The Johnstown Flood


Yesterday I returned from Pennsylvania where I visited a Navy Reserve Chaplain friend of mine, Fr. Leo Arnone, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Cresson. He showed me around his hometown of Johnstown, whose main tourist attraction is the Flood Museum, commemorating one of the worst disasters in U.S. history. On May 31, 1889 a poorly maintained dam broke fourteen miles upriver where the wealthy Pittsburghers, Andrew Carnegie among them, had their hunting and fishing club. With little warning a tidal wave of water slammed into Johnstown destroying the city in just ten minutes. A tangled mountain of debris and humans, living and dead, piled up at the stone bridge at one end of town, and then caught fire, creating a scene of apocalyptic horror.

Over 2,000 people perished, and hundreds of them were never found. Although the exact number of dead is unknown, the official total stands at 2,209. In his book The Johnstown Flood, David McCullouch details the loss of life:

Ninety-nine whole families had been wiped out. Three hundred and ninety-six children aged ten years or less had been killed. Ninety-eight children lost both parents. One hundred and twenty-four women were left widows; 198 men lost their wives.

One woman, Mrs. John Fenn, wife of the tinsmith on Locust Street, lost her husband and seven children. Christ Fitzharris, the saloonkeeper, his wife, father, and eight children were all drowned. Charles Murr and six of his children went down with his cigar store on Washington Street; only his wife and one child survived. In a house owned by John Ryan on Washington Street, twenty-one people drowned, including a man named Gottfried Hoffman, his wife and nine children.

Some of the victims later reported that they believed they were experiencing the Last Judgment when the flood hit. When we suffer we sometimes assume suffering is a punishment from God. We ask, What have I done to deserve this?  Yet suffering is usually not a punishment or even a consequence of sin. Remember Job? Job lost everything: his possessions, his family, and his health. In Job’s case his suffering was part of a cosmic contest between God and Satan. But Job never learned that he was God’s test case or that he passed the test. Let’s keep in mind Job didn’t suffer because he was bad; he suffered because he was good. Johnstown, a city of 30,000 souls in 1889, had both saints and sinners. We shouldn’t assume that Johnstown was any more corrupt or deserving of divine judgment than any other town or that only the wicked perished. Jesus mentioned that eighteen people died when the tower in Siloam fell and suggested the victims were no guiltier than the people who were spared (Luke 13:4-5). Accidents happen. So do floods.

When tragedy strikes we often struggle to make sense out of a senseless situation. We ask God why:  Why would you allow such pain and suffering?  The Bible doesn’t give a direct answer to the question why God permits evil, whether caused by people or nature. We don’t know why God permits evil and tragedy in the world when he could prevent it. The one who calmed the Sea of Galilee could prevent tsunamis and hurricanes, stop deadly floods, and still rumbling earthquakes. He could also stop criminals’ bullets and terrorists’ bombs. Sometimes he does but often he does not.  And he doesn’t tell us why.

During and after the Johnstown flood there was a great outpouring of humanitarianism in the form of heroic acts and charitable deeds. Many risked their lives saving others. Some died trying. People whose homes and possessions were spared shared with those who had nothing. Money and volunteers poured in from all over the country. Clara Barton, head of the newly formed American Red Cross, arrived with relief supplies, and stayed five months, personally overseeing relief operations. Doctors, nurses, ministers, police officers, soldiers, concerned citizens, and even sightseers came in by the trainload to the devastated city. Hearty souls carried out the gruesome task of recovering and burying mangled, decomposing bodies. Others prayed with and consoled the inconsolable. A tidal wave of mercy and goodness hit Johnstown after the flood in similar proportion to the watery one that destroyed the city.

I’m not saying that God causes suffering so that good will result. What I am saying is that God redeems our suffering, changing it from something ugly into something beautiful. The One who brought light out of darkness is in the business of bringing good out of evil. He did that in Johnstown and he did it on Calvary over nineteen hundred years earlier. The crucifixion of the Son of God was one of the greatest acts of evil ever committed, yet God used this supreme evil for the ultimate good of humanity, the salvation of the world.

St. Paul wrote, “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). That doesn’t mean everything that happens to us is good. It means that God brings good out of evil in our lives if we let him.

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Benjamin West, Lot Fleeing From Sodom (1810), oil on panel, Detroit Institute of Arts

Fuga Mundi – “flight from the world” – captures the meaning of detachment. If the soul is to be fully God’s, it must rid itself of anything creaturely, anything that isn’t God. It means cleaning house, getting rid of idols, reordering priorities.

