In the days that followed the disastrous tsunami of Dec. 26, United Church News invited theological reflections on the ages-old question of God's whereabouts during times of great human suffering.
Here are some of the poignant responses we received.
'The Lord is not in the waves'
"The Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind." (I Kings 19.11)
The author of I Kings asserts that God was not in the destructive wind that rent mountains. Admittedly, this remains a matter of dispute among biblical authors, some of whom assume that God is very much in, and responsible for, mighty and destructive winds. But this ancient author represents the view of many modern theologians and Christians: God does not orchestrate destruction to this or that corner of the world.
God was not in the wind. Neither was God in the Asian tsunamis.
We have watched, helpless and horrified, as mighty waves overwhelmed islands and mainland wreaking havoc, spreading terror, taking lives, destroying homes and property. Yet, God was not in the waves. Where, then, is God? With those who suffer. With those who are grieving and wounded and afraid. God is also in the arms that reach out in assistance: in disaster relief efforts such as Church World Service. We are not, after all, helpless. Through the UCC, in partnership with other agencies and organizations, each of us can reach out with practical care.
Numb and disbelieving, with tears streaming down our cheeks, let us be in prayer for the lost and grieving, for the suffering ones, for the rescuers. Because, in so doing, we refuse to let them drown alone, or suffer alone, or grieve alone or rescue alone. Through our prayers, we engage in an act of remembering and empathy, of vigil and intercession that accords with the pathos of our God.
The Rev. Nancy S. Taylor is pastor of Old South UCC in Boston.
An intelligent person's guide to disaster
The Rev. Tahir Wijaya, pastor of the Methodist Church in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, takes a break from cleanup duties at the church. Mike DuBose, UMNS | ACT International.
The tsunamometer has gone off worldwide. Tidal waves of the current proportion get our attention. They may even get our attention in a large enough way to replace the last attention- getting mystery, September 11, 2001. The proportions of this disaster, over 150,000 dead are so large that they defy explanation.
The first thing an intelligent person does in response, therefore, is to resist explanation. Someone asked me if this was global warming at work. Someone else assured me this was God's will. Yet another person told me she could no longer enjoy her Christmas gifts. They had lost meaning in the great ocean swell.
Explanation, at times of great suffering, is not "nonsense," but it is "no sense." Explain to me why Suzie's 18-year-old daughter and her boyfriend died in the car crash, caused by the 78-year-old driver who survived it. I dare you to satisfy my curiosity.
Catching meaning sometimes strangles it. We live as disenchanted people—with or without tsunamis—because we put reality in too small a box.
Providence tries to tame fate and bend it towards hope. So, when we experience a great disaster, even as bystanders, we go providential. We act towards hope. We do something. We send money. We turn to charities we trust.
We cannot help the whole situation, but we can help a little. We get acquainted with our own smallness and insignificance in disaster. This is a time for lament.
The Rev. Donna Schaper is pastor of the North Hadley UCC in Massachusetts.
Relief supplies from around the world pour into the airport at Banda Aceh, Indonesia, following the Dec. 26 tsunami. Mike DuBose, UMNS | ACT International.
One hesitates to speak a word. For words fail us.
Yet, throughout history, people of faith alongside those of no faith at all, have asked the question "Why?" What was it Robert Louis Stevenson wrote? "If I from my spy hole, looking upon a fraction of the universe, yet perceive some broken evidences of a plan, shall I be so mad as to complain that all cannot be deciphered?"
The great Scottish preacher, the Rev. James Stewart, said to his congregation, "I think the attempt to solve the enigma is rather like learning a foreign language. You read a page, and you understand perhaps only a word or two here and there.
But you do not on that account say—'This book is nonsense!' ...You say, 'Because I recognize a word here and there, ... one day I shall understand.'
"Yes, even now there are ... beams of light flung out [in] the darkness. It is these that we must now try to follow. And it may be we shall come to see our darkness, if not dispelled, at least redeemed and robbed of ... its fears by one light, far steadier and brighter than all the rest: The light of the love and victory of God on the face of Jesus Christ."
One hesitates. One sighs. One says his or her prayers. One helps where one can. One struggles to live by faith.
The Rev. Frederick R. Trost, former Wisconsin Conference Minister, now retired, lives in Middleton, Wis.
God's work is 'new possibility'
Refugees outside a camp near Palattadichchenai, Sri Lanka, begin to return home to rebuild their homes and lives. Paul Jeffrey | ACT International.
"So what is God up to lately?"
Not being used to such a greeting from my hairdresser, I looked at him quizzically. He went on to say that he was trying to figure out why God sent that tsunami and what it meant.
"Danny, I don't believe God had a thing to do with that tsunami hitting. It's about an aging earth, about tectonic plates shifting, about environmental stresses that we don't yet know how to measure or understand. It is not about God sending a tsunami! God is in our response, in our generosity, in our compassion and our ability to understand that we are one earth and all God's people."
He looked at me in the mirror and said, with amazement in his voice, "Nobody's saying that. Everybody's blaming God. What you just said makes all kinds of sense!"
