Like many people, I have been struggling to take in the awful events in Japan over the last few days. The scale of destruction, suffering and loss are simply too great to comprehend, even from the distance of being half a world away. What it must be like for those who are having to live through this disaster on the ground is beyond imagination.
But I have also been disturbed at some of the language which has been used in the TV news reports. More than once the scenes in Japan have been described as 'Biblical' by reporters trying desperately to find words to express the scale of destruction. "Scenes of Biblical destruction" is how one correspondent put it.
This disturbs me because destruction is not the first picture which comes to my mind when I read the Bible. For me the Bible is primarily about the story of God restoring humankind after the fall, not destroying it. And yet there are the stories of Noah, Sodom and Gomorrah, and of course the prophecies about the end of the world. Is that the picture which others see first?
There is another problem of course. Describing the scenes in Japan as 'Biblical' also point us to that thorny question of where God was in all this. Did he cause the earthquake and tsunami - thus making him a capricious destroyer? Or did he just allow it - implying divine apathy? Was God powerless to stop it, or was it part of his plan - a divine wake-up call or punishment?
When huge natural disasters strike, they can often remind us of the lesser tragedies we have all experienced in life. The times when these same questions rear their heads to disturb us. The "Why me?" moments. The "It's not fair" moments. The times when the foundations of our world and faith are shaken.
My own experience of tragedy came on a sunny April morning in 2003. Like the earthquake in the Japan, it came out of the blue with no warning, as an 18 ton truck turned left without checking, and my wife on her bicycle was dragged under its wheels.
I was phoned by a bystander, and arrived at the scene just as the first ambulance crew arrived. I saw the scene of destruction with my wife lying on the road in the shadow of the huge wheel that had ripper her body apart, leaving parts of her strewn across the tarmac.
Over the weeks and months that followed, as she fought for life in hospital, I faced the same questions which the earthquake in Japan evokes in us. Some of those questions came from within - others from people around me. Some tried to encourage me with phrases like "It's all for a reason" or "God has a purpose - you'll see" as if some divine plan had caused or allowed the pain and suffering of this random act of negligence.
One woman in my congregation asked me "How can you get up and preach every Sunday after what has happened?". To this day, I don't know if this came from her own questions of what kind of God could allow this, or if she somehow felt this must be some kind of punishment from God for a secret and unspecified sin.
In midst of it I was angry at God - felt betrayed by God - let down by God - when I had given my life to following him, and all my energy to working for him. The least he could have done was to watch my back.
It took several years for my relationship with God to be repaired. Even now I struggle with those same questions when I see events such as those of the last few days.
As I reflect back, it was not those with easy answers who helped me during those dark days after my wife's accident. It was not those who had a reason ready to explain what had happened that eased my pain.
The ones who helped me were the ones who simply sat with me in the pain. The ones whose presence and prayers reminded me that God was there in the mist of the suffering, the anger and the confusion - even when there were no answers. The people who put their arms around me when I didn't want God's arms around me. Those were the ones who helped me come to terms with my own minor tragedy.
I have been surprised to see how quiet Christian bloggers have been over the weekend about the earthquake. Perhaps we have all been taking time to get our heads around it?
In fact this is no bad thing. Blogs can tend to be about quick answers and instant comment, whereas this is one of those situations where neither does any good, and those who rush in to make sense of these things are often those who do most damage.
My tragedy pales into insignificance when compared to the loss and destruction in Japan, but eight years on from the day my world was shaken, I simply know this. Bad things happen. They happen to good people as well as bad - and to the vast majority of us who are somewhere in between. They are often random, bewildering and unfair. Why does God allow them - I don't know. But I do know that God is there, wanted or unwanted in the midst of them, just as God was there in the violence, injustice and pain of the cross. He is not distant and aloof, and he shares our pain. And it is here that the Bible does speak: