What faith do you need to lose in order to become a better person?
I stood alone Wednesday night in my back yard, heart thumping in my chest, watching 100-foot flames leap and dance in the illumined spray of water. It was both frightening and spectacular as the winds gusted through the trees.
Just a few hundred feet away from home was a ranging inferno that lit up the night sky in Palm Springs, California. Swaying palm trees silhouette the yellows and reds as the fire engine pumped thousands of gallons of water on an abandoned condominium building burning in the old historic Racquet Club.
This 10-acre site is now owned by successful LGBT tour operators Olivia, and there is no clear decision by the owners or the city on how to develop the place where Marilyn Monroe was discovered. Abandoned buildings attract homeless populations, and neighbors had been complaining to the city about the risk of setting fires within the complex.
It was 116 degrees in the desert this week, so everything is as dry as tinder. North Palm Springs can be usually windy this time of year, and Wednesday night was no exception. I watched the palm trees submit to the forces of nature blowing them southward. The fire was fueled by this dry wind, but like the wall of water in Defile’s epic on Moses and the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea, we could see a wall of smoke and vaporizing water, across the street from our homes.
It was an uncanny feeling to rely on wind to save us. As long as the north wind blew southward, the flames were kept from the residential neighborhood surrounding the abandoned club. One change of direction would mean sparks and flames would catch our trees and roofs on fire, and the unimaginable could happen. We could have lost everything in a moment. Across the street, the first house to go would have been once owned by Christine Onassis – it is now a vocational rental home. Then, it would have been us and then our neighbors, who had already been evacuated by the authorities. The fiery ordeal was that close.
I remember praying for the brave firefighters who stood precariously at the top of a long crane ladder and aimed their hoses meticulously, keeping the fire wall from creeping towards the homes on our corner of the street. The firefighters and the wind were the only forces that stopped the fire from coming in our direction. It was amazing to think, one moment you can be watching television in your home, and the next moment you could be standing in a smoldering ruin. Life is more precarious than we think. In a moment, all we value and take for granted can be gone. Many of us have been thinking about life’s vulnerabilities since the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 last week. The fire in my own back yard was a reminder to pay attention to the signs of the times and to live more deeply and with more gratitude for the simple things we may take for granted.
A rough week
As a frequent flier, the images of the flight’s fiery ending hovered in my soul this week. A Ukrainian man described to a reporter how he saw the plane explode and witnessed people falling from the sky. One women described how she heard a crash and discovered a man’s body had come through her roof and landed in her kitchen. It remained there for days.
In a moment, life can send us some very unwelcome curve balls, and I wonder how these two people will ever be the same again because of what they witnessed? The anguish of families and loved ones cannot ever be fathomed. A news report described the sheer hell that two parents are going through after losing three of their children and their grandfather on the flight. They described it as an unimaginable hell that they would not wish on even the people who shot the plane down.
We are so precariously vulnerable and the damage that we can inflict on each other or the images and losses that we have to make peace with, is also without limit. Images of senseless bombing of hospitals in Gaza and rockets being fired in retaliation for other suffering caused by human beings like you and me … where is God when we need God most?
I visited the Israeli/Gaza border several years ago as part of a commemoration of the Nakba (the ordeal) marking 60 years since the Palestinian people began their struggle for the right to their land and dignity. Rockets were being fired from Gaza into Israel and our group sheltered for cover against the walls of the border authority’s buildings at one of the crossings. The earth shuddered as missiles penetrated her fragile shell.
Our reptile brain takes over in circumstances like these and full of adrenalin, we fight or flight. We are wired to deal with danger and trauma in a particular way. The more creative and problem-solving capacity of our neo-cortex, our higher brains, is more difficult to access in these life and death moments. I felt it again standing in my back yard last night. The power of nature can be overwhelming and the wind and the firefighters were the only barriers to the unimaginable loss and trauma that we were spared.
This is nothing compared to what so many families have gone through this week. Loss of people and lives ripped apart is even more traumatic, and people can go simply mad or lose the will to go on. Property can always be replaced and life can become normal again but there is something about embracing this very vulnerable moment that can become a spiritual awakening and opening up. We are knocked out of a sleepy kind of narcissism to ask deeper questions and go beyond our reptile brain functions.
We are not alone
In the end, we discover a connection and we are not separated from each other or even from God. The professional skill of the firefighters and police, looking out for our best interests and safety, brought a level of connection and reassurance. We are not completely alone.
Doctors and nurses in Gaza continued to care for their patients even when their hospital was bombed by the Israeli forces. Ukrainians and the Dutch are now working together on the terrible task of returning loved ones to families and trying to find out who was responsible for this act of horror.
