Thursday, May 23, 2013

Oklahoma Tornado--Why?

"O God, Creator and good keeper of the world and author of human freedom, give us the courage necessary to live and to minister in the midst of so much suffering. Give us the maturity to manage our own lives and not to curse you in the midst of distress. Above all, O God, give us that keen awareness of your intimate presence with us, so that we can respond to joy or suffering, to good and to evil, in ways that glorify you, and write new chapters in the history of salvation. In the name of him whose title is Emmanuel, God with us,Amen."
           --W. Sibley Towner

For days now I have sat like many of you before the TV with my hand over my mouth. What can we possibly say to those 56,000 in Moore, Oklahoma? So many of their children dead, so many of their neighbors in hospitals. So many who stagger through the debris trying to pick up the pieces of their lives. Like Newtown at Christmas and Joplin, Missouri in 2011 and all the other crises—we now weep for our brothers and sisters in Oklahoma.  Once again the settledness of life has been torn up by its roots. And the stories just keep coming. A woman sorting through her wreckage looking for photographs of a Mother that died in 1947. The couple standing with a handful of splinters saying, “This is all that is left of our house.” The courage of those teachers who lay on top of their kids or huddled with them in closets to keep them safe. The farm that lost over 100 horses on Monday afternoon. All these and so many more are trying to find something familiar to hang on to when all they have known has been swept away. Over and over we ask why. Why? Job is the oldest book in the Bible and its theme deals with this question. When that long book is finished, most of the whys are left unanswered.  

What are we to do with the whys? Why Moore, Oklahoma? Have they suffered enough—this is their time around. Survivors say they are safe because their prayers were answered. Did those that did not make it pray? Hmm. Job's friends with reasons why Job was in such a mess. His sins must have been monstrous to have lost his family, his home, his health—everything. With friends like this who needs enemies. The finger pointing of retribution is one way of dealing with suffering. We have our blamers, too. From the safety of some air-conditioned room they preach judgment toward whatever groups they despise this week. God, they say, is trying to teach us a lesson that would force us to change our ways.* You don’t hear those sorting through the wreckage saying such words. They are much too busy trying to put their lives back together. Why would God punish these thousands of folk for the sins of some and leave the rest of us safe? Are we less sinful?  What kind of a monstrous God would this be? 

Standing before this river of pain some respond by saying we can do nothing but wring our hands in despair. The world, they say, is an unfriendly place. It is marked by fissures and potholes. If we live long enough, they tell us, surely the darkness will come to us all. This hand wringing is reflected in much of popular culture. Our films and books are filled with stories of a world entrenched with evil. Is life only a windowless room with no exit? Most of us have felt this hopelessness from time to time. Is our best response to suffering simply to wring our hands and shake our heads? 

There are is another reply to these whys. It is a faith response. We can turn our hands upward.  When a child died suddenly the mother asked her preacher, “Where was God when my child died?” The minister said quietly, “The same place God was when his son died.” In times of great pain we can reach upward. We can cry out to God. One third of all the Psalms in the Bible are Psalms of Lamentation. God’s people railed out their questions, their pain, and sometimes their rage to their God. Again and again they came back feeling they were heard and cared for. This is not a picture of a vengeful God but a God who hears and cares. We are not alone. The pray-ers and the non-prayers—the survivors and the dead—God is with us all.  

An outgrowth of such faith is do something positive. We can turn toward those in need. This is at the heart of the Judeo-Christian faith. We can care for those who have suffered terrible losses. We can send clothing and food to those left homeless. We can get out chain saws and cut away trees and bramble. We can give to worthy organizations. We can volunteer by spending time helping those whose names we do not know. We can badger state and national leaders until they respond as our government should. Isn’t this the real task of government—to care for its citizens? And we can make sure that after the headlines are over and the hard work of rebuilding is still to be done, we do not forget those in need. We learn again that the word neighbor transcends every barrier. We do what we can.  

Our actions will not undo the damage or bring back the dead. Life will be forever different for those touched by the events of this hurricane. The people of England found this to be true during the Second World War. Bombs fell on London for over 60 days. Much of that country was destroyed. Thousands were killed and survivors were left homeless.  Great gashes and craters were left where the bombs had fallen.  But the next spring those same craters were covered in flowers. Botanists reported that the bombs and their nitrates had unearthed bulbs, some hundreds of years old. Those flowers covered over much of what the damage had brought. 

What are we to do with our whys? We can point fingers or wring our hands. Or we can reach out in faith and do what needs to be done. Bertholt Brecht, the poet asks, “In the dark times will there also be singing?” That’s what we hope for those in Moore, Oklahoma and for us all.


*Michelle Bachmann speaking in Florida spoke of her understanding of what was happening in different places in the country: "I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going  to start listening to me here?' Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to rein in the spending."

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