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July 28, 2002
Michael Wright has a weird hobby. Security guards nabbed this white-haired British engineer at the Las Vegas airport last year when travelers noticed him atop the parking garage studying the runway with binoculars. Wright explained he was a "plane spotter"--an aviation lover who delights in jotting down aircraft registration numbers much like ornithologists scan the skies for birds to document in their Peterson's Field Guides.
Plane spotting is a hobby found mostly among eccentric Britons and a handful of devotees from the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Japan, and the United States. It works like this: Perched high upon hotel rooftops, observation towers and parking garages, plane spotters search through binoculars straining to read the individual registration numbers printed on the tails of assorted aircraft. Then they record the numbers, attempting to chronicle as many sightings as possible.
I admit that it does not sound interesting to me, but plane-spotting enthusiasts claim the hobby is addictive. The most fanatical spotters boast of tens of thousands of sightings, all preserved for posterity in stacks of frayed journals.
When plane spotters talk about their hobby to outsiders, the first response is "You do what?" the second response is "Why?" the third response is "Aren't people like you suppose to be locked up?" But suggestions of daffiness are tame compared to accusations of espionage. Late last year, authorities arrested several British and Dutch citizens when they attempted to enjoy their offbeat hobby too close to a military air show in southeastern Greece. The plane spotters were released just before Christmas after British diplomats intervened on their behalf, explaining that, yes, this was an odd but harmless pastime.
Before his brush with the law in Las Vegas, Michael Wright joined a group of plane spotters on a tour to Paris. Twenty-one men (Yes, plane spotters tend to be all male. I suppose women have too much sense to waste time on such a strange activity) descended upon Paris' Le Bourget airfield. With the giddiness of a busload of rock star groupies collecting autographs, they ran to the runways, binoculars in hand, straining to catch a glimpse of new numbers and models. Almost immediately, security personnel, armed with automatic weapons, arrived only to hear this band of odd but innocent men explain this most curious of leisure activities. "C'est bizarre," a baffled police officer said as he drove away, leaving them to continue their strange pursuits.
Life is hard for plane spotters these days. Ordinary people, newly aware of living in terror, simply cannot afford to ignore those who suspiciously stare up toward the heavens. Do they mean us harm? Do they really spot something going on up there? Or are they simply odd?
Divine in Disaster
The Apostle Paul writes that life is hard for God spotters, too. As the poem says:
In sunset at Grand Canyon, I see God,
And in the dawn at Sedona airport;
But sometimes it is hard to find my God.
Disaster, adversity, misfortune,
Hammer at my assurance of a God.
The fog of chaos, sorrow of suffering,
Obscure any idea of a God.
Perhaps those thinkers were right when they said
That the notion of the divine is dead.
Paul talks about this problem in Romans 8. The first twenty-five verses of Romans 8 present us with a clear picture of the contrast between those who live in the flesh and those who live in the Spirit. Those fixated on the flesh endure suffering without hope. Those who have glimpsed the truth of their life in the Spirit know that present suffering will be dwarfed by the glorious rewards reaped in their future inheritance of resurrected life in Christ. All of this being said, verses 26-39 go on to offer reassurance that in addition to entitling the believer to a new life in Christ, the Spirit also makes the pain of this life easier to bear by being with us in tribulation.
It is difficult to endure suffering, even if we believe that the suffering is only a passing phase prior to the coming of better times. Knowing this, Paul assures us that God is also aware of how difficult suffering is. God is not separated from us. God is not out there. Even if we do not know how to pray, if we are unable to express our needs to God, the Spirit "intercedes with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26). Even if we have become completely inarticulate, God is aware of our needs.
Verses 28-30 is a hopeful passage of scripture. Unfortunately these verse are often interpreted in a way that crushes the hope of those who suffer. Many people read the passage "all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose" to mean that nothing bad ever happens to those who love God--as if the universe rearranges itself so that those who love God experience only good things. But this interpretation means that if we are suffering, if we are in trouble, we are not called by God, we are not loved by God.
