Tragedies Open Windows of Opportunity (by Alan Ward)
For every person, there are a few events we live through that leave a lasting impact on our lives—even our souls. Sometimes it may be a great human triumph we remember but it seems that the moments that seem to leave the greatest imprint on our human consciousness are the tragedies. Even years later, we remember where we were and what we were doing when these things happened. We’ve just observed the tenth anniversary of a day that now lives in infamy for most Americans—and even most “citizens” of the world. I am of course talking of the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Other similar dates might include:
- December 7, 1941, The day Pearl Harbor was attacked;
November 22, 1963. The day President Kennedy was assassinated;
January 28, 1986. The day the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.
These were each very public (or corporate) tragedies that imprinted on the minds and hearts of an entire nation, if not an entire generation of people.
There are other tragedies that are more personal in nature—things that have a much smaller area of consequence but still profoundly impact and define those involved. For me, an example would be the birth of my girls and loss of my daughter Hope [May 2-4, 2008] that I have discussed at length in the past. I will never forget those days as long as I live. Time heals wounds but the memories of those three days will always remain.
I notice a common thread running through all these public tragedies and also through many of our personal ones: They weren’t supposed to happen. That is to say, we didn’t expect them when we woke up that morning; they caught us completely by surprise. While I don’t believe God brings tragedy upon us, I do think God can use them to get our attention.
In the midst of every tragedy there are windows of opportunity that open. These are chances to learn the lessons that our pain and suffering is trying to teach and to draw closer to God during these difficult times.
There is a certain spiritual openness that tends to come in the aftermath of public tragedies like 9/11. How many of us uttered the words, “Oh my God!”, when we saw the towers fall either live or on video?
It matters not what religion we profess or even if we profess none, when we witness a tragedy of that magnitude, the human heart naturally cries out for justice and we reflexively call out for God.
In these moments of tragedy, at least for an instant, God can shake us out of our self-addiction and refocus us on our common humanity. We realize that when one of us hurts, we all hurt. All of us groaned in agony at what we witnessed on 9/11. We wept for all the victims and were inspired by the brave men and women willing to lay down their lives to try and save others. We felt proud to be Americans that day; we sang God Bless America with great fervor. For a brief moment in time a nation came together behind a common threat; we seemed unified as never before. There was a window of opportunity that opened for us to work together, but we failed to sustain it. All too soon life got back to “normal”, and when it did we quickly resumed “politics as usual”. Now it seems we are more deeply divided than ever.
But in those first few months after the attacks, our “normal” world was turned upside down and there seemed to be genuine openness to different possibilities. Many of us found ourselves vulnerable and humbled by circumstances we didn’t understand and couldn’t control. How could someone do this to us?! Like the dazed people fleeing the rubble of the doomed towers, we struggled mightily to find our bearings in life. We wanted to make sense of the strange new world we woke up to on September 12, 2001.
We searched for an “anchor” in uncertain times; we looked for meaning, and sometimes as we stumbled in the darkness, we reached out and were surprised to find a “hand” reaching back—God was with us through it all!
There was a surge in church attendance after 9/11. Unfortunately, local churches by and large were not prepared to take advantage of the window of opportunity that opened after this tragedy and the uptick in church attendance quickly faded as life returned to “normal”. In short, our churches did not succeed in “hooking” those who came through our doors in the weeks following 9/11. Soon enough, people drifted away and returned to “business as usual” on Sunday morning—which meant they didn’t go to church.
On a more personal level, losing a child and struggling with questions that have no good answer—Why?—opened an unexpected window of opportunity for me. The experience has made me think more deeply and critically about my life and my faith than I might otherwise have done. In the ensuing days, months—even right up to the present—I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching. I hear the Jedi master Yoda’s wisdom whisper to me: “You must unlearn what you have learned.” I pride myself on my knowledge about God and the Bible, and knowledge is not a bad thing, but I find that it can sometimes get in the way of experiencing the “real God”.
Without even realizing it, I think I had confined God to a “box” of my own making and then expected God to stay neatly within that “box”. Experiencing the loss of my daughter burst my little “box” wide open, and showed me that the “real God” was a whole lot bigger than the “God of Alan’s box”.
So, I feel like lately I’ve been letting God out of the “box”. It is a humbling process to let go of “God on my terms” and the illusion of having a God I can “control” to embrace all the uncertainty and ambiguity that comes with experiencing the real, raw, untamed, and uncensored God—or at least a more complete concept of God than the one I had previously. At times I feel quite unfocused and vulnerable, but I also feel somehow liberated from a conception of God that was too limiting to “fit” the life I am now living. I am reminded of Paul’s words: “When I was a child I reasoned like a child, but when I became an adult I put away childish things.” That process is not easy, it can sometimes be painful, but it is necessary and it is good.
I am convinced that God uses all things to help us become the people God needs us to be but perhaps no time is more pregnant with possibility than the aftermath of tragedies.
To seize upon that possibility, however, we must be willing to seek out the wisdom God would teach us from tragedy—and that’s not usually a quest that any of us willingly choose. Often it is more accurate to say that it “chooses” us. An event happens in our lives and we find ourselves “in the middle of it” and must choose how we will respond.
Sometimes the search is quite painful as the tragedy exposes core wounds that run deep, but we must push through the pain if we would discover God’s purpose. That kind of discovery doesn’t usually happen overnight; it takes a commitment to stick with God for the long-haul even when God seems far removed from our present circumstances. At first we may not see any windows of opportunity in the midst of the rubble of our lives, but if we concentrate and don’t give up too soon, they will begin to come into focus. We will find help, healing, and most of all hope in the midst of our pain and suffering. We will see that God truly can bring something good and beautiful out of our tragedy.
God, none of us wants to see or experience public or personal tragedies, but we know they are a part of life. When tragedy does come into our lives, help us to continue to walk with You through the “storm”. Make us aware of the windows of opportunity that open during these difficult days so we can learn the lessons that only the searing pain and anguished tears of tragedy can teach. AMEN
Alan Ward loves to write stories. As a science writer for NASA, he’s paid to tell the story of NASA Earth Science, but he is most passionate about telling God’s story and finding his place in that Story. He seeks to illuminate the “threads of divine glory” that run through our common, everyday stories. Part of his calling is to be a husband to Laurie (a United Methodist pastor) and father to Brady and Becca. He blogs occasionally at: Alan’s Corner, and also is on Facebook.