Saturday, January 23, 2010

Unimaginable Suffering

Ever since I received the first word of the earthquake in Haiti, I've been trying to assimilate the news. But I just can't wrap my mind around it. And my heart just keeps breaking. We still don't know the death toll. Images of front-end loaders loading up corpses to bury them in mass graves - a grotesque thought, but one made necessary in the fight to save the lives of those who remain. People injured and lacking medical supplies and care. People starving and without shelter. Children orphaned. It's just too much to take in.

Today I attended the funeral of a colleague of mine - a clergy member of the Southwest Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, named Clint Rabb. He was about 10 years older than me. I first met him when he was a young UM minister and I was about a junior or senior in high school, way back in 1976. My memory is he was chaplain at Bexar County Jail in San Antonio at the time. Later in the 90's we served together in San Angelo. Since the late 90's he's served with the Board of Global Ministries, our United Methodist mission agency. He was in Port-au-Prince, Haiti for a meeting with other mission executives to strategize in how to be in mission with the people of Haiti. They had just entered the Montana Hotel there when the quake hit. They were very near the front desk when the whole building collapsed. Three of the men, all UM clergy, were trapped together, two of them with their legs hopelessly pinned. They were there for 55 hours until rescuers reached them. They sang the doxology as they heard the firefighters call to them to say they were going to get them out. One of them died before they could extricate him from the rubble. One escaped without serious injury. Clint was rescued, but died two days later in a Florida hospital from his injuries. I myself experienced the roller coaster of emotions when I learned he'd been there, that he was missing and feared dead, that he was discovered alive and rescued, but critically injured - that he would have one leg amputated below the knee and the other foot removed. I had just finished worship last Sunday where we had prayed for him and thanked God for his rescue and survival, when my wife called me while I was still at the church to tell me that she read that he'd died. I was stunned. This wasn't some stranger, this was a person I knew.

Certain aspects of the funeral were excruciating - hearing that story from his companion who survived, the tributes of his children, the lamentation of his widow. But it was also a marvelous blessing - gathering together with my brothers and sisters from across the church to grieve Clint's loss amidst such an ocean of loss, as well as to celebrate his life and ministry, the lives he touched, and even his acts of service to others right in the midst of their ordeal.

This tragedy, both the microcosm of Clint's death as well as the macrocosm of the tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of others who died (not to mention all the other suffering still going on there) raises all kinds of spiritual and theological questions. Why do some die and others live? Why do things like this happen? There is not enough space here for me to even begin to deal with many of those questions. And even if I did, any attempt of mine to do so, would fall far short.

But I do know this. Even in the midst of unspeakable human tragedy, God is present. I saw that today, both in what I heard of the event, and in the event of the funeral service itself. One of the bishops who spoke today read this text from Lamentations 3:19-21 (Message):

I'll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness, the taste of ashes, the poison I've swallowed. I remember it all - oh, how well I remember - the feeling of hitting the bottom.

But there's one other thing.....I remember,

and remembering, I keep a grip on hope:

God's loyal love couldn't have run out, his merciful love couldn't have dried up. They're created new every morning. How great is your faithfulness!

He had us repeat the phrase "I keep a grip on hope." That is our prayer - for God to help us "keep a grip on hope" - our prayer for ourselves and for the people of Haiti.