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  • Eric Kampmann

Like An Owl Among The Ruins

Updated: Feb 29, 2020

If you were a citizen of Ukraine on June 21st, 1941, you awoke in the morning to what appeared to be an early summer day. The routines of daily life grabbed most of your attention: Breakfast, getting the children ready for their activities, feeding the pets, making the beds and generally preparing for a day like any other day.

But at the far edge of your daily horizon, unseen and unheard, gathers a pestilence that will blast the assumptions of everyday existence into millions of fragments never to be restored to their softer, familiar shapes.

In more recent times, where prosperity has ruled as the norm, a general assumption of endless continuity has taken hold and even the smallest disruptions are magnified beyond any actual event. Every storm, very flood or draught, every word from a political figure has a sense of the apocalyptic about it, even though what is being heard and seen in the media has little impact on our own individual lives. It is almost as if the “Black Swans” (see Nassim Nicholas Taleb) have replaced the entire flight of swans and all reason as fled away.

A while back, I was told a true story that might put our present distorted perceptions into some perspective. A missionary acquaintance of mine once spent several years living in the city of Odessa in Ukraine. After he had settled in, he asked a young woman who he had met there if she would give him a walking tour around the city.

As they made their way around various sections of Odessa, his guide began to open up, claiming she was an atheist, that she could not find real purpose in life and that she could not square the existence of a loving God with the reality of the extreme suffering the Ukrainian people had experienced during the war. She was the child of an authentic Black Swan event which for her had become the baseline reality of life. She was not looking for an argument; she was merely basing her own beliefs on what she has seen and heard as she was growing up.

As she and my missionary friend were talking, they came upon a blighted section of the city that was not much more than a remnant of the destruction and chaos brought on by the invading German armies. The crumbling structures were, for the most part, shells of past life where people lived and worked. Even wildflowers could not find a place to survive among the scattered stones and rubble. The poet paints a picture of such desolation in the opening of the 102th Psalm:

For my days vanish like smoke,

My bones burn like glowing embers,

My heart is blighted and withered like grass;

I forget to eat my food.

In my distress I groan aloud

And am reduced to skin and bones.

I am like a desert owl,

Like an owl among the ruins.

I lie awake; I have become

Like a bird alone on a roof.

-Psalm 102:3-7

The young guide’s own experiences led away from God and towards despair. She was gazing on a wretched scene that had once been a living neighborhood but had been run over and destroyed by forces of evil out to destroy everything in its path. She may not have experienced this catastrophe first-hand, but her family had seen the worst that mankind can produce.

But the plague of the war had lived well beyond the war itself. For this woman had concluded that a loving god could not possibly allow such evil to exist, or worse, she had come to believe that God himself does not exist at all.

But what if there was a person who came into her life to say that in the modern world, men, particularly in the western world, rejected God and replaced him with an “enlightened” scientific view of mankind and that that view rejected the existence of God? The world absent God is a ruthless, unforgiving place and those living in Ukraine in the early 40’s saw exactly how low mankind can fall. Perhaps the greater error of those dark times was the drive to put faith in “enlightened” men rather than in a loving God.

The psalmist knew that there was only one hope of salvation and he states it right at the beginning of his psalm of lament:

Hear my prayer, Lord;

Let my cry for help come to you.

Do not hide your face from me

when I am in distress.

Turn your ear to me;

When I call, answer me quickly.

-Psalm 102:1-2

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