Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Preacher's Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

“You are in my heart today” is often enough

Three weeks after the tsunami in East Asia, the news is that surveying the damage has become a major tourist attraction. Approximately 157,000 have died, and thousands more bodies are being recovered every day. The devastation can be seen from outer space.

Any of us who have ever followed a fire truck or driven out to see the aftermath of a train wreck or tornado knows the feeling of guilt mixed with voyeuristic curiosity that seizes one’s feelings when viewing the results of a catastrophe.

Tragic situations are ameliorated somewhat by the fact that the best in human nature is often shown on such occasions. Thousands of volunteers bolstered by billions of dollars are meting out help and healing to these families who have lost everything. Books will be written and films will be produced telling the stories of great kindness and courage. I am sure that we do not begin to know all the happenings that occurred and that will inspire us when they are told for the world to know.

Yet, calamity often makes an opening for thieves, looters, and those who would pick the pockets of victims as well as those who would try to help. Watch for stories of Internet frauds and charity mismanagement. One TV commentator is so sure it will happen that he seems to be looking for it where it does not exist; but he will find malfeasance somewhere. Human nature always rewards a pessimist. Indeed, as one of my seminary professors used to say, a minister finds out what his parishioners are really like on just two occasions: their weddings and their funerals. Tragedy throws into bold relief the best and the worst of people.

People turn to the clergy at such times for answers and explanations. Churches were full after 9/11, much in the same way that toddlers rush to their mothers when thunder comes. And there is much rooting around and culling of quotations from the best writers on philosophical subjects.

Sometimes I think that silence and humility are the best response. “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

But people are not satisfied with silence, and so preachers who think “that they are heard for their much-speaking” propose various ideas “to justify the ways of God to men,” most of which would be better left unsaid.

Many times I have stood by the deceased’s loved ones at the funeral home and heard every tired old canard that is offered for comfort: “God needed another angel in His choir,” “Jesus loved her more than we do,” “He was old and is out of his pain.”

Mostly it is best just to say, “You are in my heart today.”

One of the best pieces of wisdom I ever heard was from a pastoral mentor who told me that people would rather have the security that comes from believing in a God that is in charge, even if that god is not very nice or even terribly kind.

Not all agnosticism is anti-religious, and there is a kind of reticence that I think behooves all good Christians. It was Garrison Keeler, I think, who said, that most people go up in the estimation of others, when they learn to be silent more often.

Job’s friends did the best thing just by coming and sitting beside him. It was only when they tried to speak that they mucked things up so badly. The story of Job is mostly a demonstration of the inadequacy of human explanations. Words simply do not suffice for some situations. The best thing is to go and offer your quiet, personal gesture of comfort — an act that, come to think of it, mirrors what Christians say is meant when St. Paul wrote that He left heaven and came down to live among humans on earth, assuming the role of a servant and not thinking that equality with God is a thing to be grasped.

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