May 26, 2013
You may remember when I started preaching in Midwest City I said I wouldn’t pick out Scripture passages to nail you with a point I wanted to make. Instead I said I would work with the Lectionary selections to help us listen for the voice of God as we read them together. Sometimes as I puzzled over what connected the recommended passages, I found fresh insights into present situations. Sometimes the correlation between the text and current circumstances has been startling.
When we knew Mike Snell would be coming June 1, I looked ahead at the May lectionary and saw that it focused on Jesus’ farewell to his disciples at the Last Supper in John. I thought, how appropriate that my last Sunday to preach to you would be from John 16:12-15.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
When Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you,” I pondered what I still had to say to you. I concluded that I’ve said everything God has given me opportunity to say to you, and I should leave it at that. Then came the tornados, with their destruction, and my mind jumped to Romans 5:3-4 where Paul wrote, “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Putting this up against the deaths, injuries and destruction from the tornados, I thought, “My suffering is minuscule, and I don’t dare tell someone else to boast in their suffering.” Yet, my focus shifted to listening for the voice of God in the wake of the tornados.
Jesus was aware that the disciples could not bear some of what he still had to say to them. I would concur that any response to tragedy that is too simplistic or that dismisses or diminishes the pain of those who suffer is not from God. Yet, when we cry for answers that we cannot bear, the Holy Spirit does pour God’s love into us with the hope of sharing God’s glory.
I have sat on both sides of the spiritual director’s candle to both ask and answer, “Where can you find the hand of God in this event?” As I have listened to the news this week, people seem to be answering that question without knowing it.
Fred Rogers’ encouragement to “look for the helpers” has been frequently repeated. We have celebrated brave teachers and tireless first responders. We have affirmed our fundamental human connections. We have expressed gratitude for spontaneous generosity.
We have heard expressions of gratitude for the little details of life: a recovered pet, the finding of an heirloom, the preservation of a personal creation such as a painting, the appreciation for cold water and a hot meal.
We have heard perspectives on life’s priorities. “The house and car are gone, but they are only things. We are all alive and together.” “We’ll recover from our losses and injuries. We pray for those who have lost loved ones.” Though not in these words, many have affirmed that when we cry for answers that we cannot bear, the Holy Spirit does pour God’s love into us with the hope of sharing God’s glory.
That there are so few confirmed deaths when there was such extreme and widespread destruction is amazing. But being thankful for that cannot diminish the magnitude of this tragedy, especially for those whose loved ones died, which is most acute for children. Finding the hand of God in natural disaster tests our most basic presuppositions. We can blame human malevolence for things like the Murrah bombing, the 9-11 attack, the Boston Marathon bombing, but to blame or at least question why God allows natural disaster is both expected and profoundly unsettling and disorienting.
Not even hardened atheists will object to the frequent references to prayer and faith in the interviews with tornado victims. Who could fault a teacher for praying while trying to keep children from being sucked out of a bathroom shelter? Almost without exception the parents whose children were killed spoke of hanging onto their faith, which they felt was getting stronger in this time of crisis. In calmer circumstances, they might have debated the content of that faith, but now that didn’t matter.
Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) wrote of desolations as a normal part of the spiritual journey. St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) wrote of the dark night of the soul as an entrance to an intimate relationship with God. As counterintuitive as it seems, some people become more acutely aware of God when God seems absent and silent. No one seeks the dark night of the soul, and no one grieving a tragedy should be told “Get over it. In the end you’ll see it was best.”
We do not “get over” tragedies. We incorporate them into our very being. They become permanent parts of who we are, especially when we can’t explain them. When we cry for answers that we cannot bear, the Holy Spirit does pour God’s love into us with the hope of sharing God’s glory.
Jesus told the disciples that since they couldn’t bear the things he still had to say to them, the Holy Spirit would guide them into all the truth and declare the things that are to come. He was not talking about the culmination of human history and his return in glory. No, Jesus was telling the disciples about what was to come for them in the near future. Until the Holy Spirit came they could not have grasped their mission or what they would go through to pursue it.
You may remember in Greek mythology the story of Icarus who flew with wings of feathers and wax. When he flew too near the sun, the wax melted and he plunged into the sea. The painting Landscape on The Fall of Icarus, attributed to Pieter Bruegel around1560, is a pastoral scene, and you have to look hard to find Icarus’ foot above the water, completely unnoticed by the farmer or anyone else in the painting. You can see it at the QR code or website on the bulletin, along with poems by W. H. Auden and William Carlos Williams that comment on it. Life goes on after tragedy, sometimes unaware of tragedy. (look under recent posts at http://fccmwc.org/)
First Christian Church will respond with generous compassion to last week’s tornados, as you did to the Murrah bombing. This will be a landmark on your journey as a congregation, and is likely to be more indelible than my 9 months with you. Yes, life will go on, but you are being changed. Jesus has promised that the Holy Spirit will guide you into all the truth and declare to you the things that are to come next. Mike Snell will be your pastor in a new era of ministry that will be changed in unexpected ways because of last week’s tornados.You have left an imprint on Candy and me. By opening your lives and welcoming us, you have shaped us in ways we will treasure. With two interim pastoral experiences, I feel I have somewhat more credibility than I did when we started together last August. I’m still pondering the significance that one of my last pastoral roles with you will be Geraldine Morgan’s funeral after having lived in her house these last nine months. Perhaps we are all like Reepicheep the Mouse in C. S. Lewis’ Narnia story The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. As he was leaving the children to paddle off the end of the world into Aslan’s country, he tried to be sad for the children but was quivering with anticipation of what was ahead.