What To Do in the Face of Tragedy
by Mike McKinniss
Forgive me, but I’ve been thinking about tragedy lately.
In the early morning hours of Wednesday, January 10, a torrential rainstorm dumped several inches of precipitation onto Santa Barbara, CA, in a matter of minutes. Normally, such a violent shower would have done little more than force the shedding of some old palm fronds from their trunks. But this storm came immediately on the heels of California’s largest recorded wildfire, which burned a vast area nearby, including the hills just above the tiny town of Montecito. Denuded of the vegetation upslope, the massive amount of rain in so short a time triggered powerful mudslides, which bulldozed through portions of the village.
Dozens of homes and places of business were destroyed in a moment. At writing, 21 people are counted among the dead and two remain missing in the aftermath.
The torrent of rain and the flash flood is only the beginning of the anguish for people in this seaside community, for a similar torrent of fearful and desperate questions follow. These will likely linger for a long time—probably long after the clean up and reconstruction is completed.
Where was God when this violent storm struck this peaceful community? Where is God now that the event has wreaked its havoc? How could God have allowed such destruction? Could God have not stopped such a tragedy? And what do we do now?
All are natural questions. Each on its own is enough to unsettle a person. Taken together, they might debilitate.
And there’s much that could be said about each, in turn. My thoughts, however, have been lingering on one particular aspect of the final query. What do we do now? More precisely, what do Christians do now?
Naturally, there are many practical things to do. Displaced families need places to stay. Distraught people need others to help process the terrible events. Soon, when roads are cleared and work crews are allowed into the area, there will be ample opportunity to clean, restore and rebuild homes and infrastructure. All of these are entirely good and completely necessary. And Christians should get deeply involved.
Still, there is something that Christians ought to do in times like these that may not readily occur to many. It certainly will not occur to those who do not believe. Simply, we must worship.
Throughout the Psalms and much other biblical literature, the people of God give praise to the Creator in distressing times. Many of the Psalms sound almost schizophrenic in the ways they lament dire circumstances before turning abruptly to resounding praise. The worship seems a non sequitur. But the psalmists have captured a vital truth. There is great power and meaning in worship in the midst of great tragedy.
Declarations of God’s goodness are especially meaningful when he doesn’t appear good to the naked eye. Our worship in desperate circumstances is simultaneously a declaration to the world that this horrific event was no “act of God”. It declares that we place our trust in a God who, despite present circumstances, can and will redeem the awful events so many have suffered. It’s a declaration of God’s great concern, that he’s far from indifferent, but really right in the literal mud alongside us. All this we proclaim to the world—and to our own broken hearts—when we worship in the midst of crisis.
Worship at such difficult times is not only a powerful declaration of truth, despite appearances, it is consequently and simultaneously a great act of faith. Our scriptures tell us that there is coming a day when every tear is wiped away, when pain and sickness will be no more, when death itself is done away with (Rev. 21:4). We believe that God will, on the basis of the resurrection, overcome in reality all the ills that plague our world now. The whole earth will be redeemed, and there will be no more seas of chaos (Rev. 21:1). So when we worship at the moments when this seems most untrue, we stand in powerful faith—and everything is possible to him who believes (Mark 9:23).
Finally, we worship in the midst of catastrophe and trauma because it is a great privilege. At the time when all sorrow will cease and all death is undone, we are taught, too, that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phi. 2:10-11). In short, there’s coming a day when everyone will see that God is a god who goes to the cross to take responsibility for all sin and evil, that God is a god who suffers for the sake of all humankind, that God is a god who has conquered sin, death and evil—like these awful “natural” disasters—and rises as the Prince of Peace. In that day everyone everywhere will know God’s true character, and they will have no choice but to worship. All will worship, not because they’ll be forced to, but because they’ll see who the Lord truly is, and the only natural response will be to fall prostrate in wonder.
Until that time, however, worship is entirely a choice founded on faith. It is the very fact of it being a choice, made of our own free will, and in the face of great doubts and hardship, that makes it so sweet, humble and powerful.
That is what we can do in the face of terrible tragedy. We can get our hands dirty cleaning, repairing and rebuilding. We can lend our ears and hearts to those in deep mourning and cry along with them. And we can stand as witnesses to God’s goodness and declare to the world that he is not the author of tragedy, but the ultimate redeemer of grief.