Tuesday, October 27, 2015

We Weren't Blessed: Reflections on the Stillwater Homecoming Tragedy

My daughter's friend, the tiniest girl on her gymnastics team, asked the question: "Why wasn't God at the parade?"

Let's not hide from this question.

I was at the parade. I stood with my family outside the Hastings store, yards from where the car would crash into the crowd at 50 miles an hour. My daughter and her gymnastics team had just gone by in their float, and I was running an errand to the van, which was just around the corner, to collect my wife's purse and my mother-in-law's keys.

When I came back moments later, the world had been transformed.

I looked at the chaos, heard the sobbing.

Something terrible has happened.

The kind of terrible that shatters lives. The kind of terrible that inspires children raised with a simple faith to see a world transformed. A world hollowed out. A world without God.

I was there. But on that bleak October morning, standing under a slate-gray sky with my wife's purse clutched in my fist, I felt the desolation that a child would later put into worlds. I was there. But God?

My son was there. When I dashed off to the van , he stood with my wife and his Grandma, watching the tail-end of the parade. He heard the explosive crash. He saw things flying into the air. He heard the screams. His ears, if not his eyes, witnessed death.

He ran. "I was sure," he told me later, "that someone had set off a bomb,"

My wife was there. When the horror struck, her thoughts flew to our daughter, whose float had gone by moments before. Reason told her the float was already well clear of the intersection, but once she saw that her son was safe, her mother's instincts urged her to reach the other child.

Doing so took her right through the carnage. When she called to say our daughter was safe, she sobbed into the phone: "Don't let him see! Don't let him see."

My mother-in law was there. She knelt with a weeping young woman who had been a few yards closer than us, and so had an unobstructed view of that moment that divided life and death, that tore into human flesh, that shattered lives. My mother-in-law asked the girl if she wanted to pray with her. She said yes. And so, while chaos swirled, they prayed.

One of my graduate students was there with his wife and young daughter. He'd stepped over to the stroller to get something, which brought him just far enough away to avoid injury when the car struck. His wife was treated and released. His daughter was hospitalized but will recover.

My son's classmate was there--a friend he's known since preschool. The careening car clipped him just before crashing into a pole. He was rushed to the hospital in the bed of Pistol Pete' pickup truck.

A theatre friend and her sister were there. Both hospitalized but recovering. The man my kids call Coach--their camp counselor and a former colleague of my wife--was there with his two small children. He suffered minor injuries. His children were hospitalized but are expected to be fine.

Others were less lucky. Nikita Nabal, a young woman from Mumbai, India pursuing her master's degree here in Oklahoma, was there. Bonnie and Marvyn Stone, 65 years old, were there. Lucas Nash, a two-year-old boy, was there. And because they were there, standing where they were, they're gone. Their loved ones now look at an emptier world, a world hollowed out.

And I think about what my daughter's little friend saw, trembling on the float as chaos reigned: A world hollowed out. A world without God.

So many were there, people I knew and people I didn't know. It was a family event. A tradition. A connection to a time before people's noses were buried in cell phones, a time when children looked out at the world and pointed at the wonders going by instead of fixing their gazes on a screen.

So many were there. But God?

"Why wasn't God at the parade?"

Let us, as people of faith, begin with that. When we confront horrors, let us begin with what my daughter's friend saw in the aftermath of the tragedy: A world hollowed out. A world without God.

Jesus praised the faith of children. He said that the Kingdom of God belongs to those with a child's faith. And when a child of faith looked out across what happened in Stillwater, OK, on that Saturday morning, what did she see?

Let us begin there. Let us begin with a child's shaken faith, because any other starting place leads to platitudes that don't do justice to the horror. Let us start with God's absence.

Let us remember that this little child's question is the same as the one that Jesus asked when he was nailed to a cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

A world hollowed out. A world without God. If anyone suggests that it is blasphemy to begin there, then they accuse Jesus of blasphemy. To hide from that starting point is to refuse to pick up our crosses and follow Him.

I waited out the tragedy's aftermath with my family in a coffee shop. We sat at a wooden table, stuttering out our first reactions to what had happened. Someone said we were lucky. Another said we were blessed.

"No. Don't say that. We weren't blessed."

"But that's exactly what we were."

"No. If we were blessed, then what about those who were hit? To say we were blessed is to say that God skipped over them."

"That's not what I meant. No, of course. I didn't mean that."

Silence at the table. The specter of survivor's guilt.

And the questions. How can we see God at the parade unless we see God playing favorites? How could God have been there in all the trappings of almighty power, unless God was protecting some and cursing others?

But what's the alternative to a God who plays favorites? If God does not play favorites, does that mean the toddler who died was blessed? That his mother was blessed? Dare we trivialize the horror? Dare we pretend that their world was anything less than hollowed out?

Maybe our God is a quadriplegic God, a God who cannot act in the world without borrowing others' hands. Maybe nature's laws are something God has set up as a kind of wall between Himself and the world, a wall he dare not shatter on pain of swamping finite reality with the vastness of its infinite creator. Maybe creation was an act of withdrawal, and necessarily so.

Maybe there is no God.

Maybe. Maybe.

My own faith has been shaped in part by the maybes of a Jewish/Marxist mystic philosopher named Simone Weil, who appropriated Christian ideas from her friend Father Perrin, a Catholic priest who begged her without success to convert to Christianity. Instead, she handed back to him his Christian faith transformed by the perspective of an outsider.

And what did she find in the story of Jesus' crucifixion? A God who crosses the infinite distance of time and space to inhabit that place where we can never go--that place where God is wholly absent. God at God's most human is there--paradoxically, impossibly there.

