Katrina and Our Tears
“Be still, and know that I am God” Psalm 46:10
“Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” Job
Now the time for truly being still has arrived, and the Lord bids me now to speak.
As I write this, there are babies in
I speak rather of stillness of the tongue, and reflection on the mystery of God’s ways upon the earth. If there are events that can cast doubt in our minds about God’s intentions towards man, it is surely events such as we have seen this week in
Those of us who interceded with God over Katrina’s approach to
Katrina Costly, but Not As Big As Expected
By MATT CRENSON, AP National Writer Tue Aug 30,
Devastating as Katrina was, it would have been far worse but for a puff of dry air that came out of the
Midwest, weakening the hurricane just before it reached land and pushing it slightly to the east.
The gust transformed a Category 5 monster into a less-threatening Category 4 storm, and pushed Katrina off its Big Easy-bound trajectory, sparing
a direct hit — though not horrendous harm. New Orleans
"It was kind of an amazing sequence of events," said Peter Black, a meteorologist at the Hurricane Research Division of the federal government's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory.
But then our jubilation was turned into sorrow and agony as the reports of dying babies, perishing elderly, and declining sick came to our eyes and ears in real time - and continues to, even now. We who are sitting behind our newspapers,in front of our television sets, and at our computers agonize over this because we know that even the people who know what to do about it, and are doing something about it, will not able to reach them all in time.
Sean Penn, the actor, is being laughed at right now because he had taken a launch out to
Our agony over this tragedy is our temptation to curse God and die. To curse the Ground of our being. To curse the one Who is “the upholding of all things by the word of his power” (Hebrews1:1-3) - which “things” include even our very selves.
This brings me, of course, into the territory of theodicy, as theologians have called it in their dry studies and very neat categories.
the·od·i·cy n. pl. the·od·i·cies
A vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil.
There it is, in neat print, suitable for a seminary class or a sunny Sunday’s sermon. A word for what there can be no words for. A word suitable for a seminary class, or a sunny Sunday’s sermon, but not for those sentenced to smell rotting human flesh, see their loved one’s perish slowly before their very eyes, and hear the sound of insects swarming over neighbor’s bodies.
No, for these - and those of us who agonize with them - definitions, categories, and words on a page will never do. What we are left with is a profound and bitter mystery.
Profound enough to tempt us in the deepest recess of our being: our relationship with God. And mysterious because a mystery is what is dark to our understanding, and few things are darker than these events happening now. It is as if the whole of
I am not here going to use the Bible to attempt to dispel this darkest of all dark mysteries. And I have no liking for those who do. In the Bible’s book of Job, there is no attempt to do that. God, in the end, never told Job why he let Job suffer so horribly. A.W. Tozer has remarked on the fact that even if we know everything there is to know in the Bible, there will still be mysteries we will never penetrate in this life. David A. J. Seargent summarizes Tozer as follows:
In Tozer’s opinion, spiritual truth is one and the various truths revealed in Scripture are various facets of this one truth. The Christian is called upon to embrace them all, even to the extent of accepting equally what, when examined by reason alone, appear to be contradictory statements. By faith he is to accept that these only appear to be in opposition, and that the contradiction may not be resolved until the next life. There is a hint here that a truly complete system of theology, and therefore the temptation to pride in intellectual accomplishment that such would bring, is an idle hope. The teaching of the Bible is not totally comprehensible within the boundaries of the human mind. We cannot understand its message totally by thinking. It invites us to stretch our thinking to the limit and then shows us that even this limit is not nearly far enough. Beyond lies the deepest of all Mysteries, dark to the intellect, frequently paradoxical to the reason, but radiant to the heart and spirit. One's Biblical theology is overtaken by the Mystical before it reaches the Systematic!
What I am instead going to do here is give you a few planks to tie together and hang onto if your faith in God has suffered shipwreck (1 Timothy ) by what has happened this week. These are the bloviations of a long term reader of the scriptures. I am turning forty-nine this month. And the subject matter of theodicy, and I, have had a long acquaintance.
When I was a small child watching cartoons on television, I changed the channel one sunny Saturday morning and encountered a documentary on Adolph Hitler that had a brief clip of the operations of a death camp. I got to see the body of a child concentration camp victim going down a slide into a pit of hundreds of other bodies. When I was in high school, I was kicked out of the National Honor Society because I couldn’t complete an Honors English term paper on the poet Shelly. This was because I had seen a cover of Newsweek magazine that had a picture of an Israeli soldier holding the body of a small child who had a bullet hole in its head from a Palestinian terrorist. When I was thirty or so, I suffered a major episode of depression after seeing a clip on Nightline about boating safety in which a state trooper had briefly lifted a tarp on the body of a young teenage girl which was wearing a bright festive green bathing suit. Yes, you may have seen, or even experienced, worse things, but I assure you that I am familiar with the territory of the subject matter of theodicy.