We spend our lives getting and spending, chasing after things, whether those things are tangible objects – a bigger home, a nicer car, another stamp for the collection – or intangibles such as praise, recognition, honor, and success. “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher. ‘All is vanity’” (Eccles. 12:8). Vanity means empty or meaningless. The problem isn’t that houses and cars and success are evil; the problem is that they are empty. Even good things can become attachments that hinder us spiritually. If we see ministry – “serving God” – or prayer or any spiritual activity as an end in itself, it becomes an idol. It becomes a vanity. It becomes empty.

All the things that we think will make us happy never really satisfy, and there’s a good reason for that. God made us in such a way that only He can fill the void that we feel within us. St. Augustine, writing in the form of a prayer to God, put it like this: “You have formed us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You” (Confessions, 1.1). To experience peace we must let go of everything that isn’t God. Fuga mundi.

Some have fled the world physically, cloistering themselves behind the protective walls of a monastery, only to find that they’ve brought the world with them. They have detached from the world outwardly but not inwardly. Others have fled the world spiritually, staying in the world yet letting go of its attachments. Most of us have done neither. Like Lot and his family we tarry in Sodom, attached to a world that is soon to vanish. Lot’s uncle Abraham made a bargain with God: If only ten righteous men could be found in Sodom, then God wouldn’t destroy it. But there weren’t ten righteous men, so God destroy the city and its evil twin, Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24-25).

I wonder if there are ten righteous people in the world today, ten who have detached themselves from the world and attached themselves fully to God. I don’t know if there are ten, but I think there must be a few. They are the ones who keep the universe from exploding.


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Care for the Dying


Edvard Munch, “The Sick Child” (1896)

After two deaths and three funerals in just nine days, I’ve been thinking a lot about death. Watching a loved one die can be a sorrowful experience even for believers who have the presence of the Holy Spirit and the hope of eternal life. But the time before the end can also be an important time for giving and receiving love and forgiveness as well as preparing for death. Here are some tips on how to care for and minister to those who are dying:

  1. Be knowledgeable. To help those who are dying we must understand the meaning of death. Death is the separation of the soul from the body. Death doesn’t mean that the person has stopped breathing or that their heart has stopped beating or even that they are “brain dead.” The soul isn’t “in” the lungs, heart, or brain. It isn’t in any particular part of the body. The only way we can know for sure that the soul has left the body with moral certainty is when the process of corruption has begun. We must treat all who are in the process of dying with Christian love and dignity, even when death seems imminent.
  2. Be patient. While there is no moral imperative to prolong life by unnatural means, we shouldn’t hasten death. God calls people home in His timing. It is difficult to watch people suffer, especially those we love, but as Christians we believe that there can be spiritual benefit in suffering.
  3. Be honest. Don’t try to spare a dying person’s feelings by telling him that he will recover and don’t use euphemisms to discuss death. As Christians we should always tell the truth, even when it hurts. Being honest will help the dying person prepare for death. Dishonesty only feeds denial and prevents the dying person from being able to prepare mentally and spiritually for death.
  4. Be receptive. Ask the dying person what they need. If they can’t talk, try to get moisture to their mouth. Do what you can to meet the dying person’s needs, but be honest if they ask for something you can’t provide.
  5. Be creative. Try to create a comforting and meaningful atmosphere for the dying person. Play or sing Christian songs. Bring sound recordings of the Bible or voices of loved ones. Read aloud. If the person loved baseball or crochet, decorate their room with objects that remind them of their favorite pastimes.
  6. Be realistic. Even if you are the primary caregiver, you can’t be there for the dying person 24/7. You need time to eat, sleep, cry, and recharge. Arrange for respite care. You will be a better caregiver if you take care of yourself.
  7. Be prayerful. Pray for and with the dying person. If possible, pray so they can hear you. Even those who are in a coma may be able to hear your prayers. Pray that the person would die ready to meet God, not just that they would have less pain or go quickly. If you’re not sure whether the person is truly a believer, invite them to put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ. Don’t hesitate to call on a minister to pray for or with someone who is dying.

Death can be unpleasant but it doesn’t have to be terrifying. The Psalmist says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). It can become precious in our sight too when we have God’s perspective of death.

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Blame It On Eve?

Anna Lea Merritt Eve

Eve Overcome By Remorse (1885) Anna Lea Merritt (1844-1930), oil on canvas

Blame it on Eve. The first sinner. She’s the one who ate the forbidden fruit first and got Adam and her kicked out of the Garden of Eden. She’s the reason that women suffer in childbirth and are subjected to male domination. Had she not implicated Adam in her sin, man could have stayed in paradise and wouldn’t have had to work so hard to coax enough food from the ground. It makes you wonder whether God knew what he was talking about when he said, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Maybe he would have been better off without her.

