In America’s so-called “bible belt”, Easter morning was sandwiched between devastating storms. While the tornado ripping through St. Louis sucked the windows out of our airport and pummeled neighborhoods roared on God’s Friday, the eve of our Easter weekend, the tornadoes that would devastate entire towns and flatten apartment complexes just south of us was yet to come. For pastors preaching an Easter message of other-worldly salvation, the earthly destruction may have sounded (ominously) harmonious, but for us who preach a message of salvation as an encounter in real time the utter destruction of this week’s storm leaves us speechless.
As an EF5 tornado barrels through town, no amount of human preparedness is relevant. As these killing machines level every created being in it’s path, the inherent beauty of nature is apparently absent. Where is life’s longing for itself? Quite frankly, as I consider the deadly implications of such storms, I understand the ancient’s expression of fear in reference to the divine.
To be sure our human choices compound the misery. Brick homes with strong foundations (basements) provide safer shelter than mobile homes that seem to be ripe for the picking, and these storms once again demonstrated the ways our economic stratification renders the most vulnerable… vulnerable. But when the emergency management building itself in Tuscaloosa is pummeled and abandoned, we are reminded that this is not a story about the human condition but rather about the presence of a power beyond our own. Let’s face it, we are pretty insignificant in the face of a hurling funnel with 200 mph winds.
Which is perhaps the point. Although we have huge untapped agency and potential as human beings, there are ways in which we are utterly helpless. And though I am deeply indebted to Marianne Williamson’s reminder that “our playing small doesn’t serve the world”, neither does our denial of our finitude.
Tragedy like what we’ve witnessed in recent weeks and months stumps both our most scientific and our most spiritual minds.
There are forces more powerful than our own. To be sure, we humans have mastered even the powers of flight so far as to visit the moon itself but in the face of the earth’s rumbling our hubris is not serving us well. Perhaps more than anything, the devastation in Haiti, in Japan, in our own southern states is a prescient reminder that we are human and not divine. To be sure, we have much agency and thus responsibility; but also true is our finitude in the face of creation itself.
With the spiritually crushing weight of powerlessness, the ancients told stories. So too will we. The ancients told stories of gods, because no one god could explain the joy and sorrow of life. The ancients told stories of intimate battles with the gods, because the gods appear as both friend and foe by seemingly indiscriminate turns. The ancients used their stories to describe what they could not understand, fostering hope as their stories placed themselves in contexts where goodness could ultimately win out.
What stories will we tell? One American prophet made an internet buzz last fall when she claimed that a repeal of DADT was causing birds to fall from they sky (seriously, you can’t make this stuff up), reminding us that the stories we tell themselves have consequences. Sometimes our stories look for answers by pointing at scapegoats, and succeed only in furthering misery; these we must avoid. Yet other stories point to mystery and allow us to find peace with what is unknowable. These stories are my favorites.
My heart reels with the devastation and I wonder, ‘how can a good earth unleash such a torrent?’ But is it a torrent when the giant rolls over in sleep? To be sure the mouse in the path of the elephants paw is flattened, but without judgment. Life comes and goes, the sun comes each day and so too tragedy. Perhaps our apparent human need to place judgment on the turns of the earth is the story worthy of reflection.
But for this moment, I simply acknowledge the utter tragedy and weep.