Valley Voices

Larry Patten: Are you there, God? It’s me, Fresno, Flint, Syria

Flint resident Sarah Truesdail holds her daughter Gabriella Venegas, 5, as she screams out with tears rolling down her face while a health official pricks her finger with a needle for a free lead test on Feb. 8 at Carriage Town Ministries in Flint. Molina Healthcare provided children up to 6 years of age with free lead testing, as well as water filters for families to take home and install.
Flint resident Sarah Truesdail holds her daughter Gabriella Venegas, 5, as she screams out with tears rolling down her face while a health official pricks her finger with a needle for a free lead test on Feb. 8 at Carriage Town Ministries in Flint. Molina Healthcare provided children up to 6 years of age with free lead testing, as well as water filters for families to take home and install. Associated Press

“. . . to protect you wherever you go . . .” (Psalm 91:11)

Frightened refugees spread across the world from the hell on earth known as Syria. Soldiers tramp through the hardscrabble, isolated villages of Afghanistan, armed to kill – and perhaps to be killed – 7,500 miles from home.

Citizens in Flint, Mich., are informed their water is contaminated with lead, but only long after bathing in it, brushing teeth with it, tending a garden using it, and, from infant to elderly, swallowing it.

A husband and wife in San Bernardino (who look so blandly normal in the before pictures) walk into a building with legal guns and store-bought bullets.

Another child, maybe 6 years old, maybe with a goofy grin that will break even the sternest of hearts, with an illness that is relentless and opportunistic, enters the care of Hinds Hospice where I work and dies 10 days later.

Who will protect the innocent when bullets fly, when cancer spreads? Don’t the most fragile and gentle deserve protection?

Who will protect the guilty, even as they scheme to bully or steal or kill? Don’t even the worst of us, raised on hate or seduced by fear, deserve a second or third or fourth chance to lead hopeful lives?

The Psalmist, more than two millennia ago, proclaimed God’s protection in the Bible. The Psalmist claimed that God was a God of mercy and goodness, of justice and delight, of unwavering love for each human and every human. At least that’s how I read Psalm 91.

Beautiful words.

Bold words.

God will protect you!

God will protect you?

But does that mean only believers ... or only believers of a certain path and certain ilk and certain attitude?

Or does it mean all? Even you, even me, and even your or my worst enemies?

How does God’s protection keep us from harm, from hopelessness, from hatred? When will that protection start, or did it end long ago when a scribe’s ink dried after composing a dreamy, deceitful Psalm?

Where is the divine, ancient, here-and-now protection?

I need to be protected!

I live in Flint and thirst for safe water.

I live in an Afghanistan village that is little changed from a century ago, and just want my child to play outside and never worry about drones with rockets or soldiers with bullets.

I live in San Bernardino and just want to go to a party with my co-workers.

I am a Fresno hospice nurse, holding back tears while visiting a child with maybe 10 days – count the fingers and thumbs of your hands – before a final breath.

Who protects the children riddled with disease?

Who protects the innocent?

Who protects the angry man carrying a gun?

Who protects the guilty?

God seems a lousy, lazy protector. For does not the world – this spinning, shimmering green and blue globe – desperately need protection?

And yet I believe, not with all of my heart, but with enough of my heart, that God does protect.

God has created us equal: equally vulnerable and equally dangerous. Everyone has the capacity to hurt and maim and murder. And we do. We always do. But everyone – every single God-created, God-blessed human – has the capacity to offer mercy and accept forgiveness.

I believe (though barely sometimes) that holy protection often manifests in the form of the person we know the least or hate the most, and yet who is completely like me ... anxious ... stressed out ... overwhelmed.

Social media cause us to feel like we’re saying too much or never say enough. Talking heads on television warn the stock market plunge in China or the Middle East oil glut may ravage our bank accounts. The relentless repetition of images during disasters – a tornado in Oklahoma or an active shooter at a Connecticut school – makes us feel like there’s always bad weather or bad people about to enter our neighborhood.

In the season of Lent, of trudging toward Easter, I cling to God’s protection not because it guards me from hurt, but because it calls me to serve others. I’d prefer to cower in a locked room, wishing for God to keep the enemy from the door. But the God who created the all-vulnerable always has a key to my door and demands that I go forth.

Why? Because the potholed streets of Flint and the dusty paths of a village in Afghanistan, and everywhere in between, God longs for us to share hope with the neighbor and stranger and enemy as if our life and their life depended on it.

It does.

One human choosing to serve another human is our God-given protection.

This is my prayer: Oh, God, help me leave the places where I hide my true self. Help me admit my false anxiety and seek your ways of abundant joys. Help me remember I am vulnerable ... as is everyone you created. Help me rejoice in a protection that is grounded in holy hope and not human hate. Amen.

Patten is a United Methodist pastor and writer. He maintains www.larrypatten.com and www.hospice-matters.com. You can contact him at larry@larrypatten.com. All references to his hospice work are changed to protect and honor patient confidentiality.

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