So here are some planks I’m giving you that I have salvaged for my own faith.
“we spend our years as a tale that is told.” Psalm 90:9.
How so? How are our lives like a tale that is told? Well, like a tale, our lives have a beginning, and middle, and eventually an end. And at the end, there is a point, or a meaning, or a lesson. But the point, or meaning , or lesson may escape us, while being plain to someone else.
The hare in the fable of “the Tortoise and the Hare” did not realize that he was giving a lesson about over-confidence. The grasshopper in the story of the “the Grasshopper and the Ants” did not know he was giving a lesson about imprudence.
Likewise, none of us really knows what the true lessons of our lives are going to be until our lives are ended. At the judgment seat of Christ, all Christians will give an account of their lives. (2 Corinthians 5:10). They will tell their tales. At the Great White Throne judgment (Rev. 20:11-15), “books” shall be opened, and the lives of all those set for judgment, “great and small,” shall be broadcast for all to hear. It is then that the point, meaning, purpose, and lessons of our lives on earth will be made plain, whether that is for well or for ill.
And our lives are also like a novel. Like a big, baggy, long novel, like War and Peace. There are many characters in it. There are a lot of subplots and twists and turns. And it is easy for the point of our lives to be lost in all the things that go into them. But unlike a novel, our lives on earth also have a lot of clutter and random stuff in them that do not serve to advance the plot or clarify the meaning of what our lives are for. One of the differences between art and life is that art is an attempt to sort and sift the junk out of life so that life’s meaning may be glimpsed, however fleetingly.
If we understand our lives this way, then we may find it maybe a little easier to understand why tragedy is sometimes allowed to come into them. The chief thing that tragedy does is concentrate our attention. The actual quote Dr. Samuel Johnson is famous for saying is "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
But more satisfying than that is what writer Anne Lamott has to say about tragedy. She once went through a time when it was unclear whether or not her son had a fatal blood disease or not (It turned out to be an allergy). She had this to say about the experience of parents suffering through tragedy striking their children:
I have noticed that the people I know whose children are sick have had so much stripped away. And I've been watching them survive, with mostly enormous grace. I shake my head slowly in wonder. I've seen them get immersed against their wills into the very seats of their souls. They've been pushed down into the depths so entirely, in surviving something that can't be survived, that it left them wide open. Then one by one their friends showed up and stepped into that opening, wide as the mouth of a cave, and that helped them hook into something so big. I don't even know what it is. Maybe it's the stripped down moment of it all, so much bigger than the grasping, crying; maybe it's being hooked in to so much more of the life that surrounds us, and shimmers. The common denominator was that, little by little, all of them found themselves stunned and humbled by their friends' love. Their friends' love turned out to be the word of God. Their friends' love was God passing by. Traveling Mercies
This, in a nutshell, is why I believe God allows tragedy to strike. It’s a way of causing us to sort and summarize everything in our lives down to just one question: Shall I curse God and die, (Job 2:9) or shall I bless Him and live? (Job 42:5,6).
“One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:
"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
And this is what the lessons of our lives will be about when we are judged either at the judgment seat of Christ, or at the Great White Throne. It is one of the reasons why we cannot now understand what lessons our lives are teaching. The lessons our lives teach are about something, or rather Someone, who is a lot higher and more substantial then all the other things that have been in our lives.
“And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.” Matthew 10:42.
“Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' “ Matthew 7:22-23.
There will be many pleasant and unpleasant surprises at these two judgments days. It is to spare us from some of these surprises that God sometimes takes us through tragedy. We must, at some point in our lives, sort the loves of our lives into some kind of order. Tragedy takes the bulk and clutter of our lives, which can be spread out over many years or few, and boils them all down into one question: God, or not God? Heaven or Hell?
And instead of this question being asked and re-asked over months and years and decades, it is instead asked in weeks, days, hours, or even minutes or seconds. The thieves crucified with Christ had only a few more excruciating hours to live after a life of wickedness. One of them asked Christ to remember him when He came into His kingdom. The other did not. Christ took the one who asked into paradise with Him. The other He did not. The Columbine martyr, Rachael Scott, had only seconds to re-affirm her faith before she was murdered.
It is for such a final showdown and cut-to-the-chase that God brings tragedies on us, speakable or unspeakable. It is, as C.S. Lewis once told a man whose much beloved wife was dying, “a severe mercy.”
