As if the tragedy of earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador and fatal flooding in Texas isn’t bad enough, the world is subjected to the predictable voices of those who claim that these disasters are signs of divine retribution. There have always been, and perhaps always will be, those who speculate that God uses natural disasters to punish humanity and those who try to pinpoint the end of history when God’s judgment will be rendered.
These issues have been around so long we even have terms for theological discourse concerning them. For example, Theodicy attempts to deal with how and why a benevolent God allows evil and suffering. And, Eschatology is the study of questions about the final events of history or the ultimate destiny of humanity.
Our response to human tragedy and our beliefs about God’s intentions probably say more about our own personality and outlook on life than about God. It is understandable when people are hurting and need to assign blame for the events that caused harm. And people whose experience of life involves heavy doses of righteous indignation and divine retribution naturally want God to take charge and straighten out everybody they disapprove of.
For my own part, I’m impressed with the complexity of the physical universe. The more science discovers about things like quarks, chaos, leptons, and pheromones, the more my view of the Divine Being expands. Why would God go to so much trouble just to perplex humanity and then to destroy us? Isn’t it just as likely that God created all things for good and gave human beings the resources to discover ways to cherish and protect creation and its creatures? For me, life is one big epiphany!
When I peer into suffering, I see the God of compassion not causing harm but caring for those who are hurting. When I ponder the end of history, what comes to mind is not a so-called “rapture” or celestial supreme court, but instead a cosmic “Ah-ha” experience in which “every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess” (Isaiah 45:23, Romans 14:11, and Philippians 2:10,11).
The issues are far from settled and the discourse will continue. Those who need a wrathful God and an end of things characterized by judgment and retribution have plenty of preachers and churches to reinforce their viewpoints. However, I am grateful to be a part of a tradition that believes “the universe is good, that it is the work of a single loving God who creates, sustains, and directs it” (Book of Common Prayer, 846). I am privileged to foster a view of the Christian hope, which is “to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world” (Book of Common Prayer, 861).
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?… Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31, 35, 37-39)
I suggest that participation rather than speculation is a more appropriate faith-based response to disasters like these. Episcopalians can make a contribution to Episcopal Relief and Development through a parish church or directly. If you are a member of another religious body, consider participating in the relief agency associated with it. I suggest also that a prayer is more helpful than a scare. Here’s one that is adapted from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer.
God of consolation, grant to those who suffer and sorrow at this time of devastation in Ecuador, Japan, and Texas the spirit of faith and courage, that they may have the strength to meet the days to come with steadfastness and patience; not sorrowing without hope but clinging to your goodness and love, through Jesus Christ who is the resurrection and the life. Amen.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday every year. Our collect and readings remind us that in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament, the Middle Eastern shepherd is a metaphor for the divine nature.
Like the flocks they tended, the shepherds of the Bible were often dirty and woolly, enduring sun and rain for days or weeks on end. But unlike their flocks, they were vigilant and uncomplaining, watching for danger and trouble, providing pasture, and allaying thirst. The shepherd knew his flock as no one else. And the sheep followed him “because they know his voice.”
Jesus speaks of himself as “the gate for the sheep.” Some scholars contend that shepherds of the period would often place their own bodies across the small opening of the sheep enclosure at night and during times of danger, risking their lives for the sake of their flock. Perhaps it is this image of the shepherd as human gate that Jesus has in mind with this metaphor, his own presence stretched out and bridging our insecurities. “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me,” he assures us, “will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:9).
Sometimes we are like lost sheep. We live in a world where it is easy to lose direction, to lose our bearings, and to lose a sense of who we are and where we are going. It is easy to go astray. It is then that we are most vulnerable to the “thieves and bandits” of the world. We are also most vulnerable to the more destructive animal instincts that lurk in every human heart, such as hatred, anger, and violence.
Week by week, we come to the Paschal Banquet ready to keep the feast, eager to partake of the Lord’s abundance, and to be nourished for the journey ahead. But the world is still a dangerous place. The human heart listens for the voice of the Shepherd who brings peace and God’s reconciling love. He is the Gate through whom we pass as we come to be fed and as we go back out to feed others in his Name.
I’ll see you in Church!
P.S. I want to share with you one of my favorite musical settings of the twenty-third psalm. It is by composer Howard Goodall and some of you will recognize it as the theme song from a BBC television production about a flock that was tended by a very interesting shepherd. The choir is that of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.
Three weeks ago, the Lawn of St. John’s Church was covered with snow. A few days after Easter the snow is gone and the grass is amazingly green. I'm reminded one of my favorite Easter hymns, Now the Green Blade Rises. Take a moment to read these wonderful words of new life, hope, and springtime:
Now the green blade rises from the buried grain, Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain; Love lives again, that with the dead has been: Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.
In the grave they laid Him, Love Whom we had slain, Thinking that He’d never wake to life again, Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen: Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.
Up He sprang at Easter, like the risen grain, He that for three days in the grave had lain; Up from the dead my risen Lord is seen: Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.
When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain, By Your touch You call us back to life again; Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been: Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.
We all know those seasons of life when things seem frozen, lifeless, hopeless, or entirely unfair. Easter is God's word of hope that life and love will triumph over all that. In the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we find that news most perfectly expressed.
May the Great Fifty Days of Easter be filled with reminders of that good news. And, beyond that, may we all be Easter People throughout the year, bringing that message of hope to others.
Enjoy this rendition of the hymn by the Choir of Ely Cathedral.
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