As I write the news is overflowing with information about the earthquake near Washington on Tuesday August 23rd. Centered in Virginia, the 5.8 magnitude quake shook the earth as far south as Georgia and as far north as Canada.
In Washington D.C., people streamed onto the streets from office buildings, schools, and businesses. There was no loss of life but historic sites like the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral had to be closed to the public because of damage that made them dangerous.
Earthquakes are scary in a weird way. I know this, having experienced three of them in my lifetime.
The first was on a Saturday morning in 1967. The boys and I were downstairs in the basement when the dishes upstairs began to rattle and hanging lights in kitchen and dining room swayed. My wife ran to the head of the stairs and called down, “What are you boys doing down there?”
As we realized the true cause of the disturbance, we quickly got our wits about us and moved to the street where our neighbors had already gathered.
Years later when Kathleen and I were at a conference in Eastern New York, an earthquake with epicenter 25 miles away in the Adirondacks struck in the middle of the night. This time, the quake made the sound of a freight train roaring through our room. We were rudely awakened and, I’ll confess, a little shaken.
On a third occasion I was in the southern Philippines, six degrees from the equator when my bed began to shake. The cot in this modest hotel had six legs and the middle two were slightly longer than the two at each end. It was as though I was being rocked in a cradle, and all the while the room around me was moving eerily. The rumblings did not last long but in the moment they made Mother Earth seem quite like a monstrous jello.
Earthquakes are an excellent metaphor for the kind of personal troubles that strike us only rarely but seem to shake the very ground of our existence. They are sudden, unexpected, and leave us momentarily bewildered.
A family member unexpectedly announces a divorce in the offing; an unexpected death robs us of our dearest and there are children to raise; our home is seized for foreclosure; a best friend betrays us. These events shake us like an earthquake. We are suddenly rendered visibly confused.
At this point, there is a psalmist who understands us. Psalm 11 asks: “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (v. 3). It sounds like a helpless cry from someone whose faith has been tested by an earthquake and is about to crumble.
But a closer reading of the psalm paints a different picture. This is not the cry of failed faith. It is the taunting of a skeptic, counseling the faithful to flee when an earthquake rumbles under foot. It is a true believer who answers: “In the Lord I take refuge. How then can you say to me: flee like a bird to your mountain.” And later: “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne.”
When people of strong faith experience life’s “earthquakes,” of course they tremble and shake. But then they reaffirm with the psalmist that God himself, loving and merciful, is their sure foundation and his foundation can never be shaken.