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First Thoughts: The Unthinkable


By Larry Hollon

The Rev. Larry Hollon
The Rev. Larry Hollon

All day, storms had brewed in the western part of the state. Then, a massive tornado formed west of Oklahoma City and wreaked destruction for miles. New tornadoes formed for hours.

Whole towns were leveled, and lives were lost.

By early evening, the dangerous winds approached our small town. In the fearful darkness, a tornado ripped apart the hospital on the western edge of town. It demolished the facilities of a food-distribution company and damaged houses across the western part of town. Then it swept away the town's largest employer, an outlet mall adjacent to the interstate highway.

In a matter of minutes, the economic backbone of the small town was literally blown away. Jobs were lost. Lives were forever changed.

As we huddled in an underground cellar, our son, who was hearing impaired, said, "Dad, it's here."

He sensed the change in air pressure, and he was correct. To my hearing, the roaring winds were unmistakable. A lump formed in my throat. A chill ran through me. The air was thick and moist.

My heart sank. I expected to see our house gone when we emerged.

But our home was spared, as were most of the residences of the town. The damage was severe. Hundred-year-old trees crushed cars. Debris blocked streets. Roofs were skimmed of shingles. Yet, our damage was not as great as that in more heavily populated areas, and we suffered no loss of life.

Nevertheless, the unthinkable had happened. Our health facility was destroyed. The town's economy was struck low. We were stunned, shocked and without logical answers.

When the unthinkable happens, many attempt to explain the unexplainable. Inevitably, divine intervention is invoked, as when one person claims the hand of God protected him or her while another claims God called a loved one to heaven. And some insurance policies contain clauses referring to "acts of God."

In the capriciousness of such events, it is understandable that we would try to make sense of life-changing tragedy. I've heard such explanations spoken the world over.

But they leave me with a haunting sense of unease because it's difficult for me to square such capriciousness with a God of love.

In a natural order based on predictable laws of physics, it is easier to understand that if cold, dry air mixes with warm, moist air under favorable atmospheric conditions, turbulence results that can create twisting winds, which can wreak havoc.

When the plates upon which continents are located shift and collide, something has to give. An earthquake results. When it happens under the sea, it can produce huge waves that engulf shorelines.

Were these natural laws not in place, we would truly live in a capricious universe. Without cause and effect, life would be unmanageable and unpredictable.

But in the midst of personal loss and grief, these answers provide us little comfort and even less hope in our ability to cope.

Unthinkable tragedy surfaces emotions so deep and so unsettling, we yearn not only for an explanation, but also for comfort for our deepest hurt and loss. In the jumble of emotions that comes with grief, we are shaken to our core.

Exposed and vulnerable in ways we experience only in times of great loss, we stand before God, seeking to understand why we're caught up in these unexplainable circumstances.

I have come to believe that in such moments, we are as close to God as we will ever be in our lives. We are stripped of our defenses and pretensions. We are powerless and vulnerable. We're as utterly human as we will ever be.

In those moments, we're also as close to the God who has created us as we'll ever be, because we're open and receptive to God. We discover strength to get through the day — strength we didn't believe we had, strength from beyond ourselves.

We discover a resilience we didn't know we had, a kind of hope that disregards the evidence of the present moment. A hope not of ourselves.

This is not a "God of the gaps." It is more like theologian Paul Tillich's teaching that we stand before the God who is the ground of our being.

I've also come to the belief that God neither causes these terrible things to happen nor prevents them. They are the natural results of an ordered creation. But in the midst of such events, God stands with us, comforts us, gives us strength and holds us in an embrace of love.

We see this God in the faces of those around us who pull together to offer aid and comfort, healing and understanding. This is God at work in the midst of tragedy.

"The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit," writes the psalmist. (Psalm 34:18, NRSV)

We were created to flourish, not to live in a chaotic world, claims Isaiah. (Isaiah 45:18-19) The creation that can seem so capricious is the creation God gives us. In this creation, God's desire is for us to flourish.

And I hold fast to the claim of Paul who wrote, "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, not things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-39, NRSV)

When the unthinkable happens, I am thrust into the arms of unthinkable love — love built even more deeply into the foundations of creation, love that is the ground of our being.

The Rev. Larry Hollon is publisher of Interpreter and general secretary of United Methodist Communications. Read his FAITH MEDIA + CULTURE blog at