Despite the title I have given to this blog post, I want to talk about finances for a minute. I realize we don't usually share in public anything about finances, especially personal finances, but I'm going to break that rule for this blog because I think it is often the things we most avoid discussing that are really the most important things to discuss.
So let me start by saying that I am very fiscally conservative in my personal life. I don't "do" debt. I pay off my credit cards each month, I'm big on saving, I don't buy a new car until I can pay for the whole thing up front (hence still having our 2001 Toyota), and frankly, I'm uncomfortable even carrying a mortgage on a house, let alone doing the "shared equity" thing that I am currently doing with my church in order to afford to live here in the Bay Area. I've also had financial help from my parents, on more than one occasion: something I'm not proud of, and something I've worked hard to pay back as quickly as possible. Still, I am so deeply aware that the reason I am able to "not do debt" is because I come from a place of extreme privilege. I have parents who have been able to help me financially, and not in small ways. I'm part of a congregation that had the resources to be able to join me in a "shared equity" agreement on my house. These are gifts that are in no way small. And I therefore understand that other people who do go into debt are usually doing so from a place of less privilege. I have no judgment on that situation, therefore. It truly is because of the advantaged situation into which I have been born (not through any actions or choices of my own) that I can claim the healthy financial situation in which I have lived through my life. There have been huge financial demands that have arisen at various times. The fact that I was able to get through those times - through savings, through equity built up on our house, through the help of family... again, I do not at all take for granted that that came from extreme privilege.
But what I want to focus on in this blog has more to do with times when we came close to having serious financial crisis. I mentioned in the sermon I posted yesterday that there was a time when I had a half time, presbytery-minimum salary position, we had just moved into a three bed-room house from a two, and at the last minute the people who had been buying our old house pulled out leaving us with two mortgages, the shower pan in the bathroom cracked, damaging the floor and walls as well as making the bathroom completely unusable and it was Christmas: a Christmas with three kids who would not receive presents from their parents that year. I didn't tell the end of that story which was that just as we came to the month when all of our savings would have been used up, the old house did sell, fulltime better paying work did come along, enough that we were able to have the bathroom fixed without a problem, and my kids were blessed with so much at Christmas from those around us that they did not feel deprived despite my not having the finances, personally, to buy them gifts. We were cared for. We were okay. That has happened other times as well (needing to pay legal fees of close to $100K for example), where I have come close to needing to go into debt or needing to borrow from family or needing financial help but because of savings or other privileged situations, the money has always appeared, has always been there. When disaster happened in our family, I was able to take on full time work immediately and our finances were never in danger. At all of these times I have recognized our financial well being for the miracles they have been. And this month it happened again. I had personally payed for the building supplies for our church work day (part of my contribution to the church for something I felt very strongly about). But then the car broke down, my mortgage company failed to pay the insurance company out of my impound account and my insurance was about to be cancelled so I had to pay it directly out of my account, and a large medical bill for one of my kids came due. All of it happened at the same time. And when the bills came, I wasn't sure how I was going to pay them. But then today I received two large checks in the mail: one from my insurance company back in Ohio that needed to pay back an overpayment (and a LARGE overpayment) on the house I used to have there, and one for work I had not thought I would be paid for. Neither were expected and the timing of both was, in fact, a miracle. They came exactly in the right amount and exactly at the right time. I felt the hand of God in the timing. I felt truly "taken care of" by the Divine when I was starting to panic and feel financially fragile.
But my next feeling was one of being very disturbed by the miracles, by the timing, by the gifts, by the reality that I have always been so well cared for financially. Why is it that I have been taken care of, again and again in these concrete ways, when there are people starving to death in the world? When there are so many people who cannot meet their bills this month or any month? People truly in desperate need of food, shelter, medicines, who simply don't have them? Does God not care about them equally well? The God I believe in does. I know people who believe that we are taken care of when we help ourselves. But I've known too many less privileged people, seen how hard they work and how desperate they are at times to get their basic needs met, to have any illusions that somehow these financial gifts are due to something I have done or am. Some would claim it's because I have faith. Again, not accurate. Many of the poorest folk I know are people of very deep faith. And I know God loves all people just as much, regardless of what they believe. No, I have been lucky beyond my due; and others have suffered far beyond theirs. So, while I never want to be ungrateful for the well-being and gifts that have come my way, I remain disturbed by the question of why some people receive the miracles they need at a particular point in time while others don't.
To expand this beyond finances, I have read recently about a family whose daughter miraculously survived and overcame a dreadful precondition that should have killed her instantly. She says she was blessed by a miracle from God. People in my congregations have shared miracle stories of children surviving terrible accidents or diseases as well. But I also know wonderful, incredible people who have lost children to death of one kind or another, people of deep faith and love. And the randomness of who is saved and who is lost eludes me. I wonder, for the families who have lost their children, if it is not beyond painful to hear others whose children were saved talking about the miracle of that child's survival. I wonder if they do not scream at God, "If you could save, Jane, why didn't you save Ramon?" And my fear is that we end up blaming the victims way too often. "Maybe their faith wasn't strong enough". Or we come up with other justifications. "Maybe God needed that child in heaven". "Maybe it is the sins of the father being visited down upon the child". NO. None of these reasons work for me. Not one. It still remains the case that miracles happen all the time. But some people still experience in this life much more than they can handle. And they lose children. Or they struggle with unimagined financial stress. Or they literally starve or dehydrate to death. Some suffer torture. Some die in wars. Some die of abuse. Some are killed for no reason whatsoever because of where they live, or their skin color, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It isn't okay. And the randomness of who survives, who receives miracles and who doesn't continues to escape me.
I find myself grateful that I am aware that I don't deserve the gifts that come my way and can choose to be humbled and extremely thankful for them. But I still struggle with the bigger questions. Why some and not others?
I've posted this before, but this is what Frederick Buechner says: “God is all-powerful. God is all-good. Terrible things happen. You can reconcile any two of these propositions with each other, but you can’t reconcile all three. The problem of evil is perhaps the greatest single problem for religious faith. There have been numerous theological and philosophical attempts to solve it, but when it comes down to the reality of evil itself they are none of them worth much. When a child is raped and murdered, the parents are not apt to take much comfort from the explanation (better than most) that since God wants people to love God, people must be free to love or not to love and thus free to rape and murder a child if he takes a notion to. Christian science solves the problem of evil by saying that it does not exist except as an illusion of mortal mind. Buddhism solves it in terms of reincarnation and an inexorable law of cause and effect whereby the raped child is merely reaping the consequences of evil deeds it committed in another life. Christianity, on the other hand, ultimately offers no theoretical solution at all. It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene – not even this – but that God can turn it to good.”
I see that. I preach that. But because there really aren't answers, I still struggle with it. While I do see many of the miracles that happen all around every single day, it still hurts to see so many people struggle so much. But when the question of evil arises, it is one of those times when we are called to live into the question. I also hear in the question a call.. where we see need, we are called to be the miracle for those around us. Remembering how we have been blessed and graced, we are called to bring blessings and grace to those for whom the miracles are not as obvious or so forthcoming. So for today, I will take the gifts and the miracles that I am given and do my best to pass them forward.