November 8, 2005

Is God Late?

1545 page27 caphey are images that will long haunt those of us who live in the United States: flood-stranded citizens awaiting rescue on rooftops and in attics, on freeway overpasses and in hospitals, on makeshift rafts and in nursing homes.

It is old news now, but then we watched in shock as New Orleans' evacuees waited at the Superdome and the convention center for buses that never seemed to come. Many were without food, water, and medicine. Babies died. The elderly died too. As cameras panned the crowd, men, women, and children chanted, "help, help, help."

Like many Americans, I became obsessed with Hurricane Katrina news. In the initial days I was frustrated with the sluggish rescue efforts. I wanted to jump in my car, drive to Louisiana, and begin transporting people out of the area. I remained in Minnesota, though, pledging to help in more practical ways, and instead wondered: What is taking so long?

The same question has been asked of God.

1545 page27At the last supper Jesus began preparing His disciples for the grim days ahead. The disciples were still giddy with Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and they must have had fantasies of an earthly kingdom. Their expectations were shattered when Jesus began to wash feet. From there, the evening got even more strange. First, Jesus predicted that one of His disciples would betray Him. Then He told them He was going to leave, and they wouldn't be able to follow--at least not immediately.

As Jesus began to comfort His disciples, He made them a promise, and through them, He made one to us: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am" (John 14:1-3).*

Much has happened since Jesus promised to return and take us to heaven. Empires have risen and then fallen. Pandemics have swept continents, leaving behind the dead and the grieved. Wars have brewed, killing both life and joy. Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, typhoons, volcanoes, and all manner of natural disasters have tested the earth. And through it all, Christians have believed that the end is near. We've believed it for so long and to such an extent that the phrase is a cliché.

When my father was a teenager, he thought Christ would come before he finished high school. Now he's a pastor, a few years away from retiring. When I was a child, I thought Christ could come at any minute. On Sabbath afternoons I would sit on our veranda steps and watch for a fist-sized cloud. When I saw one, I'd wait, fully expecting it to grow larger and larger, until it turned into a throng of angels.

I've gotten older and stopped cloud gazing. I plan for the future--I go to school, I worry about the job market. To be honest, I'd be surprised if Christ returned next week.

Life on earth is the status quo; it's what we know. We're willing to settle for iPods and SUVs and a trip to the Bahamas. It takes a tragedy for us to question God. Where are you? Why haven't you come yet?

God must welcome these questions. We all need rescuing, but the more affluent we are, the less we realize it. Which is probably why Jesus said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matt. 19:24).

Which leads us back to the question Is God late? Has He forgotten us? Has He turned His attention to other more docile planets? Can we ever expect to be rescued?

Whatever conclusion is drawn about the rescue mission in New Orleans, there will be no parallel to the divine. Christ's delay is not a failing of bureaucracy, but a humanitarian deferment. Peter, who heard Jesus' promise with his own ears, had this to say about the Second Coming: "Do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:8, 9).

*Bible texts in this column are from the New International Version.

Sari Fordham is working on a postgraduate degree at the University of Minnesota. Her
e-mail address is: [email protected].