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Theologizing Tragedy

floodThis week has been a rough one.  After 10 years of ordination, I faced the need to conduct my first funeral service for a baby. The baby girl only lived a couple of minutes beyond birth. There was no time for her to open her eyes. No time to cry upon arrival. No time for anything.   No matter how many classes you take, books you read, or the research you do, nothing can prepare you for seeing that tiny coffin.

The task for me, as it has fallen on so many others, was to some how provide appropriate words of comment in the service.  As a priest, it was expected that I would offer some words of insight and knowledge that could make this tragedy somehow theologically make sense.  Yea right.

I fumbled my way through the service, but If that situation wasn’t bad enough, the family would have gone home after a very difficult afternoon only to have a police officer knock on their door and declare that they must evacuate their home.  I visited their home in preparation for the service: they were surely evacuated.  It seems almost divine insult to injury doesn’t it?  Frankly, I would not blame the family if that is what they felt.

That got me thinking about the words I offered in the service. How do we theologically sum personal or communal tragedy?  How do we speak to heartache and sorrow when one event seems to get piled on top of another?    In times of disaster, people look to the communities of faith in order to somehow ‘make sense’ of what is happening.  They long for a voice that will help them put things into perspective, or at least give them the necessary words to express their own anger, sadness or confusion.  In these times, what do we say?

Of course, there are answers available.   A cursory look on the internet will acquaint you with many ways that people have tried to make sense of tragedy.  Does anyone remember the YouTube video posted after the Hong Kong quake? In this video, a red faced uber-christian ranted about God’s ‘judgment’ on a godless nation?  Or what about the act of theologizing acts of domestic terrorist attacks, such as 911 and the Boston Marathon, into a twisted prophetic gesture against the spiritual apathy of the west.  In preparation for the service, I found many sights that told stories oftransforming butterflies, or dragonflies that escape the tedium of their world.  Some suggest I teach how God sometimes picks un-bloomed flowers and takes back too-perfect angels.

Such responses don’t seem to help.  They lack any sort of weight, authenticity, or truth.  I find them the theological equivalent to cotton candy – all puffed up and colorful but wanting of any real substance or health.  Still, as faith leaders, when our lives brush up against a family enduring one of the saddest moments imaginable, or when you happen to reside only a couple kilometers from the ground zeros, evacuations zones, and epicenters of communal disasters, it’s hard not to feel the communal need to speak theologically regarding the current happenings.

Like me, I am sure you have faced this dynamic as of late.  People long for a way in which they can think about flooding in Alberta.  There is a need to give voice to sadness, confusion, even anger.  After all, if God is in control of all things, surely it was God’s will that High River was covered in water . . . right?  And all those people who lost their homes, cars, jobs, and maybe even their lives, well that was all part of God’s infinite and good plan . . . wasn’t it?

Well that’s doesn’t’ seem right.  Surely that’s not what we want to say.  Yet if the flood was not God’s will, then aren’t we left with the uncomfortable state of claiming that God was either:

  • a)      powerless to stop the disaster,
  • b)      Unaware that it was about to happen
  • c)       Chose not stop the disaster.

Well none of those things are entirely comfortable either!   Those answers don’t seem consistent with biblical truth either.  After all, no matter how good or loving they may be, is a powerless and ignorant God really worth devotion and worship?

So it seems that  neither extreme provides the answers necessary to bring any sort of meaning to the tragedies of human life.   Neither seems to express that deep juxtaposition of a God who is in control but not controlling.  There are no nice theolgoical little bows waiting to be found. At least, I haven’t found one.

So, this just brings us back to the start.  The question is the same. How do we speak of God’s ‘answer’ to tragedy, when no answer will ever cut it?

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith. Connect with Kyle on
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  • Kyle Norman