On November 10, 1975 the Great Lakes freighter, SS Edmund Fitzgerald was caught in the midst of a severe winter storm on Lake Superior. With near hurricane-force winds and waves up to 35 feet high, the Fitzgerald sank in waters 530 feet deep, approximately 17 miles from the entrance to Whitefish Bay. Her crew of 29 all perished, and the bodies were never recovered.
The words of Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, render a legitimate question for today’s church; “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?” Countless people have turned away from God because they feel that he had abandoned them in the midst of their personal crisis. Mr. Lightfoot’s painfully legitimate question deserves attention.
I don’t believe we can assume that God was unaware of the ship’s peril. It’s not like he was preoccupied with tying his shoe and missed what was happening. The omniscience of God is that attribute by which he knows all things past, present and future. He undoubtedly watched as they struggled to survive in the freezing cold water. I wonder what emotion went through him as he stood by and listened to the crew desperately calling out his name. God indeed saw what was happening, yet he allowed it to continue. Why? God is love; isn’t that what we have been repeatedly told throughout our lives. Where was his love that cold stormy night?
I’m not really buying into the simple justification that it was God’s plan. It is too easy to attach that answer to each and every event that we don’t have an explanation for. What clarity can be found in such an open-ended response? That’s one of those “magic words” responses people think provide some sort of resolve or peace. This was far too devastating of an incident to think some simple “words” will clear it all up and make the agony go away. Besides, he is God Almighty; couldn’t he have come up with a better plan than that?
How we choose to respond to the question of God’s love in tragedies like this should come with a great measure of sensitivity for the emotions of the families left behind. When I hear the popular explanation that “Everything happens for a reason” I equate it to the white noise sound of fingernails scraping on a chalkboard. That is not a biblical teaching; that is man’s reasoning. That’s what people say when they don’t know what else to say. That rationalization only sentences the grieving person to a lifelong search for a “reason” good enough to be worth the loss. What would you take in trade for the life of your child or spouse?
At times comfort can be provided without uttering a single word. Author and lecturer Leo Buscaglia once talked about a contest he was asked to judge. The purpose of the contest was to find the most caring child. The winner was a four-year-old boy whose elderly next door neighbor had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old gentleman’s yard, climbed onto his lap, and just sat there. When his Mother asked him what he had said to the neighbor, the little boy said, “Nothing, I just helped him cry.”
In response to Mr. Lightfoot’s question; what I can offer today is that when tragedy shattered my life, the answers to my questions about God’s love became accessible only after I recognized His authority in all things