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Our Dappled World:
Grace to Help in Our Time of Need or The Ultimate of All Miseries?

For Sunday October 15, 2006

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
           Job 23:1–9, 16–17 or Amos 5:6–7, 10–15
           Psalm 22:1–15 or Psalm 90:12–17
           Hebrews 4:12–16
           Mark 10:17–31

Vigil at Sago Baptist Church, WV.

           A little after 6:00 am on Monday January 2, 2006, two carts of miners entered the Sago Mine in West Virginia to begin the first shift after the holiday weekend. A few minutes later an explosion trapped the thirteen miners in the first cart two miles into the mine and 300 feet underground. As the entire country held its collective breath and the Appalachian community prayed, late Tuesday night on January 3 national news services reported that twelve of the thirteen miners had been found alive. Euphoria erupted, horns blared, sirens screamed, and church bells pierced the night at Sago Baptist Church, where Governor Joe Manchin proclaimed a "miracle." But in a cruel twist of fate and miscommunication, three hours later the media reversed its report—twelve miners were dead and one alive, not twelve alive and one dead. Pandemonium followed the announcement. When the pastor urged families to look to God for help, a man shouted, "What the hell do you mean? What can God do for us now!?" A distraught woman, her face contorted with agony, cried, "Where is God when we need him? Is he really there?"

           Those anguished cries mirror Job's bitter complaint in the Old Testament reading for this week. Job longs to plead with God, to state his case before him, and to protest his unjust suffering. He knows that God is righteous and that he would hear the cry of an innocent person. But there's a problem—he can't find God and he doesn't know where to look for him. Job searches up, down, left, and right, but God feels absent and he feels abandoned. "If I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him" (Job 23:8–9). Using his spiritual compass to detect some hint of divine activity, Job cannot determine the truth north of God's presence in human history.

Mourners at Sago Baptist Church.
Mourners at Sago Baptist Church.

           In his new book God's Universe (2006) the Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich calls experiences like these "questions without answers." He includes an example of his own. When Gingerich was seventeen his only brother was killed by a car while delivering newspapers on his bike. Decades later, in one of the last entries in his diary, Gingerich's devout Mennonite father still agonized over why God would allow such a tragedy to befall his teenage son. Similarly, in his new book The Language of God (2006), Francis Collins, head of the human genome project, writes about his daughter's rape and how it challenges his faith even today. Why did God not intervene to protect his daughter? Why was the perpetrator never caught and brought to justice? To take one more Job-like "question with no answer," this week my uncle emailed me to say that his son tried to take his life with pills and alcohol.

           Our world is neither purely good or evil, neither black or white, but black, white, and many shades of gray. Job's unjust suffering rightly troubles us, as does the Sago mine disaster. But just as mysterious are human altruism, our unimaginably vast, complex, and finely-tuned cosmos that gave rise to intelligent life that can ask questions without answers, human conscience, and poignant beauty. In his poem Pied Beauty the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) described our world as "dappled."

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

According to Hopkins, we sense God's presence even, or especially, in "the dappled things"—things mottled as well as uniform, crooked as well as straight, sweet as well as sour, blemished as well as beautiful, surprising as well as predictable, and, yes, in things painful as well as pleasurable. God does act in our imperfect, irregular, dappled world and in our frail personal lives, says Gingerich, "but not always in the ways most obvious to our blinkered vision." This became "excruciatingly clear," he notes, in Psalm 22 for this week, which centuries later Christians recounted hearing from the parched, cracked lips of Jesus who screamed, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?" (Psalm 22:1). In that horrendous cry of dereliction, though, in some mysterious way God was in Christ reconciling the dappled cosmos to himself.

           Some people look at our dappled world and find little more than blind chance. In this view humanity would seem to be an unimaginably lucky and glorious accident resulting from 15 billion years of random events, void of any transcendent meaning or purpose. Others follow Hopkins and amidst the dappled things see God's action in human history. Christians have long found genuine comfort in this notion of God's providential care so well described by the Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509–1564):

(W)hen that light of divine providence has once shone upon a godly man [sic], he is then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that were pressing him before, but from every care. For as he justly dreads fortune, so he fearlessly dares commit himself to God. His solace, I say, is to know that His heavenly Father so upholds all things in His power, so rules by His authority and will, so governs by His wisdom, that nothing can befall except He determine it....Whence, I pray you, do you have this never-failing assurance but from knowing that, when the world appears to be aimlessly tumbled about, the Lord is everywhere at work, and from trusting that His work will be for your welfare? In short, not to tarry any longer over this, if you pay attention, you will easily perceive that ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it.

Randall McCloy, lone survivor of the Sago disaster.
Randall McCloy, lone survivor of
the Sago disaster.

God, as Christians like Gingerich, Collins, my uncle, and the saints in Sago, West Virginia understand him, is not merely a Cosmic Other who flung the stars into space. He is not just a what but a who, a someone and not merely a something, a personal redeemer who loves us in what the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber called an I-Thou relationship. The New Testament reading this week reminds us that in Jesus "we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted and tried in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need" (Hebrews 4:15–16).

For further reflection

* What might the French Nobel laureate André Gide (1869–1951) mean when he writes, "Joy is rarer, more difficult, and more beautiful than sadness. Once you make this all-important discovery, you must embrace joy as a moral obligation."
Consider Juliana of Norwich (14th century): "The greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love."
Have you ever sensed the providence of God in "dappled things?"
* What is the ultimate message of the book of Job?

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