Where is God When Disaster Hits?

Hurricane Sandy hits New York City

Hurricane Sandy hits New York City

This post is modified from a part of my book Return to Our Senses. In the book the disaster I talk about is the earthquake in Haiti but with the storm on the East Coast of the U.S. so much on all our minds I have changed it to reflect our current concerns.

Like many of us, I am feel as though I am drowning. The overwhelming images of devastation and suffering that we see bring us to despair. Relief workers struggle relentlessly to handle the unimaginable onslaught. Deprived of sleep, subsisting on an inadequate diet, confronted by unimaginable horrors, some quickly break down and many both workers and victims will require trauma counseling and professional help.

In these last couple of days, I have also been working on my yearly Advent video meditation. It has been a tremendous comfort. It reminds me of the enduring faithfulness of God. I has shifted my focus away from the images of devastation and suffering to where it should be, firmly anchored in the loving presence of God.

My prayers for those impacted by the storm, as for any situation of trauma and suffering needed to begin in a place of rest and quiet, a space of upward intimate communion with God, where I touched and felt God’s surrounding love. I have many friends on the East Coast whose lives have been impacted by this storm. Many of them doing wonderful work amongst the poor and the marginalized. This disaster has reminded me to pray for them and express my gratitude for the work they already do to help those at the margins. I am so glad they are there, God’s love already ready responding even before the storm began.

I am also praying for those who are driving and flying in from across the U.S. and from around the world to be a part of the relief efforts. In a situation like this strangers become neighbours, the parable of the good samaritan is lived out in our midst. This too brings out prayers of gratitude and thankfulness for those God has prompted to respond and I prayed for their strengthening. I know that in the midst of devastation like this God’s heart aches too. So much about why disasters occur that we don’t understand, but this I know God’s love and compassion flow through everyone who responds.

I think that it is only when our responses come out of our connection to the heart of God who is busy making all things new, that we can be sustained in our outpouring of love, compassion and resources. In the place of prayer we don’t just pray for the needs of those impacted by this storm we connect to the heart of a God who aches for the pain and suffering of this and every country.  And we connect to the One who calls us to be hands and feet of compassion.

Another tool that I find particularly effective when I am grieving and not sure how to express what I feel is the writing of prayers . A couple of days ago I wrote down this prayer that was already resonating in my heart and mind. Writing and reading through the prayer several times comforted me in a way that just saying the words out loud never could have.

The prayer continues to reverberate in my mind keeping me focused away from the unanswerable “why” questions to the far more important “What would Jesus do”? type of questions. It has comforted me and I know that others have found it comforting too. Prayers like this seem to do more than comfort us however. They bring into being that which has not yet existed. They stir us to respond as we imagine a new future for those whose lives have been devastated.

I have not been able to play an active part in responding to the devastation of this storm, but I have friends who will be on the ground helping for a long time to come. The prayers that resounded in my heart when the storm hit will I know still rise towards God on behalf of my friends and the many others who work in this devastated area.

This kind of prayer has consequences not just for our advocacy and outward engagement, but for every aspect of our lives. One of the hardest steps of prayer which we all like to avoid, is listening for the places that my own decisions and lifestyle have contributed to the tragedy we are hearing about. Decisions about how to dress, what to eat and where to spend my money can all have unintended consequences that devastate the lives of others.

Sometimes listening at this level calls us to prayers of repentance and inner changes that transform the way we view our world and the ways we interact with it. In the process hopefully our hearts too will be changed as we move from upward to inward prayer, searching our own hearts to seek forgiveness for those things that have made us slow to respond in the past. Perhaps there is unconfessed sin of greed or covetousness that makes us hold onto resources that God intends us to share. Or there may be self-centeredness that makes us blind to needs beyond our own comfort.

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Tornado Warnings – What Do We Do

Tornadoes in Alabama from The Weather Channel

We woke this morning to hear about the horrific tornadoes – 160 as of this morning –  that have hit across the South, the last in a terrible chain of natural disasters that have hit our world.

