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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School, Duke University. He retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Bishop Will Willimon: Reading Job in a Whirlwind

May 21, 2011

In the Hebrew scriptures "whirlwind" designates a variety of destructive, violent winds. Tornadoes are rare in the Holy Land. Perhaps it was a tornado that swept up Elijah (2 Kings 2:11). To my mind the most notorious whirlwind in scripture is the violent "great wind" that swept across the desert and destroyed Job's house, killing all of Job's children. (Job 1:19) This destructive wind is the catalyst for Job's moving poetic lament and his protest against the injustice of the pain and tragedy that have taken all of his goods and his beloved family as well.

In the past weeks we in Alabama have had cause to renew our friendship with Job. We have witnessed, and many personally suffered, the havoc and calamity of a series of great and mighty whirlwinds. Standing with Pastor Ryan Rosser in the ruins of our Long Memorial Church in Cordova, I saw how an ill wind destroys. We were to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of Long Memorial next year. Now this historic, beautiful church with its exquisite windows and noble belfry is in ruin.

The next day, while thanking a team of United Methodists from Adam Hamilton's Church of the Reconciler in Kansas for their work in one of the impoverished, devastated areas of Tuscaloosa, a veteran chain saw operator showed me the peril of cutting into a huge tree that the tornado had crashed into the top of a house.

"The tornado, in just a few seconds, takes these big trees and twists them, twisting the wood like a coiled spring," he explained. "Put a chain saw to it, release the tension, and the tree can literally explode, sending the chain saw back in your face."

The awesome, awful power of the biblical whirlwind, seen in contemporary Pleasant Grove with hundreds of ruined homes is terrible to behold. In the past weeks, in the fevered activity at dozens of our church disaster relief centers, I have seen innocent lives twisted by a great, evil wind.

And yet, not until my most recent reading of Job did I notice: the terrible whirlwind that destroys Job's life and blows him into misery in the end becomes the very voice of God. After thirty-six chapters of Job's lament and his friends' false consolations, God at last speaks. And how does God speak?

"Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind...." (Job 38:1) God speaks to Job from the whirlwind. The horrible, destructive, death-dealing wind becomes a means of divine-human communication. Not that Job likes hearing what God says to him "out of the whirlwind," and not that God's words to Job are completely comprehensible or undo the tragedy Job has suffered. Still, God speaks. Job has pled for God to come and speak. At last God does - "out of the whirlwind."

In these past three weeks I have witnessed this phenomenon. Pastor John Gates, as we surveyed the remarkable response of Pleasant Grove UMC, said, "I can't tell you how many people have said to me, 'I feel so privileged to be able to serve during this time.'" John says that on Sunday, in their devastated community, in their badly damaged church, they had the largest crowd they had seen in years with regular Pleasant Grove communicants joining their voices in praise and prayer with Methodists from all over the country who had come to help us in our need. John preached a three way sermon with two visiting preachers, one a Methodist from Pennsylvania and another a Church of God pastor from Texas whose teams had spent the week working out of Pleasant Grove.

Too many pastors and laypeople to mention have told me, "This has been the greatest experience of ministry. Our church is closer to God and more engaged in the true mission of Christ than ever because of the storm."

How amazing that a redemptive God can transform the worst of ill winds into a revealing, divine breath. What grace that a God can take a death-dealing wind and, in church, use it to speak to us.

[Taken with permission from the Bishop's Blog, North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. Originally posted 5/16/11]

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