by Pastor Doug Kings

Below is one of my first Reflections columns at Gloria Dei and I think it is worth sharing again.

A few years ago on Christmas Day, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd shared an essay by a Catholic priest and friend as a reflection on recent shootings in his community. By his own admission, Father Kevin O’Neil was unable to answer the column title’s question: “Why, God?” Rather, he identifies times of suffering and loss as unique opportunities for family, friends, and even strangers to reach out in compassion. It is in this way that God’s love enters the world and brings consolation and healing to those in need.

I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them. Second, I don’t look for the hand of God to stop evil. I don’t expect comfort to come from afar. I really do believe that God enters the world through us. And even though I still have the “Why?” questions, they are not so much “Why, God?” questions. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not. . . .

A contemporary theologian has described mercy as “entering into the chaos of another.” Christmas is really a celebration of the mercy of God who entered the chaos of our world in the person of Jesus, mercy incarnate. I have never found it easy to be with people who suffer, to enter into the chaos of others. Yet, every time I have done so, it has been a gift to me, better than the wrapped and ribboned packages. I am pulled out of myself to be love’s presence to someone else, even as they are love’s presence to me. 

This column hit a popular chord (for several days it was The Time’s most emailed story). Father O’Neil is strongly influenced by the everyday lives of the people he encounters in his pastoral ministry. He doesn’t assume he brings the answers or “truth” to people and their problems. Rather, he enters a dialog with them, listening as well as speaking, allowing himself to be influenced by their thoughts and experiences as much as he might hope to give them guidance.

The result, as he says, is that his beliefs have changed. The message of Christmas, and the meaning of Jesus, is that God lives here on earth. Divine mercy and healing are experienced in our acts of compassion for each other. What is important to notice, however, is that this God is very different from the one found in many Bible stories, traditional theology, and popular piety.

This God is not a celestial superhero who swoops in to rescue people in need. He does not appear in the nick of time like the cavalry in vintage Westerns. This God isn’t Santa Clause, checking his list to see who has been naughty or nice, bringing toys to good girls and boys. This God does not “answer prayer,” does not reward or punish, does not intervene from “outside” into either the natural world of storms and disease or into human affairs like war or mass shootings. This God is not a being out there.

Yet such a view of a present God is actually an ancient one. The traditional idea of God is seriously questioned if not rejected in the biblical wisdom books of Job and Ecclesiastes. The belief in a “God-out-there” is also challenged many times in Jesus’ words and actions and in Paul’s writings about the indwelling Spirit. The mystical traditions of the biblical religions have often emphasized more a God that permeates the world and humanity than one that resides in a distant heaven.

And that seems to be the direction religion and spirituality are moving today, as a spontaneous reaction to human needs for transcendence and our growing acceptance and appreciation of the modern understanding of our world and the universe. Father O’Neil’s essay was well received. I scrolled through the comments looking in vain for criticism of his theology. On the other hand, many positive statements came from non-Christians and self-described atheists.

Churches, liberal and conservative, have clung to a self-image as mediators and purveyors of divine mercy, miraculous aid, salvation. Today, however, fewer and fewer people expect such divine intervention in their own or the world’s problems. The cavalry isn’t coming. It’s up to us and always has been, moved and empowered by God’s Spirit within.

Religion’s challenge is to cut its dependence on a Santa Claus God. Instead, it must re-imagine the divine experience as one of human beings as children of God reaching out to bind up one another’s wounds. Encouraging and enabling such compassion should be embraced by all the world’s religions as their primary calling.

Blessings in your life and ministry.