My trips to Dayton, Ohio, will be different from now on. My favorite marker, a 62-foot statue of Jesus made of wood, Styrofoam and resin in front of Solid Rock Church on Interstate 75, was struck by lightning and burned to the ground.
Apparently the statue’s real name was King of Kings, but we had several better titles: Loch Ness Jesus or Sinking Jesus (his torso emerged from a pond) or Touchdown Jesus (arms thrust upward). My favorite: Big-Butter Jesus (for its golden color).
A reporter interviewed people from the church on the night of the disaster. Some believed God was trying to get their attention with this lightning strike. “It’s a sign from God that we’re not doing something right,” said one. “It scares me,” said another. “It’s a sign and not a good one.”
I realize that we all interpret the events of our lives. There are times when we recognize that our actions have resulted in some bad consequence – a car wreck, a marriage failure, an illness – that can be seen or received as a kind of response from Beyond. There’s truth here. We know that to go against the grain of the universe will give you splinters.
But what does it say about our understanding of deity when every surprising and unwelcome event is framed within the assumption that God is mad at us? How does the natural destruction of a highly flammable depiction of Jesus, whom Christians believe is an expression of God’s relentless love for the world, so quickly lead people to conclude that God is unhappy with something or someone?
Does this feel like God to you?
A news reporter said an “act of God” led to the destruction of the King of Kings statue. Maybe God needs a good attorney to sue for libel.
I realize many Bible stories are told as a sign of God’s wrath or God’s miraculous deliverance, depending on which side of the story you’re on. Plagues sent on the Egyptians. Walls collapsing in Jericho when the trumpets sound. Floods. Human-swallowing whales.
Heard through our Western, literalistic ears, these stories suggest that God occasionally gets so impatient with us that violence breaks out. Divine violence, of course; therefore we have no right to question it.
But we do.
And for some, many perhaps, this God is too ugly to be real. Too deterministic to make sense. There’s a fancy word for this discussion: theodicy.
Within this conversation another way emerges for interpreting events like the fire that melted Big-Butter Jesus. This way recognizes that things happen in the world that cause us sadness – a statue is lost, a child dies, a tornado wipes out a town, an earthquake hits Haiti. But in this view God doesn’t initiate these events so that when there’s a failure, a lightning bolt springs from the Divine Finger to zap a statue.
Rather, stuff happens naturally in this world of moving weather patterns, moving objects, moving relationships, moving values. In this view, God’s unique role is the heart of Love who can shape our ability to act and react in the face of these challenges.
When our son died in a fire three years ago, it never occurred to us to accuse God of setting the fire or sitting passively while it developed. The name for that character wouldn’t be God; it would be Arsonist.
We were frequently told “everything happens for a reason,” a quote that often accompanies a tragic event, implying that God has a reason for a disaster that we are not privy to. Intended as comfort, it left us flat.
What I can say is God is present when all things happen, ready when the time is right to help people find love, peace and even a larger frame in which to hold the experience.
But God can’t do it alone. God needs partners.
In telling us to love our enemies, Jesus describes God as sending sun and rain on all of us equally – the good, bad and ugly. God’s mission is to love; therefore, we are to love. We are to “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect;” that is, to emulate the One who loves perfectly and provides a way in all things.
Walking out of Lowe’s last week, an 8-year-old boy skipped past me and climbed on one of the bright green-and-yellow John Deere tractors lined up outside the store like a row of toys. Behind me I heard, “Boy, get back here.”
I turned to smile at the father whom I assumed was playing with his son but was shocked to see the anger in his eyes. He jerked the child off the tractor, and the child cried in pain. “When we get to the car, I’m going to whip you hard,” he growled.
I was dumbfounded and paralyzed. My first reaction was to jerk the father’s arm and threaten him. Knowing this would come to no good end, I considered calling the police but knew it would be too late.
Then I noticed the older man walking silently alongside the father and as I passed I saw the family resemblance. It was the child’s grandfather, who seemed unfazed by the scene. I wondered if the young father was mirroring the parenting he himself had received. I found myself feeling empathy, even love.
I turned to the young father, forced a smile and heard myself say, “That’s a fine young man there.”
The dad’s face was startled, but it slowly softened. “Thank you,” he answered.
I climbed in my car and silently offered the moment to the One always present to bring healing and purpose to life, the Father whose only weapon is love.
Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church and Ridgewood Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.