I had many thoughtful calls about Hurricane Sandy because I have a daughter in New York City and another in New York State. Both, thankfully, escaped the worst of it, neither even experienced a power outage. They had friends, of course, who did. But inevitably, an avalanche of odd theological statements come forth.
Speculation on natural disasters are not, of course, new. A few people said, “God is telling us something.” Having been through a tornado that hit my church many years ago, I wince at such statements, especially since the tornado spared every part of our proposed expansion program and hit every part that we had not considered, namely the offices and the sanctuary, where it ripped a hole in the roof right over the pulpit, which a few sawdust trail preachers in town suggested was payback for our liberalism (we ordain women and are open to all races and do not marginalize divorced persons, and have practiced these ways since the 1970s).
I will not argue against the suggestion that nature miracles are all over the Bible (water partings, fires from heaven, water-walking and a whole menu of options). However, I am guarded about the human ability to know all these things. After listening to some lunkheaded theological assertions about New Orleans after Katrina (God was punishing it for its sin and gambling–even though the Baptist Seminary almost washed away while the French Quarter was hardly affected), I resist the temptation to speculate on things that are, truthfully, above my clergy pay grade. High ground has more to do with floods than moral evil.
Pat Robertson has been wrong so often I would think his caretakers would keep him at home after storms for a few days. And one can argue the other side of it–are we dealing with gambling in Atlantic City, Donald Trump’s arrogance,
or God’s weariness with the avalanche of campaign lying on both sides? Is it revenge for our ignorant defiance of human pollution in our cynical denials of global warming? In which case, I still might say, if I lived in Brooklyn, “but I recycle, don’t gamble, and hate SuperPacs. Why did MY house blow away?”
No, natural evils (the theological term for suffering caused by building on earthquake faults or flood zones) are not simple to read. And, in the grand scheme of things, the relentless evils human beings perpetrate on one another daily is a Noah’s Flood compared to Sandy.
When we were hit with the tornado, our building full of preschoolers who thank God were spared a scratch, we counted our blessings, revised our Master Plan, delayed construction, and patched the roof. I preached a sermon the next Sunday called, “Listening to the Wind.” I said this:
And sometimes the wind doesn’t mean anything. Elijah went to Mount Horeb in 1 Kings 19, fleeing from Queen Jezebel, and there he waited for the Lord to speak. It is there that we come across a most remarkable passage. In verse 11 we read
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake;
Later he hears God in a “still, small voice.” God speaks not in the outward events of nature but in the heart of a man. Perhaps that is a help to us in such a time. In a tragedy there is such a temptation to read too quickly all sorts of meanings into what happened. In 1998 I remember that so many were thrilled about a church that collapsed without a death and proclaimed it a miracle of God, but just down the road was a church where members died. What of that?
That phrase, “God was not in the wind” hit me with great force. Whatever you want to say about your theology, and a most unfortunate side-effect of the Protestant Reformation and the printing press is that every armchair and blog now is manned by people who have a little knowledge and a loud megaphone.
REAL theologians, career theologians, know that this is a great temptation–to speak before you have listened and thought and considered and presented to others for their opinions. The value of a huge amount of slef-appointed theology on the web and near the water cooler is limited to its value to the speaker as a measure of their anxiety and maturity levels.
As for me, the longer I live, the more silent I become about many things regarding God. The more I listen “in” to that still, small voice, them more I am humbled that we, the creatures, seem to know more about God’s business than we have any authority to claim. I listen. I ponder. And I am sure there is much to think on–about our wasteful ways of life and our frantic way of life, about slowing down and measuring what matters, about politicians actually doing something for a change, lots to think about. When I get most quiet, I keep hearing, “Send money. Make sure the homeless guys are okay. Pray for New Jersey. Do something to help.”
So I will resist the temptation to tell a suffering family what the wind and water “means.” To tell you the truth, I worry that it annoys God…a LOT. I believe that life DOES mean something. I also believe God knows what it is. And I am sure it is not necessary for me to understand it all to still be able to obey what the silence tells me to do.