The Common Good

Majesty and Tragedy in Oklahoma

In churches around the world, Psalm 8’s resounding praise of God will be read this Sunday. “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Women and men will confess that these are the words of God. But we will do so with grief, with deep questions about God and the world God has crafted and continues to sustain.

Brett Deering/Getty Images
Debris covers the ground after a powerful tornado ripped Moore, Okla., on May 20. Brett Deering/Getty Images

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As we have learned anew in the last few hours, tornadoes are indiscriminate terrors.

In the spring of 1999, I was a freshman at Oklahoma Baptist University. The tornado sirens wailed and called us all to the basement of my dorm. Due to the recklessness of youth along with the absence of windows and cell phones, we were little aware that dangerous clouds were surrounding us. We laughed and joked. My fraternity’s pet iguana kept us entertained. We were spared, but some of our neighbors were not so fortunate. On Monday afternoon, many of these same places experienced anew the ferocity of a storm that can appear almost without warning.

A few days later that spring, a group of us drove into Oklahoma City. We saw firsthand the perfect path of destruction a tornado can carve into the ground. The lines the vortex left in its wake were tragically ordered, perfectly straight. On one side of this invisible demarcation, utter destruction; on the other side the storm was a mere disruption. A thin line separated the fortunate from the grieving.

Much the same was true on Monday once again, the tragedy only heightened by the destruction of the security of an elementary school. Can we still read Psalm 8 in the light of all this?

“O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.” And from those heavens descended a deadly cloud.

“Out of the mouths of babes and infants ...” The children of Plaza Towers Elementary?

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Indeed that is the question that troubles the heart of the faithful in times like these.

Can we still praise God? If so, how do we start? Can we possibly understand what happened in Moore, Okla.?

Don’t trust anyone who claims to comprehend the meaning of this storm. Don’t trust anyone who points with absolute certainty to a single cause for this storm. Don’t trust anyone who treats a tornado as anything but indiscriminate and cruel. These tragedies are not punishments or object lessons. Such natural forces do not reach their conclusion with a pat moral or a simple “they lived happily ever after.”

Instead of seeking unavailing answers, we turn to one another. My collegiate alma mater has responded admirably to these tragedies, opening the doors of my former dorm to shelter some of us once again from the ravages of a storm. The outpouring of support is already tangible. The faithful have and will respond not with easy answers but with a word of hope and a helpful hand.

As we have learned anew in the last few hours, tornadoes are indiscriminate terrors, but they cannot match the reservoirs of compassion we tap in moments like these.

Instead of seeking unavailing answers, we start where the psalmist started. We start with a deep-seated, persistent hope that God is trustworthy and true, that God is worthy of our praise. We would be sorely mistaken to chalk up the psalmist’s words to mere naivete, to count the poetry of Psalm 8 among the saccharine sentences of a greeting card, to deem praise of God the outgrowth of an easy life. The wisdom of the Psalms are hard-won. They exhibit not just the heights of fortune but the depths of despair. Alongside words of praise, the Psalms lament, they pray, they cry out, they rejoice, they rage, and, yes, they praise. Psalm 8 stands alongside a collection of other songs representing the vast expanse of human emotion and faith. We cannot understand Psalm 8 unless we read with it the 23rd and the 137th, the 22nd and the 30th. In our lament and praise this week, we stand in the long shadow of the Psalms and generations of faithful people who have treasured their wisdom.

Psalm 8 moves from the highest heavens down to the earth. At every point, humans praise God’s holy name. The psalmist continues to reflect on the luminous bodies that populate the skies, causing him to wonder why God is concerned with us, mere specks of dust, while these great bodies grace the farther reaches of space.

And yet God is concerned. In fact, God has granted us a share in God’s glory and a share in God’s dominion over the world. We may be mere specks in the universe, but we are specks imbued with God’s love. We may stand at the mercy of winds and rain, but we find shelter in God’s care. It is thus more than appropriate for the psalm to begin and close in the same way: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” For the same reason, it is more than appropriate for us to begin and end this week uttering the very same words.

The vast expanse of emotion and faith we feel in the wake of this tragedy will be welcomed in our churches this week or wherever we gather to help the hurting. All our questions and doubts will be welcomed in a psalm that declares God’s goodness. All our hope will be welcomed by a God who mourns alongside us, a God who creates but never deserts us, who is enthroned high above but always at our side.

Rev. Dr. Eric D. Barreto is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. He was ordained by Peachtree Baptist Church (CBF) in 2006. After completing a bachelor of arts degree in religion at Oklahoma Baptist University and a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, he earned a doctoral degree in New Testament from Emory University. Barreto's ON Scripture post appears via the Odyssey Network, through a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.

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