I was sitting in my parish church on Sunday, January 12, 2020. I was listening to the congregation and choir sing a setting of Psalm 29. As I listened to the wording of the Psalm, it rather shocked me to know that the Psalmist was describing an Earthquake on the very anniversary of the devastating destruction that killed over 300,000 Haitians within 35 seconds. Over 1,500,000 Haitians were left homeless. Over 1,000,000 were injured. There are now 450,000 orphans without parents. More Haitians died that day than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki when destruction fell from the skies. We were singing about an earthquake in our beautiful church amidst floral arrangements of exquisite beauty. My grandchildren tell me that their teacher tells them there is nothing to fear from thunder and lightning. The angels are bowling. Perhaps.
“The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees. The Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon…the voice of Lord splits the flames of fire; the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness…the voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forest bare.”
Very interesting, I never cease to be amazed how poetry can hammer real tragedies into shapes that survivors can contemplate and remember without nightmares. But the misery of an earthquake never disappears in the hearts of anyone who has experienced its vicious destruction and terror in real time. I know a man in Haiti. I’ll change his name because I don’t want to traffic in his sorrow. Let’s call him Duval Etienne. He is the father of 4 children and he and Jeanieve, his wife, have lived in a tent city named Canaan for 10 years. Canaan was the biblical name given to the Promised Land. The Canaan just north of Port au Prince is anything but beautiful. It is sad and desperate. When I last asked him how he was doing, all he was able to say was: “How can I feel good when I cannot give my family a house to live in”? While the voice of the Lord is writhing oak trees, there just may be a terrible price to pay and some of the very poorest people will pay that price.
The Haitians have a saying: “Bitay ka fe ou vanse.” It is really profoundly wise just like all their sayings. “A stumble can move you forward.” Earthquakes are ugly. And nothing is more important than we learn to see and appreciate the beauty that is before us, right in front of us. Otherwise what will we have to offer ourselves when ugliness seems to hem us in on all sides and threatens to depress us. If you think there is no escape from the ugliness that surrounds you at times, think again.
Actually, the last line of Psalm 29 is compelling and we would be remiss to overlook it. As the Lord writhes the oaks, “all in the Temple cry ‘Glory’ because the Lord gives strength to God’s people.” Perhaps this is how stumbles move us forward.