My wife tells me that I shouldn’t read the news because the news makes me sad. Or angry. Or confused or helpless or despairing or apathetic or cynical. Or some toxic combination of all of the above. She’s probably right. She’s right about a lot of things.
This September has seemed like a month where a whole bunch of bad things got together in a kind of global committee meeting and decided to all happen at once. The names and the places are familiar to us. Irma, Harvey, Maria. Mexico, Puerto Rico, Florida, Cuba. India, Nepal, Bangladesh. British Columbia, southern Alberta. Earthquakes, wind, rain, fire. And that’s leaving aside all of the bad things that we actually do to each other.
I read the news this morning and came across an article that talked about a little girl who was wiggling her fingers in the rubble of her Mexico City school. She’s still alive, apparently, although who knows for how long. Her name is Frida Sofia. My eyes stopped on that sentence. Amidst all of the statistics and official calculation and quantification of the destruction of this latest calamity… One name. One girl. I thought, as we inevitably do, about my own daughter. I thought about what it would be like to be Frida Sofia’s daddy, watching helplessly as people tried to dig my little girl out of a pile of metal and rock. I thought that those wiggling fingers would probably drive me mad with rage and despair and hysterical hope.
From a purely rational perspective, these bad things are not catastrophes at all. They are utterly normal meteorological and geological events that have been happening for countless millennia on this volatile planet. The devastation that they visit upon human subjects is as much a function of exponential population growth and unsustainable urban planning and development as anything else. If we wanted to be really crude and calculating about it, we could even say that these “natural disasters” do our planet a kind of (surely inadequate) service in population control. And even leaving aside these political and sociological factors, on an existential level, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about men and women, boys and girls being crushed in falling buildings or swept away by the storm. Human beings suffer and human beings die. It’s been happening since, well, forever. It’s part of the human condition. Nobody gets out of here alive. Life is harsh. The world is not a safe place.
But we aren’t really capable of the detached rationality that we flatter ourselves with, are we? We see little girls named Frida Sofia with wiggling fingers under the rubble and we rage against God or the cosmos or climate change deniers or Trump or whatever. We forage around for someone or something to absorb our righteous blame because we believe, deep in our bones, that things like this should not be. We don’t always have particularly good reasons for this belief, especially if we are convinced that the universe is just impersonal matter in motion, but we persist in it nonetheless. Frida Sofia should be safe and sound in a peaceful, orderly school, cheerfully becoming all she can be. She should not be wiggling her fingers under the rubble.
In Matthew 10:29-30, Jesus says the following to his disciples.
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted.
When I was young, I read these verses as saying something like, “God won’t let bad things happen to you. If he even cares about a couple of birds, he’ll surely protect you from harm.” It’s bizarre how quickly we humans seize upon interpretations like this. Even as a young boy, I had ample empirical evidence that God seemed to have no particular affinity for sparrows. I had seen a dead one or two lying around the farm. And even the text itself doesn’t say that the sparrows don’t fall. Their falling is just divinely supervised, apparently. But we are experts in seeing what we want to see, in texts and in life, aren’t we?
I read Matthew 10 again this morning with Frida Sofia in my mind. I tried to imagine how her daddy might read these verses (if he was inclined to read things like verses). Perhaps he might say something like, “That’s all very nice that you have the hairs on my little Frida’s head counted, but perhaps you could do something about the sparrows’ falling part? With all due respect sir, it doesn’t make the slightest difference to me if she falls ‘apart’ from you or she just falls. The falling is the thing we could do without.”
He’d probably say it in a considerably more angry tone. I know I would.
I went over to Luke’s version of the sparrows’ falling, where I noticed some slight differences.
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
The math and the economics don’t match with Matthew’s version, but I’ve never particularly cared about math or economics. What caught my eye in Luke is the second part. Not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for, in this world where the bad things gang up on vulnerable people and bury little girls named Frida Sofia. We are not forgotten by God. Somehow, all the suffering and calamity of this fragile little planet with its stubbornly irrational and carlessly hopeful inhabitants is gathered up into God and remembered. Literally, called to the mind of God. Which I am convinced, at the end of it all, is still the best place to be called.
Watch over us, Lord Jesus Christ. Preserve us from fear. Remember us. Your sparrows are falling.
Update: It seems that there is a good deal of confusion about whether or not a girl named Frida Sofia actually existed. It seems all the children the Mexican authorities were looking for in that region have been accounted for and that “Frida Sofia” may, in fact, have been an adult. It doesn’t really change the point of the post—there were, of course, other children who these words could just as easily have been applied to. Sparrows are always falling.