Life happens. Random, unpredictable events, especially unfortunate events, happen every day, and we say, “life happens.” Dorothy was talking the other day about how the wrong hymn numbers got into the worship bulletin two weeks ago. “I don’t know what happened,” she said. “Life happened,” I said.
It’s an experience common to all of God’s creatures, even to mice. The poet Robert Burns, according to legend, was plowing a field and accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest, which it needed to survive the winter. The best-laid schemes of mice and men, he wrote, go oft awry.1 You appreciate that more as you grow older and life doesn’t turn out the way you had expected or planned or hoped.
We don’t like randomness and unpredictability. We accept the fact that events, especially bad ones, seem to happen for no apparent reason. We also resist the idea. We look for reason and meaning where none may exist, and when we don’t find it we create it. We call it luck or fate or karma. Or it’s God’s will, we say, forgetting that we have no idea what God intends (Job 38:1–42:6).
Often we look to the future to make sense of it, like an old hymn says: “in that land of perfect day, when the mists have rolled away, / we will understand it better by and by.”2 By and by, when, as St. Paul wrote, we who see in a mirror dimly will see face to face, and we who know only in part will know fully (1 Cor. 13:12).
By and by. Maybe that’s when we’ll understand why a gunman fired into a crowd of concert goers in Las Vegas two weeks ago, leaving fifty-eight dead and more than 500 wounded, for no apparent reason. Maybe, by and by, we’ll understand that kind of experience, and there’ll be no more of it, to say nothing of our little personal problems that seem so big to us but that pale by comparison.
When Precy May Lawson placed an ornament on a memorial for the shooting victims, she spoke about how the lack of answers takes a toll on the community. “There’s so many questions, and we don’t know the answer,” she said. “Sometimes I’m just tired of asking the question that I don’t have the answer, so I just leave it up to Him.” And she pointed to the sky – to God, she said. “Right now we are just focusing on healing,” she said.3
We, too, are focusing on healing. But it will not be a healing that involves punishing the perpetrator, even if he were still alive. And it will not be a healing to be found in the resurgent debate over gun control that changes in intensity but very little in substance. And it will not involve fixing blame on anyone or anything. It will be a healing that comes as we recognize that it’s already present in our midst.
Our healing, our wholeness, the restoring of our perfection, our completeness, our relationship with others and with all of creation – all this is already ours, and it’s here and now. Jesus began his ministry, according to the earliest account we have, proclaiming the good news that the waiting was over and the healing of creation was at hand. Change your way of thinking and turn your life around, he said, and live as if you believe this good news (Mark 1:14-15).
And he told a parable to emphasize his point (Matt. 22:1-14; Luke 14:15-24). In Matthew’s version, Jesus jumps straight into the story, but Luke introduces it by having a dinner companion of Jesus talk about how good it will be one day in the future when God’s kingdom comes, when everything will finally be right with God and all creation will be healed. It’s as if he started singing a familiar hymn, “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be.”
The heart of both versions of the parable is that someone gives a great banquet and announces to the guests: Dinner is served, come and feast. But those who were invited have other things to do first, they have the business of daily life to care for, and they plan to arrive and partake later, at some indefinite time in the future. So the host invites others who will fill the seats at the table now, and he locks the door so that no one who arrives later can get in.
The sad news is that most of those who heard Jesus tell that story, and most Christians today, still believe God will spread out that banquet sometime in the future – at the end of the millennium, at the end of the age, at the end of history, or in some existence after death. That’s the sad news.
The good news is just what Jesus said it was, that all things are ready, and the time of waiting is over. The good news is that dinner is served, and Jesus still invites us to turn our lives around and take our seats at the banquet. What you’ve been waiting for, he said, what you’ve thought is held in reserve in the future, is in fact spread out on the earth, and people don’t see it (Gosp. Thomas 113).
We don’t see it because we’re busy looking for it somewhere else, in our imagination, in our visions, like the little fish that swims around looking for the Ocean and sees only water. We’re looking for a condition in which every tear will be wiped away and mourning and crying and pain will be no more (Rev. 21:3-4), where the “wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, . . . and a little child shall lead them” (Isa. 11:6).
What if the kingdom of heaven is not a condition in which everything bad is eliminated and only the good remains but is one in which every part of the life we know, good and bad, light and dark, is reconciled, balanced, harmonized, reintegrated into a perfect wholeness? What if, in the kingdom of heaven, the wolf still eats the lamb and the leopard still dines on the kid and the whole contradictory completeness of God’s creation is accepted and embraced for what it is?
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: “Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.”4
One evening in midtown Manhattan I was on Fifth Avenue, making my way toward the Port Authority and the bus home, when I decided to avoid the crowds by stopping at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the 5:15 Mass. As I made my way across the street through what seemed like millions of people all headed in the opposite direction, I became aware of one fellow who stopped suddenly, turned as if to reorient himself, and said, “God, where’s everybody going?”
Where’s everybody going, indeed? We all hurry on with our lives, staying longer at work, stopping at traffic lights, running errands, attending to ordinary business, and suddenly we’re aware of one voice ringing clear. Where’s everybody going? Dinner is served. Turn around and believe the good news. ▪
Notes — 1. Robert Burns, “To a Mouse, On Turning up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785,” poetryfoundation.org. ▪ 2. Charles Albert Tindley, “We’ll Understand It Better By and By,” ca. 1906. ▪ 3. Quoted in “Around the Nation,” National Public Radio, 10 October 2017. ▪ 4. Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet.