Recently I was introduced to the Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth, an organization that provides resources, networking, and education for communities of faith that are seeking to respond to large-scale tragedy, disaster, and trauma. Founded by one of my colleagues from seminary, ICTG is beyond busy these days with this week’s tornado and devastation in Oklahoma as the latest in a string of national disasters. As I’ve perused and contributed to ICTG’s growing body of church resources and as I’ve simply watched the news over the past six months, I’ve been struck by this simple fact: large-scale disaster thrusts congregations into action, whether they are ready or not.
For this reason (and many others), the ongoing pastoral theological formation of Christians matters a great deal. A significant part of this formation entails the capacity to respond to some of the most primal existential and theological questions: “Where is God? How could God have allowed this to happen? Does God care about me, about my children, about my loved ones? Is there any safety in the world?” Perhaps paradoxically, the best response, as Jennifer Holberg alluded to yesterday, is silence—not the kind of silence synonymous with avoidance but the kind that respects the profundity of the questions themselves.
Put another way, I think it’s critical for us to tolerate these questions without rushing to answer them—for, at one level, they are not answerable. The best work we can do, at least to begin, is to accept the ambiguity and uncertainty inherent in life by inviting tough questions out into the open, by fostering curiosity and inquiry, and by challenging those who attempt to apply cookie-cut answers to pain. This posture is grounded in trust—trust in God’s Spirit to breathe life into those in despair. A poem by Anne Hillman points us in this direction:
We look with uncertainty
beyond the old choices for
to a softer, more permeable aliveness
which is at every moment
at the brink of death;
for something new is being born within us
if we but let it.
We stand at a new doorway,
awaiting that which comes …
daring to be human creatures,
vulnerable to the beauty of existence.
Of course, we will go beyond that eventually, grappling with more (rather than less) theologically adequate responses to the perennial questions about God’s role in human suffering.
Where is God when tragedy strikes? There God is, on the cross, suffering injustice, betrayal, and ignorance. Which means that God knows our suffering from the inside out, that God has been marked by suffering, and that God is still present with us in our suffering today. After losing his son to a tragic mountain climbing accident, theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote this: “The wounds of Christ are his identity. They tell us who he is. He did not lose them. They went down into the grave with him and they came up with him—visible, tangible, palpable. Rising did not remove them. He who broke the bonds of death kept his wounds.”
Where is God when tragedy strikes? Here God is, in the midst of us. Jesus promised, “Wherever two or three gather in my name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). God is present as we are present to each other in the midst of tragedy, trauma, and disaster. Here is the real presence of Christ, mediated to us certainly through Word and Sacrament but also through our union and communion with each other.
As ones who are united to Christ, we mirror the love of God to one another. Knowing Jesus Christ does not occur in isolation. It occurs in the context of Christ’s body. Jesus does not exist as a disembodied or abstract spirit but rather as a diverse community of love. Seeing kindness, care, and sorrow in one another’s faces points us to the Face of God in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote that we all with unveiled faces reflect the glory of God to one another (2 Cor. 3:18)—a glory often hidden and revealed in the context of suffering. When we see and hear and assist one another in the midst of the impossibility of large-scale loss, we experience grace; and in the presence of grace, guilt and despair fade away. And over time, joy punctures (if only for moments) our sorrow.