In August, the national convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America met in Minneapolis. On the first day of their meeting, a freak tornado struck the downtown area. The storm toppled the steeple on the church hosting the Lutheran group.
John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, issued a statement claiming the tornado was a warning from God. It seems the Lutheran group was considering a resolution affirming the ordination of gay ministers – a resolution that passed later that week.
By linking weather to God’s wrath, Piper joins the ranks of Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, who see in calamity the judgment of God. Robertson and Falwell blamed 9/11 on gays and feminists.
Every time I hear this kind of talk, I recall a young couple from many years ago. They were 18 when I married them. That’s legal in Alabama, but still awfully young. A year after the wedding they had a beautiful little girl. They were immediately and hopelessly in love with her.
I had moved to another church and lost track of them for several years. In fact, I didn’t know where they were until I heard about the accident. I called the young couple to see if there was anything I could do. They seemed grateful, and we made an appointment to meet.
It was hard for them to tell the story. Their emotions were still raw and their sense of loss seemed endless. Their little girl had been riding her tricycle in front of their house.
Suddenly, she turned sharply and went between two parked cars. Before they could react, she had pedaled into the path of an oncoming car. She was killed instantly.
The young couple held tightly to each other as they told the story. I was glad to see them doing that. The tragedy of losing a child can destroy a relationship. Guilt and pain can too easily become anger and blame. But that didn’t happen to them. They managed to hold on to each other in the face of their loss.
They were, however, having difficulty holding on to their faith. Their questions revealed the depths of their confusion and despair. “Why did God let this happen?” “Is God punishing us for something?”
Unfortunately, both of them had been raised in a religious atmosphere that knew more about God’s judgment than about God’s grace. Even the disciplines of their faith – prayer and worship – were more about holding off the wrath of God than finding the presence of God.
In fact, they actually said to me, “We did miss a few Sundays in church that summer.” As if God would take their child because of a missed Sunday. But what can we expect? When we live always under the shadow of God’s judgment, pain and loss cannot help but feel like punishment.
It’s a long pathway to healing after the loss of a child. A sense of the presence of God’s grace can help. But it was a hard sell. The young couple believed they had somehow earned God’s scorn. It would take a long time to convince them otherwise.
Those who would make a freak tornado or an atrocity like Sept. 11 an act of God’s judgment are working from an incomplete picture of God. God’s interest in us extends beyond “Thou shall not.”
God is also concerned about us when we face “the valley of death.” Those who suggest otherwise only serve to drive a wedge between those who hurt and the one who can heal.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.