What Does it Mean to Celebrate Immanuel?

prayer1Tony Jones has issued another call for progressive theological bloggers to join in a conversation about the nature of God. He’s calling it #progGod, and last time I talked a little bit about the human inability to fully grasp who God is – including but certainly not limited to those humans who recorded their thoughts about God in the texts that now are called the Bible.

This time I want to revisit a post I wrote almost exactly one year ago. Liam, the son of some friends of mine and the focus of several posts on this blog, had just died, and it led to a lot of questioning. The post references a coworker whose son had brain cancer. That was Rex, who just died last month. He and Liam were diagnosed at nearly the same time, and died within a year of each other – despite countless prayers lifted up by thousands of people, many of them children.

That post from last year seems just as relevant today as it did back then, as we celebrate the miracle of God-with-us, the incarnation.

It’s been a rough week for God.

It’s certainly been a rough week for those of us who believe in a God who is both omnipotent and loving. For that matter, it seems like it’s been a rough year. Nevertheless, this past seven days carried with it some heartbreaking news about Liam, the 7-year-old son of one of the more frequent commenters here, Matt. For nearly two years, Liam has been battling leukemia, and despite a large amount of both prayer and medical effort, his battle appears likely to end quite soon.

That really sucks. I just don’t know how else to say it. My wife and I spent a good portion of Tuesday night crying and talking, trying to process how devastating it must be to lose a child.

Needless to say, this led us down a path many smarter, more thoughtful people have traveled many times before. The question of suffering, pain, prayer and the silence of a God we are told loves us.

I spent a lot of the early part of this blog’s life discussing prayer and questioning its usefulness. I feel I must return to it now. Because, look, there’s not much evidence it actually works, at least not in the way we traditionally think about prayer. I’ll let the late Christopher Hitchens explain it the way only a committed atheist can:

Almost all men get cancer of the prostate if they live long enough: it’s an undignified thing but quite evenly distributed among saints and sinners, believers and unbelievers. If you maintain that god awards the appropriate cancers, you must also account for the numbers of infants who contract leukemia. Devout persons have died young and in pain. Bertrand Russell and Voltaire, by contrast, remained spry until the end, as many psychopathic criminals and tyrants have also done. These visitations, then, seem awfully random. …

The Danish physicist and Nobelist Niels Bohr once hung a horseshoe over his doorway. Appalled friends exclaimed that surely he didn’t put any trust in such pathetic superstition. “No, I don’t,” he replied with composure, “but apparently it works whether you believe in it or not.” That might be the safest conclusion. The most comprehensive investigation of the subject ever conducted—the “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer,” of 2006—could find no correlation at all between the number and regularity of prayers offered and the likelihood that the person being prayed for would have improved chances. But it did find a small but interesting negative correlation, in that some patients suffered slight additional woe when they failed to manifest any improvement. They felt that they had disappointed their devoted supporters.

Here’s the link for that study, in case you want to check out the summary for yourself. The conclusion: “Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from [coronary artery bypass graft surgery], but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.“`

This subject leaves me frustrated. It feels like we’ve been sold a bill of goods, told as we grew up that God answers prayer, regaled with stories of so-and-so’s cousin or aunt or grandparent who was miraculously healed, for whose recovery the doctors had no explanation, who simply awoke one day and the pain or the fatigue or the tumor was gone. And who, after all, can argue with anecdotal evidence like that? And when the stories turn the other way, what do we say? Mostly, we come up with cliches and pablum. They’re in a better place now. God just needed another angel – which, I think we can all agree, is simply a horrific thing to say.

Do I sound angry? That’s probably because I am, a little bit. And these aren’t even my kids! What about this father where I work, whose son has been battling brain cancer. After two surgeries to remove a tumor and its regrowth, the doctors said they’ve found another spot. Since I don’t know him personally and he hasn’t given permission for me to use this, I’m leaving him anonymous:

To be brutally honest, I’m pissed.  I’m mad at God, I’m mad at the doctors, I’m mad at cancer … I’m just mad.  I haven’t REALLY prayed for my son in a couple of weeks because I’m so mad and filled with anger that I haven’t felt worthy enough to go before God and ask Him to heal our son.

I’m angry for [my son] and the fact that every piece of good news seems to be followed with four pieces of bad news.  I’m angry that [Matt and his wife] are going to have to bury their 7-year-old son, Liam, sometime around Christmas.  I absolutely ache for that family and am sick to my stomach that Liam will never see 8 years old. …

Mostly I’m angry that cancer has shaken my faith.  I know how I’m supposed to act in this situation, that I’m supposed to hit my knees in prayer and ask for God to intercede and heal [my son].  I’ve done that over and over in the last 12 months to seemingly no avail.  [My wife] has done that, our family has done that and it seems as though we just haven’t been able to get the upper hand on this beast.

