Sometimes when I’m on my way to the next stop on a busy day and I see a funeral procession of cars go by on their way to a cemetery, I’m struck by how wrong it feels. Especially because I know what it’s like to be in one of those cars going to the cemetery, feeling like my whole life has been blown apart. And I look out my window and see people going about their everyday lives as if they don’t even notice. As if the deep grief I’m feeling doesn’t even matter. To me, it’s the only thing that does matter. It seems like the whole world should stop; all creation should be feeling the loss that I am. How could they be going about their business as if nothing has happened? Can’t they see that everything world has changed, that nothing will ever be the same again?!
I think of that when I pass funeral processions and I’m on the outside looking in. I feel I’m being disrespectful of their grief, but I don’t know what else to do. So I drive on and tell myself that the death of the person they’re mourning has nothing to do with me. After all, there are deaths that are happening all around the world, all the time, and I go on about my business.
But when something happens like a huge earthquake or a hurricane that kills hundreds or even thousands of people, it’s not so easy to go on about my business. For one thing, we can see the devastation on T.V. almost as quickly as it’s happening. And we’re constantly being reminded of the suffering that other people are going through. That makes it difficult to go about business as usual. It feels like the whole world should stop. It feels like I’m in one of those cars going to the cemetery. How can I be concerned about the trivial mundane stuff that fills my days?
Hurricane Katrina was like that for a lot of people when it happened. No other hurricane in our memory can compare to this one in terms of the amount of destruction and the number of lives lost. Despite all our sophisticated medical technology and advanced modes of transportation and communication, we realize how vulnerable we are to a horrific disaster. The aid to the survivors didn’t come soon enough. We couldn’t get to them and they couldn’t get to us and we feel helpless. We did what we could, we gave our money and we prayed, but it didn’t seem to be enough.
It was hard to go about our day to day activities knowing that there were people waiting on rooftops calling out for help, people who had no food, those who had watched loved ones being washed away before their eyes. We saw: sick and elderly people living in sweltering heat and squalor, babies sleeping on a crumbled up highway, desperate people looting stores for basics like water and diapers, rescue workers ignoring dead bodies while they franticly sought out those who were still living. All this was going on while we were going to work during the day, fighting the rush hour traffic in the evening and returning to our air-conditioned homes for a juicy steak on the grill before we sat down on the couch to watch the tragedy continuing to unfold on our TV screens.
A huge event like the events of 9-11 or Hurricane Katrina can lead us to see things from a new perspective. We’re not the same as we were before.
First of all, tragedies on a grand scale don’t always bring out the best in us. God forgive me, but there’s always a little part of me that’s relieved when tragedy happens to someone else and not to me or anyone dear to me. I’ve also fallen into the trap of blaming. Remember after Katrina, we blamed the engineers who were responsible for the levees. We blamed President Bush for sending the National Guard to Iraq when they could have been helping with the relief effort. We even blamed the victims themselves for staying in the city when they were warned of the impending disaster.
Most of all, life’s tragedies cause us to struggle with our faith. A tragedy challenges the way we understand God and the world around us. We’re filled with doubts and questions for which there are no answers.
I remember hearing some people explain Katrina by saying that it was the result of global warming. That it’s a consequence of our excessive, over-consumptive lifestyle. Others said that the hurricane is a judgment upon our nation. At least one New Orleans-area resident believed God had created the storm as punishment because of the recent role the United States played in expelling Jews from Gaza.
With our very rational, western minds, we think we need to understand everything that happens in this life. It has to make sense. Not only do we have to understand how things like a natural disaster happened from a human standpoint, but we even think we have to understand why it happened, from a theological standpoint. I guess we convince ourselves that if we can somehow explain it, that will make it easier for us to handle it. But our attempts to understand life’s tragedies are feeble at best.
Often we’ll hear people refer to a natural disaster that can’t be explained any other way as “an act of God.” God gets blamed for all the horrible, unexplained events of our lives. They’re acts of God. This offends most Christians because we don’t want to pin anything that we perceive as bad on God. In our belief system, God is good and gracious and all-loving. He couldn’t possibly be the one responsible for a tsunami that kills thousands of people. So we make excuses for God. And sometimes we engage in some pretty serious mental acrobatics to make it all fit. The thing is, sometimes it’s pert near impossible to make it fit. Yes, God is gracious and merciful, but is God in charge of all creation or not? From our perspective, it makes absolutely no sense.
When Katrina happened, the governor of Texas made a statement that made me cringe. He said that Texas was ready to help the victims of the hurricane in whatever way they could because but by the grace of God, it could have been them. You hear people looking at the misfortunes of others using that expression all the time… “but by the grace of God” that could have been me.
What a disturbing thing to believe! That God is gracious to you, but that same God of love has not been gracious to someone else. Why would God be gracious to the people of Texas and not to the people of Louisiana? It doesn’t make sense.
Despite the fact that so many of life’s tragedies don’t make sense to us, I continue to be amazed at the people of faith who feel compelled to explain God’s actions. How arrogant can we be? Thinking we can begin to explain why God does what God does. Thinking we can defend God’s actions to all those people who are angry with him. It’s like we think God needs us to rescue him! Isn’t that the height of arrogance?
Remember how God responded to Job and his friends when they demanded an explanation for why God had allowed Job to suffer the way he did? God let’s Job have it.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place?…
God goes on and on for several chapters saying, in essence, you think you’re so smart Job, then why don’t you try running the universe for a while! The author Frederick Beuchner does a good job of summing up what God has to say when Job questions his ways: “God doesn’t explain, he explodes. He asks Job who he thinks he is anyway. He says that to try to explain the kind of things Job wants explained would be like trying to explain Einstein to a little-neck clam.”
When I was younger, I used to think that if I worked at it enough, eventually I’d be able to find the answers to all those questions that kept me awake at night. Where does God come from? Why does evil exist in the world? Why do innocent people have to suffer? I had a lot of questions I couldn’t answer. And I naively thought that the life of faith was about discovering the answers to those questions. I figured old people knew the answers. That’s why they’re considered wise.
Well, I’m a lot older now. Depending on who you’re comparing me to, you might even say that I’m just plain old. And I think I’m a little closer to figuring out what it means to be a person of faith. It doesn’t mean that you’ve learned how to find all the answers to your questions. It means that you’ve learned to live with the questions. To let the questions remain questions. And to be OK with that.
Mature faith is about being at peace with the ambiguity of life. In order to be at peace with the ambiguity of life we must put aside our prideful arrogance that would have us believe we can understand the ways of God. We need to acknowledge that we can’t begin to understand the ways of God. We need to stop playing God and allow God to be God.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t ask the questions anymore, or that we don’t seek the answers. But it means that we’re at peace with the unanswered questions. It’s OK to let God be God. To insist that I have the answers to why God does what God does is to rob God of his power. Would you want a God who you could understand completely? That would be a pretty puny excuse for a God, wouldn’t it?
When I was growing up, the pastor always ended his sermons with the same words. At the time I thought that they were just the pastor’s way of signing off. It never occurred to me that they were about the peace that comes from letting God be God. From acknowledging that try as we might, there will always be things about God that we can’t begin to understand. That’s a good way to end a sermon. By acknowledging that what the preacher or anyone else can tell us about God is but a teeny, tiny part of the truth. Let’s not kid ourselves by thinking we have it all figured out. Let’s trust God to be God and let that be enough.
May the peace of God which passes all human understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.