Then there was something else, barely audible at first. As it grew louder, I gradually realized I was hearing a loudspeaker. Eventually I spotted it, some distance away, mounted on the back of a pickup truck, wending its way through the rubble and the dazed. Standing in the bed of the truck was a young man, using the loudspeaker to announce... God's wrath upon the capital city.
That was 23 years ago, during the second week of October, 1986, in the city of San Salvador, El Salvador. We teachers and students of the Baptist seminary had suspended classes to throw ourselves into the relief effort--building temporary shelters, providing pastoral counseling to survivors, distributing food and other immediate relief supplies to those in need. We were stunned as we listened.
As we stood in the rubble and listened, we were also reminded. Back at the seminary, we had studied John's Gospel together. In Chapter 9 we had seen a deep contrast between the way Jesus' disciples and their master responded to human need. As they left the Jerusalem temple one day, they came upon a man who had been born blind. The disciples responded by seeking a spiritual explanation for the man's condition: "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Like the guy in the truck in San Salvador, the disciples responded to suffering by seeking to assign blame.
Jesus swept away the disciples' question, saying: "neither this man nor his parents sinned." Instead of seeking to explain the man's condition by looking backward to its blameworthy cause, Jesus called his followers to witness God's agenda, pressing forward to the man's salvation: "we must work the works of him who sent me." Jesus saw human need as an opportunity to reveal what God really desires for human beings.
In his typical way, John shows us that the man went through quite a process of transformation. Gaining his sight was the first step. The journey thus begun led him to gain insight about those around him. That included, eventually, Jesus, whom he worshiped. John makes it clear that "what God really desires for human beings" is a wholeness that is grounded ultimately in Jesus.
Sadly, I'm sure the guy in the truck amidst the rubble that was San Salvador in October of 1986 would have said that serving Jesus was also what he meant to be doing. But what a contrast between the Jesus we meet in the Gospels and the one who appeared in the message of that young man.
Sadder still, the guy in the truck was not--and is not--unique. Pat Robertson's comment on Haiti last week is only the most famous of the current examples of how easily followers of Jesus let their hearts get out of alignment with His. Jesus did not respond to human suffering by using theology to explain it away. Instead he embodied his theology by healing, forgiving, feeding and inviting.
I am grateful for all those who are on the front lines of response to the needs of the Haitian people today. And, as I prepare to go teach in Mexico and El Salvador in the coming weeks, I am grateful that I can nonetheless play a small role in supporting them, both in prayer and by giving to their efforts through the One Great Hour of Sharing. Because of my own time on the front lines back in 1986, I have also been praying that the hearts of Jesus' followers in Haiti and everywhere would be aligned with Jesus' heart, and that their actions would effectively embody the love of God for all those who suffer.
This has grown too long, I know. But I cannot close without passing along my translation of a poem written by Gerardo Oberman, a Presbyterian pastor in Argentina, after he learned of the earthquake in Haiti. I received the original from my friend Juan Stam in Costa Rica, who is himself always a source of inspiration and wise counsel.
"...but the Lord was not in the earthquake"
1 Kings 19:11
The earth shook like an enraged beast,
the mountains trembled and the sea unleashed its fury,
the soil opened its mouth wide and swallowed whole buildings,
and a people exhausted from suffering, suffers anew.
We saw their faces and heard their cries,
through images that shuddered and shook,
people wandering, bodies crushed
death and destruction, agony and pain,
in the wake of the cruel, devastating earthquake.
But God was not in the earthquake...
Children without their mothers, mothers without their children,
brothers without brothers and friends without friends,
thousands and thousands of lives flattened in seconds,
stories, hopes, dreams and plans,
all disappeared in the blink of an eye.
The horror left its indelible mark
in the lost looks, the desolate faces,
the dead, the trapped, the mutilated,
in each life torn apart by the unexpected.
But God was not in the earthquake.
Someone cried out in terror and other voices joined in.
Someone lifted a prayer, and others prayed along.
Someone sang, and many joined the song.
Someone lifted a piece of concrete,
and others began to clear away the rubble,
somone hugged the injured
and others carried the wounded in their arms
someone stretched out a hand to help,
and thousands of hands joined in.
And God was among them.
In solidarity with the Haitian people
January 13, 2010