Tuesday, 15 March 2011

When the world falls apart ...

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:
"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."  (Romans 8:38&39)


  1. Very moving personal story Benny - and relevant to our response to bigger tragedies like earthquakes, tsunamis. I think faith has to include being willing to sit with the questions that have no answer and love has to include weeping with people in pain

  2. Benny

    I was much moved by this post. For many years I worked as a social worker – my last post was a seven year stint working as a specialist social worker attached to a cancer care unit. I worked with anyone aged 16 onwards who had cancer, usually terminal cancer. Because of the nature of the job, I would often work with someone from diagnosis to death; in some cases this entailed a few weeks’ contact, but I came to know many of my clients (and their children, parents and partners) over a period of years. When I tell people about this job, they often presume the hardest cases were the young people, teenagers, dying of cancer. I didn’t find this to be the case, it was young parents, in their late twenties and early thirties, I found the hardest to deal with, because these people had young families and their death, more than that of an old person or a teenager had far reaching wounds for their children. A good deal of my work was spent sorting out what happens to children after a parent dies.

    Many people I worked with were inspirational - one, a man in his late 20s, who had been a street thug, spent time in prison in his late teens and then decided he wanted to do something with his life, used this time in prison to train as an electrician and on release set up his own company. He met a woman, settled down, had a child and became a reformed member of society. Then in 2000 he was diagnosed with large B Cell lymphoma – usually an older person’s cancer – and for three years he fought a losing battle. As I write this my eyes have filled with tears because I can see him how I last saw him: in a hospital bed surrounded by relatives who were neither use nor ornament to him during his fight with cancer, but turned up at the end, with prayer ropes and an Orthodox priest (my client was a Greek Cypriot). Fluid filled sacs in his thorax (ascites) were competing for space with his lungs and over the space of a day or so, the life was squeezed out of him. I last saw him a few hours before he surrendered to unconsciousness – his eyes wide with sheer terror as he gasped for each breath, no longer able to waste energy on something as mundane as speech; all I could do is say ‘goodbye’ because we both knew this was ‘it’.

    There were many people like this I worked with over the years and it was always those in their late 20s/early 30s, with children, that broke my heart. Of course I became hardened to some degree, it is not wise to allow yourself to become too involved and in the latter part of my time in the post I found myself less able to ‘give’ as much of myself in the relationships I formed with people. I think this was the correct course of action – too often in social work and charity there is a degree of emotional masturbation on the part of the ‘do-gooder’ and care is needed not to ‘use’ clients as a means of ‘getting-off’ on their personal tragedies. Yet the experience of cancer care changed me, particularly my faith.


  3. Cont from the above...

    In my 20s I had spent many years in the Evangelical fold, dabbled with the Charismatic and then became more and more attracted to contemplative Christianity, with the net result of several years spent in a monastery. I was deeply burdened with a personal view of God that was actually centred on me: losing oneself may have been the ideal, but actually a good deal of my thought, energy and prayer concerned itself with ‘me’. Either the inverted pride of wallowing in one’s sinfulness or the idea one has been specially singled out for special attention – the taunting of the Devil, the victimhood of the martyr, the lonely soul, who is lonely for God, the special purpose of vocation! Whatever, ‘me’ was centre stage. To some degree it was part of moving into my late 30s, but also my experience of cancer care that made me question my understanding of ‘God’ – in that very shitty things seemed to happen to very nice people. I realised how I had purposefully ‘silenced’ the awkward questions about this loving, personal God, we are so often told about, and so often believe in, until circumstances call this into question. I neatly side-stepped the Holocaust, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the dribbling individual in a wheelchair and the pain of my parents’ marriage and its domestic violence – or at least made it a badge which identified me as having ‘been there’ in the hierarchy of suffering many of us vie for a place within at church and in our personal lives.

    My time in cancer care change this and helped me put things in greater perspective. But I also came to realise that I should not take myself too seriously, nor to think of myself as ‘important’; I moved myself away from ‘centre stage’. If God exists – and for me the jury is still out on that one – it is futile to think of him (or her!) as a personal director of every detail of our lives. Those that do, tend to be highly selective about their recollections of where they have seen God’s hand in their lives – and curiously, their tales often imply God’s hand was holding a magnifying glass that enlarged their own place and purpose in the world. I still pray, I still – occasionally – attend church, but I can’t believe in a God who makes my train run on time to suit my own ends and yet is happy to allow a tsunami or a young man and caring and responsible father, with his entire life in front of him, die a needless death. The two don’t marry, unless we play some pretty self-deceptive games – again, with the ‘self’ often coming out on top.

    This is just a ramble really, with no answers, but I am now at a stage in my life where I am not really interested in answers. Indeed faith (Heb 11:1 and all that) kinda side steps getting too enmeshed in detail. Yet I am VERY wary of anyone who thinks they have the answers – particularly those who claim to know the mind of God or the limits of his mercy and his purpose.

    There is a wonderful line, uttered by ‘Vera’ at the end of Victoria Wood’s ‘Pat and Margaret’: “We’re just three middle-aged women trying to get through this sod of a life...”. I am not a woman, but I am now middle-aged and I agree with this sentiment; yet in accepting it and accepting myself, it is not longer a ‘sod of a life’. The here and now, the quality of one’s relationships, the good one can do for others – even if it is just politeness or opening a door for someone, go some way to overcome the shadows of what lurks around the corner or our futures, which we all know, end in dust.

    Thanks again for this:


  4. Thank you Nancy for your kindness and affirmation.

    Thank you Peter for sharing some of your own story. I am sure that in your work you will have touched many lives in a meaningful and healing way. God Bless nad Keep You.