Another hairdresser and a customer joined in the conversation, and it took off from there. They had all had similar thoughts but had needed the validation of a clergyperson to allow them to voice them.
Mind you, I believe God is in charge of this world. I just don't believe that God is pulling strings like a giant puppeteer and causing catastrophes. I don't even believe it's God testing us. I simply believe that disasters happen naturally, sometimes caused by our human disregard for the earth, and that God works in and through us to create new possibility in our relationships with one another and with the world and earth.
The Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree is Minister and President of the UCC's Connecticut Conference.
'When the creation falls'
A young girl shares a tent with several other families' children at a camp for people displaced by the Dec. 26 tsunami in Bateilik, Indonesia. Mike DuBose, UMNS | ACT International.
Years ago in my small town of Heavener, Okla. (population 1,800), an old man in our church got gangrene in his leg and had to have it amputated. One night, during our town-wide thanksgiving service, a well-intentioned preacher in the community commented that it was the man's sin that did it.
"I knew him when we was kids," he intoned. "He had too many women that weren't his wife, and now God's taken that leg from him to teach him the wages of sin."
Then Charlie Wilson, a Methodist and a recovering alcoholic who knew a thing or two about sin, said, "If God was in the business of ripping off legs of anybody who messed around some when they was kids, then every man, woman and child over the age of fifteen in this town would be walking around today with a limp."
The preacher never forgave Charlie for saying that, and I don't think I've ever appropriately thanked him.
There is a cruel theology that says that when someone dies it is because God did it to teach or test us—or punish us. That belief is wrong. And believing it sets us up for unbelief when we see an innocent father having his equally innocent baby torn from his arms by uncontrollable waters.
God did not cause a teenage drunken driver to kill my father years ago, when he was with his bride-to-be on their way home from a party the day before their wedding. Nor did God kill my step-father by forcing him to suffer a series of ghastly strokes that weakened him for five terrifying years until he finally could only die to find relief.
God doesn't kill people. God doesn't cause tsunamis, any more than God caused the hurricanes in the Caribbean or the idolatrous ideologies that drove us to war in Iraq.
God is in the mending, not the destroying. God's hand is in suffering's resolution, not its cause.
God is in the relief workers, the doctors, the volunteers, and in the heroic acts of people who saved their neighbors and rescued survivors. God's acts are to make the creation more whole, more "good." And when the creation falls, God is in the midst of the wounded, working for reconciliation.
The Rev. Stan Duncan is pastor of Abington UCC in Massachusetts.
Our theft of 'godly shalom'
Children play in the mud left behind by the surges of water. (Indonesia - Meulaboh). Orla Clinton, Church of Sweden | ACT International.
Some years ago earthquakes and tsunamis were classified as "acts of God." Now they are generally called "acts of nature." Both definitions raise theological questions about God and God's involvement in the world.
If we believe that a good God has given freedom of action to both humans and nature, then there is always a possibility of tragedy built into it. Evolution is still going on in the movement of tectonic plates, and so is devolution. I would argue, however, that the most crucial theological questions arise in the category of "acts of humankind." We humans could have prevented many of the recent deaths had we installed a Tsunami Warning System in the Indian Ocean as we have in the Pacific, or had not been destroying coral beds and dense mangrove buffers along the shores that break up watery surges.
We as a people and richest nation in the world are now challenged to be special channels of God's love to the suffering survivors, both in the short haul and in the longer one of helping to restore community infrastructures and livelihoods, to repair and heal human and natural brokenness.
The $2.2 billion we spend for another B-2 bomber, the $225 million for another F-22 Raptor tactical fighter jet, the $228 million a day we spend on the ongoing U.S. war in Iraq, the $40+ million we spend on a lavish inauguration—all of these become theft from this godly enterprise of repairing, healing and creating shalom.
The Rev. Theodore A. Braun, a retired UCC pastor, lives in Pleasant Hill, Tenn.
'God's creation tosses and turns'
Years ago, I heard this memorable phrase: "What is—is." When I wish that the world were different, those words call me back to reality.
Tsunamis, genocide, hunger, epidemics—I wish they weren't, but they are. When I'm entangled in the "why?" of them, theologian Wendy Farley's words speak to me:
"Fragility and conflict cannot be exorcised from creation but must coexist with the wonder and beauty of nature as the price finitude pays for existence." And, she says, "Nothing separates God from the world, but suffering can be a veil that hides this loving presence. In the midst of suffering, compassion labors to tear the veil."
God's creation tosses and turns. Waters rise, wars rage; we suffer and we grieve. This is what is, but not all that is. God's tenacious love tirelessly comforts and ceaselessly resurrects. Faith, I think, is trusting in this undergirding, holy goodness, which lets us sing with confidence the words of an anonymous hymn writer: "Both in our living and in our dying, we belong to God, we belong to God."
The Rev. Ann B. Day, a UCC minister, lives in Holden, Mass.
'The awful grace of God'
India stood amid piles of rubble where once there were homes, in front of his crumbling church. He swept his eyes over the damage, then looked into the camera and said sadly, "How can I tell my people that God still loves them? There are no words."
