Monday, September 24, 2012

The curse of a compassionate heart mixed with OCD tendencies

I was about a minute away from the church on Sunday morning when a police car  blocked my way. Up ahead, a tragedy was unfolding. A gaggle of neighborhood gawkers looked on as vehicles with flashing lights, including several big red fire trucks, converged on the street. T.V. crews were on the scene, as well.

All of this was taking place a couple blocks away from me, so I couldn’t tell exactly what had happened, but I knew it wasn’t good. I also couldn’t tell exactly where it was happening, and I got a sinking feeling in my gut. Was it Holy Trinity? It seemed to be right about where the church was located.

I took a quick right turn and made my way toward the church by back streets. Would I even get through or would I have to park my car at the curb and walk to the church? If it came to that, I wouldn't be walking, I'd be running. Breathe deep, Nancy, breathe deep. One, two, three blocks I traveled, until I came to the street that runs alongside the church. It was clear. I turned the corner in front of the church and saw that all was the way it had been when I left it the day before. “Thank you, God!” I shouted.

The fire was just three doors down, at some low rent apartments. Later, I learned from those who had been watching T.V. that no one was hurt, but nine families had been displaced by this quickly moving blaze. And I was relieved when I knew that it had nothing to do with me. Nine families lost everything, and I thanked God that it hadn’t happened at the church building where our faith community meets on Sunday mornings. All those people lost their homes, and I moved on to getting my own house in order: checking to see that the A/C was at a comfortable temperature, unlocking doors, turning on lights.

I had thanked God. All of a sudden, my gut wasn’t feeling so good again. But this time it wasn’t fear and dread that was doing it; this time it was pure unadulterated guilt. I had thanked God that the tragedy had nothing to do with me and mine. Someone else’s world had all but ended, and I was relieved that this hadn’t happened to us.

It’s normal to be relieved when we’re spared of what could have been the death of us. But, when someone else isn’t, it’s hard for me to be truly happy about it. It’s the feeling I always get when I’m sitting around a table piled with food on Thanksgiving afternoon. My first thought is to be grateful for all that I have been given in this life, but then before I’ve even finished thinking those thankful thoughts, I start to ponder the lives of those whose families could live for a year on the leftovers my family will store in plastic containers for another day after the meal is over. I’m thankful, yes, but as I’m scooping the feast from my plate up to my mouth, my throat tightens and it’s hard to swallow.

Okay. I know that at any given moment there are horrible things happening in the world around me. Thanks to television, I can see a sampling of life’s atrocities at any hour of the day. But it’s more than I can absorb and, for the most part, I put it all out of my mind. I have to. And yet, I know it’s always there; it’s always happening. So, it’s hard for me to celebrate completely. No matter how good things are for me, I can’t stop thinking about those who don’t have it so good. I suppose that’s the curse of compassionate heart mixed with OCD tendencies.

One of the phrases I hear often from other Christians is, “There but by the grace of God go I.” It’s the idea that God in his grace has spared me of something horrible that has happened to someone else. “I was late getting to work at the World Trade Center on September 11.” “ I had a high draft number during the Vietnam War.” “I ate the chicken ala king at the wedding reception and didn’t get sick-as-a-dog like everyone else who did." God spared me. It was God’s grace, no doubt about it. But what about that person who wasn’t spared? Apparently God was all out of grace.

I have trouble pinning my good fortune on God. Because if God has been good to me, I have to ask, why hasn’t God been good to the woman who scrambles every day to feed her hungry children? Why would God choose me and not her? That makes no sense to me. It’s certainly not because I’m more deserving. In fact, Jesus says, even if I were, “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.” I do acknowledge that sometimes my good fortune may be the result of good choices I’ve made in my life. But they are good choices that were made against the backdrop of opportunities and privileges that others can only dream of. I have to conclude that a lot of what happens to me is random luck. No other explanation makes sense to me.

I know that many Christians will bristle at the idea of luck determining how our lives will go. They may insist that they have been blessed by God for a reason. I’m not so sure about that any more. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, really, and I wonder if we choose to believe it because it somehow justifies for us why we have so much while others have so little.

I wish I could offer a choice bit of theological wisdom on this matter but I can’t. I don’t get it, I really don’t. I try my best to put it out of my mind whenever I can. But when I drive past a fire on a Sunday morning and thank God that it didn’t happened at my church, my twisted understanding of God’s ways smacks me in the face. And I don’t know what to do with it. I can only trust that God does know what to do with it and somehow, God is working toward a loving resolution of all that is messed up in our world. I don’t know if that’s true. I could be wrong. But it’s what I have to believe because if I didn’t, I don’t know what would become of me.

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