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TSUNAMI: "We find our life with God"

TSUNAMI: "We find our life with God"

By Ephraim Radner

Is the unimaginable extent of death and destruction brought by the recent earthquake and tidal waves in Asia are problem for religious faith? Undoubtedly. It raises all kinds of questions that most people have a hard time dealing with.

When someone we love deeply and depend upon – emotionally or otherwise – dies, our world falls apart. This is true for virtually everyone. When the functioning society in which we live, even in our grief, is struck down – when our neighbors and large numbers of our extended family, and our homes and stores and roads and resources are also destroyed at the same time – the grief that drags us down can become overwhelming in this context of utter helplessness. Individual and corporate emotional trauma in such cases is often deep-rooted, healed with difficulty if at all, and well-documented.

No persons of “faith”, who have not themselves been a part of a social conflagration – now well-studied in recent memory, from World War II to Rwanda, with many human and “natural” disasters in between -- dare dismiss the depth of woundedness, sometimes unto mental death, that is bound up with going through and surviving these events. Christmas can indeed seem “bitter”, as a priest I know in Haiti wrote us this year, even for believing Christians, who have been through and perhaps are still mired in a place of unrelenting and all-extending loss. We pray, as Christians, that we be sparred such a dangerous challenge to our hearts (cf. the Great Litany in the Prayer Book).

But it is important to note what kind of problem, religiously, is really involved in these experiences. At root, the problem is one of mortality, and to this degree it is inescapable for each of us. The elimination of infant mortality as a significant element of human experience in many parts of the world and the rise in life expectancy, has masked what most people for most of human history have grasped inevitably: that our own lives are fragile and brief, and in every respect. What ought to be astonishing to many privileged persons in, e.g. America, is not that natural and human disasters scar a person’s spirit, but that so many people – of various faiths or no faith at all – not only survive these horrors, but “carry on” with energy and courage that is difficult for us to summon even in the midst of our comforts. This they do because they have “no other choice”, and to some extent, know that life, in its vulnerability, demands whatever limited efforts we are able to offer while we have “time”. Providing “answers” to questions about divine justice and love cannot alter this basic confrontation between mortal human beings and a world in which we will necessarily be stripped of all that upholds us in life and die, sooner or (not much) later.

The “religious” question of human mortality is not so much “how to explain it away” as it is “how to live rightly with its reality”. For Christians – as for Jews – the reality is a given, and underlined at various points in the midst of the Scriptures we read and follow – in Genesis, in the Psalms and Prophets, all of which are given their summary and bald description in something like Ecclesiastes: “like the beasts we perish” (Eccl. 3:16-21). In a sense, then, the religious question is “how do we live in a world in which, in some basic fashion, we are no different than ‘beasts’?”

And the response given by Christians is tied to the fact that, whatever beasts may be in relation to God (and “God saves man and beast” [Ps. 36:6]), as human beings we are nonetheless different from the “beasts” as well, for we are created after God’s own “image” (Gen. 1:27). Furthermore, mortality as we experience it (“death”) is itself tied to the marring of this image, to our own humanity’s sin and fall (Gen. 3). If this aspect of who we are is addressed, then so too will we find the light that can illumine the task of our “right life in the face of death”.

Of course, this is precisely where the center of the Christian Gospel is focused: on the renewal of our godly “image” through our relationship with the reality of the New Adam who is Jesus the Christ (Col 1:15; Rom. 5:12-17; 1 Cor. 15:20-28). In Him, the experience of death as we know it, suffused with anger, sorrow, and sin, is transformed, indeed is “overcome”. This does not mean an end to morality itself. The New Adam faces and enters the very death that is bound to sin and fallenness, and bids us follow Him. But in the following itself, we are “conformed” anew to the image of Him whose resurrection has broken death open, and filled its “reality” with the life of God Himself (Cf. Romans 8:17, 29; Phil. 3:8-11; Mark 8:34-37). This very life, death, and resurrection given in and shared with Jesus Christ “is” the act whereby God’s “love” is established and given over to us (1 John 4:9-10).

All of this, of course, is just now presented in an abstractly theological form. In a real way, it is even glib. It bears little relationship to the agony of true suffering and loss, and the amazing struggle of being joined to Christ Jesus in its midst. There are in fact many who have entered into this realm of being “in Christ” even in these places of death; there are even a few who have done this in such a way as to be visible and transfigured for the sake of others who, alone, seem lost. Such lights as these (Mat.5:3-16) are to be watched and studied by those who still have the leisure to do so; even while we pray that others taken unaware will find them in their midst, by whom to be strengthened.

But we should be clear that this is not, ultimately, an “answer” to anything, except in some kind of retrospect that no one dare assume. This is not an answer, but rather a vocation, a calling in the midst of a world whose mortal frame is part of the givenness of our being. Jesus Himself places the “calling” in a way logically prior to the mortal life which is ours, sin-filled as it is, and tells us that the latter is not something we can somehow resolve or do away with as a result (Mark 13:13b-26). We find our “life” with God – and all this means – within the world as it totters upon its foundations; not in some other realm of history. And – as Jesus, who is the “life” itself has demonstrated – this finding and being found lead us more deeply into this tottering world and history, not away from it (John 1:1-18). Having been found by His love, we love as He has loved us.

The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is an author, theologian, accomplished violinist and rector of Church of the Ascension, Pueblo, Colorado.

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