My colleague down south, Peter Carrell, has offered some characteristically incisive, honest and helpful posts coming out of the incredibly challenging experiences of those in Christchurch–experiences shared side-by-side by both local Cantabrians and many of the visitors from far and near drawn to the attractive city.
Such experiences very understandably raise more questions than answers. Inevitably-and rightly-many of these questions will be theological nature, one way or another. It is important to recognise, however, that initially–and again understandably–such questions are primarily grounded in emotional responses to such trauma. And that is only right and healthy.
While as much emotional as theoretical, such questions are legitimate. Responses need to recognise that a detached analytical type of engagement will very often be unhelpful, even if the thoughts and argument itself have some validity. What I am underscoring at this point is the importance of hearing the emotional burden reflected in such questions. When such questions arise in the context of very real grief, the underlying questions get to the heart of core theological formulation: where is God? Does God care? What is God doing?
Scripture is actually profoundly located in recognising and giving expression to such questions. One of the realities of Scripture that I find especially striking (in contrast to many other reflections on life, ancient and modern) is that it so starkly names what is wrong with this world–there is no pretence or avoidance in recognising that the experience of life is both fragile and all-too-frequently traumatic. There is no denial here, and indeed deep outbursts of anger.
Indeed, Scripture gives powerful expression to grief and lament. We do indeed grieve, yet are able to do so as people who hold onto the hope of rebuilding, resurrection, and that God’s greater purposes in creation and redemption shall prevail.
So where is God? The answer is as profound as it is characteristic of Judeo–Christian witness: God is in the midst of the rubble and the outpouring of grief. Scripture does not shy from giving expression to a God who grieves, indeed grieves from the core of his being. In the remarkable instance where we are told that Jesus wept we glimpse in that moment into the heart of a God who weeps (John 11:35). It is the occasion of Jesus’ intentionally late arrival to the funeral of his close friend Lazarus. The sheer narrative poses deeper considerations. Why would Jesus weep when he knew he was about to do such a sensational miracle as a sign of the greater resurrection to come–you think you might have had a knowing look on his face. Yet the narrative doesn’t unfold in that way. In that brief window into the heart of God expressed through Jesus weeping, we see a recognition and indeed compassion for the whole experience of human loss and the outpouring of grief.
Scriptural witness affirms a God who is righteous, faithful and just. The expression of such qualities is to be found in the God in the midst of rubble. The whole direction of Jesus’ life and mission is to take upon himself all that is destructive. God is not distant, does not employ selective hearing, and is indeed moved to compassion.
Where much theological work does need to be done is in the area of our expectations as humans, and as the people of God. Nowhere are we led to believe that we will be kept immune from the realities of life. All is not well with this world, and we are told that there will continue to be earthquakes and other powerful workings of disorder and chaos. It is only in the completion of God’s creation project that the goal of shalom shall be realised.
So there is no promise of immunity, yet a pervading narrative that life has a direction. Yet a telos (end point and goal) is not the same as easy answers to the very different directions the experience of life may bring. As we’ve seen all too graphically this week, for some there is the thankfulness and joy of escaping peril, while others are caught up in a calamity not of their own making. There are no answers to why ‘this person’ and not ‘that person’ have such different outcomes.
There are some deeper dimensions where the challenge comes back on ourselves. We are drawn into such theological questions when the experience is in our own backyard, but our ability to distance ourselves from such theological soul-searching all too often features in our reactions when such trauma is overseas. The questions raised by the uncompromising realities of recurring earthquakes in Christchurch are no different from the realities of life experienced all too frequently overseas. The questions are not new, but the experiential force in which they engage us is a new experience for those of us in the developed world.
Yet the other profound insight provided by Scripture is that God is just as present, just as caring, and has just as much faithfulness to his creation as a whole, regardless of race, tribe or nation.
Where is God? The God of Scripture is the God who brings order in the midst of darkness and chaos; a God who was present in the deepest tunnels and the most lonely of corners. The God revealed in Christ is God of new beginnings, a God who gathers people into community, a God in human form manifesting the best qualities of being human in the image and likeness of God.
As Christians we are encouraged to “grieve without despair” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Amongst many other things at this time, my prayer is that God will be heard through the faithful ministry of compassion, courage, and hope from all those who stand in his name.
Some further thoughts are found in my next post '‘Acts of God’ and the futility of creation '