When I grew up as a child and young person in Virginia, I was taught by well-meaning leaders a view of the scriptures and of God that totally failed me later in life because I came to see them as false and untrustworthy. I became bitter and felt like I had nothing left in which I could believe. This likely helps to explain my utter rebellion and reckless living in my late teens and early 20s.
When I was in college and seminary in the 1960s, biblical scholars and my professors referred to this view of God as the Deus ex machina, a Latin translation of a Greek phrase meaning “god from the machine.” The term has evolved to mean a plot device whereby one could appeal to God to make changes almost as if by magic. Prayer was often viewed in that fashion: “God, I need this, please give it to me.”
In my view, this God was the “grand puppeteer,” sitting off somewhere on his throne keeping a watching eye on everyone, punishing the bad and rewarding the good. This wonderful grandfather figure would not let children, girls, or young women be sexually abused, especially by a loved one; he would keep the faithful from harm, etc. All one had to do was lead a good life, go to church, study the Bible, and pray. For me, this view did not resonate well with reality. I saw too many innocent people hurt for no apparent reason.
When I was about 15 years old, the brother of a sister in-law was in a lot of trouble with the law. He was facing a jail term, the loss of his driver’s license, and a large fine. He was actually told by the pastor of our church that all of that would go away if he surrendered his life to Jesus and joined the church. He did that. He was baptized and became an active member of the church. He even sang in the choir. A couple of months later, when he went to court, the judge “threw the book at him.” You can imagine how this 16-year old young man felt. He felt lied to. He became bitter and renounced his faith. I’ve lost contact with him, but I would not be surprised if he had never set foot in a church again.
Fortunately, Bridgewater College and Bethany Theological Seminary gave me very different views of the Bible and of God. They have served me well for the past 50-plus years. Recently I have built on that perspective with readings in the Gospel of Matthew and in Revelation 22:1-8, which begins: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.”
It speaks of the tree of life, whose leaves “are for the healing of the nations” and the light of God providing eternal illumination—a “new Jerusalem” with echoes of the tree of life in the Garden of Eden.
I don’t see life as some static state where God is the Great Puppeteer. Jesus gave (and gives) us a different view. Life is like a mighty river flowing toward a mighty ocean—a new heaven and earth. The view of Revelation 21:1-8 is not only about the future; it is now. Along the banks of this mighty “River of Life” there are healing trees. Jesus worked to set up the healing trees, and we are called to be healing trees for others. The flow of the water causes rough spots along the banks of the river. They weren’t put there to hurt or punish anyone. This is life. As we move along the River of Life, we will have pain and suffering— the death of loved ones, the suffering of children, hunger and poverty, incurable diseases, and much more.
The Grand Puppeteer will not magically rescue us. But there are healing trees that exist along the banks of the river—hospitals, nurses, and doctors; a fair and honest justice system; caring families and friends; good schools; care for the sick and the hungry; protection of abused and impoverished children; those working for an end to the modern slave trade, and so on. These are some of the healing trees along the River of Life. The leaves of the healing tree “are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2).
Jesus named several healing trees in Matthew 25:31- 35: Feed the hungry. Give a drink to the thirsty. Give the homeless a home. Clothe the naked. Visit and care for the sick. Go visit those in prison.
Is this not our mission as disciples of Christ Jesus? Each of us is called to be a healing tree for others. And when our lives are over and we have done what we could, we continue to flow in the River of Life, moving toward that great and eternal Ocean of Life where there is no pain and no suffering.
Allen T. Hansell, from Lancaster, Pa., is a former pastor and district executive and former executive director of Ministry for the Church of the Brethren. He serves on the Elizabethtown College Board of Trustees and is a member of Lancaster Church of the Brethren. He was diagnosed in October with a terminal illness, prompting these reflections.