From lightning and tempest; from earthquake, fire and flood; from plague, pestilence and famine, GOOD LORD, DELIVER US. From all oppression, conspiracy and rebellion; from violence, battle and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared, GOOD LORD, DELIVER US."
So do members of my Church pray in what is known as The Great Litany. Yet no more than for Jesus, who prayed that "this cup might pass me by," are we always spared from calamities and tribulation. In the years since mid-1988, when I became Bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, this region has experienced several major earthquakes, including the most severe earthquake in terms of damage costs in modem history. It has known the terrible social upheaval after the original acquittal of the officers involved in the Rodney King beating. There have been devastating fires, drought and then floods. With the rest of the country we have been part of a war in the Middle East, and, more than most parts, have felt the downsizing of the military after the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union. So there has been severe recession and powerful changes in the makeup of our economy.
Meanwhile, waves of newcomers have continued to come to Southern California, both legally and outside the law. Here and worldwide the plague of AIDS goes on. Caused in part by the increasing availability of guns, violence has grown--both everyday homicides and the bizarre and notorious murders of the parents of the Menendez brothers and of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. All this has taken place in a region of enormous diversity of race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation and religion; where people are brought together by freeways, and are separated by freeways, geography and class into many enclaves--some of them extraordinarily privileged, others desperately poor.
When I was asked several years ago why I was going to El Salvador while there were so many problems in our own region, I could remind my I challengers that Los Angeles was now home to more than four hundred thousand people from El Salvador. For economic and other reasons hundreds of thousands of persons from the Philippines and Mexico, and many others from every part of the world now live in Los Angeles.
Severely tested by environmental degradation, by poverty, by youth with too little hope in their future, and by a swiftly changing society and economy, Los Angeles is still a dynamic light industrial, entertainment and trading center with a relatively young workforce and more than seventy institutions of higher education. With its great diversity and business and personal links to the whole world, it has been called by some the Twenty-first Century world capital.
More than one out of every fifteen people in the United States now live in the five and one-half county region that is the Diocese of Los Angeles. The Episcopal Church here is not a large denomination, but in 150 congregations, and in our schools and service agencies and institutions, we have members who are of Asian background, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, people from the Middle East, African-Americans, Africans, and many other "minority" persons who now are sometimes called Euro-Americans. People who call themselves conservatives, or liberals, or progressives, or who just want to be known as Christians live by the ocean, in the desert, in mountain regions, in crowded ghettos and barrios, on estates, in suburbs--in Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Santa Barbara, Santa Ana, Santa Monica, San Bernardino, the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys, Orange County, South Central Los Angeles, Simi Valley, and what is known as the Inland Empire.
What is one to think? How is one to respond? What values and virtues should be held to? Where is God's presence in all this? Where are we to look for community, for justice, mercy, compassion and hope? While the Los Angeles area may experience some of these concerns and questions writ large, they are, of course, known in many other cities and towns, as well.
What is the role of communities of faith in these circumstances? What are some of the special challenges to clergy and to the Church, which is itself experiencing so many changes and challenges to belief? And how do we just get along from day to day? What makes us cry and sometimes laugh and go on caring and hoping?
The pages which follow are reflections about these times, about reasons for outrage, for fear and for hope, and for continuing to worship God and to pray and to serve together. Many of the commentaries, and those in the subsequent sections, first appeared in The Episcopal News of the Diocese of Los Angeles, or the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times, in The Anglican Theological Review, The Christian Century, The Living Church, The Tidings, The Angelus, a clergy newsletter, or were statements made at various news conferences. A number of them were written in immediate response to events or questions posed to me. They are in this sense a record of the times, but also an ongoing invitation to reflect together about who we are and who we are called to be. The book is dedicated to the many friends and colleagues of hope and faith who helped me to reflect and shape these pieces together, with particular thanks to Patti Benner, Bob Williams, Dan Crossland and Ruth Nicastro.
Because it presses home several of these concerns in a personal way, and was, indeed, a deliverance from sudden death, I begin with a reflection on a rather harrowing experience that happened a few years ago.
