Last Wednesday afternoon (August 19, 2009), five small tornadoes touched-down in the Twin Cities metro area of Minnesota. Among the damage – pretty minor by tornado standards – was the cross steeple that sat above Central Lutheran Church for over 80 years.
Wednesday also happened to mark the beginning of the 2009 ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) Churchwide Assembly, where delegates debated – and ultimately voted to pass – a series of resolutions that would allow ELCA churches to hire gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as clergy. The timing of the two events led some to draw a natural conclusion. Bethlehem Baptist Church (Minneapolis) pastor John Piper:
The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin. Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction.
I can understand the temptation by Christians to classify events like this tornado as warning signs from God – especially when it involves something as controversial as homosexuality and the church. However, I think the idea that we can interpret natural events as divine messages is a risky one.
The problem is that when it comes to this sort of thing, some major cherry picking occurs. When a tornado destroyed the entire town of Northwood North Dakota two years ago yesterday, I don’t remember anybody claiming it was because the residents were sinful, or because they did or didn’t hold a particular belief. But somehow, when a cross was broken off the top of a church in a storm, it’s to be taken it as a warning from God? Why one and not the other?
According to the National Weather Service, the United States is hit by about 1300 tornados each year, on average. Does John discern a pattern that these tornados tend to strike places that are more pro-gay, or even just generally more sinful, than others? I did a little research, and it turns out that the place where tornados tend to strike the most frequently and do the most damage is in the Bible Belt, with Oklahoma topping the list. And, interestingly enough, it turns out that those states that have the most progressive stances toward gays (e.g. Massachusetts, Vermont, New York) are among the states that typically experience the least tornado damage. Doesn’t this fact by itself completely undermine John’s speculation as to why a Minneapolis church steeple was damaged?
Boyd also addressed the event in a Q&A session at his church last Saturday evening. I’ve included a portion of it below, or you can view the entire video at Vimeo.
Personally, I think that if you want to identify specific natural disasters as warning signs from God, then you need be prepared to do the same for all of them. Otherwise, we are left to determine which ones are sending a message and which ones are not. And I don’t think any human can claim to hold the qualifications for that job.
Because of that, I’m in agreement with this statement from Boyd:
In the fallen world in which we live, towers sometimes randomly fall; bridges sometimes randomly collapse; and tornadoes sometimes randomly do property damage – even to churches. That’s all there is to be said about it.