I Put God on Probation

My friend, Pedro, grew up on the south side of Chicago, which is a rough neighborhood. As a small boy he was his mother’s caregiver through her serious illnesses. When he was about eight, his mom died and, at the same time, his dad told him he was not his real father. Pedro spiraled into sheer survival mode, joined a gang and lived mostly on the streets. Miraculously, because of something within him, he completed middle school and high school, although he says he had to steal in order to get money for a cap and gown.

By the time he moved to Minnesota in his twenties, he was deep into drugs, physically ill and well acquainted with jail. He was sick and tired of life. He was sick and tired of God too. As a young child he had felt close to God in the rituals and music of the Catholic church, but now that all these bad things had happened to him, and since God had done nothing to take care of him, he decided to put God on probation. He had no use for God at all.

Although I didn’t grow up in violence on the south side of Chicago, I put God on probation in my twenties too. I’ve been tempted to do it again a few times since then but not as keenly. I put the old fear-and-shame God of my childhood on probation because I couldn’t live in that dread. And I was mad at him for not healing my mother. Like Pedro, my mother died tragically and suddenly, at a young age. I didn’t have the heart capacity not to blame God and this death was a devastating blow. I had no need for a God who refused to heal. I didn’t know a way to replace that God except to join intellectual pursuits and reason myself away from my faith. I guess that was my drug of choice. It took me a dozen years, and another crisis, to bring me back to God.

These two scenarios happen to most of us with some variations. We want things to be good for us, to go well, to be fair. We try to behave well and we expect to be rewarded. When we are instead, in pain, most of us say “Why me?” (Good me, kind me, successful me☺). And then we blame God because God is supposed to be powerful and should be able to prevent bad things or at least fix them when they happen. This is a view of God as a cosmic magician who can and should perform miracles at our request. That is the reasoning that got both Pedro and me in serious trouble and caused us to put God on probation.

Without getting too theological here, let me say that if we could command God to grant all of our wishes and get life the way we wanted it, most of us would not become better people, more loving and compassionate. Sad but true. We would become more selfish, egotistical, needy and perhaps even greedy. So instead we get life with all of its joy and pain. Life just happens. We suffer most if we demand things our way, and fail to grow deeper from our experiences. Yet, we need to be real, to get angry at God, to rant and call for mercy. And sometimes we need to fire our old God or take a sabbatical from God in order to step back and get perspective. We need to search out new paths and discover new ways to experience God. We can find God precisely in our pain if we look. This happens if we enter into a process of embracing and not running from our pain. God then becomes even more intimate in times of pain. Finding this intimate God is a path of great, though unsettling, transformation.

This searching and questioning of our faith, or even the apparent loss of faith, is a crucial part of the faith journey but there is also a danger of getting so bitter that we get stuck in our anger, stuck in our intellectual search, stuck in our victim-hood. Sometimes we stop the search all together and drop out completely, which can be shattering to our psyches since meaning and purpose are central to our well-being. Hopefully, for most people this time of searching brings them to a new and more intimate relationship with themselves and with God, to a different level of meaning and a new chapter in their lives.

In Pedro’s case, in the middle of his pain, an angel appeared in the form of a judge, who could have sent him to prison, but instead saw something in him that suggested he might succeed in a special drug rehab and prison diversion program. Over the next few ears of intense inner work, Pedro got clean, found a steady home base in long-term housing and joined an ongoing spirituality group. He became a mentor for a non-profit organization that connected suburban people with those on the margins and he started volunteering for Mad Dads (a men’s anti-violence group). He reunited with his two kids and he became the head of the residents’ council, working for healthier living conditions, like an exercise work out room.

Although Pedro still lives with MS and diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, he feels close to God and says God is with him all the time. He has wisdom beyond his years and many people seek him out for guidance. He recently received one of eight volunteer-of-the-year awards from a prominent magazine. He said, smiling, that he was the only poor and powerless recipient of the award. The judge who got him started on this road has become a mentor and close personal friend.

God showed up, in the middle of the pain, Pedro says, in the form of this judge. And Pedro was able to see that and respond. It wasn’t a miracle in the sense that Pedro was miraculously healed. He still had to work hard to get sober, but God stood with him as he worked his program. I wonder if God had secretly showed up long before that by fueling that drive within him to get through school☺

God showed up for me in another crisis in my life, to bring me out of my no-need-for-God era to a community of faith that included a deep heart connection as well as a strong intellectual component. Just what I needed in order to grow. Anger and fear were slowly replaced by love. And from that place I found a spiritual director and a new personal intimacy with God. I think God was there waiting for me all along.

For both Pedro and me God survived probation and is now “off-paper.” God is a well functioning member of our society again and has been fully rehabbed in our lives. Amen.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay
When have you put God on probation and why?

When do you say “why me?”

When have you left God or a church and found a new alternative?

When have you been stuck in anti-God or anti-religion sentiments?

How has God always been with you, even in the desolation?

What is your community of faith now? And is it life-giving?

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