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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Making Excuses for God...The Modern Theology of a Natural Catastrophe

Two days ago, the Oklahoma City area, and specifically Moore Oklahoma, were devastated beyond description buy a tornado of immense proportion. It wasn't even fit for words. Normally they tell you to stay put, seek shelter in a closet or a basement or a safe room. On Monday they were actually telling people to get out. Get in your car and drive as far from here as fast as you can. This storm was frightening even to the most hardened veterans of tornadoes.
When the storm subsided, 9 children were among the dead. Their elementary school was destroyed and they apparently died in the storm cellar, victims of drowning. They had done as they were trained to do, and they died anyway.
In the aftermath of this, social media showed (yet again) both it's value and it's detriment. It was invaluable in relaying information in real-time. It helped with the call for aid and donations. It got the word out. But it also became a posting board for people trying to attach their theology to this tragedy and in effect, to make excuses for God.
Now, let me say this first: I understand the human need to make some sort of sense of something like this. The need to assign some sort of sacredness to the awesome power of Nature even when it turns against us and ends young lives. I understand the fear we all felt on Monday afternoon. Those kids could have been ours. That could have just have easily have been the elementary school right down the street. Somehow we need to make sense of this and we will --it seems-- go to any length to achieve this.
I've come to expect certain things after tragedies like this, or like Hurricane Sandy, or the Newtown, CT school shooting. There will be several prescribed responses that will make their way to Facebook and Twitter. Usually they go like this: Someone will start using the event as a call for "God's people to repent and pray".  Then someone will try quoting bumper sticker theology in a vain attempt at making sense of the occurrence and in an effort to get God off the hook. Because we all know that God protects His favorites, right? They'll post something about how the 9 third graders are all in a "better place" now and we'll "see them again soon" and after all, we are "not of this world" and we're just "Pilgrims" here.  That's an awful lot of rhetoric and cliche. It's enough bumper sticker theology to make a billboard.
The coup d'grace will then be administered when the well-meaning theologians will post some inane praise and worship song that usually has some mention of the tragedy in the title. Monday's selections had titles like "Trusting You in this storm" ""Peace like a river" "Though the wind blow" and the like. Now the obvious issue I have is that nobody in OKC is checking Facebook right now and if they are, they sure aren't doing it to find solace in some song by Hillsong or Chris Tomlin. They couldn't give a rat's bum about that stuff right now.
9 little kids are dead.
Have you ever seen a parent when their child dies? I have. Three times. Once was so dramatic that I can barely speak of it. A friend of my then-wife had twins. They were 4 years old and both wandered into a friends swimming pool in one blink of an eye. She discovered them and had nobody else to help her. Her friend went to call the paramedics and the mom was left to administer CPR to two toddlers simultaneously, in effect having to decide which one would live and which would not. My wife was working that day and she called me and I met her at the hospital. I sat dutifully in the waiting area in the ER, while Holly tried as best she could to comfort her friend. There was one moment I will never forget...Holly opened the door to come out of the exam room and she was sobbing. I happened to look up and behind her I saw the devastated mom...hugging the son that didn't make it as tightly as anyone ever could...his lifleless little body hanging limp. Her broken heart poured out in a low wail. For all the rest of my days I will never forget that sight, though I wish I could.
I saw it again a few times since. Each time was painful and sorrowful beyond imagination. Each time, there were no words to properly describe nor was there some sort of song running through my mind at the moment that would somehow bear up to scrutiny and be a proper soundtrack for the event that was unfolding. Sometimes silence is the only proper thing.
Monday, May 20 was such a day.
Yet people insisted on making noise.
Noise in the form of video clips of wimpy sounding praise singers singing songs that are somehow supposed to encourage these poor people who hold their lifeless child next to their heart...wishing somehow that they could transplant their own beat into the stillness of their babies chest. Willing and wishing they could die in their place. Holding on to what remains because letting go this time is permanent.
This is pain on a scale that few will ever come to know and none ever should. In a perfect world we would never have scenes like this. But it's not a perfect world.
Somehow we feel this need to explain it to others. To arrive at some conclusion about what God did or didn't do, and should have done, and could have done and might have done. Then we look at what He permitted and we rearrange that too. We instantly turn it on it's head and say "Think of the ones He miraculously spared". Someone always points to a change in the path of the Tornado and attach God's hand to that too. As if God needs an escape hatch from natural disasters. It defied logic. If, as some say, God turned the tornado at the last minute or spared so many kids when it "could have been worse" then He chose not to spare 9 kids who probably weren't all satan worshippers or atheists. None of them had "666" as a birthmark on their scalp. They were the same kids as the ones who survived. They probably had Godly moms and dads and they probably went to Sunday School and played Little League.  God didn't select them to die that day. He permitted it...that's very different. He didn't "call them home" and then use an F-5 Tornado to do the calling. God can simply remove life with a word. He doesn't need a natural disaster to keep the schedule of life running on time.
I understand how people need to do this. It's hard to look at a God who didn't stop this storm in it's horrifying path and still trust Him. If anyone says otherwise they are lying. ...or they've been through some stuff.
I detest using myself as an example here...I am not comparing my struggles with those of the parents and families of the victims in OKC. But all I have to go on is my own experience so bear with me.
4 out of the last 5 years I have been homeless. I'm homeless now. Every individual day was hell in one way or the other. Some days were less hellish and some were more. But each day was a burden that was almost too great to bear. I doubted God. I shook my fist at heaven. I spit in the air and clawed at the sky and scratched the ground. God never responded in anger. Most times He never responded at all. But it was in the silence after my rant that I knew He was okay with it. That He even expected it and had made allowance for it. God remembers that He made me from dirt. He doesn't expect much.
Over time I grasped it. To be honest, only about half of what I have endured has made sense as the years passed. The other half are simply lost days that I might never understand until Heaven. But underneath it all I learned that God was still working. Every day. In every event. "Working" doesn't mean "fixing". And it doesn't mean he took away the pain I felt. It means He strengthened me enough. His grace was sufficient...not abundant...sufficient. Not overflowing, certainly not numbing. I felt every sting and every wound. He strengthen me just enough to breath in one more time. To take one more step. To get up off the ground after I'd collapsed into a heap and cried until I was exhausted.
People tried constantly to make sense of my situation. It only made it hurt worse. The best thing was to do what Job's friends did...sit silently as Job wept and wailed and suffered. If the sufferer didn't feel the need to speak...neither did his friends.
I believe that we make these statements after disasters because we need to keep God's "goodness' intact. We can't reconcile "God is Love" with the God who holds F-5 tornadoes in his hands and who could change them into gentle summer breezes if He so desired. We also like to think of a God who micro-manages the world for us. He doesn't do that either. He has...sometimes...but that's the exception and not the rule.
The Bible speaks of believers having the peace of Jesus. The bible says it is a "peace that passes understanding". In more common language, it is "Peace that doesn't make sense considering the situation". It's not a peace that makes those things palatable or tolerant. It's simply having some sort of peace that goes beyond the here and now. It doesn't say this peace ever replaces pain or anguish or the smashed hearts of moms and dads who won't ever tuck in their third grader again.
It is a peace that looks at the destruction that God Himself permitted and says, I don't understand it...I don't want to understand it, I have one sliver of hope to hold to and that is that God is never not at work. That something good will come from this. God may never let me see this good, I may never stop hurting. But He has already planned on making a good thing happen somewhere in this world from the bad thing that destroyed my world." the source of peace.