World 30 going over the end." Those were the pilot's last words to the tower before the DC-10 went shooting off the end of the runway, up and over the breakwater and into Boston Harbor. Scheduled to preach in the Harvard University Chapel the next morning, I had flown out of Newark Airport on a sleeting, dark, late Saturday afternoon in January. I had wondered whether my flight would try to take off in such weather, but had reassured myself by remembering the airlines' overall safety record and by telling myself that "they know what they're doing. If it's really dangerous, they won't fly." We left Newark late, but uneventfully.
As we landed in Boston, I felt that the plane came in a little fast-hot, as they say--and farther down the runway than usual. But, surely, there could be no problem. Then, in the snowscape alongside the runway I saw one, two, then three of the turnoffs hurtle by and I knew we were in trouble.
There wasn't a sound on the plane. Either the other passengers did not realize what was happening or they had begun to freeze as I had. I saw the last of the runway go, and we began a series of sharp bumps. My prayer was short and primitive--that well-known one-word petition, "Help!" Then I felt the plane swerving to the left and ducked my head. There was a much heavier bump, after which we seemed to go up into the air and then slam down. My head banged into the seatback in front of me.
After the crash, my first emotion was relief. I didn't seem to be injured and the plane hadn't exploded. I looked around. One or more of the engines were roaring, and I could hear yelling from the back of the plane. Right around me, however, no one appeared to be injured and people were , remarkably quiet. Remembering that there was a woman with a baby a row or two behind me, I got out of my seat and saw that they were all right. Other people were beginning to move about in the dim light. When someone said we were in the water, I looked out and saw it lapping several feet below the window.
There was no word from the captain or crew. It was another minute , before I found out that the force of the crash had sheared off the cockpit and thrown its crew into the harbor. It was the engine high and mounted on the tail which was still roaring, making it difficult to be heard. Probably it was helping to keep the few lights on, but I worried that it might explode and began shouting back and forth with several other passengers about how we might get a door open.
I happened to look down and saw my travel bag. Incongruously I thought of Sunday's sermon, which I was likely to live to preach. I unzipped the bag and took out my notes, while realizing it would need to be a very different sermon.
When someone told us we should try to get out the back, we got up and began to move in that direction. I saw I had a life vest on, but did not remember putting it on or having been told to. Several others, however, had theirs on as well. An older woman could not find one, and we found one for her.
Suddenly people began to surge toward the front again, saying we couldn't get out the back. I sensed a general feeling of panic beginning to mount, along with a determination to get out somehow. One of the flight attendants squeezed by, and several of us began to half shout at and half argue with her. Apparently she now realized that the engine blast made the back exit useless and that we would have to escape through the water.
The side door came open easily, and the escape chute inflated into a great yellow slide. I thought about trying to be a hero and helped a few people onto the chute. Then someone from behind pushed and said, "Get going." I did and sort of waddled down the wobbling chute. It was only a gradual incline because the water was nearly up to the door. I remember thinking rather crazily that this might be fun on another kind of occasion. We swung the chute toward the wing and were able to crawl over the side onto the slippery wing.
From the wing tip I had to wade only a few yards in thigh-deep water to reach the shore. I looked back at the huge broken machine, once so powerful, now helpless in the mud and water. The rear engine continued its wailing, sounding like a scene from the Inferno. It had sucked up the rear escape chute and then spewed little bits of hot rubber over the plane. The split-off front section looked as if it had been severed from the rest by a giant cleaver.
I clambered over the rocks and up onto the runway, nearly falling down several times on the icy tarmac. It seemed crazy that a plane would have tried to land on anything so slick. In the distance I could see a long line of emergency vehicles coming from the direction of the terminal.
By now there was a feeling of comradeship and pride among the passengers. We were alive, and there seemed to be but a few injuries. Only later was that good feeling fractured by the news that two people had been thrown from the plane and drowned. Only slowly, too, did we begin to realize how lucky we all were. If the pilot had not swerved, we would have crashed into the landing bridge covered with lights and high-tension wires. As it was, the right wing tip had come to rest only two feet away from it. We were lucky that the landing gear had sheared off and that we had not gone further out into the water.
But was it only luck, or was there more to our survival? I heard many complimentary references to God as we made our way safely to the terminal. Several people told me that they had joined me in one version or another of that fox-hole prayer. And friends later assured me that God had rescued me and did not want me to die. God had been my copilot.
