"O Lord, Make Haste to Save Us"
The words were written thousands of years ago, but they sound as if the poet were watching scenes of the last week.
"Save me, O God,
for the waters have risen up to my neck.
I am sinking in deep mire,
and there is no firm ground for my feet.
I have come into deep waters,
and the torrent washes over me.
I have grown weary with my crying;
my throat is inflamed;
my eyes have failed from looking for my God."
This week, as we have watched the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina unfold, we have prayed for family and friends who live in the wake of the storm's devastation, many of whose fates are still unknown.
We have wept over the fate of thousands who we do not know, but whose suffering and grief have become our own.
We have watched in disbelief as situations untenable to begin with continued to deteriorate further each day, making the richest nation in the world look worse than any so-called Third World country.
We have been outraged and ashamed at the seeming callousness and inefficiency of our government, and been moved to tears by the generosity and concern of strangers who have taken literally God's admonition to "love your neighbor as yourself."
As I have watched and listened to the news this week, the words of a song from Gordon Lightfoot have continually gone through my mind:
"Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?"
The question raised in the old ballad about a shipwreck on Lake Superior is theological. Why does God allow such enormous pain and suffering to occur? Where is God when the storm waters rise, when there seems to be no help, no hope, no salvation?
That is a question to which there is finally no answer that is fully satisfying.
But there are answers to that question that I know deep in my soul are wrong.
The flood waters were still rising when those who give Christianity a bad name began their predictable tirades. Hurricane Katrina is God's punishment for the sins of the French Quarter, for gambling on the Gulf Coast, for reveling and drunkenness.
Others have suggested that God must have some greater and good purpose in this tragedy that we cannot understand.
None of these declarations should be acceptable to us. To suggest that God intentionally caused this tragedy for any reason is obscene and nothing less than blasphemy.
So how then do we understand such tragedies? Where does the love of God go when the waves turn the minutes to hours?
Archibald MacLeish succinctly outlined the dilemma we face in his Tony-award-winning play "JB," an adaptation of the Book of Job.
"If God is all powerful, God is not good.
If God is good, God is not all powerful."
If we have to choose between a god who is all powerful or a god who is good--and it looks like sometimes we do--then I will choose the latter.
As disturbing as it may be to realize that God is not all powerful--that God cannot prevent men from flying airplanes into buildings, or stop the waves of a tsunami, or call back the flood waters--it is much more disturbing to think that God is not all good--that God willfully, intentionally causes or allows such horror as we have witnessed this week.
Such a God would not be worthy of love or worship.
This week I must believe that the weeping and lamentations that have filled the earth have also filled the heavens. I must believe that God's own eyes are weary with crying.
I must believe that although the grief and suffering are of a magnitude that is incomprehensible to us, that God has felt each and every individual sorrow, has grieved over each death, has suffered with each and every person who suffers or mourns.
And I must believe that although God may not be all powerful in ways that prevent hurricanes and floods, God does have the kind of power that brings grace and redemption to even these horrors, and gives us the strength to continue and to rebuild and to make all things new.
That grace and redemption has been evident in the outpouring of millions of dollars from individuals across the country and across the globe. It has been evident in those who have been willing to risk their own safety and lives to come to the aid of those in need.
It has been evident in the thousands of people who have opened their homes not just to family and friends, but to strangers.
These acts of kindness, these acts of grace and redemption, have given me hope in the midst of tragedy.
But I must confess that much that has happened this week has also caused me to worry greatly about this country - not because of the hurricane, but because of our response to it.
New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote this week that hurricanes come in two waves. First the rain storm and then the "human storm."
"Floods wash away the surface of society, the settled way things have been done," Brooks writes. "They expose the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption and the unacknowledged inequalities."
Certainly it is obvious to all who have watched this tragedy unfold that by far the vast majority of those who have suffered the most and received the least are the poorest of our society--black Americans, the very old and very young, the sick, the poorest of the poor.
And I remember the words that God speaks over and over again through the prophets: God judges a nation not by the strength of its military or the wealth of its most powerful citizens, but by the care of its poorest and most vulnerable people.
In too many cases this week we as a nation have failed the test. The slowness of response, the needless prolonging of misery, has been sinful.
"We have missed opportunities to make certain that all Americans would be more than huddled masses," former North Carolina Senator John Edwards said this week. "We have been too slow to act in the face of the misery of our brothers and sisters.
"This is an ugly and horrifying wake-up call to America. Let us pray we answer this call."
"In your great mercy, O God,
answer us with your unfailing help.
Save us from the mire; do not let us sink;
let us be rescued from those who hate us
and out of the deep waters.
Let not the torrent of waters wash over us,
neither let the deep swallow us up;
do not let the Pit shut its mouth upon us.
Answer us, O Lord, for your love is kind;
in your great compassion, turn to us."