God is good. All the time?
On the final day of a recent study trip to Cuba, one of our Pentecostal students led morning devotions by inviting us to respond to his “God is good” with “All the time.” And to his “All the time” with, “God is good.” He also led us in a vigorous singing of the refrain “I’m praying my way to victory.” It was a great start to the day, infusing our hearts and minds with a reminder of the constant presence and surpassing goodness of God.
That was in the morning.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing in the town of Varadero after an intense week of conversations and encounters in Matanzas and Havana. Students and faculty members walked through the town, spent time on the beach, and swam in the profoundly blue, turquoise, and salty waters. At this point in the trip, I had ended up with my passport and (let’s not get bogged down with admittedly important details about why or how) $4,000 cash in my money belt – a money belt that I had worn close to my body all week. On this last day of our trip, since I was wearing my swimsuit, the money belt was installed in the bottom of my camera bag.
Until it wasn’t.
After lunch I sat down on the beach, opened my camera bag to get something out, and discovered that the money belt was gone. An initial curiosity was very quickly displaced by a sense of panic. And a series of “S$!t, s%#t, s&!t.” I had no idea where the money belt was, and in the ensuing minutes realized I had probably inadvertently pulled the money belt out and dropped it when I stopped to take pictures of a hummingbird during my walk to the ocean.
God is good. All the time?
I retraced my steps, searching.
Students retraced my steps, searching.
Panic was soon displaced by “I am such an idiot! A total idiot.” How was I going to explain this financial loss to my colleagues in Montreal? And, as I thought about paying it back: How was I going to explain this to my wife!? I prayed and the students prayed. And after 1 ½ hours of searching, I had resigned myself to the loss – and to a couple of extra days on the beach in Varadero waiting for travel paperwork to be sorted out. Ok, that last part wasn’t too hard to imagine.
The manager of the Presbyterian guesthouse where we had lodged our belongings decided to go to the nearby Cuban immigration office to see if they had any ideas about what we should do – in the rare event that someone found the passport. When she walked into the immigration office, the officer at the main desk answered her, rather incredulously: “A woman just handed in a money belt, with a Canadian passport and $4,000.” Let that sink in for a moment… As an acquaintance in Canada later said to me: “That doesn’t happen.”
She was apparently a Cuban woman from the eastern provinces who was in the town of Varadero for the day – she didn’t leave her name or any contact information. Which means that there was no way for me to say thank you to her; no way to way to acknowledge with her the glorious impossibility of her gesture. There was only to walk away from that immigration office: stunned.
When I returned to the guesthouse, I saw our Pentecostal student and said to him. “God is good.” And he replied, of course, “All the time.”
Why did this unnamed Cuban woman (notice that the women who bless us are, all too often, unnamed) hand in the money belt? There are multiple possible reasons, both cultural and personal, and the truth is that we cannot know. But whatever the precise reasons, it was a gesture of fundamental generosity; an act of honesty and grace. And whoever she is, and wherever she is, she will remain in my mind and heart as an expression of the unreserved goodness of God.
A question arises: What if the money belt had not been turned in; and what if my home institution was out $4,000? Or what if I was left paying it back in instalments? Would God’s goodness suddenly be in question? Even to ask this question as a privileged westerner is to expose its absurdity. The loss of a passport and even of such an amount of money is not exactly a trifle, but it is also not a source of deep pain or grief. Some embarrassment at my obvious carelessness, of course, and some financial burden to pay back over time. These things are relative.
But if such a loss were to raise questions about the goodness of God for me, would this not manifest a superficial faith in me? Perhaps such doubt about the goodness of God would also reflect a profound lack of empathy with those who suffer around me – locally and globally – in ways that are deep and real? In relation to which we also recall that the God we worship and serve is a God who draws near in suffering service and in the kingship of crucifixion. A God who in Jesus Christ dwells among those who are in many respects without resources and power.
Whether or not the money belt was found and returned: “God is good. All the time.”
The mystery and challenge of this faith-filled affirmation becomes most significant in situations of real loss and need. I’m reminded of the knowing nods of some Cubans we met when they referred to the “special period” in Cuba – a period of economic crisis following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s. The economy ground to a halt, with transportation and agricultural sectors becoming immobilized due to a lack of diesel and gasoline. There were shortages of food and medication. There was real pain. Hence, the knowing nods.
The mystery and challenge of our declaration that “God is good, all the time,” is expressed by sisters and brothers who face real pain and grief, for any number of reasons. The mystery and challenge of this declaration is expressed in the fact that it may frequently alternate with an honest cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Jesus embodies this point of faith and tension in his own person as he expresses his confidence in the one to whom he prays (trusts for his own vindication, through resurrection) and also lives in a suffering service that acknowledges the absence of God.
I have had my own experiences of pain and of the absence of God, yet this experience in Cuba cannot be classed with other such experiences. Again, these things are relative. But I am left wondering whether it is not far too glib to make a confession of God’s goodness in my Cuban scenario.
Yes, God is good. All the time. Yet, this profession of faith must be nuanced by the realization that this goodness is distant and future for many, as the Psalmist acknowledges in his own moment of trouble: “I am sure I will see the goodness of the Lord, in the land of the living.”
All the time.
God is good.