1 comment: said...

This says so much. I think it's a mistake to make excuses for God in the first place because it's not God that brings these natural disasters about. People are forgetting about the book of Job altogether. Why doesn't God "Fix" the fallen creation so there are no tornadoes or earthquakes or hurricanes? What evidence do we have that these are punishments exactly anyway? We are told the creation is GROANING and expectant of the day that all things will be made new… It's under a curse just as we are…. I like what you said about God not micomanaging the world for us and I agree. This is absolutely the exception not the rule. We are in a world full of tribulation….. he warned us we would not escape, we WOULD have tribulation in the world but to take hope in the fact that he had overcome the world. What you say about peace is so true as well. Peace doesn't mean absence of pain or denial of hard facts, it's the Christian inheritance to be able to live in a world like this with peace, to help us through the storms, and by having our hope placed on the solid Rock of Christ that we can weather the storm without being washed away. The storms don't disappear. The "natural forces" that destroy are some of the hardest to understand, but when I think of the book of Job, you have a picture where Satan is a supernatural creature with free will (as we have) who is capable of interacting with nature to bring about destruction to human beings…. (unless God intervenes specifically)

You have a real problem here. Like you say, people are associating the thing with God because he is on the throne, true which he is, but if he were to correct all the evils in the human world as well as world of nature, where does free will yet exist? It's the C.S. Lewis point that every piece of wood picked up to beat somone on the head would turn into a feather…. and if you take that to its logical conclusion, every angry thought would disppear before it resulted in an angry act. No more evil or angry throughts….. There would be no free will. So you can't have both. A world without the freedom to choose harm and a world without pain. And as soon as you interject the idea that a supernatural being can influence the forces of nature (like a tornado) with its free will, you have a real monkey wrench in the question….

Yes, God is the one bringing good CONSTANTLY from the free will acts meant to bring harm. So when people are trying to make sense, perhaps they are misled and don't really understand; you make a great point, the loss of a child is not something that is going to "make sense" to someone in this lifetime. It is not the world the way it was meant to be - Separation from God has wreaked havoc in the lives of human beings from Adam until now and it will not stop until the last day. Only in the context of the new heaven and the new earth, where he will wipe away every tear does the answer come; but there is no need to make excuses for our Creator. He is all goodness and worthy of all praise… The enemy is the one bringing the darkness, God is bringing the hope and light and peace from that darkness - The people that help, comfort, the people who build up, not tear down. We should never get that confused.