Sunday I preached a sermon based on Psalm 29 that included a story of an experience I had on the high school mission trip I am excerpting below. If you are interested in the full context of the story, you can hear the sermon at http://www.presbyweb.org/ or you can read it at http://www.fpcfranklin.org/. Here’s the excerpt:
“As many of you know, I was able to be with the high school youth for part of this past week in Port Arthur, Texas, on a mission work trip. We were assigned a home to work on that had been damaged in Hurricane Rita three years ago. The roof had been damaged and water had come in and ruined the ceilings in a bedroom and the kitchen. One of our tasks was to rip out the ceilings and replace them.
Colln Henry and I were placed on demolition duty. I’m sure they were trying to keep me as far away as possible from anything approaching skilled labor. We were so good at tearing out the ceiling in the bedroom that the next day we were asked to do the same job in the kitchen. Some relatives had been in the house in previous months, had done some work in the kitchen, and had managed to tear out the ceiling and replace about half of it with new dry wall. I did not know this. I’m sure Colln did, but he was not one to question the authority of his pastor, so he said nothing when I announced that we would start on the front side of the kitchen and work our way back. The front side was the brand new dry wall.
We punched through it and began ripping it out. We got about half way through the front, when someone walked by and broke the news to us. We were horrified and quite sure that the homeowner would ban us from the site once we told her what we had done. Suddenly the room was filled with cameras, and I figured I needed to go ahead and tell you now, since these images will no doubt grace the screens in Wilson Hall soon enough.
The homeowners, a grandmother, her daughter and granddaughter and two small children, had been living in the aftermath of this storm, in a house filled with mold, ceilings falling down around them, for three years. Someone in their family had come in and taken time to give them a new ceiling, a ceiling which we had just ripped out for no reason.
When they went to get the grandmother to tell her, I immediately set about looking busy, not wanting to face her. So I didn’t see her face, but heard very clearly her words: “Everything happens for a reason,” she said. “Everything happens for a reason.” At first I thought maybe she had misunderstood what we had done. Surely she would be upset. But no, it was clear that she fully comprehended, but was choosing to see something else besides the chaos and failure, to make meaning where there was no meaning to be made. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Now, I’ve got to tell you, I have never really believed that. I believe that sometimes bad things just happen, and that if there is a reason, it is one that we will not be able to see this side of glory. Hurricanes strike, cancer attacks, people lose their jobs, wars are waged, death arrives, and unknowing but well-meaning pastors are handed crowbars, unsupervised. Some things just don’t make good sense…
Colln and I kept tearing out the new ceiling; the damage had been done. As we did, we made a discovery. A portion of the ceiling had not been insulated when the previous work was done, a significant oversight that would have cost the family over time. This would never have been discovered had we not made the mistake of punching through that new dry wall.
I told you that I don’t really believe it, but all through the plane ride home and in the days since, I can’t shake those words: “Everything happens for a reason.” We were told the homeowners were not church people, but I have my doubts, for behind that phrase, “everything happens for a reason,” there seems to be a deeper faith that sees, riding on the storm – in this case quite literally – One who, in the end, gives even a storm meaning.
In the midst of the storm, what do you see? May we be given eyes to see not chaos, but the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Rider on the storm, enthroned on the waves. Amen.”
In the days following I have had no fewer than twenty different conversations with people about the idea that “everything happens for a reason.” Some strongly disagree with the sentiment; others not only believe it is true, but structure their lives around it, seeking to make meaning out of even the most devastating and tragic of situations. The conversations have been so lively and important that I wanted to continue them here on this blog.
So what do you think? Does everything happen for a reason?
I'm one of those who tries to find meaning, even behind the difficult or unforunate things in life – and usually, if I wait long enough, I'm successful. You can look back at most situations and say, "Well, had that not happened, this and this and this wouldn't have happened." And each one of those subsequent events usually leads to other things that might never have transpired if it were not for the original event. Did any of that make sense? I guess what I'm trying to say is this: each thing that happens to us in our lives, no matter how devasting, ultimately shapes who we are and what we become. Making each one important and giving each one meaning.
