When Disaster Strikes
By Pastor Danielle Miller
Then Jonah prayed to his God from the belly of the fish. He prayed:
"In trouble, deep trouble, I prayed to God. He answered me. From the belly of the grave I cried, 'Help!' You heard my cry. You threw me into ocean's depths, into a watery grave, With ocean waves, ocean breakers crashing over me. I said, 'I've been thrown away, thrown out, out of your sight. I'll never again lay eyeson your Holy Temple.' Ocean gripped me by the throat. The ancient Abyss grabbed me and held tight. My head was all tangled in seaweedat the bottom of the sea where the mountains take root. I was as far down as a body can go, and the gates were slamming shut behind me forever— Yet you pulled me up from that grave alive, O God, my God! When my life was slipping away, I remembered God, And my prayer got through to you, made it all the way to your Holy Temple. Those who worship hollow gods, god-frauds, walk away from their only true love. But I'm worshiping you, God, calling out in thanksgiving! And I'll do what I promised I'd do! Salvation belongs to God!"
Then God spoke to the fish, and it vomited up Jonah on the seashore. Jonah 2:1-10 (The Message)
As I am writing an earthquake has just struck Central Mexico. It has been two weeks since a quake struck Guerreo. And Hurricane Maria is on course for Puerto Rico. Texas, Louisiana, Northern Mexico, Florida, Alabama, the Northwest, the Caribbean, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, the list continues, all caught in the aftermath of Mother Nature’s destructive path. Many people in our congregation and community are connected to loved ones and lands that are devastated.
Everyone is trying to survive. Everyone is trying to make sense of it all.
I would venture to say that many of these disasters are influenced by the careless use and abuse of creation. But not completely. Some of these storms, earthquakes and floods are simply happening because it is in their nature to happen. However either way, I want to state clearly these storms are in no way divine punishment.
Humans attempt to come up with great cosmic meanings when things fall apart. We desire to control the situation. We want a world that makes sense. But having lived through a natural disaster, I can say there is very little control to be had.
Do you want to hear one of life's great truths? Shit happens. Without rhyme or reason sometimes things fall apart. And when things go bad we look for someone to blame. We look for a scapegoat. And so often that scapegoat is God.
I’ve heard people say it time and again, on national forums and in hospital rooms, “everything happens for a reason.” I refuse to believe that. Some things are just wrong and hard and make God cry right along with us.
Imagining that everything happens for a reason suggests God is a white bearded guy up in the clouds with a penchant for togas, who plays the peeping tom while making sure our rewards match our actions. That vision of God pretty much amounts to a self-centered bully in the sky with a magnifying glass. That is the god who pushes us down the stairs if we aren’t paying attention. And that is certainly not the God I know.
I know a God who liberates. I know a God who creates the music and invites us to dance. I know a God who forgives and loves and claims us as beloved daughters and sons. But instead we've bought into an image of God that's disjointed and arbitrary. We deny God's love in favor of an understanding of God that is less than because of a world view that cannot accept more.
It might comfort us to imagine a world neatly ordered where a = b and 2+2 is always 4. But things don’t always add up. And it’s not because we have an evil God. It’s because we have a God who loves.
And love – by its very nature is self-restricting. Love requires freedom. Freedom to turn away. Freedom to live our lives the way we would live them. And so when good or bad occurs – God always gives us the freedom to respond – without swooping in to save us from ourselves or from the high winds. But that doesn’t mean God isn’t present in the midst of it – walking with us, crying with us, re-building with us, hoping with us, offering to guide us, loving us.
Because while everything does not happen for a reason, God can redeem everything. God does not cause the cancer, the rift in relationship or the hurricane – but God can take those situations and create unexpected blessings out of them.
Yes, shit happens but that’s not the final word. Do you know what grows the lushest vegetables and the most beautiful flowers? You guessed it. God created a world where flowers grow out of manure. God created a world where pain and blood bring about squalling new life. God created a world where decay and rot fertilize new growth in the forest. God created a world where everything is redeemable.
God does not cause the bad stuff – but God can take all of it and transform it, transform us with God’s simple, incredible, foolish, over-the-top love for us. And so even in the midst of the struggles of life: grieve, mourn, cry and rail, knowing that God is there with you doing the same. Don’t be afraid to open your heart and let the world fall in. Don't look for someone to blame but seek instead to praise. And when life gets so difficult you can't breathe, ask God to plant a garden in your heart and use what is falling apart to nurture what is yet to come.
Transforming God, you make all things new. There is nothing and no one beyond your reach. There is nothing and no one beyond your love. Be with all those who feel outside of your love. Be with our sisters and brothers who struggle and mourn and survive in the wake of natural disaster. Despite the pain, even in moments of struggle let our live be one of praise. Let every moment be for you. Amen.
Ways to Help
Lutheran Disaster Response is on the ground, all over the world, working to rebuild. They are there when disaster strikes and long after everyone has forgotten and goes home. Give online at elca.org/disaster.
Work for Care of Creation. Advent Lutheran Church supports West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc. (WEACT). WEACT empowers the community to be agents of change for environmental justice sustainability. Check out their work and consider partnering with WEACT. https://www.weact.org/
Remember in Prayer and Action: So often we are overwhelmed with all the needs of the world. We put the concerns and heartbreak into the back corner of our mind. Do not forget. As communities rebuild over months and years, continue to pray. Continue to reach out. Continue to seek ways to act for the well-being of all.