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Down by the Riverside

Blown Down

     Ten years ago, on March 15, 2012, Ed and I heard a news report that a tornado had gone through Dexter, Michigan, twenty miles from where we lived in South Lyon. We knew many people in that area. But we didn't fully comprehend the extent of the damage until three months later on June 24 when we went canoeing on the Huron River through Dexter.   
     We saw large tree trunks snapped in half twenty feet up. We saw other trees blown down entirely, their upturned root wads lining the river with walls of dirt and twisted sticks.
     The slow-moving tornado had produced winds of 120-140 mph, touching down within sight of Hudson Mills Metropark (the place where we'd just launched), and moving parallel to Huron River Drive. One hundred homes had been damaged, in some places the roof joists strewn like straw.  
     Fortunately, no one had been killed.
     Money and donations had poured into Faith in Action, a local social service agency. Our friend, Nancy, the director of Faith in Action, had scrambled to set up a disaster relief fund with oversight by a local bank. She was putting in twelve-hour days to help coordinate relief efforts and to distribute funds and supplies.
     "What can I do to help?" I'd asked her over the phone. "I'm no good with a chain saw."
     "Not much right now," she said wearily. "I've got piles of used clothing I don't know what to do with. The trick is getting everyone and everything to the right place." Another call buzzed in at her end. "I've got to go," she said.
     "I'll pray for you," I'd said.
     Ed and I canoed through another corridor of root wads from overturned trees. What would it be like to be out on the river, unprotected, when such a storm came through? You'd be lucky to survive.
     We passed the wreckage in silence.
     A chain saw fired up in the distance. I felt vaguely guilty to be out playing when others were working so hard to clean up, even three months after the storm. It was like being tourists in a war zone. But this canoe trip wasn't only for pleasure. We were scouting the river before we took a young family on a guided trip they'd won at our church auction.
     I pushed my paddle hard into the current.
     When I hear news coverage about the war in Ukraine today, I feel some of the same helpless guilt I felt while canoeing after the Dexter tornado. There seems to be so little I can do. I can pray for the people of Ukraine, and give money for disaster relief. As so many others are doing. But how long can the Ukrainian army hold out against the Russian juggernaut?
     The war in Ukraine is not a natural disaster—this disaster has been caused by human beings. In particular, by a powerful, ego-driven leader who has been systemically silencing any who oppose him. What do we do when something terrible is happening and our efforts to make things better feel inconsequential?
     Our pastor said we should pray for Vladimir Putin, that his heart will be changed.
     I have prayed for Putin. I've prayed for God to strike him dead.
     I know—it's not a very Christian sentiment. But I'm not the first or only person to feel this way. I join my voice with the psalmist who prayed that God would "break the teeth of the wicked." (Psalm 3:7) In another part of the Bible, the prophet Jeremiah said to God in bewildered pain, "Why does the way of the wicked prosper?" Jeremiah wanted the wicked to be culled "like sheep for the slaughter." (Jeremiah 12:1,3)
     Take that, you scum.

     When I called our friend Nancy to check the facts for this blog, she and I talked about Ukraine and about the polarized political situation in the United States. Nancy said that we're being "lazy" when we pray for God to take down our enemies. "It's a quest for easy answers," she said. As always, she is so wise. I would add, though, that we also pray this way because we're frightened and exhausted. Of course we want help from a higher power if we believe that corrupt and self-serving leaders have thrown down the timbers of the house of democracy and sent them whirling in a violent storm.
     I guess I can pray that God will give me the strength to see the suffering of others and to do what is in my power to do. I saw on Facebook that some enterprising souls started buying nights at Ukrainian Airbnbs as a way of donating money directly to the Ukrainian people. Most religious denominations have disaster relief organizations already in place. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has already sent almost a million dollars worth of medical supplies. I can pray for these organizations and for the pilots who fly the planes bringing aid and for the brave relief workers on the ground. I can pray for those U.S. and world leaders who are creating strategies to oppose Putin without starting World War III.
     And here at home, when a storm of whatever size or cause comes through, I can hearken to the point-of-view espoused by Mary, the mother of Jesus, who praised God for having "brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." (Luke 1:52). If this is God's plan, I, too, can oppose the proud and help the humble.
     As for Putin, I leave him in God's hands. Which is where he is anyway.
     Lord, have mercy.
     On us all.

Scripture: Luke 1:46-55 (NRSV)
Playlist: "Do Something," Matthew West, Into the Light, Sparrow Records, 2012. 

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