When Tragedy Strikes

Vol. 37/No. 2

When Tragedy Strikes

Alan Henderson

George West, Texas

A Crisis to Report

At 4:20 a.m. this past Monday morning,(1) Los Angelenos were rudely awakened by a devastating earthquake measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale. You've seen pictures of the aftermath. Interstates and highways demolished. Bridges and parking garages collapsed. Water mains burst. Gas lines in flames. Thirty lives snuffed out. All in a matter of seconds.

Those are the facts of the situation. But the emotions of the story, the thoughts and the feelings, the reactions of residents and travellers, are recounted in the personal reports you've heard from eyewitnesses, those who experienced the tragedy firsthand. Like Richard Goodis of Sherman Oaks, California: "This place was moving like a jackhammer was going at it. Our bedroom wall tore away. I was looking at the ceiling one moment, then I was looking at the sky. I thought we were dead." Or Phyllis Presbrey, an elderly resident of the Hollywood Plaza Retirement Home: "I was trying to get out of bed, but I couldn't because it was just rocking too much. I was scared, terribly scared."(2) It is those reactions - from survivors - which make the story real.

In 11 Kings 25:8-12, the facts of Jerusalem's destruction in 587 B.C. are reported. The account reads like an article from the local daily:

In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month, in the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard, an official of the king of Babylon, entered Jerusalem. He burned down the house of Yahweh, and the king's house; and all the houses in Jerusalem, including every great man's house, he set on fire and burned. The whole army of the Chaldeans tore down the walls of Jerusalem, all around ... The rest of the people who were left in the city, and those who had deserted to the king of Babylon, and the rest of the populace, Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard, took to Babylon as prisoners. The captain of the guard left only some of the poorest in the country to tend the vines and farm the land.

Those are the facts of the case. But in the book of Lamentations the meaning behind the facts is revealed. The recollections of survivors, the sense of mourning and loss, the pain and the anguish, the questioning and the doubting - all are expressed in the pages of Lamentations.

In Romans 12:15 Paul instructed Christians to "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep." Little Janie came into the house and told her mother that her friend Jessica had dropped her doll and broken it. "Did you help her fix it?" Janie's mother asked. "No, we couldn't fix it," Janie replied, "but I did help her cry."

For the past five days, Los Angeles residents have been helping each other cry, lamenting their losses: family members, businesses, homes, vehicles, friends. During the same week, more than 100 deaths have been attributed to the vicious cold spell that has cast its icy chill over the Midwest and Northeast. This is not the first time these things have happened, however, nor will it be the last. Two years ago it was Hurricane Andrew and the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Last year it was flooding along the Mississippi. A few months ago it was fires in Southern California. Who knows what the remainder of this year will bring?

Because anything is possible, I believe we need to take a close look at the brief book of Lamentations to prepare ourselves for what the future may hold. In every situation of loss there is lament. Something about lament, something about situations of loss and crisis, pulls people together and unites them in a powerful bond. Someone has said, "You may soon forget those with whom you have laughed, but you will never forget those with whom you have wept." How true that is!

A Call to Repent

Composed of five poems, Lamentations is a funeral dirge uttered by both the community and the individual for the fallen city of Jerusalem. As the book of Job addresses the problem of evil and suffering at the personal level, so the book of Lamentations addresses the same problem at the community level. As a result, Lamentations is a book very much alive for our day. For in an age characterized by upheaval at the community level in countries around the world, the book of Lamentations speaks to us with a riveting relevance. Why is there so much disorder in Bosnia and Serbia? Why is there terror in Sudan? What is the reason for the continual upheaval in the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States? Why so much chaos in these (supposedly) United States? Why the David Koreshes and incinerated compounds? Why the John Wayne and Lorena Bobbitts and carnival trials on Court TV? Why the conspiracies and hotel hallway attacks on the Nancy Kerrigans?

The book of Lamentations affirms a multi-leveled answer that strikes equally at numerous segments within our society and ancient Israel's, with the baseline being a three-letter word we have sought so long to suppress: "The Lord has brought her (Judah) grief because of her many sins " (1:5). Ultimately, the reason for the chaos we experience is sin.

Chapter two announces that turmoil abounds because of the sins of the political leaders. And where sin is involved, carefully contrived political alliances and international agreements are helpless to save: "Moreover, our eyes failed, " the writer says, "looking in vain for help; from our towers we watched for a nation that could not save us" (4:17).

Unexpectedly, 2:14 avows that the upheaval is a result of the sin and negligence of the religious community and its leaders: "The visions of your prophets were false and worthless, they did not expose your sin to ward off your captivity. The oracles they gave you were false and misleading." Furthermore, chapter four says, disaster "happened because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed within her the blood of the righteous" (4-.13).

Chapter three avows that it is the sins of the general populace that have brought disaster upon the nation. And what a disaster it is! "With their own hands compassionate women have cooked their own children, who became their food when my people were destroyed" (4-1 0).

The call which Lamentations issues in order to correct the calamity caused by sin is a call echoed throughout the prophets. It is a call which we must heed in our own day, if there is to be healing in our land and peace in our world: "Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord. Let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God in heaven, and say. 'We have sinned and rebelled and you have not forgiven... (3:40-42). The call of Lamentations is a call to real repentance; it is a call to revitalized ethics; it is a call to a renewed lifestyle: it is a call to personal and community morality and justice.

A Commitment to Hope

The book ends with these words: "You, 0 Lord, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation. Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long? Restore us to yourself, 0 Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure" (5:19-22).

You see, the deeper issue in Lamentations is to make sense of the devastation and destruction that has occurred, particularly in terms of the people's faith. More than simply a series of poetic laments bemoaning the fate of Jerusalem and her people, Lamentations is a confessional statement of faith. The climax of the book occurs not at the end, in chapter five, but in the middle, in chapter 3, verses 17ff.:

I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is. So I say, "My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the Lord." I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.

Then comes this dramatic reversal:

Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope. Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, "The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him" (3:17-24).

Our son Levi is at the stage of his development where he is starting to enter what we usually refer to as the "terrible two's" (and some of you, I think, are taking a perverse pleasure in watching us try to deal with all that!) We're trying to minimize it by being positive in our approach - calling it the "terrific two's," the "tremendous two's" and every other conceivable thing - but the reality is that this part of the passage from toddlerhood into childhood is difficult. Boundaries are constantly being tested. Frequently Levi oversteps his bounds and has to reap the consequences, either with a spanking or a "timeout." And predictably his response is usually the same. After crying awhile, he'll come and - still crying, with tears streaming down his face - want us to pick him up. "Papa! Mama!"

That is what is happening in the book of Lamentations. With tears streaming down their faces as a result of their rebellion and subsequent punishment by God, the people of Judah run with their arms outstretched and cry, "Abba!," Papa, Father. They know that the one who has punished them and brought them to suffering is also the only source of their comfort and protection. Which is why the author is able to say,

Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, "The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him "...For people are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men (3:22-24,31-33).

These words of hope and grace resound with a splendor and truth that would be impossible were it not for the darkness which their author had only recently passed through. Only those who have suffered deeply can praise God greatly. Only because he has passed through the crucible of suffering and the passageway of pain can the writer of these words speak with such passion and power. C. S. Lewis once said, "Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, and shouts in our pain. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."(3) I think that's what my friend Freddie Garza must have meant when he prayed, shortly before his death and in the midst of his pain, "God, I thank you for my cancer, because before it came, I never really knew you."

Sometimes pain comes upon us by chance, simply as a byproduct of the kind of fallen world in which we live. At other times pain comes upon us as a result of our own decisions and personal choices, as it did with the people of Jeremiah's day in their rebellion against God. But whatever the cause of our pain, whether random chance or the result of our own choosing, the answer of Lamentations is that God is faithful. He is our portion and the source of our hope. Therefore, we will wait for him. Whether it be in the aftermath of an earthquake in L.A., whether it be in a snowbound home in Maine, or a hospital emergency room or criminal court right here in our own community, we will wait for him. For he is faithful.



 1. January 17, 1994.

 2. Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Tuesday, January 18, 1994, page A6.

 3. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1962).

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