Does a tsunami hit under God’s watch?
Shortly after a massive earthquake caused a huge tidal wave in the Indian Ocean to wreck unimaginable death and destruction, I led worship. A host pastor on staff of the church in which I preached desired to lead the congregation in morning prayers. He started by applauding God for His creative wonder. This pastor addressed God as the inspiration for bountiful outdoors in which we can relax to recreate our sagging spirits. Then he gave kudos to God, saying that He sends winds and waves.This way of praying gives God more credit than He ever wants or deserves. Did God send the murderous tsunami because His power in the universe controls mighty winds and crushing waves? I felt uncomfortable attributing to God, revealed in Jesus Christ, a devilish penchant to destroy tourists, babies and entire villages because “He sends winds and waves.”Voltaire, the French philosopher, lost any faith in God when a tidal wave ripped through Lisbon on All Saints’ Day, 1755. An earthquake and towering wall of water left the city looking like a giant junk pile of death and decay. The Lisbon tsunami wiped out an estimated 100,000 lives.Voltaire never had much use for belief in God in the first place. At best he might, on majestic occasions full of pomp and pageantry, tip his hat to an abstract God. The tidal wave shattered for Voltaire any notion that God held the whole world in His hands, as worshipping Christians sing so confidently.Rousseau, who vied with Voltaire for keen philosophical insights, is reported to have quipped that Voltaire had no faith to lose because he had none to gain in the first place.Christians find themselves in a tougher intellectual predicament than atheistic Voltaire. Those who cast their hopes and cares on God who made the heavens and the earth wonder how to square this faith with raging waters that maim, kill and destroy.Jonathan Edwards, the colonial preacher I portray on the Chautauqua circuit, wrote that he didn’t want to be pushed into a religious cubbyhole. He feared being labeled by a denominational tag, like Lutheran or Baptist. Edwards admitted that the 16th century Reformer John Calvin largely shaped his theology. Call me a Calvinist, said Edwards, as long as you don’t fence me in with everything Calvin believed.Like Edwards, I shy away from people who want to brand me an evangelical, a Calvinist, a heretic, a liberal, a conservative, or a libertine. Still, I find my roots in Calvin. He held an unshakable conviction that God held sway over all life, the good with the bad. The fancy word Calvin uttered to salute a majestic God revealed in Christ is “sovereign.” God rules. All nature bows before Him.What a fix Christians find themselves in who trust in God’s sovereignty. God controls nature. Yet stiff winds snuff out lives and destroy villages. How do we reconcile God’s control over life with uncontrollable misery caused by earthquakes giving force to tidal waves?About the time this hard question bothered me, I gave in to a pleasure shared with Thomas Jefferson, another character I portray on stage and in sanctuaries. Jefferson had little discipline when he walked by bookstalls. He had to purchase a book or two. The same malady afflicts me.Sometimes we must spend money to save it, Jefferson and I reason. For a few bucks, I bought a 1st edition copy of James Michener’s gargantuan novel, Centennial. It describes the early beginnings of Colorado. This book furnishes a possible insight that helps me balance my conviction that God is in charge of the universe, even when devastation hits under God’s watch.Michener introduces readers to a young Mennonite farmer Levi Zendt, who migrates with his new wife Elly from secure Pennsylvania to an insecure West. Loading a Conestoga wagon with what they owned, the Zendts headed west through the Great American Desert, heading for Oregon by way of the Colorado territory.Already in Saint Louis, Levi had a strange visitation of a monstrous elephant of the West. On the prairie, Levi volunteered for guard duty. He scanned the sky, seeing menacing clouds that gave him an “old sense of mystery and terror.”Levi yelled for Sergeant Lykes who tried to calm him by saying that the elephant was merely wagging its thunderous tail. Lykes put the fear of more than the Lord into Levi with his description of the terrible beast.”It’s not like them elephants you see in the circus, no sir. It’s immense. Taller’n most trees, with tusks that curve back like Turkish swords. It has a trunk that switches like a hurricane and a tail that can flick a wagon off’n the trail. Its disposition is mean – my, it is mean – and when he comes at you, you best run, because he has only one thing in mind, to crush you flat.”This vision of the elephant made life threatening for Levi, like having one tsunami after another pound the shore. A guide warned that about forty of these menacing elephants lurked ahead. These great beasts blocked the explorers’ path. Most who saw the elephant shivered in fear and turned back.Many elephants disturb life. The apostle Paul recognizes the elephants, writing about the entire creation “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:22). Rather than making God the instigator of raw winds and destructive waves, let us admit the elephant stomps. It is a beast we can neither control nor explain. Doc: elephantThe Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads CREATIVE GROWTH MINISTRIES, enhancing Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’s book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes” is available at local bookstores for $7.95.Vail, Colorado