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Living on the fault line

9 October 2018 Rev Keith Garner's Blog

Faced with the death of more than 1,700 people and the destruction and damage of 65,000 homes, it would be frivolous to offer well-worn clichés about the suffering experienced by people and communities impacted by the recent Indonesian earthquake and tsunami. 

There are so many difficult aspects to this disaster, not least, for me, how we understand such suffering in terms of faith and hope. However, I think our Prime Minister spoke for us all in offering swift assistance to Indonesia, after contacting the country’s President. 

As I write, it remains uncertain exactly what we can do but, in addition to prayers and supporting Indonesia with our compassionate concern, we need to keep alert to the Red Cross, UnitingWorld, and similar agencies so that we can offer practical support. There are signs of people coming together all around the world to support those who are suffering. 

At times like these, we rightly ask the question as to ‘Why?’ such tragedies occur. The psalmist in his honesty teaches us to be real with God in prayer about these questions. In times of difficulty and pain, simple answers, however, are not what helps the human heart.

The truth that brings the most peace in these times is that God is with us always, and that he calls us to be a part of his goodness and hope. In doing this, we are able to be part of God’s response to the pain and difficulty that others experience. God reaches out to us in love and offers his grace. 

Much of Indonesia is perilously located on the Pacific Rim: it is where multiple plates of the earth’s mantle clash and resolve their kinetic tension with terrible regularity and outcomes. 

However, if we are real about ourselves, then we can honestly acknowledge that fault lines can run through our own lives, causing unfathomable heartache: the loss of a loved one, a marriage breakdown, mental illness or unemployment can open fissures in the very fabric of our lives that we never knew existed. 

Your world can fall apart, but somehow your life must go on. You wonder how you will ever get through the succession of joyless days that seem to line the path ahead of you. You wonder how you will even get through the next moment, because the distress is so great. Thousands of people in Sulawesi are experiencing this right now. 

You may feel your life has been so overturned that you worry if you will ever survive. Who can you turn to for comfort? What resources can you draw upon? Are there coping strategies that you can learn? 

Very often we lack the kind of support that will enable us to survive. People may make an immediate response to us… but we know we require deep resources for the long-term. 

It is an unhelpful myth that grieving feeds pain or that grief is always negative. We must know what it is to grieve if we are to experience real healing. In practical terms, grieving appropriately is the way to reach a point of recalling a loss or crisis without pain. 

There is no way of shortcutting or, even worse, bypassing grief, loss or sorrow. It is true that we can recover from devastation… and even become stronger in the process, but it is a journey. 

Painful though it is, by allowing ourselves to grieve, we may come through the experience stronger, more alive, without deadening our capacity to feel. 

Ann Morrow Lindbergh writes on Sharing Sorrow and says, ― "What I am outlining is not simply the old puritan truism that 'suffering teaches'.” I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, the entire world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable. All these and other factors combined, if the circumstances are right, can teach and can lead to re-birth. 

We discover that adversity is a gentle teacher, guiding us into greater perceptions of life and illuminating lasting values. 

Although God may seem hard to reach in grief, we can still allow him to reach us. God‘s love is a powerful force in our healing—guiding our response to crises—beyond despair to hope. Where human efforts fall short, God will take us up and allow our journey to be from darkness into light. 

Hope is cultivated over a period of time… not just in a moment. We may find Christ in a moment, but we cultivate our hope in him in a lifetime. O. S. Marden wrote these words, ― “There is no medicine like hope, no incentive so great, and no tonic so powerful as expectation of something better tomorrow.” 

For the Christian, there is always hope no matter what situation we have to face. 

If we can find meaning in our suffering then so much the better, but even if we cannot find meaning there and then, some of us will be able to translate our suffering into ways that help other people. 

We are seeing this in Indonesia at the moment through the response of aid agencies, government workers and the generosity of millions from around the world. I also see it in the lives of those who work and volunteer at Wesley Mission: many have faced personal tragedy and want to reach out to others with tangible hope. The Agape congregation at Wesley Mission has hundreds of young people from Indonesia as part of its congregation and our hearts go out to them and all those from our near neighbours, Indonesia, at this time. 

To survive any crisis or tragedy, we have to grieve, to receive help, to cultivate hope and to reach out in love to others to find meaning from our suffering. 

A tragedy can open fault lines in our lives that leads to a deeper healing and even letting go.