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God's Will and the Earthquake in Haiti

The suffering and disaster in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti is, appropriately I think, about all one is hearing about this week.

I won’t presume to add anything new to the matter, but I will remind you of three things:

First: “What can I do to help?”

It seems the best and most frequent answer is, “In addition to your prayers, financial help is most effective right now.”

There are many worthwhile organizations and ministries and governments mobilizing right now, but what we, as St. James’ Episcopal Church, are suggesting is that you support the people of Haiti through Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD, formerly known as The Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief). Specifically, your Vestry has voted to designate this Sunday’s “loose plate” (i.e., all cash and monies that are not payments on pledges) to the relief of suffering in Haiti through ERD.

Many people are unaware that the Diocese of Haiti is a diocese of The Episcopal Church, and I believe that your supporting of Episcopal Relief and Development would not only help the people of Haiti directly, but strengthen ties between our churches for the long run.

As Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said, “I urge your prayers for those who have died, been injured, and are searching for loved ones -- and I urge your concrete and immediate prayers in the form of contributions to Episcopal Relief and Development, who are already working with the Diocese of Haiti to send aid where it is most needed.”

You should also know that the offering at Diocesan Council in Richmond later this month (where your three clergy plus representatives Henry Stribling, Dottie Brannock and John Tello will be representing St. James’) will also be designated to Haiti. We will be adding the St. James’ offering to that offering, so if you are not here on Sunday, but would like your donation to be included, please be sure your check is in by January 25. (Or you can donate directly to ERD here

Second: keep in mind the suffering in Haiti will be long-term, and so will be the response. There will be opportunities over the year, and next several years, to do more to help the people of Haiti through hands-on service opportunities. We’ll have more information on those opportunities after Diocesan Council, but one example right here at St. James’ is we’ve been in conversation with parishioner Karl Reidel whose son Peter had already been planning a medical mission trip to Haiti in late June/early July. So stay tuned for long-term opportunities to provide long-term help.

Third: I know it might come across as piling on, but I just cannot ignore the nonsense that comes out of Pat Robertson’s mouth at times of disaster…times when Christian leaders ought to be sources of light, not darkness.

You’ll recall that in the aftermath of 9-11, he blamed his political enemies for helping make the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon happen, saying, “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'”

Now he’s saying, outright, that the people of Haiti brought their economic poverty on themselves, while strongly implying that they brought this earthquake on themselves, by making a pact with the devil when they wanted freedom from the French.

It’s tempting to ignore statements like this, but to do so leaves them unchallenged, like acrid smoke from a fire lingering long after it’s been put out.

So when someone like Pat Robertson stinks up the national dialog with bad theology like that, we need to open some windows and squirt some orthodox, Biblical air freshener around. In an attempt to do my part in that, let me reprint here, for those of you who want to keep reading, an excerpt from a sermon I preached. It’s title was,

“Comfort all who mourn: Where is God in the middle of suffering?”

Oh, the news:

  • A bus with Bluffton University’s baseball team plunges off an overpass near Atlanta, killing seven people.

  • An unseasonable tornado rips through a high school in Alabama, killing at least eight.

  • A house fire rips through a Bronx apartment, killing ten, including a man’s wife and all four of his children.

We hear about these things and they tear us up.

And there’s a part of us that wonders, “Why?” Why do innocent people suffer and die?

And there’s at least part of us that looks up and asks another question: “How?”

“How can a God of love allow so much tragedy and suffering?”

They are good questions. They are also ancient questions: Job and the Psalmist asked, “Why do the righteous suffer, while wicked people prosper?”

And in Jesus’ day, some people come up and tell him about some people Pilate had killed while they were at worship, mixing their blood with the blood of the sacrifices on the altar.

Jesus says, “Do you think that because they suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than anyone else?” He then makes reference to a natural disaster that might have been “making headlines” in his day: the Tower of Siloam, which collapsed and killed 18 people.

Those people, Jesus says, do you think they were more due for punishment than anyone else, you think they deserved that more, or less, than anyone else?

We watch the evening news or read the morning paper, and ask the same question ourselves.

And sometimes the question is even more personal: faced with a family member’s tragedy, or our own, we ask, “Why?” “Why me?” “Why are these things happening?”

Well, even after 14 years of parish ministry, I don’t know what to say.

But I do know what not to say…

As the chaplain at Williams College said shortly after the death of his adult child:

“I wish some people would get it through their otherwise intelligent heads that God does not go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fist around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. The one thing that should not be said when someone dies is, ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that.”

And yet, too often, whenever we are faced with tragedy, we hear a lot of spiritual diagnoses and pious prescriptions.

We hear scripture after scripture quoted at us as people try to convince us -- out of their own anxiety -- that God is in control of every situation.

But whenever that happens…whenever God is reduced to a glib explanation or a formulaic platitude, it doesn’t work…we’re left feeling emptier, and lonelier, and more confused, than before.

So, what’s the alternative?

The alternative is to be reminded that when tragedy happens, God’s heart is the first of all our hearts to break.

An alternative is to be reminded that while God is the Lord God of all history, and while God does enter into human tragedy and can even redeem it, that is not the same thing as saying God causes tragedy to happen in the first place.

In today’s Old Testament lesson God tells Moses that he sees the people Israel in slavery, and says

I have observed their misery
I have heard their cry
I know their sufferings
I have come down to
bring them up.

God observes human misery…he hears our cries…he knows our sufferings…and no, he doesn’t just “sit there” -- he comes down to bring us up!

In other words, God can redeem -- (that is to say, exchange, or convert) -- something bad into something good. But that is not the same as saying God causes the bad to happen in the first place.

Let me give you a concrete example:

In 1979, a mother and her five-and-a-half-month-old girl named Laura Lamb were driving when they were hit head-on by a drunk driver. The little girl became a quadriplegic as a result of the accident.

The driver was a repeat drunk driving offender who at the time of the accident was going 120 miles per hour.

Not long after the accident, the mother’s mother Candace Lightner joined with other grieving mothers to start Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Now, just about thirty years later, MADD is a nationwide organization with over 600 chapters. They have saved tens of thousands of lives, and have comforted even more.

I believe that God motivated, encouraged, and actively supported the efforts of those mothers.

I believe God helped them -- and is helping them now -- to redeem tragedy, even bring good out of tragedy.

But again: that is not the same as saying God caused the tragedy to happen in the first place.

God observes the misery of his people
God hears our cries
God knows our sufferings
And God comes down in order to lift up,

And God encourages us -- the Body of Christ -- and equips us to do the same:

To work alongside God in preventing man-made tragedy where we can, and to do the best we can to redeem all the rest…to observe suffering around us, not to turn away from it…to hear the cries of the oppressed, and lonely and suffering…to know -- to empathize and share in it…to reach down and help, in order to lift up.

When we do that, we work his true will, which was, and is, and always will be

To bring “good news to the oppressed,
healing to the brokenhearted,
and comfort to all who mourn.”


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