He had been hiding for more than a month.
He managed to escape into the desert when he first heard the news. The government death squads were after him.
He was safe living in a desert cave, but now food and water were scarce. He could see himself dying soon, even if the assassins didn't find him. So, in desperation, he offered a "Hail Mary" prayer to God.
The next night was strange. In the desert, there was a lighting fire storm with the loudest thunder he had ever heard. The lightning storm was followed by a wind storm that seemed like a tornado.
Then came an earthquake. He had never felt an earthquake before, and this was terrifying. Finally, after all the storms had passed, and everything was quiet, he heard the voice of God. God had come to rescue him.
God was not in the fire. God was not present in the tornado. God was not in the earthquake. God was present only in the stillness, the quiet, the silence. This biblical story, which has become a centerpiece for mystics and God seekers alike, reminds us today that God is not in the earthquake.
Earthquakes are not messages from God. Earthquakes are not warnings from God. Tsunamis are not punishments from God.
There is no evidence that earthquakes are anything more or less than the normal shifting of the Earth's tectonic plates. God does not send earthquakes as messages to be decoded or clues that can only be discerned by the faithful. Earthquakes are not indicators of God's opinion of our moral condition.
Even though God has a better special effects department than Steven Spielberg, God does not often use special effects.
God prefers the personal approach. If God wants someone's attention, the biblical record is that God simply drops by out of the blue. Admittedly, this has its own kind of dramatic effect. If you are home for lunch making a grilled cheese, and God drops by to share a meal with you, this can be rather startling!
Think about Easter for a minute. We celebrate Easter with bright flowers, trumpet fanfares, loud and celebrative music, and the best chocolates we can afford. It's glorious! Jesus was raised from the dead.
This is big news! It deserves the best we can offer! It's time for the wildest party ever! But on the first Easter there was no fireworks, no choirs and no Easter brunches. There was no special effects at all.
It was in the quiet just before dawn that God raised Jesus from the dead. I think God delights in the personal and the subtle.
We are tempted of course to blame every natural disaster on God. It's nice to have a fall guy. We are quick to call every disaster an "act of God" not to avoid coverage, responsibility, or critical thinking, but because we are horrified, stunned and shaken to our core.
We never imagined there could be a 30-foot wall of water that would travel for miles and turn entire homes into coffins. The power is too much. Human beings are too powerless. So it must be from God.
But seriously, what message would God be sending in an earthquake?
Are we to believe that all the victims of the earthquake and tsunami are such sinners that they deserve to be severely punished with death? Or that the sins of Japan are greater than the sins in our own community or greater than the sins of any other nation? Or that God is so upset with the whole of humanity that God will inflict punishment on one nation as a lesson to us all?
If tsunamis were messages from God, we would learn that God is to be feared, that God is capricious at best, and often cruel.
The real problem with giving God credit for "acts of God" is that such acts are themselves contrary to the nature of God. The biblical record — in both Old and New Testaments — is that God is love. If God is love, then every act of God must be loving.
The earthquake and tsunami were not divinely caused — or inspired or planned or arranged — because they were acts of sorrow, death, and grief.
Easter is the witness that death is not the end of the story, that suffering is not God's plan, and that sorrow is not God's way.
God seeks to heal. God desires to end the cycle of sorrow, death and grieving. And so for all those who were lost in the earthquake and the tsunami, God has welcomed them home with fanfare, great affection, and the best brunch ever!
MARK WILEY is pastor at Mesa Verde United Methodist Church in Costa Mesa.