Contemporary cultural Christianity - the kind that sells in Christian bookstores and whose ideas are ideally sized for sound bytes and bumper stickers - has, in recent years, discovered a talisman in the form of Jeremiah 29:11.
"For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope" (NRSV).Cultural/popular Christianity has opted to take this key verse out of context and interpret it as a kind of blessing against suffering for the faithful. Thus, the response to any tragedy so easily becomes some sort of explanation concerning a lack of faith among those who life plans obviously don't include welfare or hope, but, instead, harm.
Several summers ago, a youth in the church I was serving came back from a gathering with the message that Jeremiah 29:11 means her faith will ensure an earthly future of success, joy and hope. Because I knew this youth to be a person with an ability to think critically, I wanted to help her discover the true depth of this verse. We read together Jeremiah 29:10.
"For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon's seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place" (NRSV).These words were spoken to a people about to face some serious suffering. These words were spoken to a people, some of whom would not live the 70 years to see the promise fulfilled. These words, when combined with the following verses do speak of success, joy and hope - but not immediate; and not in the form of a guarantee against some suffering in the meantime.
As a Christian, my definitions of 'success, joy and hope' must be deeper and more significant than the culture which surrounds me. When I look to my television, success is in the form of what I can buy, joy is the amount of leisure I can afford and hope is my credit card limit. When I look to Jesus, I see success in the form of being with the broken and rejected. When I pick up my cross, I experience joy in having in me the same mind that was in Christ when he emptied himself in serving others. When I walk through Lent and Holy Week, I am reminded that hope and resurrection include suffering. Sadly, these definitions do not lend themselves to bumper stickers or snappy book titles.
Twenty-five years ago, Ellie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his book, Night. At the time he received this honor, I was attending Boston University where Wiesel was a professor and experienced hearing him relate some of the events in the book. Night is a semi-autobiographical account of his experience in a death camp during World War II. In it, he describes a tragic episode where some boys were hung while the men prisoners were forced to watch as punishment for a minor offense committed by one of the prisoners. Because the lads were so light and the method of hanging so cruel, the men witnessed the slow strangulation of the lads. Wiesel tells of one man who stood whispering, "Where is God?" over and over as the boys slowly died. When the man stopped whispering his question, another man whispered, "Where is God? God is right there on the gallows."
Can you see? God is there in the shelters housing thousands still searching for loved ones swept away by the tsunami. God is there handing out blankets. God is there in those risking their lives to tame reactors on the verge of meltdown. God is there as checks are written and online gifts for relief are given. God is there.
The question is not, "Where is God?" The question is, "Shall we join a God who leaps into the midst of human suffering and brokenness with an immeasurable love?"
Note: One way to join our God who leaps into the midst of the suffering in Japan is by going to http://secure.gbgm-umc.org/donations/umcor/donate.cfm?code=3021317 and making a donation to the United Methodist Committee on Relief.