Part 1

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Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!

For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.
Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people.
(Isaiah 64:1, 3, 9b)

December 18, 2008

Thursday night, a week before Christmas. A large analog clock on the wall indicated that it was nearing midnight. Just hours earlier Sharon Brown had been busy doing a bit of shopping, picking up a few final Christmas gifts for her twins. An emergency cell phone call from her office had alerted her that she was needed at the University of Chicago’s newest children’s Hospital.

Now, as Thursday ticked over to Friday, Sharon sat in an Emergency Room curtain with a battered and bruised twelve year old girl, Melissa. Melissa had been well attended to, cleaned up, bandaged, and given some medicine for her physical pain, but she was still in tears barely able to talk to Sharon. Melissa’s younger brother was somewhere else in the same hospital, rushed into emergency surgery because of severe internal bleeding.

Amid tears and angry outbursts, Melissa shared her story. As she did so, Sharon spoke quietly to her; offering what comfort and consolation she could. Melissa’s story was, unfortunately, all too familiar to Sharon. Details changed – the who’s and where’s and how’s – but too often in her life Sharon had encountered children traumatized by violence afflicted by those they should have been able to trust.

The children’s mother had been gone that evening. Sharon wondered if she, too, had been out doing some Christmas shopping. Mom’s boyfriend came home angry and acting crazy. Melissa knew that he was using meth, and she had tried to get her brother Robert to stay in his room – but he had fought with her because he wanted to go out and watch TV.

Melissa couldn’t say what had happened, exactly, but she had come running when she heard “the boyfriend” – she never used his name – yell in rage. His shout was quickly followed by the most unnerving screams she had ever heard. Melissa broke into fresh tears telling Sharon about her brother Robert’s anguished screams, which had seemed to pierce her head as she came dashing down the hall and saw, over the top of the couch, a baseball bat repeatedly rising and falling.

Sharon listened, and spoke soft, encouraging words as they waited to hear an update on Robert. She noticed the wince Melissa gave thinking of her brother’s screams, and Sharon knew that those screams would haunt Melissa for some time.

Melissa began to angrily rage about the boyfriend, and what she would do to him if Robert wasn’t alright. As she listened, Sharon absently tugged at a silver cross on the bracelet on her left arm. Melissa apparently noticed, because she stopped talking for a moment, looking at Sharon’s cross. Then, looking up with tears in her eyes, the left side of her face bruised and swelling, she asked Sharon, “Why did God let this happen? Where is he?!”

Sharon was silent for a moment. Years of listening to teachers and preachers in Sunday School and church services did not seem to provide her with a satisfactory response. Melissa was hurting, her heart and soul just as much as her body. Sharon knew the depth of that hurt, and she wondered herself where God was, and why God did allow such horrible things to happen to His children.

Sharon reached out and took Melissa’s hand. Underneath a bandage her knuckles were bruised and cracked from her attempt to save Robert, but she held Sharon’s hand firmly.

Where is God? Sharon recalled that there had been times in her life when God had felt so real, so close, that it was almost like she could actually see Him, could almost touch him. Why wasn’t God there, right now, in such a clear way for these two children?

“Oh, Melissa,” Sharon responded to her question, “some times it can be so hard to know where God is, but I believe He is always with us. God loves each of us so much, even when we don’t really feel His love. I think…” Sharon paused for a moment, then said, “sometimes we feel like we’re alone, especially when bad things happen. But we aren’t. I know God is with us.”

How true that was. Sharon knew firsthand those days when God seemed absent, seemed distant, seemed to have withdrawn his love. And she had come to know that God had been with her, even in days when she felt alone. But still, silently, Sharon began to feel some anger toward God. Why would you leave her to feel so alone? She wanted to cry out to the heavens: Why don’t you come down here!

Especially since it was so close to Christmas! This was supposed to be a special time for families; a time of joy, for love and goodwill to all, a time when children could look forward to gifts underneath the Christmas tree. Now what did these two have to look forward to? Instead of a visit from Santa bearing a bag full of toys, they were likely to see an agent from the Department of Children and Family Services carrying a couple empty trash bags. Melissa and Robert would have a few minutes at home to grab what few belongings they could carry in their bag. Instead of experiencing the joy-filled visit of an ageless saint at their home, these two would be removed from their home and taken… well, who knew where, exactly, they would be taken, other than to somewhere else.

For now, the clock in the emergency room continued to tick, and Melissa continued to sob. Melissa had shared enough for Sharon to know that this past evening’s encounter was not the first, and that mom was probably in danger, too. Beyond the immediate danger of the methamphetamine use, the boyfriend’s moods were erratic – and though tonight’s beating was the worst so far, it turned out it was not the only time he had hurt one of the three of them. Sharon listened with deep empathy, for in many ways it was her own story, played out decades later. But this time, she was in a position to help.

And yet she was left feeling very much like Melissa, asking the same question, wondering the same thing, feeling the same anguish. Where was God? Is God truly with us?

She thought she had found an answer for this in her own life. After forty years, she thought she had really come to know God. Well, maybe “know” wasn’t the right word. After all, how does any one ever really “know” God or “know” that God is present? There are no facts or figures, no absolute proofs that one can point to. But Sharon had come to trust God, to trust that God had always been with her, and was with her, and would be with her. She had come to trust that all the different events of her life – all the good and beautiful, as well as the tragic and ugly – were now materials with which God worked to help her build something beautiful.

Sharon trusted that God was with her, and she trusted that God was with each these two children. She trusted that God was with the nurses, the doctors, the surgeons, and all the others looking after Melissa’s brother at that moment – and she told Melissa so.

Sharon was a little surprised when Melissa tightened her grip and asked her if she would pray for Robert. Her silver bracelet jangled as they bowed their heads together, Sharon offering what words of prayer she could think of. She was afraid to ask the question that they both were thinking, but prayed as her heart led her, asking for God’s mercy and protection for Robert and Melissa.

Not long after their prayer, a doctor came into their curtain, letting them both know that Robert’s surgery had gone well, and he was being moved to a recovery room. The doctor invited Melissa to come up and  sit with him in a post-op room while Robert recovered from the anesthesia.

Sharon calmly shared with Melissa that she had to go and call her supervisor, but that she would be back soon to see both her and Robert. She assured Melissa that they would both be safe for the night, and that Sharon and other case workers like her would work to find them a safe place while they helped her mother. Sharon could see that Melissa was afraid to leave her, but the girl’s desire to see her brother was stronger, and she calmly went with the doctor out of the curtain.

As Sharon made her way outside to talk with her supervisor and make final arrangements for the immediate safety of the children, the girl’s question, “where is God?” continued to echo in her mind. Her heart cried out with Melissa in her pain and anguish, but somehow she still felt confident that God was present. She had learned that when Christ himself cried out on the cross in pain and anguish he, too, wondered where God was. She knew that there were times when God seemed distant; but more often than not, when we were able to look back on those days, we could often see that God was there with us.

A tree made of Christmas lights on a nearby high-rise twinkled in her vision as Sharon placed her first call, to her husband, to let him know she was still going to be a while. It had been a difficult evening, but her choice of career often entailed such difficulties. And both her life and her career had contributed to her deep trust in God. She hoped that, in time, these two children would also be able to look back on this hard night and realize that God had been present with them, that He had had always been present. Although a part of her yearned for God to open the heavens, to step down in power and prove that He was real and that He loved them, Sharon knew that God was at work. And she hoped that she might be one means by which God brought love and peace to His children.

As her home phone rang, she watched the Christmas tree twinkle on the building, and prayed that somehow, Christ might be born anew for these children this night.

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