My family and I just enjoyed a week on Cherry Grove beach in South Carolina. A November beach trip means deserted beaches and a far more relaxed tone to an otherwise hectic touristy area. We took a riverboat ride down the Intercoastal Waterway, learning about erosion between cheesy live renditions of Jimmy Buffett songs (which should never be played in sub-70 degree weather).
Much of our time was spent on the beach itself, watching our children splash in the Atlantic, and trying to remember what it was like to be unbothered by cold water temperatures. Our children were impervious to it and bounced easily from ocean to beach and back again.
At night, I would sit on the balcony listening to the ocean, just able to see each white wave surge onto the shore, and the occasional flashlight flicker of beach walkers. One night, while staring at the seamless wall of waves and stars, the sky lit up brightly, as if a bolt of sporadic lightning had sprung out on its own. The bright shooting star, left a trail like a falling firework, and was followed by a second one.
Shooting stars, or falling stars, are not really stars at all. They are, I would later find out, caused by meteoroids – bits of rock that fall into the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up, leaving behind a trail of light and smaller rocks called a meteor. If any of the meteor actually survives to crash land on the earth, it is called a meteorite. Astronomers map these by the constellations they appear to come from, making the ones I saw likely Orionids.
I learned all of this from the NASA website, though I must admit its purely material explanation did little to capture the wonder I experienced in seeing the brilliant streaks in the night sky.
On the following morning, I received an e-mail about a friend of ours whose infant daughter has been diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer. Yet, rare as it may be, this dear family is the second we know to receive this news in just the last few weeks. Both of these young girls will face difficult rounds of treatment that will make life very hard in the coming days.
Everyone acquainted with these families stayed tune to the descriptions of diagnosis and treatment options, details of which fly by with amazement but little understanding. But few, if any, of us could offer a fitting response to the reality that these babies have cancer.
The following afternoon, my phone buzzed with other news. Paris was devastated by coordinated terrorist attacks at a soccer stadium, a restaurant, a club, and a concert hall. Reports that night confirmed 153 people had died and about 200 more were wounded. Later, I learned that on the preceding day, 43 more people were killed and 250 were injured in terrorist attacks in Beirut.
But, that was not all. On Friday morning, before the events in Paris and after those in Beirut, Baghdad also suffered an attack that left 18 dead and 41 more wounded. Within 24 hours, most of the specific numbers had changed, but some 200 people lost their lives and hundreds more were injured, with responsibility taken by members of the Islamic State (ISIS).
In the midst of emerging stories from Beirut, came the story of Adel Termos. A report from The Independent put it this way:
“As crowds began to gather outside a mosque in Beirut targeted by a suicide bomber on Thursday, Lebanese father Adel Termos spotted a second bomber approaching the crowds and threw himself at them, according to local media reports.
‘He tackled him to the ground, causing the second suicide bomber to detonate,’ blogger and physician Elie Fares, who lives in Beirut, told PRI. ‘There are many many families, hundreds of families probably, who owe their completeness to his sacrifice.’”
As my wife and I spoke of the events in whispers, our eight-year-old daughter asked, “What’s wrong?” Our family talks pretty openly, by and large, so whispers strike her as unusual. How do I explain such tragedies to her? Should I even attempt to explain it? I do not understand it myself.
The “shooting stars” which were actually meteorites that appear to fly out of constellations, the tear-jerking news that yet another baby girl has cancer, and horrific reports of planned murder and suicide bombings around the world – these are quite unrelated in one sense. Yet, they brought back to mind a truth that is so unsettling that we typically refuse to acknowledge it: we know so little, and control far less.
The world, and the people in it, tell stories – stories of death, of tragedy, of danger, of sorrow; stories that make us weep, puzzle, and stare in horror at our television. The world offers things we cannot explain, from complicated “natural” phenomena to sickness to deeds of unthinkable evil.
But the world, and the people in it, also tell stories of bravery, beauty, hope, love, and sacrifice. A father throws himself at suicidal attackers to save the lives of everyone around him. The dark sky lights up with a reminder that the heavens above us, normally drowned out by artificial light, are alive. The families of young children with rare cancer write to assure everyone of their faith and confidence in the goodness of God.
The world is an overwhelming place, and not always in a bad way.
We are tempted to respond to what we cannot possibly understand or control with either despair or naïve optimism. Some simply conclude that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, so there is little left to do but throw up your hands and watch for more disgusting and disheartening news. They occupy themselves with attributing blame, indulging anger, and lamenting the loss of “the way things used to be.”
Others conclude that what is needed is more technology, more government intervention, more “scientific” explanations, more social programs, more something; that somehow, some way, man can be perfected if we pass the right laws or launch the right initiatives.
But, the world does not lend itself to either “solution.” Rather, the world continues to remind us that we know very little, and understand less. It reminds us that we must approach each moment, each person, each event with humility; showing us at every turn that we are not in charge. In other words, the world reminds us to pray.
When David considered the heavens in Psalm 8, he concluded with the exclamation, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Similarly, in Psalm 19, David looks to the heavens which “declare the glory of God,” concluding with the prayer, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
In Psalm 11:3, David asks, “if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” His answer? “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven; his eyes see, his eyelids test, the children of man.” In the face of what we cannot understand, whether it calls for rejoicing or weeping, the Lord is in his holy temple and his eyes see, even when the foundations are destroyed.
The world reminds us to pray.
“O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace. Help me in all things to rely upon Your holy will. In every hour of the day reveal Your will to me. Bless my dealings with all who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul, and with the firm conviction that Your will governs all. In all my deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events let me not forget that all are sent by You. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering or embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of this coming day with all that it will bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray, pray You Yourself in me. Amen.”
St. Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow (1782-1867)