Reflection on Disaster and Tragedy

A Japanese Coastal Village after the 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami

In the past few months, we’ve seen and heard of events that have at times been quite difficult to take in. Major floods in Pakistan and Afghanistan, torrential rains in India and Nigeria, and recently: two major earthquakes in the Middle East.

The stories and images coming out of Turkey and Syria are devastating. In the aftermath of an earthquake of 7.8 on the Richter scale in southern Turkey and Northern Syria, buildings have been flattened, and many homes have been reduced to rubble. The death toll is already well on the way to 30,000 and in the days and weeks ahead, it’s expected to climb much higher.

Such disasters are bound to cause us to wonder ‘where God is in such things?’ So this is a good time to consider the gifts that God gives to help us in the difficulties of life and especially when our worlds are quite literally turned upside down.

Many people who’ve undergone adversity, experience a new sense of belonging to each other. There’s a remarkable sense of bonding between people who’ve experienced a particular disaster and who may’ve narrowly escaped death. There may be also a sense of guilt at having survived when friends and loved ones haven’t. God can give us the gift of a new sense of belonging and closeness to each other and also to God Himself.

Often, people deal with disaster by clinging to hope, expressed in phrases such as, “We’ll get through this together.” Such statements may be made through gritted teeth, in the anguish of physical and emotional pain. However, Hope has nothing to do with wishful thinking. Hope is the gift of openness to an unseen or unimagined future. It can keep us going, even when we can’t live and act in the ways we might normally be able to. The timing of the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami in March 2011, just before the start of the Cherry Blossom season (the Sakura season) was very important in providing hope.

A crucial gift in God’s enabling is patience. It’s hope that enables waiting patiently for what is yet to be. Those of us, who can live active lives are accustomed to being more of less competent in what we do and can find patient waiting very difficult. Patience is the slow but definite practice of hope. It’s an active and loving holding on, perhaps without any other purpose than simply remaining; it’s “being” in the here and now.

With time, however, God also gives healing. It’s remarkable how there’s so a close relationship between time and healing. With time, we discover that in fact all along healing’s been taking place. There’s healing in the very nature of things, and of course there’s also the active work of healers, agents of God.

Experiences of suffering and distress are often also times of learning. Pain’s a great teacher. Many people say that’s at such times they learned the most valuable lessons of life. In particular, the value of things. That the things for which we spend so much time, money, and effort are worth almost nothing. When one’s experienced the loss of everything, all of one’s clothes and possessions swept away by an earthquake, tsunami, flooding or whatever, what remains is life itself, one’s family, and one’s relationship with God. In times of pain, illness and patient waiting, people come to reflect on the meaning of their lives, work, and priorities.

Flowing from these gifts, it’s both interesting and deeply moving to see something else emerge. In many contexts of disaster and distress, we see the depth of human caring. Those in ministry and in the caring professions often find that people in deep grief or pain reach out in concern for others. They want to be assured that some other person is being cared for. We may marvel at that, but it can be seen as a gift emerging from the very nature of our humanity. Our pain doesn’t destroy our better selves but rather brings them to the surface. Even as he suffered, Jesus prayed for those who crucified him. From the cross, he urged John to care for his mother.

Finally, the Suffering God enables faith. This isn’t a pre-condition of the other gifts. Rather, faith may be implied in those other gifts, but neither recognized nor acknowledged. Many people in their anguish call out to God, sometimes in accusing ways, just read the Psalms for examples. Sometimes, people, who say they don’t believe in God, call out to God. In contrast many, who’ve said they believe, find they can’t call out to God. Perhaps they imagined that their faith in God would mean that nothing like this could ever happen to them.

Faith emerges as the quiet, sometimes unrecognized gift that simply keeps us going. Faith isn’t the absence of struggle and doubt. Faith insists on dealing with the truth, with reality, with life and relationship; and through that keeping-on going, faith emerges in new forms.

It may be a new quality of prayer, or a new dimension of care, or a new commitment to reach out to those less fortunate. Such faith eventually finds its voice, to speak truth in the face of easy solutions or cheap grace. It speaks of the suffering God, who can and does help us in our hour of need.

The philosopher Charles Taylor has said that we must learn to understand what it means to have faith in our world. A world that isn’t a machine, controlled by a master manipulator of the levers. No, our task is to understand what it means to be with God and God with us, in a far less controlled, less predictable, but nonetheless, created world. In such a world, we must learn the meaning of belonging. We must learn to respect the earth, as many indigenous cultures have done since time immemorial and stop thinking that we can control everything for our own benefit.

We must learn also that the world isn’t just “our environment” but is rather the context in which we live with God. In so doing, we must learn see what God is doing in the world, and learn to live with and work with that, towards the unity with God seeks and the fulfilment of creation, in which all things come to their rest, in peace and harmony with God.

Our task, then, is to learn to see what God’s doing towards that redemption and to join God. That’s our theological and practical task—and what a privilege it is to be involved with God and God’s people in this way.


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