Tornadoes, Tragedy, and Trying to make Sense of it All

The images of the tornadoes are there, displayed at somebody else’s expense, an unfortunate testimony to the fact that we humans are morbidly curious. The dangerous weather events that caused such devastation in Oklahoma and Texas have left tragedy in their wake, and newspeople can’t quit showing it and talking about it, and we can’t look away. There are a lot of reasons we look at the news coverage when other people are devastated. We are somber over other peoples’ loss, and concerned about survivors. We are curious about people we know in the affected areas, and wonder how they are. We hope for survivors in the wreckage, and grieve over those who didn’t. We see dazed, heartbroken victims, anxious relatives, and aerial views of what must be worse than a war zone. The wreckage from the tornadoes is otherworldly, like something out of a movie, but full of details only reality could provide. Cars have been twisted and tossed like little toys; houses, businesses, street signs and landmarks are all just gone, leaving nothing behind but trash covered slabs and debris-strewn fields that used to be neighborhoods just like ours. Victims have lost possessions, vehicles, photos and heirlooms, personal belongings, shoes, cell phones, computers, homes, everything. As a result, people are glued to television and the internet, listening to stories, looking at images of utter destruction from the deadly tornadoes.

Some just gawk, relieved it wasn’t them. Some try to learn about safety, playing “what if” scenarios in their heads and evaluating potential survival strategies should such a thing happen to them. Some are motivated by the tragic scenes of ground zero to respond, to offer help. People outside the boundaries of the tragedy analyze it, break it down, and speculate about how it happened, and why. Survivors within the tragedy are struck by the randomness of it all, and are grateful for God’s protection and their good fortune. A quick scan of Facebook shows several themes about the deadly tornadoes and the destruction they left in their wake in Moore, in Cleburne, in Granbury… Some thank God for his blessing, because they or their possessions were spared; many express grief or sympathy, or provide what they hope is helpful information; and there are posts saying that schools were damaged as a result of God’s judgment: since we have taken Him out of schools, He has not protected them from natural disaster. Questions arise out of the wreckage. Did God cause this storm? Did he select certain homes for destruction while blessing others by leaving them intact? Did He judge elementary school children for the fact that we have separation of church and state?
How can a loving God allow this to happen? A couple of observations:
1. Under the vast umbrella of God’s sovereignty, in the same place he allows us choice about what house to buy, what food to eat, who to fall in love with, there is a provision for human will, for cause and effect. Solomon said, “I have seen something else under the sun: the race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant, or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” Because we have the ability to make choices, we live in a world that is subject to the vagaries of cause and effect, of time and chance. Ultimately, yes, God allowed the environment that leaves room for tornadoes, and they fall under His domain; but the storms happen because we live with choices in a fallen world. Wouldn’t a loving God cause such tragedies to cease? He only would if He was going to circumvent our ability to choose, and He loves us too much to do that. I certainly believe in God’s sovereignty, and that all things happen within His will. I might concede that God does intervene in this world to exert His will at times, but I also believe He allows random things to happen because He loves us enough to let us make choices.
2. Is God’s blessing indicated by survival? I want to tread lightly here, because I would not presume to know all about God’s blessing, or to dispute with anyone who felt that they had received blessing from God. But a couple of things: if God blessed those who survived, does that necessarily mean He cursed those who didn’t? It’s hard to have one without the other. Perhaps we need to recalibrate our assumptions about blessing. God’s blessing is not found in material things, it is not found in prosperity, and it may or may not be indicated by survival. What if God’s blessing is just His presence and His peace? What if it comes from His being with us in the midst of tragedy, rather than His protecting us from harmful events? God’s blessing could exist then in every outcome, not just the ones that favor us circumstantially. We could find His blessing everywhere, and encounter His supernatural peace and presence in the wreckage of natural disasters, in difficulty and disease, as well as in seasons of prosperity and good fortune. Don’t hesitate to thank God for blessing us with love, health, and possessions; but don’t fail to thank Him for blessing us within devastation, loss, and grief. Paul wrote to Timothy that he encountered trials and tribulation at Antioch, Iconium, and Derbe, but was delivered out of all of them. Sure enough, in Acts we read that Paul discovered and escaped from plots to execute him in Antioch and Iconium. However, at Derbe he was stoned by an angry mob and left for dead. (yes, he was struck repeatedly by large, heavy rocks until he was battered and bruised and assumed dead) Apparently Paul’s definition of deliverance is different than mine. What he knew, and what he taught is that sometimes God’s deliverance (blessing) is FROM the stones; sometimes, it is THROUGH the stones.
3. Did God judge elementary school kids for the fact that we have taken Him out of schools? This is almost too ignorant an assumption to address, but the short answer is “no, He didn’t.” In Luke 13, Jesus is asked if some Galileans who had been killed by Pilate deserved to die. He asked, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” He extends the example to an accident in which the Tower of Siloam fell on unsuspecting bystanders. Jesus uses tragedy to teach that for every one of us, the harsh lessons of life should call us to evaluate ourselves, to be accountable, and to humbly repent before God. But he clearly says that the victims of these tragic events were not selected because of their sin. When bad things happen, we should turn to God.
4. If God cares about us, why are there tornadoes? Why does He allow such tragedy? I think there are lots of ways to approach this, but I will choose one: God’s concern for us is not contained in the prevention of tragedy, but in His participation in it. He is not some cosmic Being, sitting majestically removed from us in the heavens, He is “god-with-us”, who humbled Himself, suffered the death on the cross, and as God the Father had to experience the loss of His own child when He could have stopped Jesus’ suffering at any time. The fact that Jesus lived on in resurrection does not diminish his pain and anguish on the cross one teeny bit; and God’s own power and glory did not prevent him from feeling every bit as loving and protective towards His son as any parent would. Yet His love for us was such that He did not intervene, and He cared about us enough to absorb personal tragedy of the darkest kind. God’s empathy is not phony, and His ability to walk with us in the dark times is not based on whimsy or fiction. He really does understand, and He knows everything there is to know about loss and pain. He also knows about redemption and peace. I would add that the finite circumstances we see may be outweighed by the glory of the infinite outcomes we don’t see. For those innocent victims we see in tragedy, God may have infinite outcomes we will only see when all ends are revealed. We assume in our grief that loss of life is the worst thing that can happen; it may be perhaps the doorway to the best thing that can happen.

