When is a warning from God not a warning from God? Or a "we can't tell whether or not it's a warning from God"?
This question came up last week while I was covering the church-wide assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in Minneapolis. Members of America's largest Lutheran denomination voted to allow non-celibate gays to become clergy and paved the way for same-sex blessing ceremonies. Conservatives I talked to were devastated by the convention, but even they admitted that before the meeting began August 17, they knew they did not have enough votes to prevent the juggernaut.
Then the tornado came.
It was just before 2 p.m. on Wednesday, August 19, right before one of the first significant votes of the assembly. The Lutherans were slated to vote on a sexuality statement that, for the first time I know of, gave the gay-friendly view a place at the table as one of four theological positions Lutherans could have. If the statement passed, it indicated where the convention would go from that point on.
Then someone rushed into the press room and told us to vacate the place fast. A tornado had touched down close by, we were told. The police wanted us in a safe place away from the glass windows that encase the Minneapolis Convention Center.
Everyone rushed into the main hall to join some 1,045 voting members who were listening to a Bible study being led by a female preacher. (A few blogs say the debate on the statement had already begun, but that is not true. I was there). A palpable blanket of fear descended on the entire group as the doors to the outside hallways were shut, enclosing us in the giant hall, which was apparently was the safest place to be. We could hear the winds howling outside. I thought of my rental car parked nearby and hoped it would stay in one piece. After the Bible study, ELCA President Mark Hanson read the 121st Psalm to calm everyone down.
"We trust the weather is not a commentary on our work," said the Rev. Steven Loy, chairman of the ad hoc committee on the sexuality statement.
And a tornado was headed our way. Just after 2 p.m., the twister knocked the cross off the steeple of Central Lutheran Church, across the street from the convention center. I walked outside afterward to look at it; the steel cross was dangling high up in the air.
Things got even weirder. The sexuality statement needed a two-third majority to pass. Many folks weren't sure there were enough Lutherans there who would vote that way, and the vote came up rather suddenly near the end of the day. When the totals were announced, everyone gasped—the statement had passed by an exact two-thirds vote. One vote less would have killed it.
Later, some of us in the press room were discussing whether the Almighty had sent a tornado to send the Lutherans a message. After all, one of the reporters said, the ELCA endured an electrical storm during one of their previous conventions—where human sexuality was also on the table—in Orlando.
A Lutheran pastor I was talking to vividly remembered the Orlando incident. She felt the tornado was a message from God, a warning to not go in the direction the assembly was bent on following. She had been a missionary in Africa and over there, she said, people would have seen the dangling cross, stopped everything, and reconsidered.
If God was speaking in downtown Minneapolis through the twister, no one was listening. In fact, proponents of ordaining openly gay clergy could have seen the exact two-thirds total as a vindication of their point of view. And, if God had wanted to get through to the assembly, why didn't he send the tornado a day earlier so word would have gotten through to everyone?
Because most of the folks in the convention hall didn't even hear of the steeple incident until well after the vote. Some of the natives told me it was very weird for a tornado to even go through downtown Minneapolis. Not only that, the weather folks had failed to forecast a tornado that afternoon. The tornado, I heard on the news, just showed up.
John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church across town from the convention center, thought the tornado signified a warning from God to the Lutherans and posted this blog, which, within a few hours, had gotten more than 200 comments. (There were 674 last I looked; Piper posted a clarifying blog on Saturday) One clarification: Tornado winds did strike a few other places, mostly south of town, but fortunately no one was killed.
In contrast, Marty Duren of the Atlanta Southern Baptist Examiner warns people of ascribing motives to the Almighty for natural disasters. Is it possible that God already knew the Lutherans were going to vote, so he ripped off the cross from the nearest ELCA to show what he thought? Or does he simply not leave his calling card in such dramatic ways? If last week's events do not constitute God's warning—or judgment—what does?