These are the days when deism, if not atheism, makes the most sense. Perhaps God truly is nothing more than the great Watchmaker in the sky, setting things in order and letting them run. If he is truly involved in the goings-on of this world, then his decision not to save these children is no different than a decision to kill them. Is that the God we worship? One who has the capacity and power to save the Liams of this world and chooses not to?

But maybe that’s wrong. Maybe we shouldn’t look at it this way, focusing so much on the power of God. After all, what events in the interaction of God and humanity do we as Christians celebrate most? We don’t randomly assign a date to the Great Flood and celebrate that. We don’t exchange presents or hold special services to commemorate the battle of Jericho. In fact, those events make many of us uncomfortable. These manifestations of raw, brutal divine power seem out of place, don’t they? They sound more like the acts of the pagan gods and goddesses of other cultures.

No, we celebrate the events when God didn’t act like a god. We celebrate the moment he wrapped himself in flesh and allowed himself to be squeezed through a birth canal. We remember that in order to have the final victory, he chose to give up his life – not a powerful act. Indeed, was there anyone meeker than Jesus Christ, God-in-flesh, to ever walk the planet?

God, in other words, does not view power the way we do. We think of God as big. He keeps reminding us he would rather be small.

An example, from the incomparable blog of Dr. Richard Beck:

Here’s what I think. I think too much focus on God’s awesomeness leaves us ill-equipped to see God’s smallness in the world. Perhaps we’d be better able to transition from worship to mission if we started focusing on God’s smallness rather than on God’s bigness. Isn’t it one of the purposes of worship to help us see aright? To see God more clearly? If so, perhaps we need to start worshiping God’s smallness. Our God has gotten too big.

See the smallness of God in this famous section of Night, Elie Wiesel’s memoir of the Holocaust:

I witnessed other hangings. I never saw a single one of the victims weep. For a long time those dried-up bodies had forgotten the bitter taste of tears.

Except once. …

One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains–and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.

The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him.

This time the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.

The three victims mounted together onto the stairs.

The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses.

“Long live liberty!” cried the two adults.

But the child was silent.

“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked.

At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.

Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.

“Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping.

“Cover your heads!”

The the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive…

For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

“Where is God now?”

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

“Where is He? He is–He is hanging here on this gallows...”

Beck then quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who knew something about the silence of God in the face of the incomprehensible tortures of this life:

God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.

This doesn’t get me all the way to understanding why things happen the way they do, or why God, who knows our very thoughts and how many hairs we have on our head, asks us to pray without ceasing, even though the data suggest he probably won’t act on those prayers. I go back to the idea that God isn’t in the business of dispensing favors, but he is in the business of caring, loving, holding, comforting – and he can’t do those things unless we’re willing to talk to him about what we’re going through.

After all, Jesus Christ is called Immanuel: God-with-us. I think the Christmas story is recited so many times, we lose the import of that word, and how all-encompassing it really is. How real that makes our God. The concept of Immanuel is, I would argue, far more powerful than the concept of omnipotence.

Jonathan Storment describes it this way: “God enters the mess.”

The first Christmas was violent, and bloody, filled with risk and danger. It seemed like the whole strange plan of God was hanging by a thread. And if you are thinking about it, you realize that this was actually the way Jesus’ entire life went.

One turn after another Jesus is drawn toward the ones who are hurting, and with great joy mingling with great sorrow, he enters into it. Most of the time he reverses their immediate causes for suffering, sometimes he weeps with them, but he is always with them. And then…when evil finally draws its ugly head fully onto the life of Jesus. He doesn’t do for himself what he found so easy to do for others. They even taunted him to “save himself.” But he stayed, he endured, and he emptied it of all its enduring power. In the words of Paul, he took away its victory.  He took away its sting.

For me, a great metaphor of Christmas (especially this week) has been the thief on the cross. Jesus is undeservedly going through the same thing that he is. And Jesus talks him through it. He tells the thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” But the subtext is that right now I am with you in Hell.

Death sucks. There is no getting around that. And with every funeral, or miscarriage, or diagnosis of cancer we are reminded that the world isn’t supposed to be this way. It ought to be different. But Jesus entered the world the way it was, and slowly gave us a reason to hope by standing with us while we suffer.

Which is why I say this hasn’t been a good week for God. Sure, I mean that in the shallower, “what kind of God …” sense expressed above. But I also mean that if we think this week has been total crap for too many people, God not only agrees, he knows more than anyone else how horrible it’s been. And every week is like that for him because all over the world, every week is a bad week. We could spend another 2,000 words about why that is, why he even bothered creating such a world, why he has waited so long to get down to making things right (and we have discussed that a little bit). But that discussion will have to wait for another day.

Meanwhile, I’m not about to say I’ve got this figured out; I’m not sure anyone truly can. We can only wait and hope and pray that God gives us comfort as he cries beside us. Sometimes, that seems sufficient. This week, it doesn’t seem nearly enough.

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One comment on “What Does it Mean to Celebrate Immanuel?

  1. [...] _____: What Does It Mean to Celebrate Immanuel? ; Waiting with [...]

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