I have been haunted by the priest's question, holding it close in this new year. I've wished often that we could go back to the days when "tsunami" was just an odd-sounding word; before we knew about all the orphaned children—and the parents who stumble in sorrow to the edge of the sea every day, looking for it to return what it claimed.
But I carry another question as well, one that echoed in my heart as I was falling asleep on Christmas night.
My Mother and I had enjoyed the special buffet at her retirement center at noon. We spent the afternoon planning her funeral service. It's not how I would have chosen to spend Christmas Day; but Mom, who suffers from dementia, had trouble remembering it was Christmas, and it's what she needed to do.
When time for dinner arrived, I discovered that she had no food except cereal in her apartment. She wanted us to go out to eat. I reminded her one more time that it was Christmas Day, and said that we were unlikely to find anything open. She assured me that we'd find something to eat.
We drove to several closed restaurants, then saw lights on at the Asia Inn. Inside, a young woman with a warm smile, one of two sisters who own the restaurant, explained that it wasn't actually open. She was there to feed her extended family, which included her sister, their husbands, children and mother.
As Mom and I turned to go, she said gently, "No, you must stay. Nothing is open. Please—share our table with us." The sisters brought out pitchers of water, followed by lo mein and chicken with mixed vegetables, then fortune cookies. The warm generosity of that Chinese Buddhist family toward us on Christmas night touched something deep in Mom, awakening a flood of memories that she shared on the ride home, starting with poignant stories about the Vietnamese refugees to whom she taught English 30 years ago.
I fell asleep that night recalling the events of the day and whispering, "How do I merit such grace? There are no words." So I enter this new year carrying the priest's question and my own, embracing the anguish and the awe. I have witnessed both the devastating power of a tidal wave, and the transforming power of strangers sharing water around a table on a cold, Christmas night. And I am made speechless by both.
"Even in our sleep," wrote the poet Aeschylus, "pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God."
Joyce Hollyday is an Associate Conference Minister for the UCC's Southeast Conference and a co-pastor of Circle of Mercy UCC in Asheville, N.C.
'When there is no one to blame'
The tsunami disaster is difficult because there is no one to blame. When people die because of preventable disease, or in war, or because of an evil dictator, or because of tribal genocide, someone is at fault. Someone did a sinful or evil thing and we can get angry and punish those who are to blame.
Even famines and floods are often the result of bad environmental policies. If someone or some government had done the right thing, we think, it would not have happened. It is true that if there had been a warning system in the Indian Ocean some of the destruction on Dec. 26 could have been prevented. But much of it would have happened anyway, with great loss of life and property.
When there is no one to blame, we all look for someone or something to blame. We ask, where is God? Yet, for me, this is not a legitimate question.
God is where God always is—creating, redeeming and sustaining the world. God is trustworthy and does not forsake the human community. God's divine presence and power, however, are still a mystery and beyond human logic.
God is not absent in this disaster and God did not cause this disaster. As a Christian. I believe that God was in Christ reconciling the world. I do not know how God does this. I also do not understand how God is present in this tsunami disaster. Yet, I remain confident that nothing can separate us from God.
In this disaster, we discover new things about God, about the human community and about ourselves.
The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund is a Global Ministries' missionary associate at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.
'The possibility we can share'
In the midst of the worst that happens in the world, God is at work. God is turning us into more caring people. Perhaps, the water that drowned thousands of people is also a cleansing water, a water of drowning individual ambitions, washing away greed and self-centeredness, so that we reach out with help and comfort with gifts that enable them to rebuild, to renew, to refresh.
It is Jesus the Christ working in and through people as they are touched by this terrible tragedy. Millions are sending gifts, school children are having projects to raise money, churches are digging deep to send relief. People of great faith and people of little or no religious faith are being extravagantly generous.
Our own UCC—which has an ad campaign telling of our extravagant welcome to all—is now saying that this "extravagant welcome" must be matched by "extravagant generosity." On Jan. 4, our denomination announced that it is pledging $300,000 to assist victims of the tsunami. $93,000 was shared within hours of the tragedy because you gave to [the UCC's] One Great Hour of Sharing last spring. This is where God is at work. Where is God? God is in you, working to open hearts to the possibility that we can share.
The Rev. Anne D. Kear is pastor of First Congregational UCC in Longmont, Colo. Her words are excerpted from a sermon given on Jan. 9.
'God is not a micro manager'
I've heard some really bad, judgemental theology lately which makes me incredibly angry and deeply sorrowful. I believe God no more willed the death, destruction and despair caused by this Tsunami than God willed any of the murders which were committed in our nation last week.
God is not a micro manager. Nature runs its awesome course. Bad things happen. God does not promise to keep us from pain and suffering, but rather to walk with us and never leave us.
Where is God in the tragic Tsunami? God was in the last embrace shared by parent and child as the waters raged. God is in our tears of grief. God's presence is made known as one reaches out to comfort another. God acts in and through human beings—including our UCC partners that are mounting relief efforts, our UCC members and friends that are praying and donating.
Where is God in the tragic Tsunami? God is with us.