The story of paradise lost – to steal a phrase from Milton – begins when God makes a perfect garden where his newly created humans can live in peace and harmony with nature and with God. Adam and Eve are vegetarians; the animals are too (Gen. 1:29-30). There is only one rule: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:16b). A talking snake sidles up to Eve and tells her that if she eats from the tree of knowledge she will be like God: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). After a brief hesitation she takes, eats, and gives the fruit to Adam. (There’s no mention of an apple; we don’t know what kind of fruit it was.) For their disobedience they are banished from the garden. God curses the snake (who must slither on his belly and eat dust), the woman (who will suffer in childbirth), and the ground (which will yield its fruit to man only with hard labor).

God’s punishments are examples of “etiology” – which means a study of causes. I call them Mommy, why? stories. They’re found throughout the book of Genesis and other ancient literature. Imagine a Hebrew toddler asking, Mommy, why are there rainbows? The story of Noah and Flood answers the question. Genesis 3 answers similar questions of causation: Mommy, why are snakes so scary and why do the slide on their bellies? Mommy, why does it hurt mommies when babies are born? Mommy, why does daddy have to work so hard to get enough food for us to eat? And perhaps the biggest Mommy, why? question of all: Mommy, why is there sin and evil in the world? Skeptical scholars have used etiology to argue that the Bible is just another ancient collection of myths. But etiology did more than satisfy childish curiosity in ancient Israel; it provided historical explanations for the world as the Hebrews experienced it.

St. Paul points out that Eve was deceived (2 Cor. 11:3). Adam wasn’t. He made a decision to eat without being beguiled. It’s good fodder for misogynists who claim that female character is more defective. Women are more gullible than men. I don’t think that’s what Paul meant. If anything Adam’s character was worse, because unlike Eve he decided to sin without being tempted. In Romans 5:12-21,  Paul places the blame for infecting all of humanity with original sin (a concept not found in the Old Testament) on Adam alone: “Sin came into the world through one man . . . .”

A rabbi friend pointed out something I never noticed before in Genesis 3. God didn’t banish Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, only Adam: “Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen. 3:23-24). Apparently Eve chose to go willingly with her husband. She gave up paradise for him. Why? Because she was created to be his helper and partner. Because they were one flesh. Because – as God said – it was not good for man to be alone. Because men never ask for directions and Adam would be perpetually lost without her. Because being alone is worse than suffering together.

Eve gave up eternal life in paradise to face a hostile world and eventual death with her husband – her husband who named her Eve, signifying that she would become the mother of all living. (The name “Eve” in Hebrew sounds like the word for “living.”) She is the mother of all, including the  Savior who would die for the sins of the world, foreshadowed in the prophecy that the “seed of the woman” will bruise the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15).

As it turns out the first sinner, Eve, was also the first saint.


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Building Towers

Boy Scout Tower

My fourteen-year-old son Mark is away at Boy Scout camp this week. That’s got me thinking back to my own experience. The last time I went to a Boy Scout camp I was thirteen. One of the major activities was building a twenty-foot tower. It took our troop most of the day to lash the wooden poles in place and make platforms that were sturdy enough to hold our weight. I remember the pride of accomplishment we felt when the job was done. From atop the tower we were lords of the Earth. We wanted our structure to last forever, but at the end of the day it had to be disassembled so the next group of campers could build their own tower. I’m sure each troop thought their tower was the best, but in fact they were all very much a like. Some were a little taller than others, some a little sturdier. But they were all made with the same materials and techniques, and the differences were more superficial than substantive.

Boy Scouts aren’t the only ones who build towers. Theologians do too. They build beautiful systems, logically lashed together. Each group defends its own tower, claiming superiority of craftsmanship and fidelity to Scripture. Built on an Aristotelian foundation, these systems thrive on defining themselves against the other: sacramental vs. non-sacramental, predestination vs. free will, Protestant vs. Catholic vs. Orthodox, and so on. Such systems provide certainty and security for their adherents but they also foster a kind of theological agoraphobia, a fear of wandering outside the safety of one’s own system. Stepping outside one’s theological boundaries can be as terrifying as stepping off a twenty-foot tower.

But what if truth is greater than any one theological system? What if truth isn’t like building a tower but like triangulating on a location from different towers? What if truth isn’t propositional and logical at all but personal and mysterious?

The Bible doesn’t tell us to put our faith and trust in theological systems. We are told to believe in a person – Jesus Christ, who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”


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The Difficult Doctrine of the Trinity

Trinity Rublev

Trinity, attributed to Andrei Rublev, 15th century, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Thomas Jefferson considered the doctrine of the Trinity bunk, because it goes against reason. In a 1810 letter he called it “a mere Abracadabra.”

The doctrine of the Trinity teaches that there is only one God who eternally exists as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not three gods. Not three personalities. One God; three Persons. All three Persons are God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’ll admit it strains the intellect to say 1+1+1=1. Then again, it also strains the intellect to think that God became incarnate in the person of Jesus, that he rose from the dead, or that God spoke the universe into existence.

