By almost any reckoning, it was a tough summer. Here in the Midwest it was also a very hot, dry summer with seven times more 90-degree days in Michigan than in all of 2004. Since my family and I moved to a different house in the middle of this sizzling summer, I can attest to the toll that heat and humidity can take on a person. But the summer of 2005 was uncomfortable for more dire reasons than the heat.
The ongoing violence in Iraq took a toll on the national spirit. As the number of dead American soldiers crept steadily toward the 2,000 mark, the number of dead Iraqis mounted up sickeningly as well. In addition to the dozens, the scores, and the hundreds who die daily and weekly in suicide bombings, the news reported that Baghdad morgues receive 25-30 murder victims every day, most of whom were the victims of one-on-one sectarian violence. The peace protests sparked by Cindy Sheehan’s vigil in Crawford, Texas, were an indication of a mounting national distress. The president continued to promise that we will “complete the mission” even as the precise nature of that mission grew murkier to some.
Gas prices climbed steadily until they reached well over $3.00 a gallon by Labor Day (high enough that even my nine-yearold gasped when he spied the $3.36 sign at a local station). Since those prices were close to $2 more per gallon than at any point even in the year following 9/11, we all feel the pinch. But as is often the case, those who live paycheck to paycheck will be the ones hurt the most. Some of us may see a dip in our disposable income and slush money. Many others will simply have to buy less food for their children.
Long about the time the news seemed distressing enough, the man who can toooften be counted on to give the Christian community a black eye, televangelist Pat Robertson, made a public call for the U.S. government to assassinate the president of Venezuela. He apologized a couple of days later, but the comment revealed so much about the inner workings of his heart as to render even his apology a sad spectacle for fellow Christians to witness.
But if all that made the summer of 2005 difficult, nothing compared to how the month of August ended when Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the coastal communities in Mississippi and Alabama and turned New Orleans into a decimated ghost city. Many of the tens of thousands who were still in the city when the levees gave way had remained there not out of stubbornness nor out of some optimistic hope they’d be spared. Most testified that they stayed put because they had nowhere to go and, anyway, no means to travel. Again, Now more than ever those of us who believe in Jesus as Lord need to be thoughtful about how we articulate answers to the hard questions people rightfully ask. those of us blessed to have money in the bank forget how many millions live paycheck to paycheck. As one social observer said in a radio interview, the timing of Katrina was particularly pernicious since the storm struck three days before what would have been the next payday: September 1. For many people, the end of the month is the end of the money and so few could scrape up even the $40 that might have secured them a bus fare out of the soon-tobe doomed city. The tens of thousands of destitute people who gathered at the Superdome and convention center were not made destitute by Katrina. Rather, Katrina revealed the destitute condition in which they live every day.
Overarching all of this during the summer months was a national debate on the teaching of “intelligent design.” The New York Times ran a series of articles about the intelligent design movement, capped off by a long Op-Ed piece by Daniel Dennett, who is the scientific community’s basher-in-chief when it comes to trashing the very rationality of religious faith. But intelligent design was making headlines in also a number of national magazines and was the hot topic on “Larry King Live” and other cable news shows.
Not surprisingly, by Labor Day, with Iraq continuing its spiral, gas prices squeezing the poor, and the evacuees from New Orleans fanning out into shelters from coast to coast, the question of intelligent design was getting turned in a new direction as news commentators asked pastors and other religious figures if something like this summer’s disasters shook their faith. If the world is the work of a designer who is touted as being both intelligent and loving, then how can one explain “natural” disasters, the suffering of the innocent, and the death of children?
As this summer’s heat gives way to autumn’s crispness, the urgency of such questions will not cool down. Now more than ever those of us believe in Jesus as Lord need to be thoughtful about how we articulate answers to the hard questions people rightfully ask. Now is not the time for glib answers that bury suffering beneath a divine varnish (“God must have had his reasons for wiping out all those people in New Orleans”), nor can we afford even a whiff of the idea that the best way to maintain faith is by disengaging from the world’s woes (the “Turn your eyes upon Jesus and the things of earth will grow strangely dim” approach).
Instead perhaps it would be fruitful to recall the genius of the gospel: that for us and for our salvation, the Son of God came down into this suffering world and was made human. Whatever hope we have for redemption sprang from the midst of all that ails our world. Hence, it is from the midst of that same raw, often jagged, context that we need to proclaim this saving hope with due compassion, humility, and honesty. As Eugene Peterson wrote in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, “We cannot get closer to God by distancing ourselves from the mess of history” (p. 139). This messy world may be the setting from which life’s hardest questions emerge, but–thanks be to God–it is also the setting from which the gospel emerges. After a trying, hot, and dry summer, this Good News may be the cup of cool water for which many just now sense a particular thirst.