Joel Osteen was in the news this week over media outrage that the country’s largest church had not been immediately opened to flood victims. The man famous for promises that God showers the righteous with blessings was drowning in calls to explain what the church would do when the rain falls on the just and the unjust. It was the great American theodicy all over again: what happens when no amount of bootstrapping or hard work or #blessed prayers keep the flood from your doorstep? What happens when you can no longer bear to repeat the well-worn phrase that everything happens for a reason?
Support for those who are suffering the effects of this flood will have to begin where these theologies cannot. A frank admission– it will not be enough.
We will never be able to restore every family to their home, every community business, or, God forbid, every empty seat around the dinner table ripped away by the waters.
I saw a news post about a Houston pastor who risked his own safety to manually check every stranded car along a freeway section for trapped passengers. No one was to be left behind.
In tragedy, Christians unfailingly ask, “Where is God in my suffering?” God, make yourself known, for I cannot see through the murky waters drowning me, send me a rope, a boat. Do not forget your child.
Psalm 139 often spoke to me during my cancer treatment. It reminds us that we are all wonderfully and fearfully made with ridiculous specificity by God. The Psalmist knew our bodies, woven together in the depths of the earth, were to carry both devastation and joy.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
The Psalmist sings into the deep antiquity of God’s proximity. We have always wondered if we can be forgotten by God, if we can stray so far into darkness that even God cannot see and hold us. We have always belonged to a community of strugglers and doubters who wonder whether God knows our suffering or even cares.
Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me, but even the darkness will not be dark to you.
What I have learned in the course of these two years is this: I can live in the space of not knowing why this horrible thing is happening to me, and still know I am held somehow loved by God. All the charity in the world cannot, and will not, restore the lives of people affected by Harvey. So few things can ever be made whole by the well-meaning of others.
As my Duke Divinity colleague, Dr. Ellen Davis, writes in her book Getting Involved with God, the psalms have language for moments like these. She writes, “It seems that Israel believed that the kind of prayer in which we need the most fluency is the loud groan,” and “sometimes the only act of faith that is possible – for those who suffer… is to name our desolation before God.”
No one needs to protect God from the truth: it will not be enough. Tragedy has come home. But somewhere in the midst is a promise. We are not forgotten.
Here’s how you can help those picking up the pieces of their lives after Harvey: Donate to United Methodist Disaster Relief Fund where 100% of donations go directly to their relief work.