For Lent I am giving up on a recognizable and predictable God.
To many of you this story will not be new. In the fall of 2012, our son-in-law Kenny died after two years of living with pancreatic cancer. His wife, our youngest, Gayle, was pregnant with their first child. Isaac was born 16 days after Kenny’s death.
I completely lost God. The god that died that day was a god who is supposed to answer prayers the way I want them answered. Naïve? Yes. But, when it’s someone you love, there is a wrestling that goes on. Something has to let go. I had to let go of God.
On one of my many trips back and forth to Edmonton where Gayle and Isaac live, I listened to a podcast from a 5-part CBC Ideas series entitled After Atheism. They were interviewing Richard Kearney author of Anatheism: Belief in God after God. “Anatheism”, he defines as a returning to God only after leaving in a moment of doubtful withdrawal. He had my attention.
The central story at the beginning of Judaism is Abraham and Sarah in a tent, under the oaks of Mamre. Three strangers approach. “Do we welcome them, or do we reject them?” They decide to share bread and wine. The three strangers then reveal themselves as God. Why did God come as a stranger after a 25-year friendship? I don’t know. But when Abraham received these strangers, it took the friendship to a different level.
In the car on the way to Edmonton I was hearing an unmistakeable invitation from divine presence in the midst of my doubtful and angry withdrawal. I wondered: Will I offer hospitality to this God who has become a stranger?
I heard Kearny say that in that Genesis 18 moment, 98-year-old barren Sarah is promised a pregnancy. The metaphor is clear: New life comes as we receive God again after we have given up on God. The story is repeated with Gabriel’s visit to Mary. She welcomes the stranger and it becomes the beginning of the gospel story. The first question Paul asks after being struck down on his Damascus road is, “Who are you Lord?” God had become a stranger. It seems a familiar story.
Perhaps God is not quite so predictable, or explicable, or domesticated as I sometimes think. I wonder if in these current circumstances, in the midst of the reality of COVID-19 and the way it is touching us and those we love, we are being invited to hold space open for divine unpredictability. The poet W.H. Auden once wrote:
“Every Christian has to make a transition from the child’s ‘We believe still’ to the adult’s ‘I believe again’. This cannot have been easy to make at any time, and in our age it is rarely made, it would seem, without a hiatus of unbelief.”
God does not cause destabilizing moments in life like the ones we are experiencing now. Life just happens. But I believe God sustains us in them and invites us to “believe again”. I am relieved to know that even doubt and unbelief belong as we make our way toward a more authentic faith.
I want to continue to give up on a an easily recognizable and domesticated God and offer hospitality to the God who is not as predictable as I might have thought. How about you?