Every time there’s an earthquake, a tsunami, a landslide, a flood, a volcanic eruption -- any natural disaster that kills hundreds or thousands of people -- someone asks, “Why would God do this?”
Or, more personally, “Why would God do this to us?”
It’s easy to find someone to blame when a truck runs amok down a sidewalk. When a shooter fires into a crowd. Or when an industry poisons a river. It’s harder when a child dies, when cancer strikes.
But who can you blame for natural disasters?
The question, of course, presupposes an answer. It presumes that someone, or something, must be responsible, somehow, for everything that happens -- whether it’s the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago; the origin of life 3 billion years ago; the apple that fell in Newton’s garden in 1666; or the mosquito that bit me yesterday.
Working through a flow chart
In the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami of January 2004, which killed some 400,000 people, a church men’s conference asked me to facilitate a workshop on “Dies God cause natural disasters?”
About 30 men took part. I decided to work through a binary flow chart -- where every question has two options: “Yes” or “No.” The first question, obviously, had to be, “Was God responsible for the tsunami?”
For those who answered, “No,” the debate was over.
But a belief that God does control natural events opened up more options: “Did God want to cause this tragedy?” and “Could God have prevented it from happening?”
Again, if God could not prevent the tsunami, the debate dead-ends -- God is powerless to intervene in natural events. But a positive answer led to a new chain of questions:
“If God wanted this to happen, why?”
“Was God deliberately punishing Indonesians? For worshipping the wrong God?”
“What about the Christians who also drowned?”
A few participants interjected, “But some individuals were saved.” One man had told reporters, “As I was being sucked out to sea, I cried out, ‘Jesus! Save me!’ And He did.”
Doesn’t a miraculous rescue prove that God can intervene in natural events, they asked?
But that in turn led to more questions: “Does God only look after selected favourites?” “Did other Christians call to Jesus and notget saved?” “Do you have to know the right passwords to get God’s attention?”
Why do we pray?
After 90 minutes of exploring such questions, the consensus seemed to be that natural disasters have physical causes, such as the movement of tectonic plates. But they’re not God’s doing.
Whether or not God could intervene, we agreed, God doesn’t.
Then right at the end, one man asked, “I can’t fault our reasoning. But if God isn’t responsible, why do we still pray to Him?” Several others nodded agreement.
I didn’t have an answer. Nor did our flow chart.
But it seems to me, now, that his question also presupposed its own answer . When you talk, you talk to another person, an autonomous being like yourself but different.
Maybe the problem is our reliance on words. Simply by using words, we set up an expectation of who or what we’re talking to.
Maybe the answer is not to talk at all. Just open up. And see what blossoms in the silence.
Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Lots and lots of letters came in about last week’s column, on weeds -- almost a kind of all-dominating addiction for some of you, it seems. This is just a sampling of the letters you sent.
“I can relate to the losing struggle against dandelions,” wrote David Edwards. “However, when I saw someone else's yard -- a solid yellow --I thought, ‘I really shouldn't be complaining so loud about my crop.’
“You have given me a reminder that will be helpful in many situations: ‘Life is more than weeds.’”
Laurna Tallman wrote, “The arthritis in my hands forced an end to my weeding a few years ago. That leaves me free to smell the roses and your vivid story will remind me not to miss them.”
A woman named Marg (no last name given), reminded me that, “Many medicinal herbs are roadside and garden weeds. And herbalists (myself included) have a belief that plants grow where they are needed. You may be tossing out medicine that might be beneficial for you to have around!”
Ruth Buzzard commented on “the beauty around us that we don’t notice because we are not focused on the search for beauty. I focus best with a camera around my neck -- a real camera with manual focusing and exposure settings, not a cell phone.”