The supernatural world has its mysteries as does the natural world. A human being is an incredibly complex organism. Can anyone fully comprehend how a single cell can grow into a human baby in just 40 weeks?  By all rights a hummingbird shouldn’t be able to fly, but it does fly – forwards, backwards, sideways, upside down, and can even hover.  How do you explain the fact that the earth is the perfect distance from the sun to sustain life? If it were just a little closer to the sun, the oceans would boil away. If it were just a little farther away, they’d freeze.  The natural world is full of mysteries. It’s not surprising that spiritual world is too. One of those mysteries is the Trinity. It cannot be fully comprehended by man’s sin-tainted, fallen intellect. But it can be grasped by the mind and held by faith.

The doctrine of the Trinity is challenging to me for a different reason than it was to Thomas Jefferson. It doesn’t offend my reason (even if I can’t full comprehend it), but it does challenge my doctrine of religious authority. Baptists aren’t a creedal people and we believe that the Bible alone is all the religious authority we need. We hold to the Protestant doctrine of “sola scriptura,” which means that our religious authority is in the Bible alone – not in popes, church councils, or any extra-biblical authority. I wonder, Would I believe the doctrine of the Trinity on the evidence of Scripture alone? Maybe. Maybe not. The Trinity is a doctrine derived from Scripture. It’s mainly an inference from what the New Testament teaches about Jesus and the Holy Spirit, worked out by theologians and church councils over the first few centuries of Christian history. If I didn’t already know the doctrine as it developed over time and as it is expressed in the creeds, and if I had only the Bible to guide me, Would I be able to arrive at to the full expression of the doctrine of the Trinity as found in the Nicene Creed?  If not, I am left with one of two unsettling possibilities: either my doctrine of the Trinity is wrong or my doctrine of religious authority is wrong.


June 17, 2014 · 3:14 pm

Babel Undone

Pieter Bruegel, The Tower of Babel (c. 1565)

On the Day of Pentecost, recorded in the Book of Acts chapter 2, the Holy Spirit breathed life into the church, just as he had done at creation when God breathed the breath of life into man. When Jesus had appeared in his resurrected state, they could see him and touch him. But when the Spirit showed up, they couldn’t see him. He was invisible. But they could hear him. The Holy Spirit blew in with the sound of a hurricane, only there wasn’t any storm. I imagine the windows and doors banging open and the disciples looking around frantically. Then flames shaped liked forked tongues appeared and danced above each disciple’s head, not just the apostles’. Wind and fire. These were the auditory and visual signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence. The sound of rushing wind gave way to the sound of human speech, a cascade of strange syllables flowing from their mouths. Jews from all over the Mediterranean and Near East, who were visiting Jerusalem, rushed in to see what all the commotion was. They were gob-smacked when they heard these Galileans speaking in their own mother tongues. This was no gibberish or ecstatic speech. It was real language. Their language.

The miracle of Pentecost represents a reversal of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The people in Genesis wanted to build a tall tower for two reasons: for pride and permanence. The Bible says they wanted to make a name for themselves and they didn’t want to be scattered all over the world. They came together for a selfish purpose. But the Jews in Acts 2 came together for an unselfish purpose: they gathered in Jerusalem to worship God and celebrate the Feast of Weeks.

God punished the builders of the Tower of Babel by confusing their speech. On Pentecost God reversed this curse by allowing people from many nations to hear the disciples speak in their own languages. And instead of divine punishment, God’s blessing was poured out—not to keep people from a task, but to empower them for the most important task: spreading the Gospel to the uttermost part of the Earth. But the reversal of the confusion of languages on the day of Pentecost was temporary and limited. The gift of tongues wasn’t meant to become a universal translator, an evangelical Esperanto.

This motif of Babel reversed raises some interesting questions. God punished the builders for coming together for a selfish purpose. “What if humanity came together in the light and spirit poured out at Pentecost?” as Seraphim Sigrist asks in his book A Life Together. Might it be possible to become of one heart and mind and repair the fragmentation of humanity? Maybe, just maybe, God is hinting to us that in the Spirit we can come together to do great things, to reverse God’s curse on sin and to bring about a new world order . . . to bring about the kingdom of God. Maybe we should do more than just pray the words, “Thy kingdom come.”  Maybe we should also work for God’s kingdom to come. Work for a world where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Work for a world where the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid in peace and safety. Work for a world where there’s a tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

Maybe God didn’t give us prophetic visions in the Bible just to whet our appetite for a remote future world but also to give us a blueprint for how we should be working to remodel our current world into a place of God’s justice, peace, and healing.

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