The snow shovel (or an illustration of God’s providence)

The following post appeared Wednesday, January 6th on, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

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Here’s something you don’t know about me: I don’t own a snow shovel. This fact was unimportant until a few weeks ago when a record December snowfall dropped two feet of powder on Berkeley County, West Virginia. I woke up to a foot of snow outside, and the sky was dumping an inch an hour. I opened my front door, and the snow made an encroaching barrier to my front stoop. I went to the cupboard and pulled out my house broom. Sweeping the snow from the steps, I felt like Gandalf staring down the Balrog: “You shall not pass!”

But a broom is a poor substitute for a proper shovel, especially with the quantity of snow making islands of every vehicle on the street. And this is where the providence of God comes in. Providence is a tricky thing because one can easily over-define it to a point where we are simply chess pieces for God to move around the terrestrial board. To make matters trickier, one can also under-define Providence to a deistic level: God is merely an observer, having set events in motion with the winding of creation’s clock long ago. Neither of these definitions is satisfactory. Theologian Paul Tillich strikes a balance when he says, “Providence is a permanent activity of God. He is never a spectator; he always directs everything toward fulfilment. Yet God’s directing creativity always creates through the freedom of man and through the spontaneity and structural wholeness of all creatures.” *

So what’s all this have to do with my lack of a snow shovel? I’m glad you asked. Sometimes, encountering the Providence of God takes something quite small. We shall enter this small story during the early months of 2009, when a dear man from my congregation purchased a new car. He had been getting tired of his old Buick, and so he went for a shiny, silver Japanese sedan. But within a month of driving the car off the lot, he fell ill.

The cancer had been growing slowly, and for a time, the doctors held it at bay. The man spent several weeks in the hospital, until the medical staff, his family, and he decided that being comfortable in his own bed at home was as good for his condition as any drug. For several more weeks, he held on, making his wife laugh and cry, joking with the hospice nurses, slowly disintegrating from the inside. Not until his final day did the awareness, the flash in his eye, fade. He passed on in July, leaving his loving wife, a daughter, grandchildren, a cluttered house full of memories, and a brand new, silver, Japanese sedan.

Fast forward from midsummer to mid-autumn. A deer ran into my little Korean car, and the insurance company whisked it away to the total loss center to be evaluated. For some foolish reason, I didn’t have rental coverage as part of my plan. But I did have something even better: the man’s wife, who is the dear heart I’ve mentioned many times in blog entries over the last year. She found out that I was without a car, and asked (in her sweet, typical fashion) if I would help her out: “You see, his car’s been sitting in the garage since summer and if it doesn’t get driven, it will start to fall apart. I would be very pleased if you would drive it for me.”

I readily agreed to the arrangement, all the while smiling to myself because she made it sound like I was the one doing her a favor. After two weeks, my damaged car finally made it to the auto shop, the insurance company having decided it was worth repairing. I hoped to have it back by Thanksgiving, but the mechanic found more damage than the original estimate covered, which necessitated another visit from the adjuster. So when will it be done, I asked; by mid-December, the mechanic promised.

“Keep the car as long as you need to,” the dear heart said, when I told her the repairs were delayed. I suspect that if my car had been a total loss, she would have simply given me the shiny sedan because she’s just that generous a person. But I really like my car, so I was willing to wait out the repairs. I called the auto shop on December 17th hoping to hear that I could pick up the car that day. The collision was five weeks before, surely enough time to repair some front-end damage.

“Well, we took the car for a spin,” said the mechanic, “but it needs realigning so we put it on the lift and noticed something. Did you say your insurance company took the car to a total loss center first?” Yes, I said, not liking where this conversation was going. “Well,” the mechanic continued, “at those places, they use this kind of crane to lift the cars… We’d’ve never noticed it if we hadn’t put the car on the lift, but it looks like the crane cracked the fuel tank. So I need to get your adjuster out one more time to look at it.” Great, I thought. How long, I said. Another couple of weeks, what with the holiday and all, came the answer.

Two days later, the snow hit. With broom in hand, I stood on the front stoop and looked at the snow-covered Japanese sedan. The car had been driven a total of 317 miles before I took the wheel. I had put nearly two thousand miles on it during the last month. I thought about the dear man, a practical fellow, who bought the car last winter. I trudged out to the car, swept the snow from the trunk, and opened it. Inside was a shovel.

Now that’s Providence.


* Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. Vol 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951 (p. 266)

For the sake of ten (part 3 of 3)

This relationship which God has extravagantly blessed us with challenges the understanding of God’s immutability. Indeed, in the story, it seems (at first glance at least) that Abraham is swaying God’s mind. Many, if not most, ancient and medieval Christian thinkers assert that a facet of the divine is changelessness. This makes sense because the perfect cannot be changed; if it could, it would not be perfect. However, I think that assigning platonic categories of perfection to God is a silly exercise because God is beyond our concept of perfection.* God is more than perfect because God subsumes the category of perfection into God’s being. That is why God can send a son to earth against all the rules of fashionable Greek philosophical discourse of the time. God is other, but God is present at the same time. What we call Providence, as theologian Paul Tillich says, is the intermingling of our actions and inactions with God’s directing creativity. Part of this directing creativity is responsiveness to prayer. Tillich says that “every serious prayer contains power, not because of the intensity of desire expressed in it, but because of the faith the person has in God’s directing activity—a faith which transforms the existential situation”  When Abraham says “Far be it from you to do such a thing” (which might more expressively be translated: “How dare you!”), he is engaging in this kind of prayer. The relationship he has with God, more than the words, is the important factor in the exchange.

While it might seem that Abraham is using his close connection with God to sway God’s mind, God seems to let the exercise go on to expand Abraham’s mind concerning justice, righteousness, and sin. Abraham’s thought experiment is flawed to begin with because there is no way to separate the righteous and sinful.  Even in generations to come when it was possible to be “righteous under the law,” people kept the temple in business by sacrificing to restore their righteousness. Later, Paul reflects this reality when he says, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). But Abraham’s seems to say, “For argument’s sake, let’s say there’s a clear distinction between the righteous and the sinful.” God humors him thus far.

Next, Abraham makes an outrageous claim that would make any level-headed person cry foul. He says, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Abraham is outraged that the righteous would be swept away with the wicked. However, he is perfectly content with the wicked remaining unpunished if even ten righteous people are found in the city. Surely, this is not justice—the wicked go unpunished for the sake of the righteous, the wicked don’t get what they deserve! Now, we all know the end of the story—Sodom gets utterly destroyed. But leaving that aside for a moment, let us pause and reflect on God’s mercy as this story elucidates it. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. It seems that as Abraham lessens the number of righteous needed to save the city, the mercy (rather than the justice) of God expands to greater and greater levels. If only ten are found, you won’t destroy the city? Heck, what about one? We never get that far, but it is not unimaginable. By the end of the story, it seems that the ten righteous are on vacation, and the city is destroyed anyway. But the extravagant claim about God’s mercy still stands, though Abraham can’t see it because of his preoccupation with justice.

This story is finally about two things that relate to each other. The first is the human inability to comprehend God and God’s action in the world. The second is the realization that humans are always in the presence of God, participating in that same action. C.S. Lewis says: “The freedom of God consists of the fact that no cause other than Himself produces His acts and no external obstacle impedes them—that His own goodness is the root from which they all grow and His own omnipotence the air in which they all flower”  Our incomprehension stems from the actions of God having God’s freedom as their basis and warrant. We are in God’s presence because of God’s goodness. We participate in God’s freedom even when (or especially when) we question God as Abraham does. We participate in God’s goodness when our actions bring about the justice, mercy, and grace of God. And we participate in God’s omnipotence when we are blessed with those briefest of glimpses of God’s directing creativity, which spur us to greater action and greater love.


* A fair number of 20th century theologians say something similar, though I doubt they use the word “silly.”

For the sake of ten (part 2 of 3)

Thinking we understand the ways of the world, and of God, for that matter, is a major cause of all kinds of unrest. I have been a student for nineteen years and one piece of learning that has quietly crept up on me as the years rolled by is this: there sure is a heck of a lot I don’t know. Most of my personal failings come from me thinking I know things that I don’t know. Recognizing that I do not know something is, I believe, one of God’s repetitious lessons in humility. I know so little about the world that I can see and feel and touch. If I know so little about what is actually knowable, how could I ever presume to know anything about God? About why God does what God does? And for that matter, whether or not why is even an appropriate question when God is involved?

These musings stray into the territory of an apophatic* understanding of God, but I assure you, I will not quite get there. One needs only to look at the story this reflection concerns to know that God, while supremely unknowable from our end, makes God known to us in both ordinary and mysterious ways. Indeed, Abraham talks to God!  The simple fact that there are two characters in the scene—Abraham and God—illustrates the immanence of God in our midst. It is when we turn this around and realize that it is really we who are in God’s midst that the transcendence of God smacks us square in the forehead. God is beyond our knowledge, but because of God’s grace we are not beyond glimpses of the recognition that we think, move, act, love, live in the presence of God. This is revelation, of which Jesus Christ is the most perfect example.