  5. Dear Bennie- And I mean 'dear'.

    When my 12 yr old brother died I was involved in an evangelical church and the worst- absolute worst 'condolences' came from the fella in charge, who asked I not only see the good in it, but get up and 'witness' about how good God was for 'taking him home.' Despite staying in the church, doing missionary work and a whole lot more- I don't think I ever got much beyond that moment in relationship with God.And honestly, I don't blame that man so much bc we all get it wrong- it was the image of God as judgmental, yet arbitrary, uninvolved. Your message touched me deeply tonight.

    It's been very difficult to watch all that is happening these days. But esp the Tsunami victims in Japan. They are us, in so many ways. We are indeed all the same- in the Africa, UK, US, in Japan. It has been so hard to watch, I am continually praying, but must turn away frequently. I cannot tell you how much I needed to read this, your message. ESP in the face of this tragedy, I needed to hear about this loving, not vengeful, nor apocalyptic angry God. Thank you. Pray for these people

  6. Dear Anonymous

    I am so sorry to hear about the way you were treated when you brother died. I assume that you were a similar age which makes it even harder to bear.

    Jesus did not expect his followers to be joyful at the cross - or see good in what was happening. His concern was to ensure they would comfort each other (eg entrusting his mother & John to each other).

    Some triumphal Christianity tries to skate over the pain of the cross except as a tool to make us feel guilty. Resurrection does come, but not instantly.

    God Bless and Keep You

  7. When I was a social worker I was allocated a young male client who had been found at the bottom of a tower block with brains hanging out. He was not expected to survive but he did, though totally blind, and wheelchair bound and living with a computer programme which reminded him to eat, sleep and all else. He was not in the least religious but his mother was. She eventually took him to Lourdes, not something he wanted to particularly do. He went there in a wheel chair and returned walking with one stick. He was still not interested in any religion but his mother continued to be involved in all sorts of prayer. A few months later, he was able to see with one eye and the last thing I heard, he had got married. He was never expected to walk or see again. Was it prayer, even though he had no faith, or was it the love of his mother who believed in him?

  8. God in the middle of it all is exactly how I see it. Thank you for articulating this so well.

  9. Anonymous, thanks for this, an interesting story. When I was social worker, working with older people and people with disabilities I was allocated an elderly widowed man, who had been a GP and one of his sons carried on the medical tradition in the family, as he was a surgeon. The old man had had a massive stroke when I was allocated him and the reason for allocation was just to steer the case towards NHS continuing care. i.e. shove the man in a nursing home.

    I called up on the ward and found him slumped in a chair, a catheterised penis poking through his PJs, saliva oozing from one side of his drooling mouth and the feeling that the lights were on but there was no one at home. I got the feeling the nurses weren’t particularly interested in the man’s future (81, massive stroke – why bother...?) and the man’s surgeon son asked about what would be the best nursing home for his father. I was appalled at this causal writing off of the man’s life – and ignorance about strokes and their management from hospital staff and a surgeon son alike. So I challenged the hospital staff as to why no plan for rehab had been proposed – the sister in charged looked at me as if I was mad!

    Jump forward six months, and I was sitting with a colleague outside Westminster Council main offices on Victoria Street, SW1 – I’d just dropped off some paperwork and was having a cigarette (in the days when I stilled smoked) before heading off to St Thomas’s to do an assessment. Next door to Westminster’s City Hall offices is a branch of Sainsbury’s which is the main place to shop if you live in the mansion flats around Westminster Cathedral, where my elderly, ex GP client lived. Who came trotting out of Sainsbury’s at the very moment but my ex-GP client, carrying a bag of shopping! The very man doctors and nurses had written off. He had gone to rehab and despite slow beginnings went on to almost full recovery. Was this God at work; or the wonder of the human body to overcome substantial trauma? I worked in adults’ and latterly palliative care social work for fifteen years and saw again and saw several examples of ‘miracle’ cures – but I also saw many more people – even the most devout – fail to be cured or die cruel, painful and undignified deaths (despite the best efforts of nursing staff to ensure the reverse).

    Without wishing to be contentious, many ‘miracle cure’ stories ‘tend to be highly selective... [in] their recollections of where they have seen God’s hand in their lives...’. People do get better from awful and terrible injuries and trauma and illness – with or without God, prayer, pilgrimages, holy water, laying on of hands etc.. The problem we’re left with when ‘miracle’ stories are told, is why others aren’t ‘cured’. One of my regular annoyances as a cancer social work were Evangelical Christians (usually Africans) who would tell me God was going to cure them (I always thought of John Wimber and David Watson at this point!). I’d want to talk about what happens to a woman’s children after her death and she’d tell me she didn’t need to worry because God would cure her. Of course all these people died – despite their faith. Did God not love these people; did he think their children (if I was involved they were usually single parents – or the father was abroad) could cope without a mother in a strange country?

    In many ways attributing cures and amazing recoveries to the work of God raises more questions than it answers. Why are some people ‘cured’ and others not? The latter seem to be the vast majority of cases...



  10. Dear Anonymous and Peter,

    I think that we can be too analytical sometime about why someone has 'got better' or 'been healed'. The fact is that when someone overcomes the odds in sickness or injury, it is a cause for rejoicing, whatever we attribute the healing process to.

    In some ways it reminds me of the disciples question to Jesus about one of the people he healed. "Did he sin or was it his parents?" The answer Jesus gives, says in effect, that is irrelevant - just rejoice that he is healed!

    In my wife's situation after her accident, she survived (against the odds) but has not made a full recovery. We have learned to rejoice with God that she is still alive, while at the same time mourning the fact that she is partially disabled and in chronic pain.

    Both are simply a fact of life and we continue with God in the reality of both.

    God Bless you both, Benny