What Simone Weil saw in the Christian story was a God who cast off the trappings of infinite glory to inhabit that place in creation where God is missing, to step into that space of horror and desolation, and to cry out with all of us, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Each of us brushes up against that place of absence. We are there, but God is not. It is a place where, in the ordinary sense of blessings, there are none. There is only good luck and bad. There is only the blind grinding of nature's laws, chewing out its victims one by one while others huddle in witness, grateful that they haven't been taken yet but sure that their time, too, will come.

It would be an assault on the concept of divine love to say that God blessed me by sending me on an errand at the crucial moment, so that I wouldn't have to hear the horrible sounds of death that my son clearly heard. It would be an assault on the concept of divine love to say that God blessed my graduate student by inspiring him to step towards the stroller and so out of the path of injury that his wife and child still fell within. A God who reaches down to spare my life but not the lives of others isn't the kind of God whose blessing we can cling to without a darkening of our souls.

To live in a world where God is hidden, where mechanistic laws and chance routinely strike down the good and lift up the wicked, blindly indifferent to anyone's worth--this is a reality we must recognize, despite our wish-thinking, despite the promises of prosperity preaching that offers us visions of terrestrial blessings if only we agree to ignore the plight of the poor and the sick (or say it's their own fault).

But there is the blessing of solidarity. There is the blessing of the one who sits and cries with us in the silence and the dark.

And there is the blessing of those who are urged by the voice of conscience, or perhaps the voice of God, to run to the aid of those in need, to nurture and care for the wounded, to grieve with those who mourn.

We need to begin with God's absence. We must affirm that a world of blind mechanism and chance combines with the darkest parts of our human wills to produce horrors. Horrors that can strike into the heart of innocent family pleasures. Horrors that can shatter the laughter of a parade even as children are pointing joyfully towards what's coming next. We need to admit that God isn't scurrying around shielding some from harm while letting others fall.

But we don't need to stop there. Because at that parade there was a little girl crying out, "Why isn't God here?" And in that cry we can, without assaulting the concept of divine love, hear the echo of God's anguished cry.

If we are to believe in a God who made the world and everything in it, an almighty God whose power and majesty defy comprehension, let us see that God as constrained, bound in ways we may never understand by the very laws God made. But let us believe that those bindings are not absolute. At the very least, let us believe that God's voice can urge us to be the hands of love. At the very least, let us believe that God can be there with us in the midst of tragedy, sharing in our anguished cries.

Whatever we think might bind God's power, let us not believe it binds God's love. Let us not believe it binds our own. Let us feel the solidarity of God's loving presence, and love each other unfettered even in the darkest places.


  1. When I was 22 years old I was a victim of a car bombing. Another woman bled to death in my arms. The question of Where was God? haunted me for almost 20 years. I couldn't believe that a God of love would allow such a horrific act to happen. It wasn't until a pastor of a church I visited asked me "Where was God?" and kept asking me until I answered him that I began to heal. Because God is a God of love that is what He was busy doing. He was holding me so I couldn't see Him. He was protecting me. Just like he was protecting you and yours. He was there in the first responders. He was there in the crowd that ran to assist. He was there. I know. E Cochran

    1. But then why didn't he protect the victim of the bombing? I think that's the question people struggle with most.

  2. This reminds me of Bonhoeffer's conclusion in his 'Letters and Papers from Prison' about the powerlessness of God.

  3. Beautifully written, Eric. The way I've always seen it is this: God created the world and us in it. To have free will is also to receive the consequences of it - just as it is to become fully adult, to have the freedom that takes us out of a parents circle of absolute protection. A parent who respects that also has to deal with the horror of it, sometimes. And unlike a human parent, God doesn't get to die first. Ever. But life is full of experiences, too, that stretch us, grow us, break us, and mend us. WE are the blessings given to one another, if we accept that responsibility. The spirit transcends the body, and 100 years is not even the blink of God's eye. I can't really believe this life is the only one - at least not the only experience and classroom - that the spirit gets.

  4. Hi, Eric-

    What a sermon.

    With all due respect, the logic went awry here.

    "But let us believe that those bindings are not absolute."

    You are spinning fantasies. Utter fantasies in the absence of anything other than lawful, orderly, uncaring reality. It is clear that we can care for each other, but caring does not come out of the void, or out of cars. Likewise with bad intentions, evil, and negligence, which are all human. We do our best to make cars safe, but it turns out that making them self-driving and thus taking ourselves out of the equation may be the best thing we can do. A parable, perhaps for theology. If you took your own intense wishes and hopes out of it, what would be left?

  5. Eric, thank you. This piece is powerful. This helps to move toward a perspective that God need for agency to move in this world. And I say this within the context of my Charismatic Christian beliefs. Peace, Jim

  6. Dang, corrected correction: This helps to move me toward a perspective that God needs agency to move in this world.

  7. You have perfectly described my crisis of faith, except that mine occurred after Sandy Hook.

  8. "If we are to believe in a God who made the world and everything in it, an almighty God whose power and majesty defy comprehension, let us see that God as constrained, bound in ways we may never understand by the very laws God made. But let us believe that those bindings are not absolute."

    Hi Eric, I am looking more into this. Did you write about divine limits in your books? For example, this looks important for theodicy, and this needs to be addressed in the context of universalism. Peace, Jim

    1. I explore this explicitly in my most recent Faith & Philosophy article, "A Deontological Theodicy?" Academic libraries should have it, or I can send you a copy.

    2. I explore this explicitly in my most recent Faith & Philosophy article, "A Deontological Theodicy?" Academic libraries should have it, or I can send you a copy.

  9. Thank you, I've limited library access. Please email it to me at james.goetz @ yahoo.com.