I’m a theologian of sorts, I suppose. It’s my duty so to be.
Seminary classes occupied three solid years of my life most of a century ago,1 sitting in class after class purposed to teach theology. We read thick books, sometimes exciting, more often tedious, about “systematic theology,” a composite intended to bring together pieces of theology and fit them neatly in a pretty tessellation, and also to prescribe my faithfulness to the Scriptures and the Faith, and provide sturdy scaffolding for the sermons I would preach and classes I would teach and the services I would provide when I was holding forth on my own in a church somewhere.
Once I had been solidly installed in a church, theology was inescapable, since every time an opportunity/obligation to preach/teach came around, I couldn’t ignore it. On the other hand, we’d been warned in seminary not to climb into high pulpits and preach in Greek nor use obscure words. We’d been told, I assume to put it plainly, “Keep it simple!” but how do you do that: make one of the most complex subjects one can imagine, i.e., understanding God, simple?
There was, however, one relatively easy answer: home in on Jesus. Avoid rocky paths on craggy theological mountains; give your people Jesus, because after all, we’d been taught since we were knee-high to grasshoppers, in Sunday School, confirmation, and from the pulpit, plus at our mothers’ knees, that Jesus is the complete, divine revelation of God. Hadn’t a big chunk of systematic theology been “christology”? Who was Jesus, really? God’s Son, including all the nuances and fragrances of that divine relationship, but on the other hand as well, human, one of us. There was then a fairly common song we sang saying, “Take the world but give me Jesus. . .” and to a great extent, we might also have sung, “Take God, but give me Jesus.”2
Be that as it may, wasn’t I obliged to preach about the Old Testament, too, where Jesus was not to be found except, we said, by inference? Skillful and enthusiastic teachers had shown us the beauty that was there, plus valuable history, and critical theology, as well, but all too often, I’d get into such lovely settings and then suddenly there would be blood and dead bodies and whole cities and great clans of people destroyed, or words like, “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against a rock!” glaring among tender Psalms. Or there was Jonah, swallowed by a whale, and we, taught that every word was true and so, back to Jesus because, after all was said and done, the really important job we had was to make Christians. get them, one by one, into the fold and following Jesus—if you were an evangelical as I was and am, to get them “born again” and ready for heaven when they died.
Now and then, though, you got wind of a preacher who seemed to have the newspaper open in front of him—almost always “him” then, but here and there was a Dorothy or an Elizabeth or a Katrina who could just as well deal with the impossible news that set their listeners’ teeth on edge—and you wondered where they found their courage and assurance and self-confidence to preach that way when people in front of them walked out on their sermons, and next Sunday they’d preach the same way, and the folks who’d walked out before were back to listen because the authenticity and integrity were so palpable as to be magnetically compelling, and you wanted to preach like that but never got the nerve, and the God you thought you knew just couldn’t be called to duty to back you up. So, next Sunday for you, back to a benign Jesus who could save your soul.
As it happened, though, I didn’t have to read a newspaper to find unthinkable news or go to the Old Testament to find gravelly and forbidding words; it happened much closer to home, to the people around me that I loved and cared for. People had horrible accidents, and they contracted horrible diseases. Tiny babies died as they were being born, and sometimes, so did their mothers. Or a new mother was so distraught, she took her own life—and a teenage boy, likewise.
Then, on a summer evening in 1970, my own son simply went outside to play happily with a buddy after dinner and, as he sped to catch a Frisbee, a speeding car smashed into him, breaking up his 12-year-old body so gravely that he died on an operating table four hours later. For God’s sake, he was so young, his whole life ahead of him, to grow and learn and love, and ahead of our family, and of the world in which he would live and make a difference, but all of it ended in shrieking of skidding tires and terror—and enormous questions about God.
Theodicy (thee-ODD-uh-see) had been a part of the blend of systematic theology we’d learned in seminary, a sort of short course in being God’s defense attorney, the business maybe likely better learned in law school. Theodicy literally implies “speaking for,” or “defending” God, and its sub-text would be “God and Evil,” and dear me, there was going to be a huge amount of evil and defending to manage, as I learned so intimately that summer evening in June, 1970.
There were preachers with theologies that let them advance the theodicy, “It was God’s will,” and let it go at that. Frankly, if that were somehow proved to me, I think I’d have deserted God then and there and trying to serve grieving people, and seek a different occupation where my work might have made a real difference. Even so, a few weeks later, when it was my turn to give a sermon, I preached about my son’s death, and strangely I came up with a version of “It was God’s will” that I hadn’t recognized as such. I said something like, “I’m so intimate with Philip’s death that I can only see a tiny close-up of a vastly larger picture. Could I take in the whole, I’d possibly discern God’s reasons.”