The testimony of history is that from time to time, these kinds of tragedies can occur on a massive scale that involve hundreds, or thousands, or millions of individuals. And it is the testimony of history that they can occur within the time frame of either seconds (as a result of a bomb) or years (during a war). In the years I’ve been on this planet, I’ve come to realize that mankind seems to get seized by these paroxysms of mass tragedy both repeatedly and seasonally.
The Black Death. The Inquisition. The Witchcraft frenzy. The French Revolution. The Armenian Genocide. World War I, The Influenza of 1918. The Soviet Collectivization. World War II. The
These mass tragedies can come from nature (a plague, a flood, an earthquake) or from man (as a crime, a war, a mass frenzy). But the Bible assures us that they all ultimately come from the hand of God and are His instrument in dealing with the souls of men. “When a trumpet sounds in a city, do not the people tremble? When disaster comes to a city, has not the LORD caused it?” (Amos 3:6).
In many ways, these mass tragedies are like a seaonally re-occurring harvest. A full dress rehearsal for that final harvest that shall one day come:
24 Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:
25 But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.
26 But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.
27 So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?
28 He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?
29 But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
30 Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.
36 Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field.
37 He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man;
38 The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one;
39 The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.
40 As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world.
41 The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity;
42 And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
43 Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.
But does God cause these mass tragedies directly? No. He lets human free will, and the free will of fallen angels, have their way. Consequences come of that. And from those consequences, many, many individuals, in a short space of time, are harvested and sifted like wheat as Satan sifted both Job, and the apostle Peter (Luke 22:31).
To us, an individual can get lost in something that happens to millions and millions of people. But not to the eternal God, who is outside of time and space, and is in fact their creator. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matthew 10:29,30)
My older brother was one of the last of the Army’s draftees after the Vietnam War was over. He told me that when your are put into an extreme situation like being taken into an army, you will go to either one extreme or another. What you are will truly come out. If you are really a Christian, you will really become a Christian. If you are not a Christian, then you will really become the opposite of one who knows Christ, whether you want that to become apparent or not. What you really are will become manifest. (My brother later went back to Germany to run a Christian serviceman’s center there).
In the Nazi concentration camps, there was concentration indeed. There were those inmates, who for the promise of a few more days to live than their neighbors, voluntarily helped their captors in their work of wickedness. But there was also Victor Frankel who constructed his philosophy of Logotherapy and wrote “Man's Search for Meaning.” And there was also Corrie Ten Boom, who was able to forgive one of her captors when the weight of his sins finally brought him to Christ.
In the Japanese civilian prison camps of WWII, there were “respectable”allied women who eventually prostituted themselves to their captors for the sake of better treatment. But there was also Darleen Deibler Rose, a lady missionary who endured even torture and overcame all in Christ.
These re-occuring tragedies are the alembic of eternity that distills the substance of individuals and brings forth who and what they truly are for God and to God.
3 Then said the LORD unto me, What seest thou, Jeremiah? And I said, Figs; the good figs, very good; and the evil, very evil, that cannot be eaten, they are so evil.
4 Again the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,
5 Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel; Like these good figs, so will I acknowledge them that are carried away captive of Judah, whom I have sent out of this place into the land of the Chaldeans for their good.
6 For I will set mine eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them again to this land: and I will build them, and not pull them down; and I will plant them, and not pluck them up.
7 And I will give them an heart to know me, that I am the LORD: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: for they shall return unto me with their whole heart.
8 And as the evil figs, which cannot be eaten, they are so evil; surely thus saith the LORD, So will I give Zedekiah the king of Judah, and his princes, and the residue of Jerusalem, that remain in this land, and them that dwell in the land of Egypt:
9 And I will deliver them to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth for their hurt, to be a reproach and a proverb, a taunt and a curse, in all places whither I shall drive them.
This, in my opinion, is what has happened, and is still happening in Louisiana right now. The day’s news has just now supplied me with but one example of what I am talking about: here:
Some evacuees see religious message in Katrina flood
By Adam Tanner
HOUSTON (Reuters) - In the last week, Joseph Brant lost his apartment, walked by scores of dead in the streets, traversed pools of toxic water and endured an arduous journey to escape the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in his hometown New Orleans.
On Sunday, he was praising the Lord, saying the ordeal was a test that ended up dispelling his lifelong distrust of white people and setting his life on a new course.
“It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes.”
“Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, And said, Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’ In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly. Job 1:20-22
Are there those of us who do not care for this? Do we charge God foolishly, as Job’s wife did? Yes. But what are we complaining of when we do that? We are complaining that God is “playing God.” And the illogic of that should temper us somewhat, but rarely does. We are emotionally involved with the outcomes that occur, and we believe that God has no “skin” in them, Himself.
But that is not true.
