From The Attentive Life
What if he did withdraw it from us? G. K. Chesterton suggested that the sun rises over and over again because God is enjoying it so much! Suppose his mind wandered and he forgot what time it was, and sunrise and sunset did not happen?
What if God simply got bored with the banality of our evil and overlooked seedtime and harvest? Or if he got distracted with the other billions of planets and forgot when it was our time to be born? Or to die?
One night when David the shepherd king could not sleep, with the weight of his nation on his shoulders and his soul, he lay awake remembering the long nights out in the fields when he was a boy watching to protect the flocks from wolves. Perhaps that night he composed another poem and prayer about God – “the One who watches over Israel,” the One who “neither slumbers nor sleeps.”
But suppose God does seem to go to sleep on us? There is more than one place in the Bible where people demand him to wake up, and not too politely either.
“Rouse yourself!” rages the writer of Psalm 44, upset that God had done things for his ancestors but has been silent in his day. “Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever!” (Psalm 44:23) Jesus’s own disciples woke him from a sound sleep when their fishing boat was foundering in a squall. “Do you not care that we are perishing?” they demanded, (Mark 4:38).
One of the most poignant songs I have heard in a long time is by the Rwandan folk singer Jean-Paul Samputu. His mother, father, three brothers, and a sister were slaughtered in the terrible genocide that took a million lives in ninety days. Jean-Paul drowned his grief in drugs and drink for three years until the healing power of God changed his life. Now he sings songs of reconciliation and peace and beauty. But the first song he wrote after his family’s murders was “God, Where Were You That Day?” – the day his family died.
Which of us could not sing that same song? I could have when our son Sandy died during surgery to correct a life-threatening heart problem. The day before his surgery, my stomach was so tied up in knots, so anxious, that I just had to get out and run. When I stopped, on a road above his college campus, I talked with God. Maybe it is better to say I argued with God. I said, “Lord, I know you can heal Sandy through this surgery if you want to. If you don’t want to, I can’t see why you don’t. I’m his father. I would heal him if I could.” Finally I said, “God, I just want to ask one thing: be good to my boy tomorrow.”
Sandy did not survive. His heart was lethally wrong; our hearts were broken. Was God not paying attention as hundreds of friends around the world were praying?
There are certainly times when God does not seem to be paying attention. Jesus himself in his last moments cried, “My God, why? Why have you forsaken me?” Later in this book we will explore what it means to pay attention to God during those dark times when his face seems to be turned away.
For me the death of our son was one of them. Yet on the long drive home from that hospital my wife, Jeanie, sitting beside me with a drawn and ravaged face, said simply: “Either there is a God and he is good, or there is no God at all. It is just as stark a choice as that.”
How do we make that terrible choice? Or, better, how are we chosen? I offer no easy answers as to why God’s attentions sometimes seem absent and at other times are not at all welcome. Sometimes we may almost wish he would leave us alone. As a Jewish person reflecting on the persecutions Jews have suffered said, “I wish God would choose someone else for a change.” Some things happen that are so horrifying they almost demand silence, and certainly cheap, “answers” do no good.
Yet in part I am writing about attention because it has often been during the darkest hours that God has gotten my attention and taught me to pay attention. It hasn’t happened quickly, and the process has often been terribly painful, like groping through a dense fog toward a wavering and distant light. Still the light has burned on. And I am still learning the truth of the old hymn about God who “standeth in the shadows,” keeping watch-care over his own.
There were those who held on to us at those times when our faith was feeble – sometimes with a brief and honest word, more often just by being present with us. I have learned that God does not do his attending all by himself. He has set the world up so that he has deputies – his “attendants,” if you will, namely you and me. He pays attention to us human beings so that we in turn may be the tenders of his world.
When someone tried to compliment an old gardener on the beauty of his well-tended garden, saying, “God and you have done a great job,” he retorted, “You should have seen it when God had it all by himself.”
Which gets to the point of the story: God pays attention and calls us to be a people who pay attention. Like it or not, he has put us here in his world as his gardeners, to tend it as he tends us, and as his shepherds, to watch over his people as he watches over us. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus said to his often stumbling disciple Peter. “Feed my sheep.”
If this is so, why then the weeds in the garden? And the wolves among the sheep?
Is it because we refuse his attention, and will not pay attention?