Deadly tornadoes and thunderstorms tore through the South early today, pushing the death toll to at least 210 people in five states and giving neighboring states a possible taste of what’s to come today, authorities said.

So far 164 tornados have been reported from Mississippi to New York, the worst tornado outbreak since 1974 when a super tornado outbreak killed more than 300 people. read more

My heart goes out to all those who have lost family, friends and homes as a result of this devastation.  May we pray for them and for those who come to help

Lord have mercy on all who suffer

Christ have mercy on those who have lost family and friends

Lord have mercy on those who seek to help

Where is God In the Midst of Disaster?

This last Sunday I had the opportunity to preach at Kern Rd Mennonite Church in Indiana.  It was the first week of Lent and the theme they had chosen for the season was “Restore to me the joy of my salvation” from Psalm 51.

Initially I struggled.  How can I talk about joy while grieving for the many who have lost their lives, their loved ones or their livelihoods in Japan?  And how can I experience joy when I am still grieving for my friend who died in Christchurch and my aunt who is still displaced following the Brisbane floods?  It is not an easy time for many of us as we question how a loving and caring God could allow such disasters to happen.  And of course there are no easy answers.  But the fact that there are no easy answers does not mean that God is absent from these situations.  Nor does it mean that we cannot experience joy in the midst of them.

As I struggled with this and the writing of my sermon, I remembered a quote from Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts: But the secret of joy is to keep seeking God where we doubt that he is.

In the midst of desolations like this, when our world is shaken and our securities undermined it is very hard to trust in the presence of God.  But we need to keep seeking, and believing and counting our blessings and the blessings of all who are caught in these tragic circumstances.

As I spent time this weekend thinking about these disasters and thinking about what I could possibly write in my gratitude journal it suddenly struck me.  There is a common theme of hope in all these situations that absolutely takes my breath away and makes me want to cry out with thankfulness to God.  In  the midst of all these disasters complete strangers are reaching out, sometimes risking their own lives to save and comfort others.

My aunt had strangers who had travelled half way across the country suddenly appear at her door to help with the clean up.  Friends in Christchurch have been overwhelmed by the help of volunteers who dropped everything and travelled from throughout New Zealand and Australia to assist people they never met.  And in Japan more than countries around the world have reached out with offers of assistance.

Strangers have become neighbours.  Across barriers of class and race and religion people are showing they care.  It is like the parable of the Good Samaritan being lived out in our midst.  And suddenly I see this is the God image shining through.  This is our loving caring God reaching out compassionately through the helping hands and aching hearts of those who are created in God’s image.  Why these disasters happened we do not know but God is there grieving, loving and caring.

And in that moment of recognition I see that this is the joy of salvation bubbling up within as we immerse ourselves in the love of our God and allow ourselves to become his hands and his feet.

A Paradise Built in Hell: How Does Your Light Shine?

Last night we attended Church of the Beloved in Edmonds Washington.  In the middle of the service there was a time of silence for reflection that impacted me deeply.  We began in the dark reflecting on the fact that God’s light never goes out.

Suddenly it hit me.  There are certain lights that we are only aware of when the brightness of the sun is hidden from us.  The night sky shines not just with the moon but with millions of stars that not only give us light but also direction.

Why has this affected me so deeply?  Well this last week I have read a profoundly moving book called A Paradise Built in Hell, by Rebecca Solnit.  It talks about the extraordinary communities that arise in the midst of disaster.  Calamity doesn’t bring out the worst in us she contends, it brings out the best.  Resourcefulness, generosity and joy arise to shine brightly in the midst of all kinds of horrifying situations as many of us have recognized in the response to the earthquake in Haiti and the recent floods in Australia.

The joy in disaster comes, when it comes, from an affection that is not private and personal but civic.  the love of strangers for each other, of a citizen for his or her city, of belonging to a greater whole, of doing the work that matters. (p306)

Disaster blots out the sun but allows the light that is within each of us to shine to its full potential… not alone but together with the many other lights that surround us.  And in the process it gives us direction – a clear path towards the kind of interdependent, caring life that God intends for all of us.

