Originally posted Aug. 10, 2012, at A Front View Pew. Republished with permission of the author.
When looking back on something I’ve written long ago, sometimes I think, “How incredibly awful!” This time, I actually hope that this will be one of those pieces because that will mean that I have become so much wiser than I am now. Wiser about things I don’t have sufficient answers for now.
It’s a subject I’ve thought of many times but hesitated to write about; one that most of us would probably rather not think about. We might even be afraid to admit that, as faithful Christians, we have such thoughts sometimes. But somewhere along the way we are bound to encounter the “What if?”
Oh, we try our best to always think positively. We send cheerful “Thinking of You” cards out to those who are facing difficulties, we even promise to pray for them, either personally or as a congregation. We form prayer chains in the hope that more prayer is better.
But, if we’re honest, sometimes in the back of our minds, fear and doubt have at least a toe, if not a whole foot in the door. And we hear the raspy whisper, “What if?”
Although memorization was never a big priority for me as a Sunday school teacher, for some reason I made my fifth and sixth graders learn Romans 8:28 one year. We recited the verse over and over, in lots of different ways, even shouting by the end of class: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
I must have reasoned that somewhere in their lives, those words might prove to be helpful. Maybe what I was really trying to do was to convince myself that they were true. I knew that whisper, “What if?”
Now, I’m not sure if that was a worthwhile exercise, because I would never try to use those words with a boy whose father is dying of cancer, despite the radiation and the chemo, the prayers of the congregation, and the visits from the pastor.
How can you possibly believe them when you’re with a father of three small children whose wife is mysteriously stricken with a rare, sometimes fatal illness?
And are they at all reassuring to a worried parent, when you know that every year some teenagers succeed in committing suicide even though everyone concerned has done their best to prevent it?
How do they sound to the lonely, elderly woman who wonders why her husband and only granddaughter both had to die within a few months of one another?
That episode of “Little House on the Prairie” in which the children are caught in a blizzard leaving school early on Christmas Eve has one scene I’ve always found particularly heart-wrenching.
Everyone rejoices when Mr. Edwards bursts in the door of the schoolhouse after spending the night out alone searching for his children in the blizzard. Everyone, that is, but the wife and son of the man whose body Charles Ingalls had found earlier, frozen to death.
Those are the people who came to my mind when a Christian radio station recently played a message from a listener, thanking God for his hand of protection over her husband, who had just narrowly missed being killed in a car accident.
My thoughts went to the listeners who were not so fortunate. How do they react upon hearing that woman’s story?
Do they wonder why their loved one was apparently lower on God’s priority list? Do they feel somehow to blame for not asking God’s protection beforehand? Are they wondering if they’re being punished for something?
No, that Romans verse isn’t what I’ve turned to when I’ve found myself within earshot of the “What if?” Experience has instead taught me a little more about why Psalm 23 provides comfort to so many; because sooner or later, in one way or another, the “What if?” will happen. And when it does, there is no way to reason any goodness into the situation, no matter how you frame it.
As much as we would like to fix it, or at least package it more attractively, it doesn’t work. Muster up all the positive thinking you can, but it won’t change the facts when “What if?” arrives.
I think that’s why the psalmist calls it the “darkest valley;” it is a place where no light exists, and it sucks in any light in its reach. All the encouraging platitudes that come drifting through are drowned in its depth.
We cannot avoid going through the dark valley of “What if?” but hope comes from the presence of the One who is with us through it. “For you are with me” (Psalm 23:4b) are the most powerful words I’ve found in confronting the whisper.
Because we have a God who is not sitting around somewhere up above waiting for us to get our acts together, to become better, more deserving people. We have a God who came down to us, here on the earth where we live, as a human like us. His death and resurrection defeated the darkest valley so that, while we will not avoid it, it does not have the final say. It does not have the power to consume us.
If you’ve heard me talk about communion before, you know it generates a game-show/infomercial kind of excitement for me. And so, I feel compelled to add — but wait, that’s not all! We have a God who continues to come to us in the sacraments.
Maybe we don’t remember our baptism if we were infants, but in communion we (hopefully, frequently) have that opportunity to experience Christ in both a physical and spiritual way, through our senses of hearing, sight, touch and taste. Given for us and remaining with us and in us, communion is at the same time personal as well as shared.
So while it isn’t a celestial slot machine that I can share with you, one that gives you a payoff if only you will just feed it the proper type and amount of currency, there is this, if we go a little farther in Romans:
And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow — not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below — indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39 NLT).
Find a link to Anita Nuetzman’s blog A Front Pew View at Lutheran Blogs.