Death, dance & glimpses of God

Aaron Rodgers recently took some heat for remarks he made questioning God and religion. In a December episode of his girlfriend Danica Patrick’s podcast Pretty Intense, he said:

“I don’t know how you believe in a God who wants to condemn most of the planet to a fiery hell. What type of loving, sensitive, omnipresent, omnipotent being wants to condemn his beautiful creation to a fiery hell at the end of all this?”

I have to say, I agree with Aaron.  While his comments were specifically in regard to Christianity and the concept of heaven and hell, they provoke a similar misgiving. What kind of God would allow such suffering and tragedy among beings created in its image? Or maybe a simpler question- In the midst of all this earthly pain and chaos, where is God?

Right now, people around the world are grieving the untimely deaths of NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his 13 year-old daughter Gianna, who died in a helicopter crash Sunday morning. Shock and sadness have reverberated across news outlets and social media. Celebrity deaths leave us to collectively grapple with the same issues: pain, the brevity/fragility of life and the existence of God. Kobe Bryant was an iconic figure, who inspired on and off the basketball court. In many ways, he was in his prime, enjoying retirement and focused on family. Why did Kobe, Gianna and the other people on that helicopter have to die so horrifically? What kind of God would inflict such unspeakable anguish upon these families? Perhaps the same God that allows a narcissistic oligarch to tear children away from their parents and lock them in cages?

My experience of God has been mixed. I’ve been through crushing losses, unbearable anguish and the darkest of challenges, all of which left me questioning the notion of a benevolent God and plunged me into deep existential loneliness. I’ve also felt moments of astonishing grace, marked by an overwhelming sense of spaciousness, peace and an unquestionable connection to something bigger. Brief and fleeing encounters with the divine. Transcendence.

So which is it?

I grew up in the Presbyterian Church. My memory of church is that it was fun. Our congregation had great potlucks, joyful holiday celebrations and a true sense of community. I don’t recall much emphasis on hell and damnation. Presbyterians aren’t heavy handed in that way. My earliest understanding of God followed the stock Christian narrative of Jesus, the manger and Christmas, the resurrection (which puzzled me then and continues to puzzle me now) and God as a kindly entity, a loving father figure floating sweetly in heaven above. God was uncomplicated then.

Years later, when I was in early recovery for alcohol and drugs, I returned to the same stock view of God. My recovery program required that I connect with something bigger than myself, and this image seemed the easiest. For a few years, this worked for me. I prayed for the willingness to believe and to heal and for the strength to do what I had to do to stay clean. I wanted to believe that something kind was watching over me.

On January 21, 1992, I went into labor with my first child. I stood in the nursery we’d prepared and asked the God as I understood it– the benevolent one– for protection and care for the baby and our family. The next day, on January 22, our beautiful son was stillborn due to an umbilical cord accident. In an instant, all my beliefs were shattered and I was decimated in every way possible. God no longer existed. Over time, I would gravitate towards Buddhism, not to find God but to learn to live with the ambiguity of not knowing. Buddhism was also the only spiritual tradition that could help me make sense of human suffering. That still rings true for me today, some 28 years later.

Ironically, my son’s death was actually my first real spiritual experience. Grief stripped me completely. There were no buffers, just an all-consuming despair with nothing to hang onto. I was free falling. But within that process, there were fissures of light–unexpected openings that offered a larger view, a poignant connection to all of humanity and the understanding that love is the ultimate. I experienced something similar when my mother died a little over a year ago. In these moments, everything felt certain and right. Released from the clutches of ambiguity and suffering, I knew we would all be okay. Unfortunately, these insights were not sustainable as I was eventually pulled back down by earthly concerns and the day-to-day of my own humanity.

The only other time I feel anything close to this sense of expansiveness is when I dance. I’ve been taking dance classes for over 15 years, mostly in the form of Zumba workouts at the YMCA. I sometimes think of it as worshiping at the altar of the Almighty Get Down. Something inexplicable happens. It’s the perfect alignment of mind, body and spirit. When I dance, I’m filled with that same sense of transcendence I’ve experienced before. Sometimes, I’m overcome with a swell of emotion, releasing a tsunami of pain, love and joy all at once. Dance is the most direct channel to God that I know of.

I like that Aaron Rodgers is asking these questions. It’s refreshing. So many players credit God for all their professional success, as if God has favorites in the NFL. I also think that any God worth its mettle can handle a little scrutiny. Further, any God with a healthy self-esteem would welcome a robust debate. And if you think of it in terms of accountability, God has a lot of explaining to do.

Despite what some religions claim, we don’t really know where God is or what it’s up to. It may reveal itself in sublime and unexpected ways now and then. We get a tiny glimpse and in that moment, we feel tranquil and clear. But when tragedy strikes, we’re back at square one with the usual questions, the biggest of which is “why?”  And while we may make stuff up in our heads to pacify the nagging doubts, we really have no clue what God is all about. As my father was dying from pancreatic cancer, he said, “I’m about to get some questions answered.”  I like this approach. It’s like watching a You Tube video when the funny part doesn’t comes until the end…. you gotta wait for it.

So while we’re waiting, my hope is that light breaks through again and that we all know peace and beauty, in whatever way we can.