Harvey, Irma, and the hand of God

Earlier this week I read a conversation between two bloggers. One is a Christian; the other is an atheist. The atheist accused the God of the Christian of being genocidal. (Indeed, the rage the atheist expressed against an imaginary, Bronze-Age, fairy-tale god seems incongruous, but that is beside the point.) The atheist mentioned the flood from the days of Noah, as well as God’s command to the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites and the Amalekites. Causing the death of so many people, whether through direct action or by divine command, the God of the Christian failed to meet the standards held by the atheist blogger.

One would have to be an atheist to dare to judge God. Anyone who knows even a little about the power of God and the wisdom of God would find it hard to try to measure God by his or her own standards. One can defend God by speaking of the evil of those people he chose to destroy. The people of Noah’s generation were a blight upon the planet. The Canaanites were so evil that they killed their own children and slept with priestesses as part of their religion. A good God, a just God, cannot tolerate evil. If God does not strike down sinners, then God is not worthy of honor and praise.

If my pet cat was afflicted with fleas or intestinal worms, I would take vigorous steps to destroy the parasites. My conscience would not be troubled by the death of dozens of fleas. Even if they were a very rare flea, a species of flea that was endangered, I would kill them all for the good of my cat. In the same way, for the good of the Israelites, God wanted the Canaanites killed. When the Israelites failed to obey God’s command, the Canaanites managed to make the Israelites equally evil, so that God had to strike down his own people, using the Assyrians and Babylonians to bring death and destruction upon the sinners who had rejected God and his commands.

God is powerful, wise, and just, but God is also love. Love is the very nature of his being. God does not enjoy punishing sinners; he does not delight in the death of his enemies. God wants all people to repent of their sins, to turn to him, and to receive from him the gift of eternal life. To make this happen, God became one of us. He lived among us, following his own rules, earning the rewards of total obedience. Then he turned the tables upon himself. He took up our guilt and our punishment, facing the wrath of his Father while hanging on a cross. At the same time, he bequeathed to us the rewards he earned by his perfection.

Christians are not called to exterminate God’s enemies—not even Muslims, not even atheists. Christians are called to warn sinners of the cost of their sins and to call for repentance. When those sinners repent, Christians are called to share the promises of God, to invite the sinners to enjoy God’s forgiveness, eternal life in a perfect world, and a share in God’s victory over all evil. Yet all of us remain sinners. Together we live in a sin-polluted world. God does not rely only upon Christians to speak of the wrath of God’s judgment. God uses his creation to demonstrate the power of his judgment and to remind all people of the Day of the Lord that is coming.

This brings me to Harvey and Irma. Those do not sound like the names of powerful storms. Harvey and Irma should be the parents in a 1950s television show, a comedy about an average American family. In the 1950s, when children misbehaved, they sometimes received a slap or two on their backsides from Harvey and Irma. No one considered spankings “child abuse” in those days. Society understood that, to correct children, to turn them away from wrongdoing, sometimes one must first get their attention.

Harvey and Irma may be that slap on the backside that the United States needed. Things have been getting out of control around here lately, and someone needed to react. The ugliness of hatred does not belong in our nation, but it took powerful hurricanes to quiet the shouting and to force people to care about their neighbors. Old Testament prophets lectured the wealthy few in Israel about their abuse of wealth, gathering it at the expense of their neighbors and keeping hold onto it, ignoring their neighbor’s needs. The aftermath of these storms may help to redistribute our national wealth, not through government regulation and taxation, but through compassion and a desire to help those in need.

All authority comes from God and represents his authority. Yet some American voters thought so little of their government that they cast their votes for a celebrity with clear and obvious character flaws. Worse, others began—the very next day after the election—to plot his overthrow. For months they have been challenging every one of his decisions, constantly depicting him in the worst light possible, and searching high and low for excuses to overturn the results of the election. The nightly news has become a morass of accusations and criticisms, loudly and shrilly and repeatedly offered as if repetition would make them true. (In most of the world, these broadcasts would be considered treasonous.) For all the damage they brought, Harvey and Irma have given us something else to talk about and to hear about and to care about.

We sinners need such reminders, from time to time, that the sinful world stands under judgment. But do you suppose that the people who died because of these storms were worse sinners than those who survived? Jesus would say no, “but unless you repent, you will likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). The atheist might blame God-who-does-not-exist for allowing the violence and destruction of Harvey and Irma, that of the Mexican earthquake, and that of the wildfires in western states, offering that random violence as proof that God-who-does-not-exist cannot be good or just.

Evil is random and unfair. God permits us to see evil—whether the violence of nature or the crimes of terrorists—so we can distinguish good from evil, and so we can hunger and thirst for what is good. Any Christians who died in the storms or the earthquake or the fires is with Christ in Paradise awaiting the resurrection. They are happy to be there; they are not complaining. Unbelievers who perished would have died from something else sooner or later. They are no worse off now than they would be had they survived to die another day.

Believers and unbelievers lost property in these storms. Tragic as the loss may be, it also reminds all of us to value heavenly treasures rather than earthly wealth. Insurance companies, relief organizations, and compassionate neighbors will help to restore or replace what was lost. Along the way, jobs will be provided, meaning that families will be fed and sheltered. More precautions will be taken to make homes and other businesses safer from future storms. Meanwhile, one can only hope that another blessing from these tribulations will be less hatred, less rebellion, and less division among Americans—more compassion, more cooperation, and more faith. J.

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The anniversaries of space disasters

The anniversaries of America’s three major space disasters occur on the same week. That fact is disconcerting, to say the least. The Apollo I fire on the ground, the space shuttle Challenger explosion shortly after lift-off, and the space shuttle Columbia disintegration on its landing approach happened on January 26, 1967, January 28, 1986, and February 1, 2003 (respectively).

The thirtieth anniversary of the Challenger explosion brings back memories of that time. My first reaction to the news was disbelief; then I watched television coverage all afternoon. I saw replays of the explosion again and again, interspersed with speculation about what went wrong and reactions to the tragedy. President Ronald Reagan gave a speech to the nation that evening. I still feel it was one of his finer speeches. In the following days I wrote a song in tribute to the crew of seven, borrowing some of the phrases and expressions I found meaningful in the President’s speech.

My relationship with my guitar tends to run hot and cold. Sometimes I will practice every night in a row for several weeks, and sometimes the guitar will sit untouched for months. One time I failed to use the guitar for so long that it actually broke—the tension of the strings pulled apart the soundboard. A few months later the members of my family gathered enough money to give me cash for my birthday to buy a new guitar. Now I try to get it out and use it at least once a month.

When I bought my new guitar, I got out some of the songs I had written to relearn them. Generally all I had was a sheet of paper with the lyrics and the guitar chords. When I came to “Keep Flying High,” my tribute to the Challenger crew, I played the chords but couldn’t remember the tune. Disappointed in myself, I set the paper aside and worked on the other songs. One day the following week a tune sprang into my head. For a while I didn’t recognize it; suddenly I realized that it was the missing tune to “Keep Flying High.” I made sure then to practice the song so words and chords and tune would remain together in my memory.

The day my mother died, I was in the midst of a string of weeks during which I was practicing the guitar and singing my own music almost every evening. The morning of that day, “Keep Flying High” kept going through my head. Especially the bridge* kept repeating inside my head. Oddly enough, I was hearing the song not as I perform it, with voice and rhythm guitar, but with the words accompanied by arpeggios.* No doubt the words themselves were fitting—“When you leave this surly sphere, reach out and touch God’s face. Confide in Him and have no fear: He’s suffered in your place.” (The words were inspired by the President’s speech about the Challenger tragedy. He said, “We shall never forget them nor the last time we saw them, as they prepared for their mission and waved good-bye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.” Those words, in turn, were inspired by John Gillespie Magee, Jr’s poem “High Flight.”) The oddity was hearing my song in an arrangement I had never created. I still think of my mother every time I sing that song.

When I was a boy, I followed the space program fervently. I wish our country had some mission today that could lead to the same sort of triumph that Americans felt when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Seventeen astronauts died in America’s three space program disasters. Of course every human death is tragic. Every person is a hero or has the potential to become a hero. The shock of a sudden, violent, and public death makes the news and often the history books. In response, though, we remember the death that mattered most of all. We remember the death of God’s Son, the death that conquered death forever. “Confide in Him and have no fear: He’s suffered in your place.” J.

 

*BRIDGE: In a song that has verses and a repeated chorus, the bridge appears as a third theme that complements the other two themes. It can also be a second theme in a song with verses but no chorus. The “why she had to go…” part of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” is a good example of a bridge.

*ARPEGGIO: Sometimes called a “broken chord,” an arpeggio is a series of notes played one by one which could be combined as a chord. Harp music often is performed as a combination of chords and arpeggios.