Inga Kankei

oklahoma-tornado-10I don’t believe in God.  There, I said it.  Now let me unpack that a bit.  When I am working in the hospital, I encounter people almost every day that feel like God is punishing them somehow for their sins.  There are many who express how much they have been blessed, but many are like Job and trying to make an account before God of their sins.  Those who have lived noble lives are all the more frustrated because they feel that they have been unjustly tested or tortured by God.  This is an easy mindset to get in for sure.  It is especially difficult to deal with because it appears that the Bible tells us that God is a God of vengeance who sometimes punishes people on the spot for their sins, sometimes lets them build up before he drops the bomb, and sometimes picks on people at random.  And then come the clichés.  A patient looking me in the eye and saying matter-of-factly, but their eyes betray them saying that they don’t believe what they’re saying or are at least confirming it with me: “God helps those who help themselves.” “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”  “God works in mysterious ways.”  Or my personal favorite – “God has a purpose for everyone, I guess my suffering is part of his will.”

Unfortunately, we have been repeating these clichés and clergy have not done a very good job of dispelling them.  We tend to breed bad theology in the church and then nurture it and let it grow until our view of God is so distorted that God seems far away at best and nonexistent at worst.

One particular patient, who we’ll call Susan, who happened to be a nurse at the hospital and was used to taking care of people rather than being taken care of told me: “I know it’s wrong for me to say this, but I want to give up.  I don’t want to go on any more.  I have always been devoutly religious and done what I am supposed to, but I feel that God has gone so far away from me.  I have never felt this lonely before.”  And then she wept.  I told her that I didn’t know if it was helpful or not, but I explained my view of God.  A view that does not have God pulling strings like a puppet master, but instead constantly present to give us strength and peace during the turmoil.  I told her about meditation and centering prayer to help her be aware of the presence of God.

The Bible can often be a great source of this angst because of how we interpret it.  Sometimes we need someone to blame.  Sometimes we need a way to deal with things.  This passage in 2 Samuel 11 and 12 has David making a lot of mistakes.  He is king of Israel, he has everything that he could possibly want – money, food, women, whatever.  But he can’t resist going for one who is already taken.  He starts his progression down the slippery slope and cause and effect starts to happen.  He sleeps with her and she becomes pregnant.  A baby is evidence.  If they are found out, they will both have their names greatly tarnished and she will likely be put to death.  So, David uses military means to kill Uriah and sets in motion a series of violence that will haunt his entire family for generations to come.  Live by the sword, die by the sword.  It isn’t too difficult to see how things snowball out of control, one event causing the other.  This continues well beyond the point when Nathan tells David about these events and David not even being able to see that he is the one being spoken of, tells Nathan that such a man must die.  Such a man is committing acts that are reprehensible and David even says that such a man deserves whatever he gets.  Except – that man is David.  None of this is hard to wrap our minds around though in terms of simple cause and effect relationship, until – we come to the last verse of this passage:  “The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill” (2 Sam. 12:15).  The baby dies soon thereafter.

Wow.  So the Bible tells us that we serve and were created in the image of a God who kills babies for the sins of the parents.  That is troubling.  These are the kinds of verses that make us want to say that we do not believe in God or at least don’t want anything to do with God.  But there is something very important that we have to keep in mind: scriptures were written backward, not forward.  That is, they were written after, sometimes hundreds of years after the events transpired and when recorded, they were written through the cultural lens of the time.  No matter where you go in the world, or even in the U.S., you will find different views of God or gods and how they affect life and events in this world.  The Ancient Near Eastern view in Israel was that one God affected everything that happened.  There was not one thing that could transpire that God did not do.  We frequently make the mistake of reading a passage in the Bible and apply directly to our current context and situation without considering who and when it was written for.

Today is Father’s Day and my own father hasn’t taught me much other than what not to do.  My father-in-law, however, has taught me a few things.  Back when my father-in-law went regularly to his Buddhist Temple and I was fresh out of undergrad with my minor in Biblical Studies, we used to have conversations about how the universe worked.  He would always say, Subete wa inga kankei, meaning “Everything is cause and effect.”  I would then tell him that he was wrong and that everything happened according to God’s will.  The problem was, however, I couldn’t wrap my own head around how God could ever will that children could die or human beings could hate each other enough to kill one another, or that God would intentionally cause earthquakes to wipe people out by the tens of thousands.

Ten years later, I can see how this statement about cause and effect makes sense.  It isn’t necessarily just a Buddhist concept, but a universal one.  This reality is always around us and we can see it every day.  If you drink ten shots of whiskey and then get in the car and try to drive, you are going to get a DUI or worse, end up killing someone.  If you live a life that stirs up strife and consternation among others, it is not likely that you will be liked and those people will shun you. We can somehow wrap our heads around these things, but what about the things that don’t make as much sense?  When tectonic plates move and push up the ground, earthquakes happen.  When a cold front and a warm front collide and the cold air pours downward as the warm air rises and they begin to swirl, you get a tornado.  Tornadoes leave destruction.  When our cells are exposed to free radicals and start to mutate, we end up with cancer.  This is not because God willed it, but because it is cause and effect.

When we assume that everything that happens is God’s will, we end up with a lot of problems.  We end up having to thank God for our blessings and then curse God for our woes.  If we say that God does not cause everything, then we are left to say, “Ok, that’s good that God does not cause the bad in the world, but I guess I don’t have to be thankful for the good either.”  Not really.  To me, God is like a river that flows in one direction – toward good.  God only moves toward that which is good for creation, including us.  So, if God didn’t cause the tornadoes in Moore, OK, then where was God?  In the people who came to help.  God was not merely in those people or working through those people.  For all of them to come from all over the country to help people whom they didn’t even know,  to pick up the wounded and weary and carry them toward hope once again was to stare into the very face of God.  The same was for the tsunami in Tohoku and any where else we have seen disaster answered with hope and love.

So what about Susan?  On Thursday, Susan asked another chaplain if I was there and if I could visit her.  By this point, Susan had been in the hospital for over 40 days.  The last time I saw her she was in the ICU, but this time she was in a regular hospital room.  When I entered the room, she smiled and said “I want you to know that you’re the reason I am here.  I wanted to give up and didn’t want to live knowing that God had turned his back on me.  But now I know God is with me.  I do the meditations you taught me whenever things get bleak and I can always feel the presence of God.  I just wanted to let you know what a difference you made.”  I had to do everything I could to keep from tearing up in front of her.  I don’t tell you this story because I did something heroic or that I even did something at all.  I merely gave her a nudge toward seeing God a little bit differently.  She did the rest.

The God that is present in the hands and feet of those who bring hope to the devastated.  The God that is present with a woman whose organs are shutting down giving her strength and peace in a time of great need.  Do I believe in God?  Yes.  I believe in that God.

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