This, however, is the opposite of what Paul means. As Martin Luther pointed out, Paul "means to show that to the elect who are loved of God and who love God, the Holy Spirit makes all things work for good even though they are evil". In other words, no matter what evil thing happens to the believer, God will salvage it and turn it toward the good for the believer's sake. This does not say that suffering will not happen to us. It says God will overcome any evil that happens to us.
Let me intrude a little theology here. Those who do not believe a doctrine of predestination have difficulty with verses 29-30, with its overt statements concerning God's preordained plan for believers. However, the idea that God destines us to play out our individual role in a larger plan is not a new biblical concept. In Genesis 50:19-21, Joseph tells his brothers that even though they meant to do him harm, they could have done nothing other than what they did because God intended to save the nation through Joseph's suffering. God changed the evil they did into good.
Paul's statements about "those whom God foreknew and predestined" read in context are words of encouragement to those who are suffering. The message is that their suffering is a part of their destiny as God's chosen people--something that makes them more like Christ than those who live a trouble-free life. Their suffering is part of their path to glory, a path laid out by God personally, which is the same path traveled by Christ.
Romans 8 closes with a triumphant passage of reassurance. It assures us that we are inheritors of the "love" of Christ in the covenant sense. The NT word for "Love" (agape), is parallel to Old Testament covenant word, hesed (faithfulness shared by members of families and those in covenant together). Hesed implies that those in covenant to one another are bound to treat one another a certain way. Those who share this covenant bond defend one another. They ransom one another from slavery, poverty, and trouble. They come to one another's aid.
By stating that nothing can separate the believer from the love of Jesus, Paul is not just saying that Jesus is fond of us. He means that nothing can take away our right to be defended by Christ, ransomed by Christ, and treated by Christ as brothers and sisters. Psalm 44, from which Paul quotes verse 22, is an appeal to God by a suffering believer. The psalmist claims protection under the rights of the covenant bond with God. It is this same covenant that assures the Christian of Gods protection and Christs intercession, even in suffering.
So what Paul is doing here in Romans is reminding us that living in the throes of terror and disaster is not new. Hardship, distress, and persecution, are not new experiences for Gods people. The problem is how do we spot God in such experiences. Other people have found God in suffering and trouble.
Hannah spotted God through her tears at Shiloh as she begged for a child in the face of infertility.
A woman in need of healing spotted God in the crowd around Jesus.
The centurion at the cross spotted God when Jesus died in suffering and agony.
Yet it often remains hard for us to see God in the realities of our lives. Sometimes it seems that God has gone into hiding, that God is deliberately avoiding us. The poet Edward Dowden expresses this in "Deus Absconditus." Since God seems to have fled the scene, he muses, I will chase after him. But his search turns up nothing. Finally, he gives up. God, apparently, will not be found. So the poet concludes, "If still thou claimst me, seek me. I am here." Luther and Pascal thought of God as the "hidden God," hiding from the sin of his people. To perceive such a God required, they thought, an enormous act of faith, possible only through the gift of grace, available to only a few. Even the psalmist pondered the problem of Deus Absconditus. Psalm 42:3 says, "My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, 'Where is your God?"
Today, in the face of so much horror, many people no longer wonder "Where is thy God?" Instead, like the Edward Dowden, they give up, thinking that there is no God. Those who argue that God does not exist may simply be saying that in their experience they have yet to see anything that resembles the activity of God. They do not see God in the Holocaust, or in the famines of the Third World, or in the events of 9/11.
The real question then is: How do we recognize the presence of God?
The apostle Paul affirms that God is present, not hidden, and that nothing will separate us from his love. If we accept that as a given, then perhaps God is not so hard to spot after all. But we must be open and receptive to the possibility that God is among us. Then we see God in even the smallest of wonders.
Two Examples of God With Us in Trouble
Let me give you two examples, from that horror of horrors, 9/11/01.
