Sunday, March 13, 2011

Elemental

The elements: earth, water, fire, and air.  Every one of these is fundamental to life.  Without water, a person dies quickly.  Water is more important to the body than any other substance...other than air. Without earth, the ability to plant food disappears, and, in fact, we would float away into space.  When I think of the importance of fire, I always think of the movie, 'Castaway,' when Tom Hanks has finally managed to make the flint take spark.  He does a fire dance as elemental as anyone ever did, shouting, "I made fire."  The overwhelming joy came because of the understanding of what food becomes possible with the ability to cook it.  And--even in a warm climate--fire brings the ability to stay warm.  And air.  There are no words necessary for how essential air is for living beings.  Without air, a being--whether plant, or animal, reptile or mammal will die within minutes.

Earth, water, fire and air.  In the last few days, each of these elemental necessities has turned on its head to become a danger to the people of Japan.  The earth shook and people were hurt.  And as a result of that shaking, the water surged and swept over the land, not merely hurting but destroying everything in its path.  The fact that water, which can be so pure and good and life-giving, can be so dirty, angry and death-bringing, is a startling thing to realize, though with every flood, and even more with Tsumanis, we are reminded of this.  The images from the air of that wave plowing over boats, cars, buildings, fields, everything in its wake as if the whole thing was merely a tinker-toy village was hard to watch.  But there were people in those boats, cars, buildings.  There were lives blinked out in the rush of that wave faster than I can write this sentence.  And those who survived?  Their lives were also destroyed.

Then once the water receded, once the people began to think it was over, fire took over.  Explosions started.  One might think with all that water soaking through everything, fire would be the last worry.  But not so with nuclear reactors (I have been wishing for my dad to explain how they work, because I can't quite remember my college chemistry).  But I know this.  They are subject to electricity to stay functioning.  If somehow the electricity goes out, things go haywire, which is EXACTLY what happened in Japan.  And when those explosions happened, and the fires started, and the reactors began to melt, the last element also became infected.  AIR.  The very air surrounding those people hanging on by their fingernails to survival can't even count on the air they breathe to be clean and life-giving.  They can't take big gulps of air when they're trying not to fall apart at the seams every which way, because those big gulps might be the last seam to rip.

So what do we have to say in such moments?  What dare I say from the safety of my own home, with my clean water, clean air, fire only in my fireplace, and firm ground beneath my feet?  I don't have much to say, and I know this, whatever I have to say, must be said with deep respect only at a whisper.  People are suffering, and their suffering is legion.  First of all, I must say, can say, I am praying for them.  And that, in some true way, I don't understand.  I really don't.  I take everything I know about the earth and everything I know about God and throw them into the air and allow them to come down around me in tatters when it comes to suffering like this.

There is suffering in the world inherent because it's a fallen world.  I believe this as firmly as I believe that God came to this world because of our fallenness.  Still, sometimes the depth and breadth of that suffering is a mystery to me.  It's one thing when our suffering is man-made.  I can shake my head at that and say, "We're culpable."  But this?  It's a hard one.  So all I can do is put those questions in my hands and put those hands together in prayer. As I've said before, Job is the prime location in scripture for understanding suffering, and God's view of it.  And His answer to Job is difficult.  Maddeningly, unfathomably unhelpful.  He really doesn't answer Job at all.  This is one area that God tells us is above our pay-grade.  Only He who created all can understand all.  "I AM WHO I AM" is in charge of suffering.

Is that good enough for me?  I admit, not always.  Not this kind of catastrophic suffering.  I have to wrestle with it, as Jacob wrestled with the angel.  But I do believe, and I hold this in my hand along side the questions about suffering, that He is present when the earth shakes and the waters roll and the fire explodes and the very air we breathe turns on us.  Do you think that the One who created this earth in the first place would turn His back when all four elements go so horribly wrong?  No possible way.  This is God. 

I have no other lesson than that.  And there is this, which will sound callous though I mean anything but that and say it with mercy in a whisper.  We all die.  Death comes.  I think ultimately God cares less about the way we die than whether we die with Him or without Him.  We humans spend so much of our time trying to put off death, but I'm not sure God ever has the same goals we do.  His goal is that we know Him, that we are in His Kingdom.

I pray for those affected by these events, and for those whose loved ones they've been unable to communicate with.  And...I'll leave the rest for a clearer day, when the smoke and air clear and the water and land settle.  And ultimately, I'll trust it to God, where it belongs.  God be with them.
Amen.

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