The first thing I heard Wednesday morning was news of the tragic helicopter crash in Iraq. Apparently it had gotten disoriented in a desert sandstorm. Thirty marines and one sailor went down.
Before I'd even begun to absorb that news, a second story started coming in. The details were sketchy at first - some mishap involving a commuter train. The first story was half a world away; the second story, just a few miles from where I stood. As news of this second incident pieced together, the new picture looked every bit as tragic as the first. Police say a deranged young man had parked his Jeep on the tracks, intent on suicide. Prior to impact he'd changed his mind and removed himself, though not his Jeep. Later reports indicated multiple fatalities and around 200 injured in the two-train wreck that resulted.
I couldn't help thinking, Hasn't the world had too many multiple-tragedy days lately? Days where it seems a first and second and maybe even third set of terrible happenings pile up? It might be easy, after a run of too many such days, to edge toward despair, or cynicism, or maybe just toward a kind of emotionless hardness. Easy, but definitely not productive.
In an effort to get my bearings, I turned to a Bible story - a disaster in the making with a last-minute swerve for the better. It ended in a healing outcome. It's the New Testament account where Paul, then a prisoner, is caught at sea in a fierce storm that proves to be too much for the vessel and her crew.
In a way, this single episode might have produced a double-tragedy day all by itself. The soldiers on board had orders to kill Paul and the other prisoners if events turned dire. Paul's prayers had a double healing impact, saving the prisoners and their keepers. The Bible chapter concludes, "The centurion, willing to save Paul, kept them from their purpose; and commanded that they which could swim should cast themselves first into the sea, and get to land: And the rest, some on boards, and some on broken pieces of the ship. And so it came to pass, that they escaped all safe to land" (Acts 27:43, 44).
I wondered. As the ship disintegrated around them, was there something else, something more permanent, that did not crumble, that could never sink? Was there something mental, something spiritual that Paul glimpsed in his prayers, and did that something keep them safe?
There's no way of knowing just what Paul prayed. But there is an earlier boat story in the Bible he certainly would have known. Remember the ark? I thought of those two boat stories from the Bible, and it occurred to me that maybe the ark, as a spiritual idea of safety, was right there encompassing Paul and his traveling companions, even as the boat they were in was falling apart.
Could I, in prayer, glimpse that ark as present not just then, but now? Could I think of it as both far off - in Iraq - and down the road from me at that train crossing? Would this prayer bring the day closer when such tragedies are less likely to occur? Yes, I intuitively knew this was true. It made sense to me, because it sounded consistent with what I know of God.
Think of God as the one Principle that governs His universe harmoniously. He's the divine Spirit of good that never retreats, the Truth that never wavers. So, His realm is like Him - harmonious, good, unwavering. In other words, safe. To know this in prayer is to bring the truth of it to bear on human circumstances. Then they begin to change for the better.
The book "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" by spiritual visionary Mary Baker Eddy includes a definition of the biblical term "ark." It reads: "Safety; the idea, or reflection, of Truth, proved to be as immortal as its Principle; the understanding of Spirit, destroying belief in matter.
"God and man coexistent and eternal; Science showing that the spiritual realities of all things are created by Him and exist forever. The ark indicates temptation overcome and followed by exaltation" (page 581).
In the past, I've been tempted, on multi-tragedy days, to slip toward despair. I think I'll be less tempted now. I'll think more about how God's nature and presence are the basis for challenging, and one day even preventing, tragedies. I'll remember that each one of us is ever in the ark of safety.