1. Shahram Hashemi is a foreign student at New York City's LaGuardia Community College. He was on his way to the Bank of New York on Wall Street, where he works as an intern, when the second hijacked plane slammed into the south tower of the World Trade Center ... .
"It was a moment I will never forget," states Hashemi. "It was dark and fire was everywhere. You couldn't breathe. We knew that at any moment we could die. So I told [a] fireman, I don't have anyone here, my name is Shahram Hashemi and just in case anything happens to me, let my family know." The fireman said he would, embraced the unknown young man and then made the sign of the cross. "Christ protect you," he said. Shahram, a Muslim, wept ... . He never saw that fireman again.
[Ron Lajoie, "Courage of the morning," Amnesty Now, Winter 2001-2002, 12-13.]
Question then: Where was God on 9/11/01? God was there. God was ministering through that unknown fireman to Shahram Hashemi. I know that God was there in many other ways, but that was one way God was there.
2. Lynn Orville writes of a friend, a military chaplain, assigned to the Pentagon who has been working with people in the rubble of that building. Orville says that the chaplain told him "that the picture he can't forget is of a child's purse, a little handbag, found in the wreckage of the airliner and building. As I have thought about that little purse and the child, now lost, who carried it, the only legitimate question I know is, Where was our compassionate God when this happened?
"I have no easy answer. It is hard to ask about God's love and compassion when faced with the reality of a little girl's purse. But God's compassionate and loving nature is exactly what we must ask about.
"The meaning of the word compassion is "to suffer with." In this simple definition, we find direction. Where was our compassionate God when this happened? God was with us, suffering with the frightened in the doomed airliners and in the World Trade Center. God is with us, suffering with us, as we fear the future for children and ourselves. God is suffering from the hatred the terrorists feel toward us. God is suffering with them in their delusions."
And it is our business to discover how God is with us. This is what the church is about--God spotting. The church offers opportunities for fine-tuning our God-spotting abilities. Those who love God, those called according to God's purpose, learn new ways to spot the divine even in the midst of pain.
One more example: Gerald May is suffering, perhaps dying, of cancer. He writes:
I have met an angel-friend. Her name is Lucy and she's been in treatment for cancer for over a year. We correspond by e-mail. We started out joking about our baldness, but she's become a profound spiritual friend; she knows the trials and graces of this trail so well.
I'm sensing the pattern of how each three-week chemotherapy cycle makes me sick, then compromises my immune system, then gives me a few days of recovery before the next round .
I've been sick so many times now: hospitalized, transfused, medicated, but always I feel my strange gratitude and God's incredible closeness, and I'm always aware of the love and prayers of so many people. Yet I wonder, "With all this love and prayer, how come I feel so terrible?" Lucy calls the suffering "God's kiss." Together we hatch an image of our bodies being canoes, needing to be hollowed out for God. And I've begun to realize that each time when I'm suffering the most, I receive a special Wisdom-gift."
Lucy knows that suffering is "Gods kiss," that when we suffer the most God is with us the most. She knows that God has already spotted us, and, through Jesus, God has come as close as possible to us.
We can spot God everywhere: in the lives of those whose hardships are crushing, whose distress induces nightmares, whose persecution horrifies, whose famine shames us, whose nakedness embarrasses us, whose peril makes us want to turn away, whose relationship with the sword of war is too close for us to relate. Not only do such tragedies fail to separate us from God; God can actually be spotted in the midst of them. Nothing can keep us from God's love. That is what Paul said. That is what we need to hear. Amen.
Michaels, Daniel, and Andy Pasztor. "How one odd hobby was changed forever by the terror attacks," The Wall Street Journal, January 7, 2002, A1.
Gerald May, "Are we having fun yet?" Shalem News, Winter 1996.
Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Theodore Mueller, tr.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954], 112.
Lynn Orville, "God is suffering with us," activevoice, episcopalchurch.org. Retrieved February 14, 2002.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 8/13/02