It’s now almost 18 months since the tsunami on Samoa which changed my life forever. In these last weeks, as an earthquake devasted Christchurch and now an even bigger earthquake and tsunami in Japan, it all keeps rushing back to us.
Yes it is like a flood and we have to learn all over again to cope with it. That brings me to affirm some of the things we have learned from this experience—which we have to keep learning all over again.
There is so much for which to be thankful—more than we realize.
These disasters are far more common than we in the comfortable Western world have realized. Some people live with such uncertainly and horror pretty much all the time.
In my family, we are grateful to have survived. Some things are difficult to bear, at a time like this. Merilyn and I find it hard to see the faces of people who have been so deeply traumatized. We first realized it at the time of the Haiti earthquake. (How quickly those poor people have been forgotten.) Such deeply shocked people stare into space. We know that look and that feeling.
We can take in so much of the detail, and then we have to look away or turn off the radio or TV. At that point we need to take a moment to deal with our own stuff.
But what we actually do with all this is, I hope, a lot less self-focussed. An experience like this can make us more self-absorbed and more protective, or it can make us more empathetic and more committed to caring for those in need. We would like to think that it is the second aspect that has been true in our lives. We have also become much clearer about what is important to us, and we are more committed to those things and less likely to be side-tracked into other peoples’ agendas. I am more determined to make my work and my life really count.
In January this year I delivered a paper to a conference of Asia-Pacific Baptist Theological Educators. The conference theme was ‘The church and the environment’, with a specific focus on the increasing number of natural disasters in our area. My paper was a theological reflection on my own experience of tsunami, ‘God of the tsunami’. It addressed the question of how we see God in relation to such events. It examined four ways of seeing God: God as cause; God as in control; God as companion, and God as consummator. The paper then went on to reflect upon Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s cryptic saying, ‘Only the suffering God can help.’
In what sense can a suffering God help? My answer is that a suffering God is nonetheless able to be present with us, evoking a series of aspects in us: bring us to experiences such as a new sense of belonging with each other (as survivors are bonded together by that experience), new levels of caring and new learning through these experiences. Eventually, some of us also come to new forms of faith. All this is God’s work within us, though we may not see or experience it that way.
The paper received really affirming feedback. I think it was helpful to others, as certainly it was for me to write it.
A friend in New Zealand, who had read it earlier, asked me could he share it with some pastors and carers following the Christchurch disaster. He posted it on a website which had 3500 hits in the first week. I am so pleased that it was able to help people there.
One of my own strong regrets (stupid though it may be!) was that I could not help people in Samoa. All around me, people were grieving and traumatized, and I was no use to them. I tried once to walk along the hospital corridor, to reach a man whose wife had died. As a pastor, I really wanted to sit with him, but I just couldn’t make it physically. Perhaps that was a good thing, for his sake, anyway. My sense of regret is relieved a little by knowing that I have been able to share something helpful with others in need.
After the tsunami, there are more and more tsunamis. (That word, by the way, has crept into common parlance, and is used for all sorts of rush events. Not helpful to us!) The fact is, the effects are always with us: negative, and positive. We are so grateful for thoughtful friends, who gently remind us at times like this of their care. This is such a precious gift.
We are learning to live with this reality. We all need to learn to live with it. It is no longer just ‘over there’: the images from Japan are so powerful and there are so many of them. This event has been documented in a way perhaps no other disaster before it has been. And the new social media keep on passing it on … In a sense, this has happened to us all.
The following disasters of nuclear power stations are something else again. That’s for another time. But I do hope we might learn something from it. At least this is something we can avoid.