That sermon must have sounded a clear tone, because people liked it—or perhaps felt sorry for me—and one of them took it to the major newspaper where he was an editor and tried to get it published. It was rejected, thank goodness! Within weeks, the claim about God’s big picture would be so severely strained that it crumbled into a thousand pieces.
Philip’s death was the second of five deaths of children in as many years at that church. Among them was a tiny infant a mere two months after Philip’s dying. Dear friends had waited long for a baby, and finally they had a wee boy they loved beyond imagination. A few months old, they packed him and his baby accouterments and headed toward California to present him to his grandparents and uncles and aunts there. One of those mornings on the road, at a motel in Nevada, they awakened to find that hugely beloved child dead in his small, traveling crib.
Being their pastor and their friend, and being still pretty much a basket case myself, the pressure on my shaky theodicy was astounding, cruelly so when the baby’s mother, who had heard my earlier sermon, reminded me that I’d said in so many words that Philips’s death was God’s will, and when she then asked, “Was [my baby’s] dying God’s will?” I could hear the accusation. We sat in silence for a few moments, not many, until I said, “No,” and then I was plainly incoherent.
I likely gave my friend a copy of “A Grief Observed,” by C.S. Lewis, to speak for me. In late life, Lewis found flawless joy in marriage to a woman named Joy. When cancer attacked and killed her, he was bereft. His book is simply a story of how totally invasive, all-consuming, grief can be. I recall there being no easy answers given by that towering theologian, no fetching theodicy. He let us know that you will, meekly or kicking and screaming, live with your grief until it’s venom finally wears away.
So it went, again and again. Fighting a war in Vietnam left 58,000 American homes in abject grief, and alongside that cruel statistic, the reality was that hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese had been destroyed, soldiers, civilians, women, children. Several years after that miserable war had ground to a halt, a church member, who was a career military officer, approached me just before Memorial Day with his request that I create a significant recognition of the day for that weekend’s worship service. I agreed despite knowing I’d surely have a beastly time coming up with a sermon that was anything more than a collection of memes and proof texts. (Memes had a different name then, but we were as often tempted to hide behind their safe and sapless predecessors.)
In those days when Google had not even become a dream, I sought out a library where I imagined I could find a unique magazine I remembered. Amid the Vietnam War’s fierce fighting in June, 1969, “Life,” a weekly pictorial magazine that provided our most vivid images of current news, had published a controversial issue in which it printed, one by one, photos of almost everyone of the 242 Americans killed in Vietnam during the just-previous Memorial Day week. Once I found the old magazine, I sat down at a table to turn pages to the article.
“One Week’s Dead,” was its title. There were 10 pages, 20 photos on each page, and a few more before and after, plus 25 names printed without photos at the end. I sensed every photo requiring my attention, noticing the name, age (the likely average, 20), hometown, most of all, the face. . . and I began to cry, tears I did not attempt to control. I knew whence and why those tears came 15 years or so later: One year and a few days beyond those deaths, my son had died, and many photos I was seeing were of men barely a half dozen years older than he had been. The enormity of grief overtook me, as it had every single one of those 242 families, the incredible tragedy, the unfathomable circumstances, the unmitigated pain, as tears fell onto that aging magazine.
What had I gained for my difficult sermon? I struggled, but all I could imagine was merely to tell the story of what had happened to me, allowing those young men of the 1969 story to represent all the grief of families bereft by all the wars we remember on Memorial Day. I remember nothing of my actual words. I wondered if my military friend might be peeved at a perceived belittling of the patriotism and sacrifice of those 242 men. Later, among the last to leave the service, that friend spoke to me in low tones I could barely make out, something like, “Best Memorial Day sermon I’ve ever heard.” I thought I’d got it right.
Oh, but I am writing about theodicy, right? About defending God! By that date in history, few people wanted to talk about or hear about the war in Vietnam. Had those 242 combatants died needlessly? Many would have returned a bold, Yes!; as many would have retorted, Of course not! Likely most would have said the men were heroes, one way or another, but where was God? Quite a few would have insisted that those 242 who died were fighting God’s war against a godless enemy. Many more would have been far less sure but would also have been hard put to name God’s role, for better of for worse, and theodicy would lose, pushed aside with unsatisfying answers.
