Situated among the legion of I-75 South billboards advertising anything and everything from massage parlors to RV sales, one billboard offered a different message of sorts.
In bright colors and with letters taller than most men, its message read: 1-800-JESUS-CHRIST.
Unique, the billboard produces a variety of emotions. Curiosity: who will answer? Humor: imagine the roaming charges! Disgust: our culture continues to dumb-down the mystery of God, believing that in 40 days or in one simple Jabez prayer, the kingdom of Heaven is ours. A sort of Walmart, one-stop-shop religion: one toll free call and everything is solved.
For a moment, imagine if the Son of Man did indeed answer your toll-free call. Imagine if you had a direct line to God; you're ready to talk, and God's ready to listen. Do not confuse this with the grayness and silence that is often part and parcel of regular prayer. I mean a clear, BellSouth, uninterrupted conversation. You talk, God answers.
What would you say?
Perhaps before we answer, we should sit quietly and listen. To the deep parts of our hearts. And if we are honest, we may find many questions. We may also find rooms of confusion. We may discover frustration or disappointment.
We may even find anger.
The age-old question that stalks each generation of man involves the paradox between pain and suffering in the world and the idea of an all-loving god. How can, we wonder (often with tears in our eyes), the God of Love permit to happen the tragedies that mark the pages of our newspapers, the tombstones in our graveyards and the sorrow in the days of our lives? There is no easy answer to this question, just as there is no easy way through life. Perhaps, then, if God does answer our phone call, one short, three-letter question may rise above all others to the surface.
The Christian God is a god of suffering, nowhere more evident than the death-penalty cross. A homeless outcast, Christ was, as the Gospels say, a "man of constant sorrow.'' A deep friend has hanging in her Episcopalian office a haunting painting of two men carrying an angel on a stretcher. The angel is bandaged and bleeding; the men have their heads hung low. God aches, the painting seems to say. God is wounded. God suffers.
And often times, so do we.
In several years of sports-reporting, I heard dozens of athletes refer many times to God. After winning a big game, a softball player would give glory to God. In the locker-room, an Atlanta Falcon praised God after his team won. Chattanooga's own Reggie White was nicknamed "the minister of defense.'' From coaches to players, high school to pros, it was commonplace for God to be thanked in victory.
Never, however, did I encounter an athlete who praised God in defeat.
The stories of our lives are not told on the outside, by what we wear or where we live or what we do Monday through Friday. The stories of our lives are written on the inside. As Brent Curtis writes in the "Sacred Romance", "the true story of every person in this world is not the story you see, the external story. The true story of each person is the journey of his or her heart.'' And when our stories are defeated, we question. It is in our defeat that our praise falls hollow. It is in our defeat, when the sky falls, that we wonder if…God…really is….good.
The beautiful Muslim mystic Rumi once wrote a poem that describes a man who had fallen asleep by the side of the road. In his sleep, a snake crawled into his mouth, and at that moment, another traveler passed by, seeing the tragedy unfold. Rushing to the sleeping man's aide, the traveler began beating the man, trying to force him to expel the snake.
The man woke, unaware of the snake, and totally aware he was being beaten. Begging for relief, he cried for the beatings to stop. Yet the traveler, who knew more than the sleeping man, continued to hurt him. Finally, the man vomited the snake. And at that moment, he realized that the traveler was indeed his friend. And not only his friend, his savior. For he had saved his life by beating him down.
The story resonates with the internal stories of our own lives. There are times when nothing works the way it should, when the yoke becomes too heavy, and winter sets in. And we feel beaten. Defeated. Yet Rumi says we are to give thanks, for our hardships produce a soul able to feel grace, and receive love, and offer compassion.
And he is right.
But what about the tragedies of life? What about the heartache? The evil? Is that the Traveler beating us in order to save us?
I cannot believe so. The pages of our newspapers are full of human tragedy, and I cannot believe that God orchestrates such evil, such chaos. Tens of thousands of Africans die each month (comparable to a tsunami every full moon) from AIDS, and so many could be saved with competent education and western medicine that they are not given. God is not glorified in such neglect.
Nuclear weapons loom over every man, woman and child on earth, threatening all of Creation. America is the world's weapon leader. Iran wants to destroy Israel. Israel wants to erase Palestine. There is no God in such lunacy.
Thousands of Ugandan children are abducted in the nation's maddening, long-lasting civil war (http://www.invisiblechildren.com/home.php). They are turned into child soldiers, given guns, and ordered to kill or be killed. Children: 8 years old. 12 years old. 9 years old, just like the kids in your neighborhood, or in your own home. There is no God glorified in a world where children live in such a way, and no God in the hearts of men that create such nightmares. And God is certainly not glorified when powerful nations that can stop such madness only sit on their hands (www.house.gov/writerep/). There is no God indeed in such sin.
As Thomas Merton once said, "the God of peace is never glorified by human violence.'' And human violence is responsible for much of history's heartache. Once, the British thinker GK Chesterton was among many authors asked by the London Times to answer the question, "What's wrong with the world?"
It took Chesterton only two words to respond. "I am.''
Yet human violence does not tell the whole story.
The beauty of God is in Her storytelling, for She owns the ending. God is not glorified by human violence, but God is glorified in the U-turns, when drops of light are rained down into the dark night of the soul. When good comes from unspeakable evil. When Love sits at the table longer than fear, or hatred, or anguish. When, at the last bell, Love is the only one left in the room.
On the day Christ was executed, his beloved friends buried their heads in the valley of the shadow of death. There was no darker day for them; their beloved had fallen under an unjust government, suffering the horror of death. Perhaps they turned their faces from God, cursing such a day. I would have.
Yet the sun set that day, and rose again the next. The darkest day in this Traveler's life turned out to produce the salvation of the world. Lent and Easter soon approach; Christians throughout the world now cling to such days like a liferaft.
Let us remember that spring always follows winter. As the writer Albert Camus said, "in the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.''
So when God answers our call, perhaps we are able to offer another word.
(David Cook is a former journalist for the Chattanooga Times-Free Press. He currently teaches American history at Girls Preparatory School and can be reached at email@example.com)