It is a nice image: God as the stage manager of all of life's events, hearing our prayers and rescuing those especially favored or who still have work to do on earth. Isabel Peron had recently expressed that form of piety after, seemingly by chance, a bomb was found in the plane she was scheduled to fly. "God won't let you die five minutes before you're supposed to," she said.
Such a theology works best when things turn out well. I have found myself reflecting on it as I have heard prayers for safe travel, "0 God, watch over Bill and Mary who are driving to Washington today." And later, "Thank you. Lord, for bringing Bill and Mary safely home." It certainly can be comforting to picture the Spirit of God hovering over all the traffic intersections that those we love must cross during a trip.
But there clearly is a theological problem here, for if God has kept Bill and Mary safe, has God then not also directed or allowed others to crash--hundreds every day? What of the two passengers who died when the jet went into the harbor? How are we to understand the fate of the many who have died, and will die, in other plane crashes? It is, of course, possible to maintain that those deaths are also part of God's plan, a design too intricate for us to comprehend. But such a view certainly is not easy to maintain in the face of the prolonged agony of some deaths, or of the suffering of children mangled in accidents.
For many in our time this view of God as the director of life's events has, of course, gone by the boards; even among those who have retained a religious vocabulary, the very idea of a God present in this way to our world often seems foreign. In biblical times mysterious divine powers were thought directly to control many events, from the daily rising of the sun, to earthquakes and plagues. Today most of us understand natural events quite differently. However difficult it may be to give a precise explanation for everything, we are trained to look for a closely knit relationship of causes and effects. We may think of God as the remote original, ultimate, or final cause of all that takes place. But God, for many people, seems further and further removed from the world of their experience.
Although there is much that we do not understand-of which we have not yet even dreamed--we must ask what kind of thinking and reflection we need to do in order to have a faith that is more than just a kind of fantasy about God, a faith in a real God in a real world.
Someone once sketched out for me the difference between what he called "Theology A and Theology B." Theology A goes like this: "If the children survive, if my doctor gives me a good report, if my business thrives, then I will give thanks and trust in God." Theology B says, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...you are with me."
Although I am far from having all the answers, my faith tries to follow in the way of Theology B. When my plane rolled into Boston Harbor, God was not present to intervene and save me and others from the crash, but God nonetheless was not absent. Rather, God was and is mysteriously and powerfully with us, deep in the heart of life; participating in what happens with us and through us; offering faith and courage, even in the midst of tragedies; assuring us that the risk and pain of trying to care and to be creative are worthwhile. The God who cannot be seen is yet present as the Spirit of all that is, willing to share in all the consequences of creation-- including evil and suffering--and seeking to transform them through love.
For some people such a God may seem rather weak, hardly better than no God at all. But for others this is the God who is always present to the world and to whom we are always present. Whether the plane lands or goes over the end, whether we live or die, this God--even in the valley of the shadow of death--is always with us. "In God we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).
One of a Christian teacher's most painful and prophetic responsibilities is to point out that God and God's purposes often are not to be heard or seen on the surfaces of reality. Attempts to locate God there and to represent the Divine as one whose ways can be readily known and who can be directed by human prayers and actions border, as the Bible continually points out, on superstition rather than true faith. The thrust of a number of Jesus' parables seems to point faith away from surfaces to deeper mysteries about the manner in which God's ruling love and justice are breaking into the world. The God who is visibly absent to many human ways of trying to comprehend and control life is yet mysteriously present to the eyes and ears of faith.
This presence can be realized both amid the joy of life and in its agony. Central to the gospel's chief parable is the cross. God's signature in the world, expressing the divine willingness to share in the pain and tragedy of life--accepting them as part of God's own creative existence, while seeking to bring them new meaning. It is this presence which inspires trust and compassion, for we know that God is always working to redeem. This Spirit is present with the power to heal us spiritually and emotionally, and so sometimes physically as well. From God comes the power for life's greatest miracle; not some contravention of the natural order, but the possibility that men and women can find the trust, in the midst of mortal frailties and tragedies, to care for one another, to struggle for fairness, and to tell of the God who shares with them. This is the God who will never leave them alone.
COPYRIGHT © 1988-2006 BY FREDERICK HOUK BORSCH All rights reserved.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Trinity Press International for permission to reprint previously published material by the author.