Among the many times that theodicy was required of me was at the death of a newborn boy with gross deformities that brought on the almost-immediate end of his life. Later we learned that his father had been exposed to Agent Orange while fighting in Viet Nam. Stories of similar losses emerged as front-page news, alongside stories of defoliation and suffering and death of tens of thousands of civilians, the perversity of chemical giants and military decisions, of financial settlements with families doing little to relieve the tragedies. Where was God?
It was a question asked again and again in the course of more than 40 years of parish ministry. Early on, it was the death in 1964 of a college friend, Dr. Paul Carlson, who had remained at his hospital in the Republic of Congo after his family and other missionaries had left, was soon captured by rebels, and while on the verge of evacuation from Stanleyville (now called Kisangani) and helping another missionary escape, was shot and killed, a death that has had continuing confounding affect on me and my ministry. Later on, congregations repeatedly endured tragic events. During the eight years I worked in the city where Philip was killed, five children from that congregation died, three of deadly diseases, two of accidents. In other congregations, it was a 17-year-old young man, a superb musician looking forward to his senior year in high school, with a lower leg amputated in a vain attempt to halt a cancer that had been induced by vastly excessive radiation of an earlier cancer when he was 12, and his death shortly after his 19th birthday; a dad of three young children dying in his 20s after a bone marrow transplant failed to stop his blood cancer, and the tormented wife and mother, refusing to leave his deathbed; a baby born missing parts of his brain; a young bush pilot lost in the wilds of Alaska, and in the wider world, 9/11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and death multiplied exponentially. Each time the inescapable question, asked or implied, “Where is God?” and the struggle to answer without being glib and dismissive and consequently, hurtful.
The 21st century had begun to settle into place before another major catastrophe tested my arbitrary theodicy and finally led to a jarring—perhaps, inevitable—cave-in.
In May, 2002, my wife, Annette, and I flew on the first of eventually four round trips to Johannesburg, South Africa and, that first time, on to Durban to join in Habit for Humanity’s Jimmy Carter Work Project when 100 homes would, in five days, be built by 1,000 volunteers from around the world.3 It was a totally busy week with no time to engage the scene that immediately surrounded us. Our work proceeded almost frantically with the unwavering deadline set by Jimmy Carter that the 100 homes must be completed and ready for their owner/occupants—who also worked beside us as we built—by Friday evening.
We had arranged that once that intense week of building had ended, we would take a rightly-named Garden Tour from Elizabethtown to CapeTown. It was a grand ride in a van through beautiful landscapes and Indian Ocean vistas enriched by the fact that our driver/tour guide, Mervin Wessels, had during apartheid been identified as “coloured.” Mervin freely let us in on what it had meant to be forced to carry a “C” pass card, restricted to living in a “coloured” district and being a middle-school teacher of “coloured” kids that had ended only eight years before when Nelson Mandela became president, and he took us to sites we would not have visited had he not had those experiences and perspectives. At last, we had got into close contact with the people of South Africa and aware of the crisis that was traumatizing that country.
The shadow of HIV/Aids was constantly before us. Profuse billboards and posters warned and guided everyone to avoid HIV infection with a desperate urgency.4 The HIV/Aids symbol, a simple red bow, was universal, including on lapels and blouses of countless people. Even so, during the two weeks we were in South Africa, we had no direct encounter with the Aids catastrophe until early the final Saturday that we were in CapeTown.
That morning, Annette and I had opted to visit a handy tourist attraction, the Victoria Albert shopping mall on the waterfront. As we set out, barely 20 feet from our hotel, three ragged boys, early teens likely, appeared out of nowhere, demanding money while flashing knives. Conventional wisdom dictated our immediate handing over money to escape injury or death, but as I watched the smallest of the boys reaching between Annette’s breasts—for many native African women, their wallet—I became furious and screamed for help. Amazingly, the boys disappeared as quickly as they had appeared but not before the little one had drawn a few drops of blood with his knife on Annette’s hand.
Our relief at their exit quickly turned into to horror that Annette had been exposed to HIV. We flew back to safety inside the hotel to scour the tiny wound and seek the advice of hotel staff. We got little help, except to be told that we were extremely fortunate and that we should not have been on the street on Saturday morning (a shock, because we’d been roaming the city freely the day before.) For days, fear of HIV stayed with us until, back home, a test returned negative.
Irregardless, our many beneficial experiences in 2002 were an unrelenting magnet drawing us back. We returned for six-weeks in 2003, spent largely in Philippi, a large CapeTown squatter township, where there was no escaping the daily presence of HIV/Aids among the children and adults who absorbed us.
