by Pastor Doug Kings
We are very deeply grateful that AMI and our church building came through the storm in good shape. Thank you for your prayers, support, and understanding.
The sound of chainsaws is continuous in our Bradenton neighborhood. Downed branches, limbs and some whole trees, along with power and other outages, are the main consequences here of Hurricane Ian. Pictures from communities further south show the devastation “that could have been” had the storm followed an earlier projected path. Our good fortune has meant catastrophic destruction for others.
Or so it seems. It’s an interpretation we often apply to situations where others suffer but we do not. The Chicago Tribune published a story this week about the fiftieth anniversary of a terrible commuter train collision on the city’s southside. (I remember it especially because my father happened to be in a nearby hospital at the time.)
Dozens were killed and hundreds injured in the crash. Interviews with survivors showed many still struggling with what has since come to be known as “survivor’s guilt.” Why did I come out alive but my friend did not? Why did I pick this seat to sit in or that car, and not some other? Why did I get up just a little late and miss that train and have to take the next one?
The questions we can spin out in such situations are endless because the possibilities resulting from chance and coincidence are endless. But this is not just the consequence of choices we make. It is the nature of the world we live in. Randomness is inherent in the universe.
We’ve probably all heard of chaos theory, which attempts to make sense of the unpredictability of existence. In the most famous example, the flutter of a butterfly’s wings in Africa starts a chain of events resulting in a hurricane thousands of miles away. Space telescopes have shown a universe of objects and forces in continuous collisions with each other. In fact, science tells us that the universe would only be what it is, and we would only be what we are, because of those collisions and upheavals.
People have long struggled to accept or make sense of such randomness. Ancient writers, including those of the Bible, often felt the need to interpret events as signs of divine favor or judgement. Since suffering is more difficult to accept than blessings, God’s hand has often been seen in various disasters, right up to the present day.
Famously, Pat Robertson claimed to “pray away” a hurricane that threatened his CBN headquarters in Virginia. Critics quickly jumped on the obvious problem with such thinking: if true, his prayers then led to disaster and suffering for people living where the hurricane went instead. Equally absurd was Jerry Falwell’s declaration that hurricane Katrina was a judgment on New Orleans for hosting a gay themed festival. Again, if true, how could this explain the suffering of the countless people who had nothing to do with the event?
Luke tells the story of Jesus being asked about the deaths of people in a building collapse. He responded that they were no worse than anyone else. The meaning of events is only what we give them. The question is not what a disaster means but do we “mean”, what do our lives mean, in its light. What does the suffering of others tell us about ourselves?
The answer, of course, is in our response. This is the obvious meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Today, however, with mass communication and a global economy, “neighbor” can mean everyone on the planet. Such an awareness can be overwhelming and leave us feeling helpless or cynical.
Yet compassion is not something that arises on a case-by-case basis. Rather, love is our inherent nature for “God is love” 1 John says, and we are created in God’s image and likeness. Neighbors in need, near or far, become opportunities, according to Jesus, to let the love of God, always within us, to shine like a lamp on a lampstand for all to see.
Events of this past week also remind us of a fundamental truth we often resist: life and all that exists is transient. Whether it is a hurricane or noticing another wrinkle in the mirror, if we are observant, nature is constantly reminding us that everything is changing, all the time. Despite our assumptions, science says that the universe is fundamentally energy, not matter. No “thing” ever lasts, however much we cherish it.
The pain of loss is real, and inevitable. Suffering, however, the Bible and all the world’s religious traditions tell us, comes from clinging to those things which have no permanent reality. The Ian events of life, large and small, remind us of this but also help us recognize what is real: the love we receive from our neighbor and the love we extend to them. Love is what is permanent and lasting and where we can put our trust and hope. It is the one thing on which we can rely. For as Paul writes in Romans, nothing “in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God.”
Blessings in your life and ministry.