When the president of Turkey arrived in Erzincan in December 1939, two days after an earthquake that had killed 50,000, an elderly woman wearing a black dress covered with dust ran past security guards and demanded of him: "President! President! My family is gone! Why? Why?"
President Inonu embraced her. He could have reminded her that her husband and son were crushed by sand and rocks they had placed on the roof to provide additional winter insulation, but she was not asking that question. She wanted to know if her suffering was accidental or if it had any purpose. She wondered whether she still had an identity.
This past year's top news story was clearly Hurricane Katrina, so it seems right to end this year's columnizing with thoughts of how disaster commonly brings a search for meaning and identity. Even the highly secularized Washington Post implicitly recognized this in a story earlier this month headlined, "Katrina's Emotional Damage Lingers."
The article began with a quotation from a man who remained in New Orleans and said that, until Katrina struck, "I'd hardly had a drink in years. Right after the hurricane hit, I just started drinking. If I stop drinking, the pain becomes so great it's unbearable. ... I'm scared because I don't have any identity anymore."
The Post dramatically described New Orleans residents "walking on deserted streets with glazed eyes. In grocery stores and offices, they inexplicably break into tears."
Those who had hard lives but gloried in their friendships, pastimes or just living in a funky city have lost their identities.
What is our identity? Most readers of this column are proud to be Americans, because at least we know we're free. Some of us have used that freedom to follow Christ, whose life by earthly standards ended in disaster. We remember what Jesus said to those who asked why a man was born blind: "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work." And if we're honest, we know that we're also blind in many ways.
We should identify not with the wise, but with others who are blind. When we do something good, it's because the works of God are displayed in us. We can work the works of God by helping other blind people dig out of physical and spiritual rubble. In recent months, Pastor David E. Crosby of First Baptist Church of New Orleans has seen the results: People "are startled by our concern for them and our willingness to help them out. And the resistance to the gospel of grace in the Lord Jesus is falling away."
We don't know why disasters hit particular people, but we do know that they should push us toward doing the works that God commends. Dorothy Sayers, in "The Whimsical Christian," calls Christianity the only religion that gives value to suffering. Christianity does that by affirming the reality of suffering and the opportunity to wrench some good out of it, as Christ did when he died for all who trust in Him. Christianity affirms the same about all our personal disasters, and offers the same opportunity.
It would be great to understand the purpose behind Katrina, or behind Turkey's earthquake in 1939 or Pakistan's this fall, but 19th century pastor Charles Spurgeon put it this way: "Providence is wonderfully intricate. Ah! You want always to see through Providence, do you not? You never will, I assure you. You have not eyes good enough. You want to see what good that affliction was to you; you must believe it. You want to see how it can bring good to the soul; you may be enabled in a little time, but you cannot see it now; you must believe it. Honor God by trusting him."
New Year's resolution: to trust Him more.