Ruth described visiting Death Valley one year when an early-season rain was forecast: “Get up at 3:00 a.m., drive 80 miles to a viewpoint you scouted days ago, set up your tripod and start pressing the shutter as night turns into dawn into daylight. Notice the early light hitting a row of daisies on a ridge, and get a quick shot of the beauty. Notice a series of bare footprints in a muddy spot near the highway, and think of someone emerging from the primordial ooze, and wonder why. Walk into a field of wildflowers and crouch down to look for the best compositions, details and lighting on a single flower. Doesn’t matter what kind of flower, just concentrate on trying to convey its essence. Repeat at 4:00 p.m. to catch the ‘magic hour’ as the light warms before sunset.
“It really doesn’t matter to me what the finished pictures look like. Sometimes I don’t even download them for weeks. It is the act of looking, the search for detail and perfect light. The focus on expressing how I see and feel about the beauty around me.”
“Go dig out your camera and try looking at your flowers through the viewfinder,” Ruth advised. “You’d be surprised how it focuses the mind.”
Isabel Gibson -- who has herself learned to look through her camera lens to see beauty -- wrote about another observer of beauty: “As my mother aged, I watched her become more appreciative of the day-to-day joys. It's not childish but, perhaps, childlike in the best sense: tuned to the moment and able to appreciate it, even while whacking weeds.”
Wilda Bostwick writes her own garden-advice blog. She reminded me, “Weeds are messengers. They are a symptom of disturbed soil. The more you disturb the soil by digging weeds up by the roots, the more the seeds of their cousins get a chance to germinate. The cycle continues, as you've observed, to your chagrin.
“I suggest a cut-and-cover strategy instead. Cut the weed off at its base and cover the ground with mulch -- straw, dried grass clippings, compost -- whatever organic matter is handy. You can even add the carcass of the weed if it hasn't already gone to seed. When the weed's root sends up a new shoot through the mulch, as it will, cut it off before it develops enough leaves to feed the root. After two or three attempts, the root will die of starvation and its remains will feed the soil for the plants you want to nurture.”
You can read Wilda’s further musings at https://wildabostwick.com/weeds/
John Shaffer (the one at Auburn, WN) wrote: “There is at least one momentary satisfaction which I can look at my small plot of garden and declare it (temporarily) weed free. Long ago I learned the biblical truth that sometimes it is better to wait until harvest to deal with the weeds, as pulling a weed may destroy the plant you are cultivating. This is especially true with peas.
“I have had an especially good year with Jerusalem Artichokes. What I thought was a weed turned out to be edible. I also found that my surplus was worth some cash. One can check on-line to see their value, but I was excited to get anything for my surplus crop. One warning: it is an invasive plant, but each plant produces up to five pounds of tubers. My vegetarian friends were happy, up to a point. In 2019 I harvested over 100 pounds of a vegetable I had not even planted in a new garden spot I was assigned in the community garden. Sorry, but I doubt if I can bring it across the border to you.”
A friend told me that, at one point, her depression was so deep that her family found her curled up in a fetal position under their dining room table. Psalm 30 seemed to me to speak to her situation, and maybe that of others similarly afflicted.
1 My God, O my God, what a gift I receive from you!
2 I thought I was born a loser;
you gave me self-esteem.
3 I used to let others speak for me;
I let others think for me.
I felt I was nothing.
You renewed my life.
4 I am not a faulty copy of anyone else, God.
I am me. Thank you.
5, 7 Once I thought God despised me.
But I have felt God's gentle hands lift me into the light.
8 I cried silently in the night, afraid to be heard.
I stifled my own suffering. I thought I didn't matter.
9 I could have died -- but I was afraid no one would notice.
10 "Can anyone hear me?" I cried. "Does anyone care?"
11 And someone did. You heard me, God.
You turned my rainclouds into rainbows;
you stirred spices into the watery soup of my life.
12 I am done with self-abasement.
I will delight in the union of me and in you forever.
For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8
Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. The original website has been closed down, but you can still order the DVD set through Wood Lake Publications, info@woodlake,com
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTcaHe’s also relatively inexpensive!
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet
ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge.