God weeps too. – Eli, God Weeps Too
I was talking with a friend from Tallahassee about Hurricane Irma, which as you know passed through Florida and continues to impact millions of Floridians. He, like me, had been through Leadership Florida, and he relayed a conversation he had had several storms ago with another LF member. “He said, ‘Before, when a storm was coming, I would pray that it would go somewhere else, and I’d be happy if it did. But now, when my instinct is to do that, I know that I’m praying for it to hit someone else I know, and I can’t do that.”
Irma has me thinking about that. My home community got a glancing blow, and even though some people still don’t have power, I think we all know it could have been much, much worse. And it was. We still haven’t really seen what happened in the Keys. We don’t know what Naples looks like. We’re still sorting out the post-storm flood toll along rivers throughout the state.
But all of that is nothing compared to the near-total devastation in the Virgin Islands, where April and I honeymooned a quarter century ago and where I have friends. Or Cuba, which ate up most of Irma’s ferocity before it hit the US, serving as a sacrificial lamb at dear cost to those in its way.
We — I — tend to thank God when we see the havoc wreaked that it wasn’t us, even though we know better. Even though we profess that God loves the people taken by the storm and the people left standing with destroyed lives, loves them just as much as you and me.
That’s hard to reconcile. Most folks, non-religious, sure, but people who show up at church each Sunday too, think that believing in God is sort of an investment plan. Either you go the pagan/prosperity gospel route of praying to God for blessing right now, or you go the sweet-by-and-by/deferred compensation route of believing now with the expectation of a payoff in an afterlife. And for those who have left religion behind because both options seem artificial and flimsy, well, I can’t argue with you. A God who has to offer a payoff seems like a fraud.
Catholics celebrate today as the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. It’s origin is a little sketchy – it commemorates the finding of the original cross by Constantine’s mother St. Helena in the 4th Century. She found a bunch of stuff – the crown of thorns, the steps Jesus climbed to be judged by Pontius Pilate, the cross, some other stuff – on the same trip east. They are all in Rome, and the church where some of them still reside, the church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, is one I’ve been to. I honor that pilgrims have journeyed to be in the presence of these relics for more than 1500 years. But I’m skeptical.
Fortunately, the feast day has evolved to focus on the cross as a central element of the Christian faith, which, duh, just about anyone knows because crosses are everywhere. But unless you’re a Mel Gibson-film fan, you might not totally absorb how horrible crucifixion was, and even if you saw his film on the topic, you might not spend a lot of time wrapping your head around the idea that God’s love for us is so great that to communicate it to us, He was willing to trade the majesty of being, well, God, in order, not only to become a helpless infant, but to grow up to be crucified. (I’ll save my issues with the traditional sacrificial theology of the cross for another day.)
So tonight as I sat down for some time in prayer for the first time since we heard a hurricane might head this way, it was not lost on me that the first song that shuffled up my playlist was Eli’s “God Weeps Too.” It’s an oldie, but it captures the best I can offer to explain what value God is in times of tragedy. I can’t buy into a God who waved a storm away from me at the cost of the lives of some hapless Cubans. I can’t buy into a God who gave me AC while 8 people died in a Hollywood nursing home for lack of same. But a God who not only made all this but hurts deeply for the pain and loss of the families of those 8 or the suffering of those in the Virgin Islands or the Keys who lost everything they have? I can hope to align my heart to look a little more like that God’s heart.
(The second song on the shuffle, Derek Minor’s “Change the World,” was also meaningful in this moment as I try to leverage where I am to make things better.)
“Some people gotta lose it all to find out what they really want.” — Hollyn, Can’t Live Without
This storm has been one of a couple times recently when I’ve been forced to starkly assess what it would be like to lose it all. When Irma turned our way, we had to decide what we wanted to bring back to the “safe room,” and what we’d put in waterproof boxes. A few days before, I’d made some lesser decisions about what I would bother to secure in my office and what I would bring home with me; at that point, the storm was headed for the other coast, and it felt more like a fire drill than the real thing. But when Irma looked to be coming up the West Coast as a strong Cat 4, that exercise became a lot more real.
I didn’t sleep well in those days before, and I am perversely proud in April that she was far more serene about the whole thing. As time went on, she ended up boxing up some photos, but she just kept returning to the refrain that when she thought about what was important to her, it always came back to me and Betsy; everything else was gravy. As sentimental as she is predisposed to be, I chalk this up either to God’s grace working in her or the blissful ignorance of someone who didn’t read the papers or watch the news about the terror Irma was.
Even so, she was right, and I know other friends went through the same moment of truth: Save what’s most important to you, and know you can’t take much. Go. Hollyn’s refrain, “Some people have to lose it all to find out what they really want,” echoes in me as I reflect on that preparation, but in another case of survivor’s guilt, I don’t profess to understand why I might have been allowed to keep this as a theoretical exercise, a role play, while so many others literally lost it all. And it makes me want to do whatever I can to somehow prove that, just as the 3 ghosts scared Ebenezer straight, the tabletop exercise of hurricane prep was enough to make unnecessary a real loss of it all.
Daughters remember me, in every elderly hand that you touch.
Sons look for me in the old and the blinded eye.
Children remember, sitting in wheelchairs and hospital beds.
At every corner I wait for your kindness.
Search for my heart in the barefoot and worried-eyed boy in the street.
Find me at home in the tears of a lonely man.
See me in children entangled in bodies that won’t let them rest.
In every moment I wait for your kindness.
Do not pass me by.
Do not pass me by.
Can you hear me cry.
Do not pass me by.
Come with your brokenness, come with your vulnerability.
Come take my hand with the faith I have given you.
Comfort my heart with your kindness to even the least of these.
Cause every stranger I wait for your mercy.
Now do not pass me by.
Do not pass me by.
Can you hear me cry.
Do not pass me by.
— Audrey Assad, Kindness
This was in my playlist too. Eight people died in a nursing home in Broward County because nobody relieved the excessive heat in their un-air-conditioned home. Across the state, a lot of times the systems worked, but there were other examples where it didn’t. And that says nothing of the people who weren’t in institutions or senior apartments or anywhere but all alone without power. Survivor’s guilt.
That Audrey Assad song has been with me for several weeks. Tonight even more so.
One last, and this isn’t a song. I’m reading my way purposefully slowly through Richard Rohlheiser’s reflection on the Eucharist, Our One Great Act of Fidelity. This time, one of the chapters talks about liturgical prayer vs. devotional prayer. (Short form: devotional is about us individually; liturgical is about praying as priests for the world as a whole as a member of said world.) His illustration of what liturgical prayer looks like was not only beautiful in its own right, but tied into this reflection.(It’s real long, but worth it.)
Lord, God, I stand before you as a microcosm of the Earth itself, to give it voice: See in my openness the world’s openness; in my infidelity the world’s infidelity; in my sincerity the world’s sincerity; in my hypocrisy the world’s hypocrisy; in my generosity the world’s generosity; in my selfishness the world’s selfishness; in my attentiveness the world’s attentiveness; in my distraction the world’s distraction; in my desire to praise you the world’s desire to praise you; and in my self-pre-occupation, the world’s forgetfulness of you. For I am of the Earth,a piece of the Earth, and the Earth opens or closes to you through my body, my soul, and my voice. I am your priest on earth.
And what I hold up for you today is all that is in this world, both of joy and of suffering. I offer you the bread of the world’s achievements, even as I offer you the wine of its failure, the blood of all that’s crushed as those achievements take place. I offer you the powerful of our world, our rich, our famous, our athletes, our artists, our movie stars, our entrepreneurs, our young, our healthy, and everything that’s creative and bursting with life, even as I offfer you those who are weak, feebled, aged, crushed, sick, dying and victimized. I offer to you all the pagan beauties, pleasures, and joys of this life, even as I stand with you under the cross, affirming that the one who is excluded from earthly pleasure is the cornerstone of the community. I offer you the strong and the arrogant, along with the weak and gentle of heart, asking you to bless both and to stretch my heart so that it can, like you, hold and bless everything that is. I offer you both the wonders and the pains of this world, your world.
That. The God who engenders that prayer and accepts it, the God whose heart draws you to want to stretch yours that way, the God who knows survivors’ guilt and the cross firsthand. That’s the God I submit to lovingly if imperfectly.