An eight-year-old boy I’ll call Toby quickly became my poster child. Any time he was out of school or not at home asleep, he’d be somewhere in the Anglican churchyard where we were involved. Toby and I became such close pals that when we spotted one another, he’d race to me and leap into my arms, and I held him close. Each time, I was distressed by how lean and meager his body seemed to be. His obvious energy belied the unrelenting HIV that made him an incurably ill little boy. Occasionally his weakness would win, and he’d be asleep on a church pew, a picture of near-hopeless vulnerability.
Toby had been found as an abandoned infant. A saint-like woman named Sister Agnes had taken him into her house which, by the time we were there, was home to a dozen such HIV+ kids. Sister Agnes told me about the symptoms of full-blown Aids showing up in Toby’s health. She had watched other children die and knew that the prognosis for Toby was grim. When we arrived in CapeTown we lived for a week with a Presbyterian pastor and his wife, who directed a government HIV/Aids clinic. She told us of people waiting in long lines daily for medications that simply were not there at the clinic or anywhere in South Africa, notwithstanding that in America and Europe, effective medicines, nicknamed ARVs (anti-retrovials, or ART, anti-retroviral treatment) had been in use effectively for several years.
One day our pastor/host invited me to accompany him as he visited four young children with severe effects of full-blown Aids, two in their homes, two others hospitalized. Within a few weeks, two of those children had died. While we were staying in that pastor’s home, we met a 15-year-old I’ll call Ian. Ian was a musical prodigy at a piano, even more at an African marimba. He quickly became our friend. Close to the end of our six weeks in Philipi, that pastor contacted me to say that Ian’s mother had died of Aids, shocking Ian who had known nothing of his mother’s infection. He had never known his father, and there were no siblings. We attended the funeral at which Ian and a buddy of his played marimbas with haunting emotion and energy. We later followed a hearse to a grim cemetery with row after row after row of new graves. In our lasting image of Ian, he stands alone beside his mother’s open grave.5
A major factor in my hopelessness was perverse, embedded political folly. Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa succeeding Nelson Mandela, was a loud proponent of natural remedies and of a wild idea that HIV and Aids had no connection. Even so, from another view, his foolish ideas were an attempt at a stopgap that proved he cared about his suffering people. Mbeki was infuriated by western Big Pharma refusing to cut extortionate prices for ARVs. The premise that drug companies deserved high prices to reward themselves for development expenses might have made perfect sense to westerners whose insurance companies, by and large, compensated. That premise made not the least sense in poverty-stricken Africa with many times the prevalence of HIV/Aids and a staggering death toll.
Meantime, happily, major changes were about to break out into the open. The UN had founded in 2002 and was beginning to fund from member nations and private donors the Global Fund for Aids, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. What would eventually become billions of dollars were beginning to trickle into that dark African pandemonium. In America George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was appearing in his and Laura’s concern for worldwide HIV/Aids. He announced a President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, in his 2003 State of the Union speech, and PEPFAR was signed into a law later that spring, providing for $15 billion to be spent over a five-year period.6 In India, producers of generic drugs were defying western pharmaceutical and governmental sanctions by producing generic copies of effective pharmaceuticals. The whole picture of HIV/Aids in Africa was shifting. Sick kids, moms, and dads,would have a chance to live.
It was great good news, except for the vacuum of infrastructure needed to bridge the gulf between those new medications and victims who were most in need in the squatter townships of cities and in rural villages. Vast numbers simply didn’t get treatment; rationing resulted. Treatment could not begin until the person’s CD4 count had declined to 200 or less. v That’s what happened to a boy I’ll call Paul: an Aids orphan, living in a children’s home in Zimbabwe.
Annette and I had come to eastern Zimbabwe early in May, 2006. We had flown there in 2005 with a mission tour group, which had opened up the possibility of a longer stay in 2006. Annette had returned home after six weeks, but my stint continued for 13 weeks, and it was in those later weeks that I broke belatedly into Paul’s story,
So brutishly much was out of joint in that story. Paul was a bright, joyful child, I was told by several who knew and loved him. Too small for his age, a result of recurrent illness, yet his childish delight belied his future. His immunity had been so compromised that the ARVs he’d begun to take didn’t help but perhaps further weakened him. He contracted spinal meningitis, an opportunistic infection that boldly invades a child’s body when their CD4 counts are ultra deficient, became so desperately ill that in a last-ditch effort to save his life, he had been taken 250 km to Harare, the capital city, where he soon died.7
I came to Paul’s house at the children’s home just as his surprisingly small, white casket arrived from Harare and was carried into the house. His housemother was inconsolable, and others were likewise upset. His housemates were silent and shy. Prayers were said, and a quarter-mile trek on the gravel road to the church began, the casket once again in the station wagon, a makeshift hearse, that had brought his body from Harare.
