaking to the murderer from the moment the idea first arose in his head, with the volume rising to the point of yelling and screaming, with God pleading with the murderer to change his course of action – but to no avail. I then had a vision of God sitting alone with Kerry on the floor, crumpled in tears, waiting for Dan to come home. And from this vision rose a prayer, which I wrote down within my letter.

Dear God – This terrible tragedy has left many of us pounding on your door, asking “Why?”  Of course, your door is always open, and when we come in we find you beside yourself in tears.  We then realize how much you love Kerry, and Dan, and realize that if it were within your power to control human events this would not have happened.

We sit down beside you and ask “Why?” and we realize that you don’t have all the answers about these things either – this is the meaning of free will, that you don’t govern what choices people make.  So we find ourselves today looking for some things that we can know, some firm ground to cling to in the storm.  And in response I hear you tell us these things, which we can know to be true:

  • You love Kerry, Dan, and each of us, with all your might and all your power.  Whatever circumstances might befall us, this love will remain unshaken.
  • You did not want this to happen, you did not cause this to happen, and you did everything you could to keep it from happening.  The fact that this happened does not in any way mean that your power or love for us is less than perfect.
  • Your love is with us today.  You are here grieving with us, hurting with us.  You know what it is to lose a loved one to human cruelty.  You truly share our pain.
  • At the same time, you have the strength and power to overcome grief and lead us to a healing place.  You have done this for us before, and you are at work here today again.  You can take us there if we are willing to follow you.

Help us hear you through our pain, and to feel your healing touch.  Help us find the words and acts of kindness to share with each other, so that we can all know that you are with us and at work for us.  Help us to know that your love is eternal, that it remains undiminished through this tragedy, and that it is our source of strength to go on in this life.  We ask these things in your name.

The funeral was terrible and beautiful.  The venue had to be moved twice as it became clear how many people Kerry had touched through her work, even though she was only 30.  At some point after the funeral it felt right and appropriate to share this prayer with Dan, and he later shared with me that it helped in his grief process.  Dan and I remain in touch to this day (including today as I post this), though we have never worked together since then.

I want to return now to the cartoon.  It looks different now, doesn’t it?  I think about this image on the day Jesus was crucified, when he cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I think about how God must feel this way about each and every human cruelty, every illness or natural catastrophe that causes suffering. The God in this cartoon isn’t diminished by his lack of omnipotence – it only makes his love feel that much more real and pure.  This is a God I can actually have a relationship with.

This cartoon and story arose for me, after all these years, out of a “spiritual friendship” conversation I had with one of my fellow seminary students, who has been both witness to and victim of atrocities on the scale of Kerry’s.  I asked him the question “Where was God when this was happening to you?” and out of our discussion came both my story and, later in class, my cartoon. To be able to share and discuss such deep questions of “Who is God to you?” with such amazing fellow travelers was a great gift.

One of the authors we read and discussed in this seminary class – Parker Palmer – summarized this view of God beautifully. “God is not all-knowing and all-powerful.  God is in this mess with us and has the same unfulfilled yearnings that make our human hearts ache. God depends on a partnership with various beings to accomplish the Great Work here on earth.  Jesus, it seems to me, is a prime example of this partnership … I cannot love [a static] God – nor can I feel that such a God loves me.  Love is a dynamic relationship, a two-way exchange of energy … We are too often told to worship a God whom we need but who doesn’t need us … Only a God who is vulnerable and even needy will evoke our love in a way that completes the circuit of human-and-divine.” (from The Active Life)

To return to a phrase I used in a previous post, this is an understanding of God that complements and completes my rational understanding of the world, an understanding that functions well with, and makes more sense, not less, out of the rest of what I know and experience.  I am excited to have the opportunity to get to know this God better over the years to come!

P.S. If you want to know more about Kerry’s passion and how it lives on today, please visit Kerry’s Kids. Further evidence that God’s love, in cooperation with those touched by the Spirit, endures despite tragedy …

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One Comment
  1. Oh, my. What a story, Greg. You really wrestled with God and the fruit of that wrestling is powerful. Thank you for sharing this story and your “Dear God” letter with us. It touched me deeply. –Margaret Benefiel

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