God does not merely “play” - as the account of His labor in creation seems to suggest when He calls His creation “good”, “good”, and even “very good.” He is also at “work” in His creation. His sabbath rest on the seventh day has been disturbed ever since the first man sinned and fell away from His fellowship. And He has completed a labor which He is bringing to ultimate fruition in due time.
“For God is my King of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.”
38 Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee.
39 But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation [adulterous for loving other things than God] seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas:
40 For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
It is here now that I possibly take a small step from the sublime to ridiculous in an illustration I will use, but I think it is an illustration that gets my meaning across until I can think of a better one.
The illustration is this. Human beings have sub-created worlds of their own on the personal computers they now have. Some of the worlds, or “sims” are wargames. In some wargames, the value of a military unit is derived within the game by how much game time its takes for the unit to be “built” in the game. A “warship” in the game that takes six units of elapsed game time has more “value” and “strength” in terms of the game, then a “warship” that takes one unit of time to create. In the game, the lost of the six time unit warship will be “felt” more keenly then the one time unit warship.
But with all computer games, there is something called a “cheat code.” A way of circumventing the game’s own programming that the developers of the game use while they are creating the game. When a player decides to use a “cheat code” to suddenly create a six time unit warship in one unit of time, the felt value of that unit is tangibly reduced by the player doing so. The lost of that warship in the game is felt less keenly. Indeed, the play of the entire game is felt less keenly. It seems less “real” to the player when the cheat code is used.
In another analogy, it's like playing checkers and suddenly deciding you will crown all your peices whether they have reached the end of the board or not. The value of the particular game being played has been destroyed by doing that.
The point I am making by this illustration is that when God created us and then entered our world (or "sim") in the person of His eternal Son, Jesus Christ, He did not at any time use a “cheat code” that caused any one of us to lose value to Him. The proof of this is in both the garden of Gethsemane where He prayed before giving Himself up to the crucifixion, and in the crucifixion itself:
36 Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder.
37 And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy.
38 Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.
39 And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.
40 And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour?
41 Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.
42 He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.
43 And he came and found them asleep again: for their eyes were heavy.
44 And he left them, and went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words.
44 And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
45 From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land.
46 About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"—which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
The metaphorical “cup” which Christ begged the Father to let pass from Him contained the consequences of all human free will, for all time, that are in opposition to what and who God is. In His crucifixion, Christ drank it to the last bitter drop, “that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” (Romans 3:26).
If God from time to time subjects great masses of people to the alembic of eternity, it is only because in the person of His Son, He has under gone it first, Himself, and knows experientially what it is like to be there.
I said before that God never explained to Job why He allowed Him to suffer as he did. And one consequence of that is the long season of reasoning Job and his not-too-helpful friends engage in for most of the book of Job.
That reasoning is followed upon by many, many others who read the book of Job - for the book of Job is one of two books in the Bible that appeals to the secular mind as it does ot the spiritual mind. (Ecclesiastes is the other.) In all the secular commentary on the book of Job, there has always been this commentary on the fact that God never explains the why of Job’s suffering to Job. Instead, the secular mind points to God’s visible manifestation in the form of a whirlwind (a tornado!) and God’s majestic speech to Job, and calls this “brow beating.” For in that majestic speech God made to Job, God says, in affect, “I’m God! What right have you got to ask me questions?” But it is an assumption that God had not answered Job in the end. Job states plainly that he finally did understand the why of all his sorrows.
“My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.”
The supposed brow beating Job got in of the last chapters of Job was not in fact a brow beating. It was in fact the LORD God of all existence doing Job the inestimable favor of presenting Himself to Jobs’ very hungry eyes as the Supreme Object of worship.
The defect of Job’s religion, that the LORD God wanted to get at and change, was that Job’ religion was a religion. It was something he had heard, and picked up second-hand from others. God wanted Job to have the reality of Himself as a Presence that could be seen. That could be sensed, that could be felt.
“Blessed are the pure [unadulterated ] in heart, for they will see God.” Matthew 5:8
The purpose of any alembic is to purify. And the testimony of all those who have gone through the alembic of eternity and come out the other side is that being through it was the first time they ever experienced God’s presence in reality. And that is because He always precedes us there. If we are His, then when we are put into the alembic ourselves, we will find Him to be present there with us in someway tangible to our being, and nourishing to our spirits, even as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did when they were cast into Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. (Daniel 3).
“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author [ originator ] and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:2
So be it!
Lamb of God! when we behold Thee
Lowly in the manger laid;
Wand'ring as a homeless stranger
In the world Thy hands had made;
When we see Thee in the garden
In Thine agony of blood,
At Thy grace we are confounded,
Holy, spotless Lamb of God!
Little Flock 1881 Edition