It is not surprising therefore that one of the main responses to the economic crisis we face is community movements – community gardens, community economic networks, community support structures that pull us together to help and encourage each other.  So often all we hear about are the negative impacts of disasters – the deaths, the looting, the horrors of displacement but in the midst God is at work, building community bringing out the best of who God has made us to be.

So my question this morning is: Where have you seen the light that God has placed within all of us shine out in unexpected ways bringing out the best of people and forming them together into a community of hope and joy?

A Mess in Christchurch, Memories of Haiti

A couple of days ago a 7.1 earthquake hit Christchurch NZ and I have just been looking through some of the photos sent to me by my friends.  Miraculously no one was hurt but there are a number of damaged buildings, roads and other infrastructure.  I lived in Christchurch for five years and so was relieved to hear that all my friends are safe.

At the same time I was reminded of the continuing devastation in Haiti where the people are still trying to put their lives back together.  I realized too how little I had prayed for these good people in the last few months.  Out of sight out of mind particularly as so many disasters seem to have impacted our world in the last couple of years.  We cannot cope with the recurring images and our brains start to shut down and shut out those things that are unpleasant.  Compassion fatigue sets in and we appear indifferent to the heart ache around us.

How do we avoid this response?  I think that fundamentally we need to view these disasters from a different perspective.  It is easy for us to respond to need out of a gut wrenching compassionate urge.  But that is not sustainable – in long run it exhausts and disillusions us.  In order to maintain our compassionate responses and not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of recurring devastation we see around us we need to center our lives on God and the responses God desires of us.

I find that to accomplish this I need regular times of peace and quiet, far from the TV images and hurting voices.  I need time to listen to God in a way that makes it possible for me to discern God’s voice and respond as God wants me to.  As many of you know I love to write prayers and reflections during these times of prayer and discernment.  I find that this helps me to  move my response mode from my head to my heart.  It grounds me in a way that watching TV images never does and it gives me fuel that makes possible a sustained response.

Today as I reflected on the devastation I see around me I wrote another prayer – not about the devastation but about the goodness of God, reminding myself that God is good and God does love us.  That I know needs to be the centre of my response to any situation

God’s goodness

Made known in creation

Food for the hungry, abundance for us all.

God’s goodness

Revealed in Christ Jesus

Freedom from sin, salvation for us all

God’s goodness

Made new through the Spirit

God’s image perfected, new life for us all

Do We Live Or Just Preach Faith?

I really have been wondering about this as I have followed the path of Hurricanes Gustave and Ike and then watched the stock markets crash all over the world this morning.  Yet of the numerous Christian blogs I have followed over the weekend only one has had a post with a prayer and a thought for those whose lives have been devastated by these tragedies.  I feel that most of my blogging friends are living in a glass shell where the world and all that happens in it does not really exist. Of course most of those in the Houston area that normally blog at this time are still off line so maybe that explains it but surely for all of us these tragedies should be at the forefront of our minds.

My heart so aches for those whose lives will never be the same after this last week and I know that God’s heart aches too yet it seems to me that either we don’t care or we else we don’t know how to express our caring and concern.  And I don’t just think we need just to be talking about it we should be helping each other find ways to respond too.   Of course there are so many response organizations out there that it is hard to know where to start .  And many churches are organizing their own response teams – after Katrina the churches were actually the best responders even though they were not well organized.  Since that time a huge network of churches throughout the US have developed disaster preparedness strategies.  Anyway here are some of organizations I would recommend if you don’t know what to do.

If you like to work with a small organization that is having a big impact I recommend Hope Force International They don’t just respond to disasters they also prepare people to work in disaster situations. They also work closely with the Salvation Army

Of course most major denominations have their own relief and development arm.  Here are a few

Church World Services,

Episcopal Releif and Development

Catholic Relief Services

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

United Church of Canada

The Christian reformed World relief Committee

Many of the larger relief and development organizations like World Vision, World Relief and World Concern are also responding.  So lets all get out there and get involved and then blog about what we are doing to challenge others to get involved too.