We are globalized in a way we could never have imagined only 20 years ago. An Asian jetliner is shot down over European airspace and is filled with international passengers. As President Barack Obama said in his first comments on the tragedy, this is an international disaster. Our well-being is intimately tied up with the well-being of others, many of whom we will never know. The people who boarded Flight MH17 last week may have had little or no real knowledge or concern about the conflicts in Ukraine, but we are all connected, and it becomes harder to delineate my property and interests from yours when a fire is raging.
Where is God?
With all of these challenges this week, a few people have asked me the courageous question: “How could God allow this to happen?” How could 80 innocent children suddenly have their lives ended so violently? I see the same images of purposelessness and quest for meaning in faces of Palestinian and Israeli families on my television screen this week.
Christianity has many schools of thought on this ultimate question. Some would say God has predestined the world and people in it to take their place in his design like a large chess game. Predestination is still alive and well in many parts of the church, but it does not offer answers to the families who lose everything, including faith, when a tragedy hits full force.
Prosperity gospel is another form of this heresy, where God blesses hard work and the right beliefs and practices, so people who find themselves in poverty or on the margins must be doing something to displease God. God is seen as a great old man auditor in the sky who tallies our good deeds and our evil ones.
This is the Santa Claus-ification of God and I don’t believe in either of these figments of human imagination. They very inadequately describe the mystery WE call God. We offer an image of a mean and petty God who does not deserve our worship, reverence or gratitude. God is also not a celestial vending machine either and often we see prayer and simply a way to access the goodies we want from the vending machine we call God. It was ridiculous for me to pray that God would blow a wind to save my home, yet I found myself in that vulnerable, desperate place. Was it coincidence the wind created a wall of spray and smoke across the street? I am left to love and protect the questions and certainly not to come up with some trivial answer. I will never know.
Faith is learning to live with and love the questions themselves
I would rather see the wind as my new friend, rather like St. Francis of Assisi, who even saw death as a friend. Nothing separates from the LOVE of God, St. Paul says. Not even suffering, hardship, affliction and death. The thing that makes most sense for me in the Christian story of the suffering, crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus is the belief that God is not separate and apart from the suffering and tragedy in this ancient story, but is right in the middle of it all.
The most important audacious statement that Christianity can make is not so much about resurrection from the dead (we see this in nature all around us –life coming from things dead and decaying) but about God actually sharing in human suffering. When the plane went down, God wept and the suffering of parents and loved ones is God’s suffering too. I also believe that God needs us to help to repair this world and often a tragedy or a loss is a way for us to ask deeper existential questions about how we live our lives. Do we try to live safely within boundaries and protect our interests and security, or are we prepared to risk stepping out over the boundaries of our own interests?
Losing one’s faith
A century ago, my grandfather became a lifelong agnostic after being part of the salvage flotilla sent out to find the bodies and clues to the sinking of the Titanic. He lost his faith amid the debris of the equivalent of the 9/11 disaster in 1912. He could not believe in a God above who would simply allow this tragedy to happen.
I can understand why he felt this way, given the unbridled optimism of this unique era. It was just before the world was plunged into two brutally inhuman world wars and was the last gasps of innocence and certainty. Of course the Titanic was unsinkable! Of course technology was dependable – this was the fastest ship ever made by humans! Progress is not always linear. Optimism can blind us to the evil that lurks in the human shadows.
I watched an old news reel that had been lost for generations that depicted the arrival of the Carpathia in New York with the first survivors of the Titanic disaster, and it was remarkable to see how young the crew actually were (many teenagers and early 20s) who had to literally pick these people out from the freezing sea and share their clothes and humanity with them. The journey back was a couple of days, but I wonder what kinds of conversations and connections were made between these young working class sailors and their traumatized unexpected guests? God was here.
I know my grandfather was traumatized as an impressionable young man and lost something over the course of that historic human tragedy that permeated into the faith-DNA of our family, even today. Tragedies become epic stories over generations and they help us make sense of what is going on right now. Even though Jimmy Malcomson lost something, yet God was present in his ministry and the ministry and pastoral care of those young sailors to the rich and famous, who also lost so much that night. Something was lost but something was also gained and it may take years to figure that out. There is no immediate return, except the haunting questions. Values can change and one hopes that many good things came out of something so horrific. God was in the suffering, not apart from it all. We depend on the firefighters. We need our neighbors and we need a commitment to a value that my best interests are clearly tied up and bound with yours. Africans call this Ubuntu. Nobody can describe this more clearly than the late great Nelson Mandela.
We are all vulnerable and God is with us and if we are lucky, the people of God can make this journey less lonely and meaningless. This week gives us all a lot to reflect upon as we make new friends with the winds and make peace with the mystery we call God. The old images and gods cannot help us so we may lose them in seeking after something to sustain the quest for meaning.
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RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE. RGOD2 appears on SDGLN and GLBTNN.