O most glorious and gracious Lord God, who dwellest in heaven, but beholdest all things below; Look down, we beseech thee, and hear us, calling out of the depth of misery, and out of the jaws of this death, which is now ready to swallow us up: Save, Lord, or else we perish. The living, the living shall praise thee. O send thy word of command to rebuke the raging winds and the roaring sea; that we, being delivered from this distress, may live to serve thee, and to glorify thy Name all the days of our life. Hear, Lord, and save us, for the infinite merits of our blessed Saviour, thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
–Prayer for those at sea, from the 1789 Book of Common Prayer (U.S.)
What is it about tropical storms (or, for those of us in landlocked places, tornadoes) that causes human nature to exhibit a secret wish for these forces of nature to clobber those we deem as “wicked?” Seems that it doesn’t matter which side of the political fence or theological fence one is on for that image to rear its ugly head. Of course, many of us immediately think of Pat Robertson’s frequent statements of tropical storms being a punishment for gays and HIV disease, but recently the Daily Kos turned it the other direction, asking tongue-in-cheek if Hurricane Isaac was punishment for the GOP convention being held in Tampa. We’ve certainly all had our personal moments with those kind of thoughts. I still remember the day one of my friends who was in the middle of a very contentious divorce. As a tropical storm began to bear down on the town where her estranged husband lived, she blurted out, “God, I know this is not nice, and I don’t want you to kill him, but could you at least go after the guy in the white Ford Taurus and shake him up a bit?” I’ve been known to say after tornado damage was reported, “Have you ever noticed that God really dislikes churches and trailer courts?”
All kidding aside, there’s something about storms that reflect both our powerlessness and the power of a force beyond our control. Storm imagery is a classic one in movies, particularly as it relates to the interplay between good and evil and our hopes that the storm will some how both cleanse us of evil and redeem us. Cape Fear would not be Cape Fear without the storm scene–and, of course, you can’t have The Perfect Storm without a storm. When the makers of the movie The Bad Seed realized that the end of the original version of that work would not be palatable to a moviegoing public and the censors, they changed the ending so that wicked little Rhoda got zapped by lightning. What better way to show that good prevailed and evil was destroyed?
In a way, storms at sea also seem incredibly Anglican. Our hymnal is full of storms, waves and high seas danger, with the gold standard being “Eternal father, strong to save.” (I remember in the early days of my becoming an Episcopalian, thinking, “What’s with all the hymns about storms and the sea? I’m trying to find peace with God, not a bunch of storms!”) It’s a reminder that our denominational roots are in a country where “Britannia rules the waves” was an important part of its culture. It was important in the early days of Anglicanism that this brand of faith be borne to distant lands in the hearts of seafarers and explorers. Storms were something every sailor could understand in terms of a God with awesome power over creation.
Perhaps, though, the purpose of storms in our theology is not about punishing the wicked at all, (as tantalizing as it is,) in terms of sweeping evil from our landscape and annihilating all those nasty “others” we rather avoid. Perhaps it’s more about the universal nature of the human experience and grace. For starters, there’s that looming nature of storms. We see them on the horizon and know they are coming, and there’s simply not much we can do about it. All of us have times in life where we know a storm is coming, but we don’t know how severe it is, or what its toll will be. We don’t know if we will have to take shelter or not. We don’t know what will survive and what will perish.
Storms bring tempests of wind, deluges, and blizzards–and a special kind of grace despite the wreckage. Just as it rains on the just and the unjust, the wind blows on the just and the unjust, too. Storms bring both darkness and light simultaneously–flashes of brilliant light against a background of darkness. When they are over, the light shines on everyone equally–but it also exposes the damage that has been done in a very stark light. Yet, almost anyone who has lived through hurricane or tornado damage can tell stories of the things that were miraculously left standing. I had a friend whose house was totaled in the Kirksville tornado of 2009–but, amazingly, his wine collection was spared. (God may not be fond of churches or trailer courts, but wine appears to be another thing entirely.) Even in great loss, there are times when what was spared become sources of mystery and wonder. Sometimes we discover the power of storms to strip us bare reveals a piece of our essential selves we never knew existed.
What has God revealed to you in life’s storms?
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid