Sunday, January 24, 2010

Very good or very nice?

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth… God saw everything that he had made and, indeed, it was very good.”

In the aftermath of the magnitude 7 earthquake that struck Haiti recently, we may want to question God’s judgment that the world he created is not only good but very good. Or we may want to question God: How can you create such a world and then declare it to be good?

Part of the problem lies with the word “good.” Being southerners we assume that “good” means “nice,” but that is not what God said.

We want a nice world but instead God gave us a good world. We want a world, a universe, created by Disney, an amusement park world. We want a world with manageable risks, a world in which we can have carefully managed adventures, a world over which God presides as a kind of benevolent, cosmic policeman or nanny. But God gave us a world in which there is real risk and real adventure, a world in which the stakes are high, a world in which our lives and eternal destinies are at risk.

Look around at this good world which God has given us. Think not only of “this fragile earth, our island home” but think cosmically. The universe began with an unimaginable act of violence – the Big Bang. The Big Bang hurled into motion a violent universe. Stars are born, grow old, and die long, protracted deaths, ending as black holes, dense balls of matter whose gravity is so strong that not even light can escape from them.

Life on earth is no less violent. Most species do not survive the long evolutionary climb up from the primordial protein soup. God gave us a dangerous, violent, and beautiful world which is not nice but is good.

So in what sense can this world be said to be good? How can it be good if life for most creatures is “nasty, brutish, and short”?

In Genesis 1 God not only said that the world was good, God also charged us with stewardship of the world. A world that produces earthquakes and hurricanes plainly needs a great deal of stewardship.

Scientist and theologian John Polkinghorne said that God made the world so that the world makes itself, and a world that is always making itself is a dangerous, violent, and unstable place. The Haiti earthquake shows us how true this is. Our task of stewardship is to mitigate what happens when the world makes itself.

Economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase “creative destruction.” We all know intuitively that creation often requires destruction. It took the deaths of thousands of young men in the Civil War to bring an end to American slavery. The price we paid for the fall of the Soviet Union was the creation of a more dangerous and unstable world. The renewal of our inner cities requires the destruction of blocks of slums.

However, our faith, our hope is that destruction yields creation, new life, resurrection. At the very heart of the Christian faith is a powerful symbol of death and destruction – the Cross. But it is a symbol of death that has become the symbol of ultimate hope.

I believe that God’s heart broke when the earthquake struck Haiti. But I also believe that God’s heart had been breaking for Haiti long before the earthquake. God’s heart was broken with Haiti’s poverty, disease, and corrupt government. And I believe that what really breaks God’s heart is our failure to be stewards of creation, our failure to care for and love our sisters and brothers in places such as Haiti.

Where was God, we wonder, when the earthquake struck Haiti or the planes struck the World Trade center or when Katrina hit New Orleans? It’s a fair question and God is a very big God and doesn’t mind our questions, even our angry questions. But the more important question, the question that should really matter to us is Where were we when the earthquake hit Haiti? And where had we been for decades before that when Haiti and its people were suffering?

May our prayer today and always be that our hearts will break when God’s heart breaks, that we will be stewards of this world that is good but not always nice, that we will be there for our sisters and brothers in Haiti and wherever suffering holds sway, and that from every terrible destructive event God will bring creation, new life, and resurrection.