The road led us past one side of Paul’s primary school and then bore to the right, and as we rounded that turn, hundreds of children appeared, lining both sides of the road. I knew the school, where I had taught third graders several times, had over 1,000 students. Most must have been in that double line, as his own third-grade classes waited at the church door and would enter the cavernous building behind the white casket.
Suddenly, an avalanche of grief buried me. My grief for Paul was there, but it was the sight of those hundreds of beautiful children, many of them HIV/Aids orphans, some themselves HIV+, wide-eyed in their own grief and fear. Not alone, though, for that throng of children represented at that moment the hundreds of thousands of others near and far who had already died of the plague of which they were helpless victims, losing to immoral political movements and the inadequacies and failures of the setting into which they had been, defenselessly, born.
The procession and I moved on heavily to the church, the little, white casket was carried inside, and presently, the multitude of children had entered as well. The church was packed with palpable silence. I remember little of the contents of the service. There was an impassioned sermon of some length, the preacher a woman who was chaplain of the nearby high school, but entirely in Shona, the language of the people and, despite the prevalence of English, the language of sorrow.8 The music, which included the singing of the congregation and its hundreds of kids, was wondrous. Once the service finally ended, another procession moved us to the mission cemetery, and the casket was eventually lowered into a meager grave.
It’s been impossible for me to figure out why, after all the encounters of several visits in southern Africa, those few minutes carried such enormous emotion, why at that time, the entire catastrophe of HIV/Aids seemed concentrated in one focal point. I could not erase those emotions nor move easily away from the undercurrents of that short walk. A few weeks later, at home in Portland I awoke from sleep early one morning with the shocking and at the same time, freeing, awareness that I no longer needed theodicy to defend God. In astonishing fact, I no longer needed God. As I fully awakened, and days continued to pass by, the conviction of that wakening moment just grew stronger. God is gone! I would hold on a best I could to Jesus, but God was dead.
It was the sudden vision of that long line of hundreds of of children that had brought it on, with throngs of others who had died similarly. It had been possible, even if weakly, to come to terms with the death one person, even a child of my own, to explain a tragedy, if not the will of God, then merely an accident of the human experience—but hundreds of thousands of children? The question, “Where was God?” and even greater, “Who is God?” had gotten stretched beyond meaning. I would have to go on without God but must hang on to Jesus for dear life. It would have to be enough.
Years later, as I continued my long wrestling in the night with the questions my decision had created, I recalled a story I’d read long before in Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” that vivid account of childhood years in a subcamp of Auschwitz with his father after his mother and sister had been sent to the gas chambers. Those male prisoners had been forced to watch many hangings when they were not at work in their slave labor site but none like the one about which he gives blunt detail.
The kapo of their camp section, like other kapos a collaborating Jew, had been implicated by the SS in a suspected sabotage of the camp’s electrical system and sent away to Auschwitz’s main camp. His “assistant,” a male Jewish child called a pipel, had been questioned and tortured but remained silent and so was condemned to death by hanging beside two adult prisoners suspected of stealing weapons.
As usual, all prisoners were lined up to watch the executions. The condemned were forced to stand on chairs, and nooses were dropped onto their necks. As the young pipel stood before them, obviously struggling to withhold tears, Elie Wiesel heard a man near him ask, “Where is merciful God? Where is he?”
Wiesel continues his story:
Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes.
And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where He is? This is where–hanging here from this gallows…”
That night, the soup tasted of corpses.”
― Elie Wiesel, Night
I had long since forgot the final line of the story but not the preceding one, “Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows. . . ,” a mysterious sentence, with one obvious meaning, that God too is dying or dead, but another meaning is there, too. One can neither be sure of either meaning nor avoid the possibility of both meanings.
That sentence has marked the shoulders of the pathway I would travel over the past several years that include two more trips to Africa and much effort to resolve the mystery of that final line spoken by the voice within Elie Weisel as he watched a young pipel die.
Until August 28, 2021, as I spent much of a day watching my wife, Annette, in her final hours, and at last at about 9:30 p.m. that evening, take what would be her last breath. In that strange day, amid the mystery of it all, I knew. . .
That yet unfinished story I must someday tell.