We live in the presence of God whether we recognize it or not. However, as our eyes adjust to the holiness around us, the injustice of the world becomes more apparent and more intolerable. Questions such as why do we suffer? and why are the good punished and the evil rewarded? and why does the world seem to be in inexorable decline socially and environmentally? abound when we link our experience of our Creator with our moral compasses. C.S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, begins with a discussion of religion in general. He says that the roots of religion are two-fold: the universal, uncanny, dreadful, unexplainable something that he calls experiencing the “numinous”; and the emergence of morality. The Jewish people, he continues, were the first to combine these two things when they discerned that their God both prompted them to live a life of good morals and helped them along the way. As the understanding of God as a necessarily “good” being grew, the aforementioned questions became more prevalent. Indeed, if we were without our understanding of God as a beneficent Creator, then there would be no problem associated with injustice or pain. They would simply be neutral facts, as indistinguishable from their natural counterparts as colors in the dark. However, we are blessed with the revelation that our God is good. This is both a comforting and a vexing thought. Abraham takes the vexation head on. In doing so, he accuses God of premeditated capriciousness and also shows just how poorly he, Abraham, understands the concept of justice.

“Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” says Abraham. Here Abraham wrestles with what might be termed “Divine inscrutability.”** What looks like capriciousness to humans, goes one interpretation, is God fulfilling God’s inscrutable plan. This quickly becomes the “It’s God’s will” argument. However, this progression is inherently flawed. There is obviously a paradox happening somewhere when inscrutability and knowledge of God’s will are mentioned in the same breath. These two approaches seek to answer the “why” question (why did God let this happen? etc). Inscrutability says, “I don’t know why.” The God’s will argument says just that—“It’s God’s will,” no matter what happens. The latter is a very limited understanding of our relationship with God. While the “will” of God certainly exists, it is not the organizing principle by which we live. That is, instead, reserved for the “Word” of God, which is both the foundation of existence and the incarnate being of Jesus Christ. Affirming this premise does not answer the “why” question, but supersedes it with the person of Christ, who is present with us in our pain and suffering. The inscrutability of God is maintained because we can never fully know God, but our questions are answered by a relationship with Jesus Christ (rather than an explanation).

to be concluded.


* This is a five dollar seminary word that means something like: “You can never know anything about God, so quit asking.”

** Inscrutability is a funny word. You can be inscrutable, but can you just be scrutable? In think you can in Europe.

For the sake of ten (part 1 of 3)

Abraham stares after them as they make their dusty way down into the valley. They are men to his eyes, and yet, in the shadow-stretched twilight they appear indistinct, almost shadows themselves. But not shadows; for these beings shine. They shine with the borrowed light of the one who remains with Abraham on the hilltop overlooking the candlelit city of Sodom. Abraham watches them until their shadows mingle with those of the scrub and gorse bushes. He stands there, mystified—for they have just predicted that Sarah (his Sarah!) would get pregnant. Ha. She’s far too old, her joints too arthritic, her bones too brittle to stand the strains of pregnancy. And yet. And yet they had seemed so certain. She had laughed, but it was no joke. I thought I understood the ways of the world, ponders Abraham, as the shining beings melt into the candlelight of the city.

I thought I understood the ways of the world. Perhaps not, if it is true that Sarah can still bear children. Confusion. Abraham shakes his head, as if this act would jostle loose such a silly, irrational thought as Sarah becoming pregnant. He looks down at Sodom again. And here’s another example of irrationality, he thinks. Anger kindles in his chest as he remembers the abuses that have reached his ears, the abuses committed by the people of that city. But yet—how could God destroy that place if there were righteous people there. Surely God could not be that unjust.

Abraham shakes his head again, this time with suppressed incredulity, and lifts his eyes from the twinkling lights below. He turns and approaches the third being, the one who has remained with him on the hill when the others ventured down to the city. Seen peripherally, the being is generally man-shaped. But as Abraham moves near, he perceives how inadequate a container the man-shaped body is for such an abundance of light, harmony, and awe. Abraham suppresses a shudder. He opens his mouth, but closes it again, unsure whether he wants to question or accuse. The being knows the confusion in Abraham’s mind, knows that such cognitive dissonance is the birthplace of revelation.

All at once, Abraham finds his words: question and accusation combine into indictment tinged with desperate plea for understanding. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” He presses on, not waiting for the LORD (for, of course, this is who the luminous being on the hilltop is) to respond. “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked!” Abraham points a quivering, accusatory finger, and his pitch rises as the cause of his mental distress tumbles from him: “Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” Tears form at the corners of his eyes; he slumps over, chest heaving with the exertion of voicing the thoughts that have been building ever since the three men approached his tent.

The LORD waits for Abraham to recover and then responds quietly, certainly: “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham hears these words and is mollified—almost. What about 45? 40? 30? 20? What about—and here Abraham raises both hands, fingers splayed—ten? “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it,” says the LORD. And then the LORD leaves Abraham with his thoughts. Abraham returns to his place to find Sarah, her deep eyes reflecting dancing firelight, lost in the same thought: I thought I understood the ways of the world.*

to be continued.


* This and the upcoming two posts are pieces of a reflection on Genesis 18.