defined by disaster

The history of Aotearoa-New Zealand can be retold in a minor key. Every couple of decades a disaster seems to strike which pours a deep sadness into a generation of Kiwis and adds to our self-understanding as a nation. The Pike River mine disaster prompted me to post on this theme a couple of years ago. Then just two months later - rather than the customary two decades - there was the major Christchurch earthquake. The sadness did not just pour into a generation, it flooded.

A session this week with those in the Arrow Leadership course gave me the opportunity to revisit this topic, particularly the implications of this story for the people of God wanting to embed themselves in this country and live distinctive lives with distinction. I was glad to have my ideas topped-up by theirs and offer here ten implications, even opportunities, for the people of God.

the invitation to lament
The psalms make it clear that the lament is an integral part of the way we are to engage with God in worship. Not only does the sheer volume of lament psalms suggest this, but so also does the honesty and poignancy that we discover in them. They give us words with which to cry out to God and disasters provide the opportunity so to cry.

the presence of God
As surely as Psalm 23 follows Psalm 22 (lament), so also must the affirmation of the presence of God follow the invitation to lament. 'Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me' (Psalm 23.4). Many, many people will testify to the reality of this presence at the very height of the disaster's impact.

the possibility of wisdom
I take the wisdom offered in Ecclesiastes seriously: 'It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting' (7.2). There is more wisdom to be found at a funeral than at a party. Attending funerals forces me to audit my life and answer the big questions. There is a funeral spirituality that is good for the soul. To confront death contributes to wise living.

the closeness of smallness
New Zealand is such a small country. These disasters grab the national psyche partly because it is the norm for everyone to be impacted in some personal way. While the other implications may be true in other countries, there is something more unique going on with this one in NZ... Everybody knows somebody who suffered, or who died. So the disaster does not remain on the screens, or in the headlines, over there. It comes in. It comes right into peoples' living rooms and sits with them.

the experience of story
Disaster unleashes the story in peoples' lives. It lubricates the lips to get moving. Simply ask a room full of (suitably-aged) people, 'Where were you when you heard about Tangiwai?' Even the shy ones get talking. The reminiscing is good for everyone. It surfaces memories. It moistens eyes. All sorts of intriguing personal angles emerge.

the fellowship of suffering
This one is linked to the previous one! Meeting together at the point of sadness seems to build a deeper fellowship than meeting at the point of gladness. Weakness is a stronger glue than strength. 'There is a grief deeper than pain, just as there is a joy deeper than happiness'. When disaster strikes, people who rarely talk with each other, wondering aloud what on earth they might have in common, suddenly discover that it is the essentials of life and death which they share - and that is a lot and it is enough.

the division of history
The telling of global history from a Christian perspective was, for centuries, a BC:AD affair. More recently it has been revised to become BCE:CE, so as to show less bias towards the Christian story. But all this global history is eclipsed when disaster strikes and the timeline of a personal history takes over. The 'before' and the 'after' has, as its point of reference, the precious life of the one who is lost. And history can never be the same again.

the shock of dissonance
'NZ is one place I'd love to visit'. In the eyes of the wider world, it is a beautiful country. Despite our problems, there is a deposit of pride for our nation. Just listen to Kiwis rabbit-on when they are homesick overseas! Sometimes we even refer to it as 'God's own country'. I don't know about that one. But in our story there is so much that is desirable - and so when disaster strikes, it feels so dissonant. It can be such a shock.

the subversion of control
So much about science and technology is geared towards an increasing understanding - and therefore, control - of our natural world. The performance of weather forecasters has improved markedly over the years. The knowledge around earthquakes, volcanoes, and cyclones is growing all the time - but if we knew then what we know now, could the sadness of Tarawera, Napier, Tangiwai, Waihine, or Christchurch have been averted? Possibly - but more probably not. However one thing is for sure: these disasters remind us again and again of our powerlessness in a world where, with a knowledge that is growing all the time, we fancy ourselves.

the opportunity for sanctuary
Disaster creates opportunities for God's people. The opportunity to serve with compassion. The opportunity to be quiet and calm and strong - for others who feel noisy and turbulent and weak. The opportunity to create times and spaces for reflection. The opportunity to be the 'city of refuge', to be the safe place, the safe people - the sanctuary among whom rest can be found and lament can be expressed. The opportunity to 'trace the rainbow through the rain'. The opportunity to host the reassuring presence of God and offer it to others.

nice chatting



Jay Matenga said…
VERY. Well. Said. my friend.
Paul said…
thank. you. my. friend.

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