If you could have seen me in the pew on Sunday you would have seen me cringe when I heard you say those words. I admit there was a time in my life that I too would probably have taken a Pollyanna view and said “Everything happens for a reason”. But now, as I am older, I tend to ponder things more literally and I could only categorize the word “everything” with “always and never”. That is why I cringed. Do things happen for a reason? Maybe, but not everything. There is too much that our human brains cannot make sense of or understand. A wise mentor once told me that there are no such things as coincidences, only God instances. And that I believe as I have witnessed it on many occasions. So Chris, be as it may, I think you experienced a God instance that day!!
Hi Chris-I tried to post a comment but couldn't get it to go through so I thought I'd send it along via email.First let me say I really enjoyed the sermon.Now – to the question as to my opinion on the matter.I suppose I fall into the camp of believing that things do happen for a reason. More specifically though I'd say I believe all things that occur seem to have some degree of influence and relevance to our lives. No- we don't always know initially what the " reason" may be but eventually it just may make a little more sense or act as a catalyst to another "event of relevance". Life is pretty remarkable- the storms of life can make the most amazing experiences and leave the deepest impact. I've been so moved talking with my cousin, Debbie, whose husband is battling colon cancer. She has shared with me the emotions of this journey they've been on together- and how it has changed them as a couple- drawing them closer than ever before. The spiritual transformation of her husband ,Trey. Even the blessings they have felt- surrounded by other cancer fighters as they have bonded with strangers sitting in the treatment rooms receiving their chemo treatments.Yes it's tragic- BUT there has been beauty in the midst of the storm -shown to them through God's love and grace.So yes- things- good and bad- just may hapen for a reason.Sharon
I sincerely believe that everything happens for a reason. One of my favorite Chris-ISMS, is this: "God is God and we are not." Being a Presbyterian, I believe that God has a plan and that as God's people we are part of his plan. While I believe that everything happens for a reason, I also believe that we do not always understand or appreciate God's plan and his infinite love and wisdom. "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not unto your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct your path." Proverbs 3:5-6 Harriette
Chris, My deep sense of logic contradicts the notion that "everything happens for a reason." I suspect the idea stems from Romans 8:28 "all things work together." If so, careful reading shows they are not the same thing. Things do have a way of working out over time. That does not mean that every event has purpose – it simply has to be faced and factored in. A positive reading of any event is helpful, but that does not indicate a specific purpose. "Stuff happens" is a mantra worth remembering. It seems to me that zeroing in on every event makes us prone to blame God when bad things happen. There is such a magnificent natural order to the universe that if our focus is on that instead of ourselves we can accept that natural disasters are not arrows thrown by God. Good can come out of anything no matter how disastrous, but that is a result of using our God-given abilities to see the possibilities in a beautiful world too often marred by humanity's narcissistic tendencies. "Why me, Lord," is not the question; rather than anger that leads to blame, we would do better to climb one step up to find what we can do with what we have. God grant us patience to wait for healing, for understanding, for hope.J.D. Taylor
Like others, I imagine, my thinking about whether or not things happen for a reason has changed over time. I grew up believing it because that's what I heard. When an infant child of a cousin died unexpectedly, we were all told it was God's will. I didn't and don't understand it that way. In time, thanks be to God, I began to hear other ways to think about God. Being a die-hard believer in a sovereign God who is not obligated to explain things to us, I have come to think more in terms of God being in the midst of all that happens than of God causing it all. As a pastor, I have walked with people through life events that I didn't understand, and I have seen good come from some of them. That usually happened when those people and the communities in which we lived and served together were willing to listen and search for what God might be saying in them. I have seen other situations when people were not able to do that. They were not bad people; they were just unable to find a way to peace from where they were. God was present in all those situations. Our ability and willingness to find where God was/is and to be there ourselves says more about us than it does about God. I am rarely helped by those who claim to know what God is saying and doing right now. Looking back, even on the recent past, however, and looking with the help of those who share my faith, I am more often than not able to see where God has been and what God has been saying. When we were trying to make the decision about moving to Florida, I remember having this conversation with a friend. Our primary contact during the interview and conversations that led to our coming here had worked at team physician for UK basketball before retiring. Being rabid Wildcat fans, we were helped to feel comfortable during that often awkward process by this new friend. As we pondered whether to make the move, several folks made good contributions to our thinking on both sides of the issue. In the midst of one conversation during which I admitted that people who tried to tell me what God was saying to them about me were not very helpful, and that I wondered how to know God's will in this particular situation, my friend said, "God sent you the team doctor from UK basketball; what other sign do you want?" Was that a case of God setting all that in motion? I don't know, but here I am. I like to believe that God used that and a number of other things and people to influence me to answer God's call. I continue to listen and to be aware of God's presence where it is and try to keep myself there. I think that's different than insisting that God sets things in motion to benefit me. My big issue with "everything happens for a reason" thinking is that it seems to be based on the assumption that we can know what the reason is. I'm not so sure, and I'm not so sure we need to. God knows, and reveals enough to us for us to be faithful. That's enough. Most days.
Thanks for these great comments so far. As I read them, I see great points of agreement even as there are different points of view on the overall question. In our Summer Reading discussion last night of "The Sparrow," one of the characters encourages another character, an agnostic, to substitute the word "poetry" for the word "God." As they are talking, the agnostic character asks, "Do you find the poetry when babies die?" "No…not yet," comes the reply. "Sometimes poetry is tragic. It is more difficult to understand." I'm not sure that's an exact quote and I don't have the book in front of me, but it does speak right to the question that lies back of many of these discussions. How do we square the idea that "everything happens for a reason?" with things like babies dying, genocide, etc.? This quote seems to suggest that there is a tragic dimension to life in the world that is not without meaning, but it may be a meaning we cannot grasp in our lifetimes. I wonder if we changed the phrase in question from "everything happens for a reason," to "everything that happens has meaning," if that would capture better what it seems many of you are trying to say?
"Everything happens for a reason…" If we let those five words stand alone, they are empty and lead us to the image that God is up there throwing down lightening bolts. Through the peaks and valleys of my life, John 9:3 has been a comfort, a challenge, and an ongoing source of reflection on my faith journey. In this story, the Pharisees are trying to pin Jesus down on a commonly held belief that suffering comes from sin, when he is asked to heal a blind man. They ask, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answers, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned, this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." Everything happens for a reason…. We have a choice. We can allow the waves and the destructive sea surges of life to wipe us out, OR we can put our faith to work that somehow our God is so big that even in the events of mother nature, pain, and suffering, the works of God can be made manifest in how we treat others, how we live our lives, and yes, in how we ride out the storm. Patti Kelly
If God chooses to allow something to happen rather than stop it, does this not mean that ultimately He is in charge and it really is happening for a reason. He could have stopped or started any action even if He allows free will. That really is what we all say we believe isn't it? It is hard though at times to grasp this concept. There are many times when we give God credit and other times where we don't want to give God credit or question why He would allow something bad to happen.I like you, question whether God really cares about sheetrock being torn out when He has other things to tend but maybe He is if we believe what we really say.
Thanks for posing this question. "Everything happens for a reason" seems to be the philosophy held by my elderly congregation. They look back on their lives — the ups and the downs – -and they see a kind of incarnational, providential congruity. They've taught me a lot about that. I used to place a lot of stock in that, then things fell apart and I stopped. Now I feel as if I am relearning it as some of the most unimportant things tye in to something larger for no apparent reason than perhaps God has a reason. In a recent Bible study at my church we came to a consensus that because God is with us at all times, and God is Providence, perhaps God is also bringing meaning to all things if we will but look for that meaning. I can't speak for those who have gone through unspeakable horrors . . . and I have a hard time finding meaning and purpose in senseless acts of violence and cruelty. Still I do believe God can use all things for a larger purpose even when I can't see what that purpose is.
ChrisI am not sure I want to comment except to say that I appreciated your asking if changing the phrase from "everything happens for a reason" to the phrase "there is meaning in everything that happens". God may just be keeping just a few secrets from me right now – and that is just o.k. because He loves me.