God's Heart Breaks in Buffalo

Allen Hunt

2/12/2009 12:12:07 PM - Allen Hunt

A long line. A flight attendant's predictions of turbulence. A connecting flight delay. The mystery of an opening in the room. Luck. The providence of God.

Continental Flight 3407 has generated varied responses from the people who might have died in its fiery crash but, for some reason, did not. Forty-nine people aboard the flight died as did one person on the ground in the house beneath the crash near Buffalo. However, a number of others somehow “cheated death” as it brushed near. Their reactions stimulate a single question: Why?

David Becony missed the flight from Newark to Buffalo because bad weather had delayed his earlier flight from New Orleans to Newark. He says now, “God was looking over me.” Paul Twaragowski encountered the same circumstances and says, “I can only thank God that I wasn't on that flight and my thoughts and prayers are with families and friends for those that were.” His mother, Louise, says, “God was with us all.”

Jeff Smith and his family of four planned to be on Flight 3407 as they headed to Buffalo for a mid-winter retreat from their home in Palm Beach. But a flight attendant warned him not to take the flight because it expected turbulence and his children would not enjoy the experience. The attendant's haunting words echo through Jeff Smith's mind: "For the sake of your children I wouldn't get on that flight.” The Smiths took a later flight. Jeff says, "I don't think it's really sunk in yet, how fortunate we are.”

Susan Reinhardt tried to get on Flight 3407 when her own earlier flight to Buffalo was indefinitely delayed out of Newark. The long customer service line dissuaded her from making the change. While there, Reinhardt met another woman with a seat on Flight 3407. That woman stayed on 3407; Reinhardt did not get her wish to be on it. One perished; Reinhardt cheated death. She asks, “What is the meaning of my life now? What am I supposed to do because it wasn't my time?”

Karen Wielinski and her family live in the home that unwittingly received the nose-diving plane. She was watching television, and “...the next thing I knew, the ceiling was on me and I just, I didn't know how much was on top of me. So I was panicking a little, but trying to stay cool, and happened to notice a little light on the right of me...” Karen and her daughter, Jill, escaped through the hole of that light. Karen's husband, Doug, did not get out.

In the wake of the first airline crash fatalities in over two years in America, we encounter the same questions we always have. Why did some fifty die while others emerged unharmed? Where is God in this mess?

God did not cause the crash of Flight 3407. He did, however, allow it to happen. God created each of us and gave us freedom, the freedom to live and choose for ourselves how and what we would do with our lives. God also established the order and laws of the universe, including gravity, windshear, and the freezing temperature of water, and those natural laws certainly permitted this plane to crash.

Yet, at a moment like this, we are tempted to ask the questions that none of us can fully answer. Why do some live while others die? I am most reminded of the words of William Sloane Coffin, famed former pastor at Riverside Church in New York, after the funeral for his son, Alex, who had died in a car accident.

When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister's house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, "I just don't understand the will of God." Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. "I'll say you don't, lady!" I said.

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths — I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I've been here — deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions, and even the specter of a Cosmic Sadist — yes, even an Eternal Vivisector. But violent deaths, such as the one Alex died — to understand those is a piece of cake. As his younger brother put it simply, standing at the head of the casket at the Boston funeral, "You blew it, buddy. You blew it." The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is "It is the will of God." Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

Wise words. “God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.” In the death of his son, William Sloane Coffin still found hope in the undying love of God, His dazzling grace, and the conviction that God gives us minimum protection but maximum support, particularly at our darkest moments.

So, perhaps the wisest comment to emerge this week from those who skated near death but missed it, came from the wife of David Becony. When asked how her husband's close call with death would affect her family, she replied, “I think we'll probably appreciate each other a lot more.”

When faced with the knocking at the door of the imponderable and the unknowable, the best answer arrives when love opens the door.