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A sermon by James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, April 18, 2010


Then the Divine answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, who is this who despairs without knowledge? Pull yourself together. I have questions for you, and you must answer. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you understand. Who measured out the universe; do you understand? Who gave it shape; do you understand? Who set the foundation, who set down the cornerstone? When the morning stars sang together, and all the children of God shouted for joy, where were you?

The Book of Job, 38:1-7

This certainly feels like the year of the earthquake. In January Haiti was absolutely devastated, in February there was another, even stronger quake in Chili, although fortunately less damaging, in March another tumbler in Taiwan, one more in Mexico not quite two weeks ago, and now this past week a pretty bad one on the Tibetan plateau. No doubt, such things can give one pause.

Among the responses to the devastation of these events was new age guru Deepak Chopra sending a Tweet to his followers apologizing for starting the quake in Mexico through the force of his meditations. I assumed it was a joke if in pretty bad taste. Although, when asked for clarification the good doctor has not pled an unfortunate sense of humor, rather explaining he was indeed doing a powerful meditation at the time while acknowledging it is true correlation isn’t necessarily causation. No kidding. As creepy as that might be, however, it pales compared to Fundamentalist Christian preacher Pat Robertson’s astonishing assertion the Haitian disaster is the result of Haiti’s founders having made a pact with the devil. Blame the victim is a venerable if reprehensible tradition explaining natural horrors.

Of course both these characters stand in a long line of people getting out in front of disasters and suggesting they know why. These are classic examples, one to claim unseen powers, another to blame victims. Well, I guess, blaming victims is a way to claim power, as well. And these sorts of responses are about power, who has it, and who doesn’t.

Power. No doubt natural disasters are very powerful things. And few are as mysterious and confusing and frightening as earthquakes. I know. I’ve described my own earthquake experience a couple of times over the years. And I find I return to it often just because of the power of the experience. As a native Californian, I’d experienced many quakes. And didn’t really give them a lot of thought. Until, that is, October 1989.

Jan and I were living in Berkeley, California. She was finally finishing her undergraduate degree at Cal while I was working on my divinity degree at the Pacific School of Religion, one of the near dozen theological schools clustered just north of the UC campus in an area called Holy Hill. We lived in married student housing in one of the buildings owned by my school.

On October 17th, at five oh four, pm, I was at my internship site at the First Unitarian Church in San Jose, at the bottom of the Bay some forty-five miles from Berkeley. The whole thing remains vivid in my mind. I was standing in the front office, as was Lindi, our senior minister. Margie, our church’s administrator was sitting at her desk. That’s when the earthquake struck. We were all native Californians so we ignored the first pitch. But with the second roll, as products of California’s public education system, Lindi and I each stepped into doorways while Margie went under her desk.

And that’s when I realized there was something they didn’t mention in those instructions at school. It was true I was in a relatively secure place should the building collapse. But, I was also sharing that space with a door that wanted to fly back and forth. At 6.9 on the Richter scale and known later at the "pretty big one," the Loma Prieta remains one of the largest recorded earthquakes in the lower forty-eight, and the most severe quake either Jan or I ever experienced.

While I was in San Jose sharing space with that door, Jan was up in Berkeley in our apartment, ironing and listening to records. The room she was in, as were all our rooms in that small apartment, was filled with jerry-rigged bookshelves reaching from floor nearly to the ceiling on every wall. She felt one sharp jolt. A book fell off one shelf. As we were the building managers Jan went outside to see if the earthquake valve had been thrown. An earthquake valve is a mechanical device that turns the gas flowing into a building off with any severe jolt. It hadn’t, so she returned to her ironing. It would be an hour or so later when she turned on the radio when she learned why I wasn’t about to walk through the door.

Turns out that Holy Hill is a solid up shoot of granite, and a big hunk of granite at that. However, this wasn’t true for most of the rest of the Bay Area, which had experienced a hellish fifteen seconds. There were sixty-two deaths, nearly four thousand people were hurt, parts of several freeways, one which I drove along pretty nearly every day, and a section of the Bay Bridge all collapsed, eighteen thousand homes were damaged and a total estimated six billion dollars were lost in those fifteen seconds. That’s power. And we, that is Jan and me, like so many others, we were left shaken to the core. I can’t quite describe the feeling after such an experience. The fragility of it all, and the tentativeness of life itself seemed to seep into our pores, and grew slowly from the first exhilaration of having made it, to a bone and marrow knowing that the earth could move from under us at any time, and no place really was safe, no place. The next year when I was offered a call to serve a church in Wisconsin, even as Californians who had never lived outside the boundaries of our native state, we were pretty happy to leave earthquake country.

And I’ve found I have a take away from that experience. I find myself thinking a lot about how the lessons that stick tend to be the ones that catch me off guard, that knock me out of my safety zones, say, like with an earthquake. They can be big, and they can be small. Fast forward to this week. Out of the blue a UU in Ohio who blogs sent me a link to something he wrote that he thought I’d find interesting. He was right. It goes like this.

