When we returned to the room, Meredith was sitting up in bed. Puffy—her lovingly battered stuffed rabbit—was tucked under one arm. She was sipping apple juice from a straw. A Barney video was playing on the TV. And every nurse on duty in the Pediatric Cardiac ICU surrounded her bed laughing and clapping.
At eighteen months, our daughter had undergone open heart surgery. At her physician’s direction, we had left the room while they took her off the ventilator.
The weeks-long buildup to the surgery, the hours of waiting for the procedure to be over, and finally the helpless agony of watching our daughter’s terrified eyes plead with us to remove the tube from her throat had left us knackered. The relief and the joy we felt at seeing Meredith holding court with those nurses was a stark but welcome contrast to the dread and the emotional nausea wrought by the ordeal up to that point.
Joy told one of the nurses how kind it was of them to turn that moment into a celebration. The nurse responded with something like this: “Oh no, we did that as much for us as for her. You see, most of our patients are so little and so sick. The surgeries don’t often turn out this well. Celebrating her result helps keep us going.”
Until that exchange, my attention had been narrowly focused on my daughter. I had been oblivious to our surroundings. At the nurses words I looked around as if seeing where I was for the first time. All around us lay frightfully tiny babies hooked up to all manner of machines.
Ashen-faced parents sat silently by their sides. Drained. Exhausted. At the edge of despair. Many of these babies would not leave this unit. Others would go home only to face still more surgeries, chronic physical limitations, and short lives.
Scores and scores of people had joined Joy and me in prayer for Meredith. We were and remain profoundly grateful for her swift recovery and robust health. And yet I was made aware that day that many of those parents had been praying for their child with every fiber of their being. So too had their friends and families.
They were just like us. Leaning on God to get us through the awful prospect that our child might die. We brought home a healthy baby. Others made funeral plans.
I have no simple explanation for this. Actually, I have no explanation at all. Some people may gasp to hear a bishop—or to hear any follower of Jesus—say such a thing. For some, this will sound like a lack of faith. But I see it as the acknowledgment that mystery is at the core of faith.
We live in a messy world. A mix of justice and injustice. Beauty and horror. Love and cruelty. Scripture tells us, and Jesus repeatedly tells us, that God wants justice.
Now justice does not mean merely that God wants good people to be rewarded and bad actors to be punished. Justice means much more than that. Justice is shalom. God’s dream of love and peace fully realized on earth as it is in heaven.
This is justice:
Babies are born healthy and live long, rewarding lives. We share the fruits of this earth with each other so that no one goes hungry, lacks medical care, or sleeps under a bridge. We find strength in differences of ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity instead of using them to judge or build walls. Everyone receives love and respect. No one is any better than anybody else.
And there lies the tension. That’s God’s dream. This is our messy world. And so where is God?
Jesus challenges us to sit with this tension by telling the parable of the unjust judge. You know the one. There’s a corrupt, self-serving judge notorious for padding his own pockets and pursuing his own interest at the expense of, well, pretty much everybody else.
A woman petitions this judge for justice. Initially, he ignores her. But her persistence is Guinness World Record book stuff. She texts, hounds him on social media, turns up at his doorstep, throws pebbles at his bedroom window, and loiters outside his office door. Finally, he grants her petition to get her off his back.
Obviously, God is not the self-absorbed jerk that this judge represents. And it looks as if Jesus is going to say that if a guy like this will give you what you want for your persistent prayer surely you can count on the loving God. Right? Prayer hard and long enough and you’ll get what you want.
But here’s a news flash. God is not a vending machine and prayers are not coins we stuff in the slot to get the candy we want. And just in case you don’t get the point, Jesus tosses out this gem:
“Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?”
Um, well, actually Jesus, we are crying out to him day and night. And as a matter of fact there’s been quite the delay. Like, you know, centuries upon centuries of delay. The weak are still oppressed. The poor exploited. The helpless left to fend for themselves. Have you looked around lately?
And of course Jesus has looked around. God has looked around, and Jesus is God’s response. And in Jesus, we are God’s response. God’s justice, God’s love, is at work through our hands.
Friends I’m on vacation in October, so I’ll be posting previously published essays each Friday based on the Lectionary for the coming Sunday. This one first appeared October 18, 2019. A portion was later included in Looking for God in Messy Places: A Book About Hope. Click here to learn more and get a copy. I’ll be posting new stuff again in November (and maybe even some sneak peeks of my next book). As always, you can click the contact page of my site to schedule an event with me in-person or via Zoom.