My wife and I watched the local television coverage the night of May 20, 2013, the day the city of Moore Oklahoma was devastated by a massive tornado. The scenes were too familiar to those of us raised in the state. Houses turned to matchsticks, whole neighborhoods suddenly leveled, cars upturned and splattered in mud. Early interviews rarely encounter people who lost everything. For now, if they appear on camera at all, it's in scenes of them picking through the rubble that was once their homes, stunned, unable to comprehend that everything for which they worked and saved is gone. Words will have to wait.
So the reporters turn first to those who survived relatively unscathed -- where they sought shelter, how the tornado sounded when it passed, what they were thinking. I listened, hoping against hope that the words I dreaded to hear would not be spoken this time and then there they were: "My wife and I got in the bathtub and pulled a mattress over us. She was scared but I told her that if we prayed the Lord would protect us. So we prayed and we came out unharmed and our house was spared. The Lord took care of us."
My wife's response to this impromptu witness was, "Tell that to the children buried under the walls of the school." I wondered why his prayer was so selfish. If he believed so strongly in the efficacy of his prayer, why not expand the area of protection beyond his own house so that many others would be spared as well.
Perhaps I shouldn't be so hard on the guy. When I was seven years old, I made a makeshift altar among the cobwebs and preserved peaches in my great-grandparent's fruit cellar when a tornado barreled toward our little community. In the middle of a crisis, we tend to turn inward, a natural reflex toward self-preservation.
While I believe that most people who make such statements are focused more on the joy and relief of escaping a potentially tragic situation, that doesn't mean that their theology doesn't have harmful consequences. The words that give expression to their own euphoria sound insensitive at least, and judgmental at worst, to the hearts of those grieving total loss. Were their prayers not heard? Was their faith insufficient to hold back the forces of destruction? Now they are victims not merely of the whims of nature but of their own shortcomings or even an angry God.
When confronted with difficult times, especially disasters, we try to bring some order to the chaos. People of faith often over-interpret safety as divine affirmation of one's particular beliefs or goodness and perceive tragedy as punishment or, even worse, that it was sent "to teach a lesson."
For Jesus, it's not that simple. "The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike," he said. And when asked to give his blessing to the notion that bad things only happen to bad people he referenced a catastrophe that made local headlines. A tower in Siloam had collapsed, killing 18 people. "Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you." Age may have weakened the foundation, or the contractor used shoddy materials, or they may just have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but their deaths certainly had nothing to do with their spiritual disposition.
So where is God in all of this? I have to believe that God is present with those who survived and those who perished, with those who breathe sighs of relief and those still in pain. For some, the divine presence is experienced as a sense of assurance deep in one's soul. For others, it's found in remembering the stories of generations who endured unspeakable agony. For many, God shows up in the form of selfless rescue workers who work through the night, and of monetary gifts from around the world for people the donors will never meet or know their names, and in the embrace of friends and neighbors who will accompany them each step of the way on the rocky road to new life.