Church camp is one of the few places where I can take a few minutes to breathe and admire God’s beautiful creation. Even in the midst of chaotic moments when the unexpected occurs – a new activity to keep campers occupied needs to be hastily planned or a sudden storm means the schedule needs to be reworked- I often still manage to be awed by the beauty of the lake.
It is easy to experience the divine when the waters are calm, the sun bright, and the wind non-existent. But because the church camp is located on a peninsula when storms hit-they hit hard.
The first night I slept in my cabin, the wind was howling and shaking nearby trees. The waves I had admired for their calmness a few hours before, were raging. I kept glaring out of my window to make sure that the water stayed where I was most comfortable-AWAY from me. During the storm I was not thinking about God’s presence. I was waiting anxiously for the storm to pass.
The contrast between beauty and danger, hope and fear, was made even clearer when I found out that one of my former campers from 2 years ago, died on June 4th. He was only 20 years old.
News accounts differ on the exact details but the broad outlines remain the same: the day started out normal, he was hanging out with friends on a lake popular for swimming and boating, when he went under water and never resurfaced. His body was found a few hours later.
I know very little about the lake he drowned in, and no reports indicate a storm passed by. Simply that the current was fast.
But my mind still can’t help but return the darkness and fear I felt during my first night on Lake Ida and wonder what my former camper experienced. Did my former camper feel pain? Was he scared? What was going on in his mind as his lungs filled with water? More importantly, was God there with him?
I have no doubt God was with him when he scored points during basketball games, or when he was working for the Church. I also have no doubt of God’s presence when he was hanging out and joking with friends. But was God with him when he went under the water and never resurfaced?
Did he feel God’s presence or simply panic? Those are the thoughts that haunt my mind. I won’t pretend to say that I was close to this former camper. In fact, he will always remain frozen in time in my memory.
But that memory is competing with the frenzied workings of my imaginations. I know from watching Lake Ida that beautiful lakes, an expression of God’s presence, can quickly turn dangerous and deadly. Is God present in the danger?
I know theologically the answer is supposed to be an assertive yes. I know that intellectually I can point out to numerous reasons based in scripture, experience, and tradition to argue that God’s presence is a constant regardless of the circumstances. But an otherwise assertive “yes” becomes a hopeful, desperate “maybe” in the face of tragedy.
What seemed like such a strong theological belief, becomes shaky when I think about the young life that was randomly snuffed out. This 20-year-old young man had so much to offer the world, to offer the church, and now he is gone. How am I to make sense of that?
Logically, I know tragedies happen, but yet that does nothing to numb the pain that death has touched someone I knew. Someone whose life briefly touched mine and made it better.
In the midst of this pain, I hold on to key Bible stories. As a progressive I don’t hold every word in the Bible to be “literal” or “100% factual 100% of the time.”
This may seem illogical to some of my more conservative peers who assert that, “if you don’t believe the Bible is %100 true why believe what it says in God” or who claim, “if you don’t believe in a literal resurrection then Christianity is pointless.”
But I still find a sense of comfort and hope in the Biblical narrative. In the midst of the violence, sexism, etc that the Bible espouses, there are also glimpses of a better world and a loving God. Those glimpses give me hope that no matter what may come, God’s presence and love will serve as an ever-present guide.
In the death of my former camper I take comfort in the story of Lazarus told in John 11. I take comfort in the fact that Martha tells Jesus straight to his face that if he had been there, her brother would not have died.
She does not mince words but yet she still declares her faith in God. I also find solace in the depiction of Jesus crying as he witnesses the pain and suffering of Maratha and those who were weeping with her.
This gives me hope that God not only sees our pain but joins us in weeping. Finally, while questions regarding the physical and scientific possibly of resurrection has captured the attention of a significant number of Christians who believe that anything less than literalism renders their faith worthless, I believe that regardless of the narrative’s “scientific validity” that it tells the story of a God who has life…and death in God’s hands.
I don’t know if God “literally” raised Lazarus from the dead. I can’t prove or disprove the story and for me, that’s not the point. I don’t know why my former camper, with so much life to look forward to, was suddenly taken. I don’t know what has happened to him after he has died-what I do know is I believe that regardless of what the afterlife may or may not hold, that he is in the loving arms of a merciful and compassionate God.