We are praying for you guys in Oklahoma, and for you guys on Facebook, and for whomever has to deal with the tornadoes that come. May you find the blessing of God’s presence no matter what the circumstances.

To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Devotions-Ordinary-Guy/dp/1535457392/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-1&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread

For the Kindle Edition, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Bo-Jackson-ebook/dp/B01K5Z0NLA/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-2&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread

Amalfi Coast

Start with beautiful clear gray water, sparkling with gentle accents from the sun running in diamond currents just beneath its surface… Marry that water to a rocky shore made up of cliffs dropping into the sea; put some random terraces on those cliffs, and line those terraces with lemon trees extending along the cliffs. Wait, that’s not quite enough– yes there are lots of blank rocky spaces on the cliffs, but on the ledges and terraces, add many more lemon trees, aligned like citrus-bearing soldiers laden with yellow ammunition! Put rows of them on every terrace, every available scrap of earth on the mountainsides, broken up only by residences perched precariously on the cliffs, just off the two lane highway that hairpins over and around from Positano to Amalfi. As you negotiate this road, winding along the coast, you will pass through small villages, clusters of homes, and businesses and hotels. See the colorful stucco walls, the various shades of tile, the cliffs rising not only above you, but falling beneath you as well, either covered in lush green vegetation or providing rock formations that make for interesting interpretations as they interrupt your view of the sea. Occasional boats dot the water, although traffic is light since it is very early in the season… Every so often there will be an extension of rock out from the shoreline, creating a small peninsula and an advantageous viewing position. On these such vantage points, very old castles or forts still stand, attempting now to look like a restaurant or a residence, but failing because their shape and scale and massive gray stonework will never permit them to be anything but a castle or fort. At one time, hundreds of years ago, they enabled someone to control this coastline with some well-placed artillery, but today they are part of the scenery. The road along the Amalfi coast connects them, but not always efficiently. Two narrow lanes, hairpin turns, Italian drivers, unconcerned pedestrians, and scores of different sized and shaped vehicles make this road an adventure to drive. Nothing is guaranteed, and tourist schedules are reconfigured to Italian time, tempered by the realities of Amalfi traffic. Cars (small cars, mini Coopers, Smart cars), motorcycles, scooters and trucks of every shape and size grind to a halt. We are on a downhill space, overlooking a “T” intersection coming into the hairpin turn below us.Nothing from our lane is moving, and a 20-something man is blocking our bus’s path with a legal-looking hand signal that must mean stop! His presence is the only indication that something might be amiss with traffic flow. The scooters and motorcycles all zip around us and head down towards Amalfi, as do several small cars. After they pass, numerous vehicles coming up hill are allowed to zoom on past us, and still we sit, waiting for a signal to go… Trucks come by, other busses rumble past, and still we sit. Cars coming into our lane from the “T” are getting stacked up. Cars behind us are also deadlocked now. Finally, after about 30-40 minutes, a female Carbinieri arrives on a scooter from around the downhill bend, and begins to talk to the easy going young construction worker. Their hands fly, mouths move, and he talks to someone on his radio. She gestures and talks on HER radio. Some others nearby them join in, adding to the discussion. There is a big empty flatbed truck wedged comfortably into a space very few people in the US would have even considered trying to park such a truck, and they point to it, then point back down the mountain. Everyone seems somewhat frustrated, perhaps confused, but mostly are wearing their “what-are-you-gonna-be-able-to-do-about-it? look…He shrugs, they disperse, and she putt-putts back downhill around the corner. In awhile (10 minutes? Who knows?) she returns, leading a large vehicle obviously designed for road grading or material sifting, which crawls up the road slowly, large extended conveyor out over its cab, treads bringing it laboriously uphill towards the truck. Two guys in hard hats ride in it, guiding its ponderous structure along the narrow, twisted turns. It parks in its lane, looking wide enough from where we sit to block everything. “Ahhh!” we think, they will load this vehicle onto the flatbed, and clear some space, and THEN we can resume our journey. But no, there is another discussion, more gestures, more pointing… If this were opera it could not be more confusing! The carabinieri directs some cars this way, clears some from the “T”, motorcycles opportunistically race forward, cutting in and around other vehicles, and MORE traffic is allowed to come past us again from down the hill, then we are held up while some smaller cars come around us from behind us? The big road machine stays parked, the flatbed semi stays parked, and finally, for no apparent reason, our bus is allowed to move. We squeeze by the machine with about 2 inches to spare, and continue around the corner. There we find the source of this hour and a half delay, the reason that dozens of cars, trucks and busses on the Amalfi road were dead-locked and brought to a stand-still. Around another turn we encounter construction signs, one lane is closed and there are 3-4 workers with a bucket of cement and some bricks, repairing the guard rail. That’s it. “Aaaah! we think, “this is Italy!”

