I've been asking a lot of "why" questions lately. But what else is new.
Last week in Atlanta, where I live and work, two families were awash in emotion -- one with joy, the other with sorrow.
The Sowell family was rejoicing that their 15-year-old son Thomas was coming home from the hospital. He has been recuperating extremely well from a traumatic brain injury -- one that doctors first thought almost assuredly would have resulted in permanent disability requiring around-the-clock care, if not death.
Thomas had been snowboarding with his Boy Scout troop in January at a North Carolina ski resort when he had a horrific accident. After being brought to Atlanta's Grady Hospital for intensive care for a few weeks, he was transferred to the Shepherd Center for what was anticipated to be a long and grueling recovery.
But Thomas was able to go home after a week at Shepherd. He'll most likely be back in school in a couple of weeks.
According to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dr. Sanjay Dhall, Grady's chief of neurosurgery, said Thomas' recovery "shocked all of us ... he's phenomenal." And Dr. Darryl Kaelin, medical director of the brain injury program at the Shepherd Center, said his improvement was "remarkable."
In other words, it's a miracle.
Thomas and his family had the fervent support of their church, his high school and the whole community. Prayers were offered around the clock.
As Thomas' father put it in the AJC article, "We hope Thomas's story is one of hope, for so many patients to know that a miraculous recovery can still occur."
But he also noted, "There are a lot of patients ... who aren't as fortunate."
And that begs the question: Why, God? Why?
At the same time, just north of Atlanta in Cherokee County, another family was grieving the unexpected loss of their 25-year-old daughter, Holly Pyle. She was one of the 12 victims in the sinking of the Vietnamese tourist boat in Ha Long Bay last week.
Holly had been traveling through Asia for six months, and was due to return home in only a few days. Her father said, in another AJC article, that she had enjoyed every single day of her trip. In fact, he and his wife believed she had truly found her life's calling: to teach children in impoverished areas overseas.
A young woman at the start of a life full of promise, and that life is suddenly snuffed out.
Why, God? Why?
This past weekend I learned of the death of another young, promising, creative person: Perry Moore. Perry was executive producer of the blockbuster C. S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia films and author of Hero, a novel about a young gay superhero, which was also in production as a film. He was only 39 with a whole life of creativity ahead of him.
A few years ago, I corresponded briefly with Perry about his novel, his love of the Narnia books, spirituality, our mutual hero Stan Lee and his hometown in Southeast Virginia, where I spent my summers. By all accounts, Perry was one of the nicest, most talented people in the business. Now, he's gone.
Why, God? Why?
I think of a friend who moved to Atlanta only a few months ago with his wife to take on a new ministry position, only to be told that it wasn't working out. So now he's in a strange town far from family with no job, and suddenly he's facing several health issues that require immediate attention.
The future seemed so promising. And now what? And most of all, why?
The problem for people of Christian faith is that there really aren't very many good answers to the question of "why" in the Bible. In fact, the whole book of Job illustrates this point clearly and rather painfully.
Job catastrophically lost his family and his wealth -- everything. Of course, the book sets the whole story up by revealing that God was actually testing Job. Apparently Satan convinced God that the only reason Job was righteous was because of all the blessings he received as a result. So God accepted the challenge -- why, I certainly can't guess -- and took all those blessings away from Job.
Even so, Job did not sin or blame God. He did not "curse God and die," as his lovely wife urged him. Then the stakes were raised in the heavenly courts to the point that Job was left sitting there in a heap, as one pitiful, sore-covered mess possessing nothing.
Job tried very hard to figure out why this had happened to him, justifying himself as a righteous man. His three wise-guy friends tried and tried again to get him to accept the blame and change his ways, but he told them angrily that he was already doing everything right. It simply was not fair. Where was God in all this?
God finally did show up, in the midst of a terrible storm, to talk things over with Job in the final chapters of the book, essentially asking Job, "who do you think you are?" and defending the justice and wisdom of God's reign. And God chastised Job's friends for their wrongheaded notions.
In the end, God restored Job's family and fortune -- by twice as much, in fact. A happy ending (which many scholars believe was tacked on later).
There is much we can learn from this tale. But there is far more that it only complicates and confuses in our human understanding.
So it all comes down to trusting God. Simplistic, yes, but there it is. If we believe in God, we accept that God is far above our understanding.
Even so, we are nevertheless called to live lives marked by, saturated in, and radiating God's justice, love, and peace. Rather than get bogged down in the "why," we are to live and be family to one another -- especially to those who are hurting, in pain, suffering grievous loss. We are called to reach out in love no matter what our own circumstances may be.
But there's more to it than that. One of Jesus' sayings, relevant here, is often taken a bit out of context:
"Your Father in heaven...makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45).
On their own, those words sound a little unfair. If all of us, righteous and unrighteous, are treated equally by God in this way, what difference does it make? Why be righteous?
But the context of Jesus' words in Matthew 5:38-48 makes it clear that his emphasis is on our response to this reality:
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Just as God showers sun and rain on all, we are to love all, even our enemies. We are to serve one another, even those who persecute us. And we are to be brothers and sisters to all -- not only those who are grieving and in need around us, but everyone.
Why? Just because. And maybe when we do, life will start to make a little more sense.