Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 17, September 3, 2017
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (Romans 12:9-13)
I love those beautiful words from the 12th chapter of Romans. And this community of faith has embodied them in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. You have embodied what it means to love one another, to contribute to the needs of the saints, and to extend hospitality to strangers. You have been patient in suffering. You have persevered in prayer. And as that passage goes on to say, you’ve shown what it is to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and to “weep with those who weep.”
You’ve turned to God, although that surely hasn’t been easy for everyone. Even an elderly Christian who showed no fear as she was rescued from rising floodwaters inside a nursing home concluded her statement to The Washington Post by saying, somewhat ambiguously, “God promised he’d never do this again.”
Certain things unfold in the history of the world or in our own personal experiences that cause doubts not only about God’s goodness but also about God’s very existence. And those who rush to God’s defense often make matters worse with hurtful words of false comfort. At times they dishonor God’s holy name more than ecclesiastical outlaws who raise their fists to heaven in moral outrage over innocent suffering.
That kind of rage is often felt in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as the human misery that we’ve seen in the wake of the storm here in Houston or recent news out of central Nigeria, where more than 100,000 people have been displaced because of flooding. However, just like hurricanes and rains that seem like they will never come to an end, humanity itself belongs to the natural order. Our actions that allow others to suffer raise the same kinds of questions as natural disasters. Why is this happening? How can this be? And, ultimately, where is God?
Lt. Jack Harvey of the Houston Police Department is also a member of Palmer
Memorial Episcopal Church and can be see in this video holding a small boy.
Whether looking in the face of nature’s violence, or sins of omission that make bad situations worse, or the flood of human evil that spreads inhumanity in every generation — in all these things people want to know where God is. And, in some cases, they want to know if God is.
But the truth is that it doesn’t take rising floodwaters to float such a question to the surface. Suffering that demands a response can be found all around us, all the time. Neglected children live unseen in many communities, including ours. Maybe friends we want to rescue have made decisions that place them beyond our reach. Battles with disease might be taking place within our own bodies. And all of us will face a time when someone we love becomes lost in the shadow of death.
These experiences compel us to wrestle with God like Jacob, who struggled until daybreak at the River Jabbok. They force us to cry out and watch. And what we do next might make all the difference in the world for ourselves and for those whom God has entrusted to our care.
David Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian with some helpful thoughts about this. He’s the author of a book entitled The Doors of Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? Although written as a reflection on the tragic deaths of more than 225,000 people in Southeast Asia at the end of 2004, his reflections are just as important today in the midst of thinking about the disturbing headlines about Hurricane Harvey in the media, the destruction that we’ve seen with our own eyes, or whatever trials we might be facing ourselves. Surely he is right to suggest that we should all remain silent at first.
Acting in generosity as soon as possible is one thing. And without question we ought to stand close to those suffering the experience of Good Friday. Palmers have done both of those things in remarkable ways, for friends and strangers alike, over the last week. You’ve helped one another clean up flooded homes, brought food to those who’ve needed a good meal, and cried together. But it’s almost blasphemous to seek out a greater meaning for it all before weeping with those who mourn.
The storm that killed those whose bodies have completely filled the city morgue, and whom we’ll remember in our prayers today, isn’t divine retribution. And it isn’t part of some divine plan, as a few streams of Christian theology might suggest, in which someone’s pain is required to show forth the glory of God. We aren’t better people because tragedy of one kind or another didn’t befall us. And we most certainly aren’t better Christians when we stand at a distance and affirm that “everything happens for a reason.”
Reflecting upon that kind of response in the face of a father who lost four of his five children in the tsunami, David Hart states the obvious:
Most of us would have the good sense to be ashamed to speak such words . . . And this should tell us something. For if we would think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them . . .
At the center of our faith stands the cross. So it should come as no surprise that right in the middle of the Nicene Creed we declare that Jesus Christ “was crucified under Pontius Pilate . . . suffered death and was buried.”
This statement anchors our faith not only in the pages of history but also in every experience of God-forsakenness. It brings our faith into the suffering of the world, where God himself has led the way. Perhaps to the surprise of many, we stand beside those who raise their fists to heaven in moral outrage over innocent suffering. That’s because what they protest isn’t God but things that are the enemy of God.
In one of his less familiar stories, J.R.R. Tolkien retells the beginning of all things at Creation. And he includes a helpful image, I think, about the relationship between divine providence and the chaos we encounter loose throughout the world, whether we’re driving down the street of a neighborhood that was flooded or just looking at the hidden messes in our own lives. It reminds me of the final words of our reading from Romans about “[overcoming] evil with good,” which we’ve witnessed countless times in response to the natural evil of Harvey’s wrath.
In the literary imagination of Tolkien, God is represented by Eru, also known as Iluvatar. And Iluvatar first created the Ainur, the Holy Ones, who are like the host of heaven. Iluvatar taught them about music and was very pleased as they began to sing. The more they listened to each other, the more they began to understand one another and to sing in harmony. Iluvatar then spoke to them about a great theme that would bring forth Great Music. And so it did. This Great Music spilled out into the Void, making it no longer a void.
But one of the Ainur, who had spent too much time alone in the void places before the Great Music, wanted to increase the importance of his own part. And these thoughts became part of his music, disrupting the harmony that surrounded Iluvatar. As Tolkien describes it: “the melodies . . . foundered in a sea of turbulent sound . . . a raging storm as of dark waters that made war one upon another in an endless wrath that would not be assuaged.”
And this is where Tolkien provides a helpful way to think about God’s interaction with the world. Iluvatar arose, smiled, and lifted up his left hand. A new theme with its own beauty evolved in the midst of the storm, but the discord grew more violent than before. So Iluvatar arose with a stern countenance and lifted up his right hand. Yet another theme arose above the confusion. The music without harmony could not overtake the other. In fact, in the words of Tolkien, “its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.”
But the strife continued and rippled out into the silences that had never been disturbed. For a third time, Iluvatar arose and “his face was terrible to behold.” Iluvatar raised up both hands. He brought forth a single chord “deeper than the Abyss” and “higher than the Firmament.” Suddenly . . . the Music came to an end.
Iluvatar explained that it was impossible to destroy the Music. Anyone who attempted to do so would become another instrument in creating things yet more wonderful. Finally, Iluvatar took the Ainur into the Void and said, “Behold your Music!” And before them appeared a new World.
For me, that’s a helpful way to think about not only the world as it is but also the new creation that awaits us. In Tolkien’s story, God isn’t the source of discord — the chaos in the world and within us. And God is not pleased with such freedom abused. Yet God is able to create anew, bringing good out of evil and the chaos to an end.
For those who prefer less indirect speech about such weighty matters, I turn again to the words of David Hart. His final thought leaves nothing more to be said:
God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable . . . he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and . . . rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and he that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”
1 BACK TO POST Romans 12:15.
2 BACK TO POST Kevin Sulliavan, Arelis R. Hernández, and David A. Fahrenthold, “At least 22 confirmed dead as Harvey pivots toward Louisiana,” The Washington Post, August 29, 2017.
3 BACK TO POST Associated Press, “More than 100,000 displaced by flooding in central Nigeria,” The Washington Post, September 1, 2017.
4 BACK TO POST David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) 37.
5 BACK TO POST Genesis 32:22-32.
6 BACK TO POST Hart 6.
7 BACK TO POST Hart 100.
8 BACK TO POST J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, second edition, edited by Christopher Tolkien (New York: Ballantine, 1999) 3-12. The quotes and the language that I adapted for the retelling of this story are taken from here.
9 BACK TO POST Romans 9:21.
10 BACK TO POST Hart 104.