Digging deeper than 'Where was God?'

Time is passing, but that stack of newspapers in the corner is growing.

Time is passing, but those images of passenger jets, flaming skies and twisted steel are still buried over there under the new layers of rubber-suited health warriors fighting a tide of sickening white powder.

Time is passing, but preachers know people are still asking: Where was God? They can see people flinch when they hear a Psalm that says: "He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. ... You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day, nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday."

"Right now, people who aren't even believers are going to stop you and ask: 'Where was God?' It's a serious question and we have to take it seriously," said Haddon Robinson, one of the world's most celebrated teachers of preaching. "People who are asking this question are sincere. But still, it does kind of make you want to say, 'You never took evil all that seriously, did you? You thought evil was something up on a movie screen, but you never really thought it was real.' "

"Where was God?" is the kind of question people ask during a crisis. In the months ahead, said Robinson, preachers will almost certainly have dig deeper than this one ancient mystery. They will need to wrestle with other questions linked to fear and hope, joy and pain, human freedom and supernatural evil, twisted souls and eternal justice.

Millions of people are searching for God. Millions are angry with God. Many are searching and angry at the same time.

Welcome to the complex and dramatic world of the Bible and real faith. These are the kinds of issues Robinson has helped preachers face in Dallas and Denver and, today, as a distinguished professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary outside Boston. A few years ago, a national poll named him as one of the top 12 preachers in the English-speaking world.

"People are watching a drama unfold, these days, but they're not sure what's happening," he said. "They want to know if someone is really in charge. They want to know what part they're supposed to be playing in this story. Everyone is shook up. The stereotype is to say that everything has changed, but what's really true is that everything has been challenged.

"Right now, even people who don't go to church are asking about the end of the world. They're asking where God is, but they're also asking who God is. One thing is sure -- God doesn't seem to be the happy, white-haired man sitting up in a cloud somewhere."

Many of the questions preachers will face in an era of terror and strife, he said, are linked to suffering, repentance and, ultimately, redemption. Thus, it's time to note that the biblical drama includes scenes of unspeakable tragedy, as well as triumph. The villains win many victories, while the people of God often wander lost in the wilderness. The Bible has as much to say about "evil" as about "good."

Most of all, this drama is full of saints who rejoice in the midst of suffering. Modern believers may ask: What was that all about? The saints also focused on God's call for them to repent of their own sins, instead of assigning blame to others. They kept the faith, even when confronting painful mysteries.

These great themes were easy to ignore, during an era when many Americans were meditating on their stock portfolios and Day-Timers.

"We've been telling ourselves that we're normal, while all of those saints must have been strange people who brought all that suffering on themselves, somehow," said Robinson. "But the atmosphere that surrounds our preaching has changed. Six months ago, if you preached a sermon about suffering and the possibility that life could take a real turn for the worse, it would have seemed like you were trying to whip up some gloom and doom. People would have written you off.

"I think people are ready to listen, now."