9.01.2005

Hurricane Katrina: Where is God in all this?

I decided to post my sermon here this week, before preaching it.

If anyone is looking for a place to make donations for victims and survivors of the hurricane, consider Week of Compassion. They take online donations and have an excellent record of relief work in cooperation with Church World Service.

Click here to read Psalm 46, and here to read Romans 8:35-39.

Check the Lost and Found.

That’s what we’re told when we’ve lost something. I remember rooting through the lost and found at my elementary school, tossing aside other kids’ orphaned mittens and ratty gym shorts to unearth my own misplaced possessions. Nowadays, the old cardboard boxes have digital cousins, online message boards for folks to cast a wide net to find their missing diamond rings and cats and skateboards.

The other morning on NPR news I heard about a phenomenon that has emerged from the destruction and calamity of Hurricane Katrina. Desperate people have been using sites such as Craiglist to post frantic messages that describe their friends and family members who are unaccounted for. There are thousands of posts describing people like Willie Clairbush, Rosa Lee Sheffield, and Naomi Murray. It is overwhelming to consider that instead of reconnecting people with misplaced accessories, this digital Lost and Found has been transformed into an outpost of hope as people search high and low for their missing loved ones.

The pictures are devastating. Each photograph depicting almost completely submerged houses, each aerial snapshot of gale-broken coastal cities, each panoramic of the despairing refugees holed up in the Louisiana Superdome and Convention Center—they signify so many stories of so many people whose lives have been utterly swept away by wind and rain.

Of course, it is all so terribly familiar. Not even a year ago the tsunami ravaged countless villages in Southeast Asia. This has been a year of deadly water. This has been a year of lamentation.

There are certain things faithful people do when faced with newspaper headlines like the ones we’ve been reading. We pray. We get on our knees and bow our heads, or we sit at our kitchen tables with our palms cupped open to the heavens, and we pray. We lift survivors up to God, petitioning for their safety and protection. And we grieve for the victims, trusting that they are with God.

We also give. We open up our pocketbooks to donate to Week of Compassion and the American Red Cross. Folks in nearby states are opening up their homes to refugees, generously sharing their air conditioning, freshly-laundered sheets, and meals with strangers.

In between our fits of praying and our acts of giving, we also have another task at hand: the important practice of trying to understand the events through the lens of our faith. There are questions to ask—the kinds of questions that don’t easily lend themselves to answers. Why do things like this happen? Why do some people survive and others perish? Does God have a role in natural disasters like hurricanes?

Beliefnet held a straw poll posing the latter question this week, and the answers were diverse. Six percent of the people who participated in the pole believe that God is punishing us. Ten percent believe that God is testing us. Another 29% believe that while the disasters were sent by God, we do not know what the purpose was. Forty-seven percent of those polled believe in God, but think that the supernatural has nothing to do with any specific natural disaster. And 8% believe that God doesn’t exist at all, and that disasters like Hurricane Katrina are just forces of nature.

My own convictions about God do not fit into any of those categories. While many faithful Christians do find it appropriate to attribute natural disasters to the hand of God, I do not.

I wonder if it makes sense, psychologically speaking, to assume that when one is faced with intense suffering, one must be the victim of divine punishment. We seem to be wired with the need to explain anguish. We need to know that suffering has a reasonable cause and a distinguishable meaning. While giving God credit for the storm doesn’t exactly make those who are suffering feel any better, it at least gives them the comfort of a framework through which to understand the events.

However, even if blaming God for the hurricane makes psychological sense, I’m not sure it makes theological sense. In the Book of Genesis, we are told that following the devastation of the flood, God made a covenant to never again harm life with the waters of a flood, and sealed that covenant with a rainbow. In the gospels, Jesus, the very incarnation of God, does not incite the storm on the Lake of Galilee; he calms the storm and soothes the fears of his Disciples. If we believe that Jesus truly reflects the nature of his Heavenly Father, we are invited to trust that our God is a loving and merciful God who would not cause levies to break, windows to shatter, and human beings to go missing.

So I do not think that God is using Hurricane Katrina as a punishment or as a test. But neither do I believe, as 47% of people in that poll stated, that God has nothing to do with any specific natural disaster. God has a lot to do with it, not as a cause but as a comfort. As Psalm 46 declares, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” God is intimately involved with the unfolding of this hurricane, because God is radically present to each and every single living thing that is caught up in its throes. God is with the people stranded on rooftops. God is with the rescuers. God is with the looters. God is with those who hunt desperately for their lost and beloved fathers, brothers, daughters, and friends. To God, those folks are not lost, for no one is lost to God. We are only found, again and again, by God’s amazing grace. For as Paul wrote, “Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation”—and we shall assume that means the waters of tsunami and hurricane alike—nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39.)

When we blame God for natural disasters, when we call chaos an “act of God,” we portray our Creator as a destructive and terrifying foe. When we let God off the hook as the source of tragedy, we open ourselves to experience the gift of God’s comfort.

Maybe it is too easy for me to talk like this. Those of us who are not experiencing suffering have to be very careful when we talk about what it means to suffer. I am acutely aware of the fact that I am waxing poetic about the theological meaning of a hurricane when I am thousands of miles away, dry and unscathed. I have no right to tell someone who has lost everything in a natural disaster that it is inappropriate to be angry at God. Yet I believe that even as the shouts of frustration and cries of lamentation are hurled at God, God continues to console the inconsolable. God continues to be an ever-present source of strength and courage and comfort and peace.

As we consider the role of God in this disaster, we must also consider the role of humanity. In addition to the primary disaster of the hurricane, we have also observed many deplorable responses to the havoc. The nation is truly in an uproar. Stories of unbridled looting and unspeakable violence bear witness to the human capacity to sin. Yet God continues to love our broken humanity. Furthermore, the slow response to deliver aid to the mostly impoverished minorities who were unable to leave New Orleans has given rise to significant questions of justice.

Our merciful and loving God is also a God of justice. Time and time again we are reminded of this. The prophets of the Old Testament cry out for God’s people to do acts of justice. Jesus proclaimed a special blessing on the poor, teaching that the Kingdom of God is theirs. As Christians, we must recognize that God loves and cares about the poor and downtrodden. We must remember that even when it seems as though human beings have been disregarded, God does not abandon them. God shares the burden of their anger and hopes with them that hardened and fearful hearts will be broken with compassion.

I am haunted by Jesus’ words, “for I was hungry and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me…. Truly I tell you, just as you did not to it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” The least of these were marooned without food and drinking water for three, four, five days, and our Servant King was there, waiting and suffering with them.

In this time of loss, of despair, of brackish and fatal waters, we must continue our praying, our giving, and our sober reflection. But let us also take refuge in God, who promises of another kind of water, a river whose streams make glad that city of God (Psalm 46), a river of mercy. That living water will surely overcome the churning waters of death. The living waters will wash away misery, rinse away the stain of sinfulness, cleanse the land of injustice. A thirsty world needs to hear this. We need to hear this. God is faithful, God is gracious, God is present. Hope is never lost when we are found in God. Amen.

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