The devastation left in the wake of last Wednesday night's tornadoes is mind-numbing. Mile after mile of homes, businesses, and schools obliterated; 300 men, women and children whose lives were taken by the storms. This weekend millions of Christians throughout the affected areas will make their way to their churches, if they are still standing, looking for hope, strength and comfort. Many will also come looking for answers to the question, "Why?" I wonder what their pastors and priests will say to them?
Some will hear their pastors preach that God's ways are mysterious and that "there are some things we just can't understand." Others will hear their spiritual shepherds call them to trust that "everything happens for a reason," and that God's purposes are being worked out through this terrible devastation, noting that it must be "the will of God." A few will hear their leaders suggest that the death and destruction is God's judgment upon the sins of these communities and that this judgment is meant to lead those who survived to repentance.
This kind of preaching is comforting to some, for it offers the assurance that "God is in control" and that the suffering is purposeful. Yet many others will find the assumptions behind these messages not comforting, but unsettling. The underlying idea is that God called forth the tornadoes and intentionally directed them to strike Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and so many other places last Wednesday night. They will wonder how God could intend the death of children, or the destruction of the homes and businesses of people who were their fellow church members.
But there is a different message many pastors will preach this weekend. They will tell their parishioners that God doesn't send tornadoes. To find the answer to the "Why?" question, these pastors will suggest, one must turn not to a theologian or to the Bible, but to a meteorologist. The meteorologist explains that tornadoes are naturally occurring events that can, with varying degrees of accuracy, actually be predicted (it was the prediction of the tornadoes by meteorologists that saved hundreds if not thousands of lives last Wednesday night). These pastors may even take the time to explain the weather conditions that give rise to tornadoes. It is not God, they will say, but the collision of hot and cold air, that is the answer to the question, "Why?"
Then they will remind their people that just over a week ago, on Good Friday, Christians remembered that the Son of God himself was subjected to pain and suffering, tragedy and loss, such that he cried out, using the words of Psalm 22:1, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" They will note that a religion whose founder was crucified cannot be construed to teach that God's people will never suffer. God seldom suspends the laws of nature, just as God does not remove free will to keep evil people from doing evil things.
These pastors will remind their congregants of the promises found throughout the scripture, exemplified by the confidence of the 23rd Psalmist that, "even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me!" They will draw upon the work of the prophets who promised the exiles of ancient Israel that "he will give you beauty for ashes, and the oil of joy for mourning, and a garment of praise for a spirit of grief, that you might become oaks of righteousness!"
Finally, I suspect many of these pastors will remind their parishioners that just days before the tornadoes, they had celebrated Easter and on that day they had celebrated the fact that neither evil, nor suffering, nor even death will ever have the final word -- not in Jesus' life nor in ours. On the third day Jesus arose. His resurrection proclaims that, in the words of Frederick Buechner, "the worst thing is never the last thing."
And just as the pastors in the affected communities are offering a word of hope, pastors across the rest of the country will be reminding their congregations that Jesus was clear in what he expected of his disciples: that they feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger. These pastors will invite their members to become the hands and feet of God by giving their resources to help the people and communities affected by the storms, and then volunteering their time to go to the affected areas and give themselves to the task of cleaning up and rebuilding and embodying Christ's presence for the afflicted.
Many Christians do not believe God sends tornadoes. But they do believe that God walks with his children through the storms, that he sends his people to help after the storms, and that with and through God there is always hope.
Adam Hamilton is the Senior Pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection and the author of the newly released book, Why? Making Sense of God's Will (Abingdon, 2011) which explores the why questions of life.