“Panhandlers frequented most of the main streets in Clifton, the neighborhood in Cincinnati where I lived from 1990 until 1995. They were quite a nuisance, especially when they set up shop by ATMs and pay phones. I made it a point to never make eye contact or acknowledge them. One night, a bearded street person in his mid-60s came up to me and actually clutched my sleeve. ‘Young man, do you have money for dinner?’ They always needed it for a cup of coffee, or bus fare, or for a meal--never to buy booze. That was how cynical I was. ’No, I don't,’ I said, using a tone that telegraphed to him the matter was not open for discussion. ’Well, for God's sake, get yourself something!’ he said, stuffing a five-dollar bill in the breast pocket of my shirt. Before I could fully comprehend what had just happened, he disappeared in the other direction.”

I queried the author and he assured me the person was almost certainly indigent, his clothes needed cleaning, and so did he. I’ve been thinking about that, and the small earthquake for my new friend. And what it has meant for him in the days and weeks and years since. I found myself thinking of that old Yiddish saying. "God is not nice. God is not your uncle. God is an earthquake."

Now, I don’t want too make light or too easy lessons. We all can make ourselves the center of the universe a bit too easily. Like how Dr Chopra did. I recall my own experience of the ground shaking, and the terrible knowledge of complete uncertainty, and I think of lives thrown a-kilter, and so many simply dying. I’ve experienced too many deaths in my family, some so horribly out of right time and place, I’ve seen too much unexpected hurt, and confusion, to really see myself at the center of any of these things. In most of life, most of our lives, most of us are, going to be, are, walk-ons, minor characters, perhaps, at best, with a single line to say.


Well, it’s that “and” I’m thinking about. We can put our ego into the place of uncertainty, squelching any possible lesson. We can use uncertainty to blame those who we want to blame for things. Or, like my friend and that poor man who gave him five dollars, let the encounter open us up like a flower in bloom.

It is at such moments when I just open up, when my heart is thrown open in spite of myself, in which I discover the beginnings of meaning. Not meaning in the sense of an Aristotelian thread of argument. But nonetheless, meaning as something powerful and compelling, and for our human hearts maybe more important than the solution to a problem. This sense of deep meaning is the sense, which informs that Yiddish saying. God is not nice. God is not your uncle. God is an earthquake. I suggest this isn’t so much even about letting go. This is about discovering there is nothing to hold on to, and never has been. This is about being thrown into the chaos of it all, of being swept away.

In this context I’d like to hold up the Book of Job for your consideration. I’ve wrestled with that book for ages and have come back to its points on any number of occasions. I’ve found in that ancient book how, in the midst of suffering and longing and frustrated desire, in the midst of that deafening silence to our pleas and calls: we are in fact given a gift. It is a terrible gift, no doubt. The wounds we receive in our lives, the death of children, the ravages of disease, the hunger and want which haunt this world – in addition to the horror of their reality – in that moment of confusion and uncertainty; can also open our hearts to some fearful reality, some astonishing reality.

I’m not calling for a joyful embrace, here; at least not exactly. One would be right in raging against the horror of such things as follows in the wake of these earthquakes. Indeed there is an almost endless litany of things in life that should offend us. But, in addition to weeping for the children, and doing our best to work to help the survivors – we can also look full on, and not turn away. And if we do, if we really do not turn away from those hurts, we find something.

We discover who we are counts, however important or not we might be in the ordering of things. We discover what we are as individuals, is in fact holy. But, it is a terrible holiness. After all that happens to Job, after his great demand for justice. Then, there, from the heart of the tempest, or in my preferred translation out of the whirlwind – or, you can just as easily say from within the earthquake – he and we get the gift of a terrible presence and a roaring confrontation with all that is.

It is that which pulls out of Job his hymn, "I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite… I had heard of you with my ears; but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust."

Comforted that I am dust. This passage has long haunted people. Some rage against it, saying all that Job is doing is wallowing in that dust, squeaking his submission to the great cosmic bully. But, I suggest there is more here. That wise commentator on this whole great mess, Stephen Mitchell in his now modern spiritual classic, The Book of Job, tells us:

"Job’s comfort at the end is in his mortality. The physical body is acknowledged as dust, the personal drama as delusion. It is as if the world we perceive through our senses, that whole gorgeous and terrible pageant, were the breath-thin surface of a bubble, and everything else, inside and outside, is pure radiance. Both suffering and joy come then like a brief reflection, and death like a pin.

"He feels he has woken up from a dream. That sense, of actually seeing the beloved reality he has only heard of before, is what makes his emotion at the end so convincing. He has let go of everything, and surrendered into the light."

So, we need to be appalled at what has happened. We need to reach out a hand to those in need. I’m so glad this community does that. And, I suggest, we need to stop, to notice, and to discover in this terrible moment, something about ourselves. It is, I suggest, the gateway to wisdom. And that, my friends, is where we find meaning, purpose, and direction, which, I suggest, is also our work, perhaps the great work itself. Out of the earthquakes of our lives, small and great; in the awe, in the silence that follows, notice.