Glories, Past, Present and Possible

I am awakened at 5:53 am by construction, but what is being built nearby is not something visible or even tangible. It is construction on the most ambitious and yet most intricate scale, rivaling the wonders of ancient Roma, which we toured yesterday… Even though there is no irritating, shrill back-up warning from bull dozers, no literal clanking of machines or hammering, the bustling construction is just as real to me as if there were hundreds or even thousands of weary slaves working under the relentless direction of their Roman taskmasters. There is a vast mosaic of Rome being built in my mind, still in its early stages of formation, but teeming with multitudes of scenes and vistas bursting with colors of culture, nature and personality. The mosaic is complex and beautiful, an ever-changing kaleidoscope of images, monuments and people. There are many scenes and impressions, each being inlaid into the landscape of my mind with chaotic precision all at once. It is filled with contradictions and incongruity, monuments to the past amidst relentless change, like the young Catholic clergyman waiting next to me to cross the street, wearing the timeless, cream-colored robes of his order but carrying a briefcase; it is young Italian boy, gawking and pointing out to his father the tall, over-endowed blonde in the red top at the Coliseum, whose shape is a testament to artificial construction of a different sort. The mental mural is alive and ever-changing, bustling with commerce and change, smudged with dirt from excavation and construction. It began with Alessandro B, my seat-mate from Heathrow to Rome. He is a nice-looking man with a leonine salt and pepper mane, a Roman businessman returning home from a productive trip.
He owns his own company, and is experiencing success navigating the currents of trade with emerging African nations. He has been doing business there for years, and is now close to the President of Ghana, having gotten to know him in the past when he was an up-and-coming young politician.
He is articulate and thoughtful, this man descended from empire-builders… He is smart and a bit cynical about the politics of Italy but still he is optimistic. He even allows that although the current prime minister is a Comedian, he is doing a pretty good job! This of course is natural for Italy.
Our driver Guiseppe not only drives but owns the tour company, and works hard building a life for his family. The Romans we meet are interesting, polite, a little fatalistic, but still optimistic that any people with such a glorious past can one day build a solid future. In the meantime, the Roman mosaic has scenes of past and present intertwined, churches inside of temples, nuns with their dark habits, Carbinieri with their dashing uniforms, people eating (and loving!) gelato, sidewalk cafes, pictures of the pope for sale on street carts, Christianity placed alongside mythology, beautiful fountains, monuments and an ancient history that still casts its shadow over modern Rome. As we scan the rich, vibrant scenes of the eternal city, we see hope and bustle and a unique vibe that will continue to be the heartbeat of people like Alessandro, and the inspiration to millions of visitors like me who cannot merely view the vista unfolding in Rome, but– having visited– have also become part of the mosaic itself, carrying the lessons of the past into the future.

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