Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Pastoral Responses to the Tsunami

The beginning of every month is particularly busy around the Mission, because Leah and I are busy scrambling to pay our pastors. I have also begun the practice of writing a monthly “Pastoral Letter” to each one of the pastors, in order to keep them all informed about what’s happening at the Mission Office. Because we are separated by great distances and infrequent phone connections, I am working hard to keep us all connected.

In the February issue of the Letter, I wrote a short column about pastoral responses to the tsunami. I want to share that column with you here now:

The international news recently has been dominated by the horrible tsunamis that hit the coasts of Asia and Africa. The death toll stands at over 200,000 with a multitude of diseases threatening to make this count higher in the coming weeks.

The tsunami catastrophe raises a particular challenge for the Christian pastor. When such earth-shattering events occur, people in our congregations always ask, “Why did that happen? How could God allow such a terrible thing to happen? Where was God?”

Often they will approach their pastor for answers to these difficult questions. What will you say to them? How will you respond to this questioning? In theology, these questions revolve around the problem of theodicy. Theodicy deals with God’s relationship to suffering, and asks why evil and suffering exists in God’s world. Each and every one of you must think through carefully your own approach to theodicy, because you will be asked and questioned carefully by your congregation.

For example, some people will be tempted to say that God causes disasters to happen. After all, God is sovereign over the earth and, as Creator and Sustainer of the world, is free to do whatever He likes. Though there is a measure of truth to this, it does not logically follow that God therefore causes disasters and tragedies to occur. Some of these things simply happen because of the laws and forces of nature, the very laws and forces which God set into motion to sustain the earth. Jesus said, “God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Some people will blame the victims for the disasters. They may say that they were not Christians, or maybe not good enough Christians, or had fallen into sin. But we know this not to be true from practical experience – we have all known good Christians who have fallen sick, been victims of crime and war, suffered and died. This does not mean they were short on faith; far be it, in fact, their faith may have been the cause of their suffering. Many Christians have been martyred over the last two millennium for their faith. Furthermore, the disciples once asked Jesus, “Why is that man born blind? Is it because he or his parents had sinned?” Jesus answered sharply, “Not at all. This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Jesus’ answer proves that we can never know God’s true purposes and reasons.

And there will always be some people who give up their faith in God when tragedy strikes. They take the existence of the disaster itself as proof that God does not exist, or at least does not have any interest in human well-being. This was the problem that Job faced. He couldn’t understand why he, a very good man, suffered so terribly. But he refused to give in to despair, and continued to cling in hope to God.

Ultimately, there is no perfect answer to the deep theological problem of theodicy. On this side of heaven, we cannot know the mind and purposes of God. However, we have been given something very important that we, as pastors, can pass on to our congregations. Jesus Christ has given us a promise. That promise is his very presence.

Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he promised his disciples that he would be with them always, even to the end of the world. This is a promise that all of us can cling to, even if we are going through storms, tragedies, deaths, and calamities.

Remember the three men who were thrown into the fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel? When the king looked into the flames, he saw four figures, one of which looked like a divine presence! God did not pluck Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego out of the fire; instead, He protected them while they were in the fire!

God’s promise is not to take us out of our circumstances, or remove evil things from around us. His promise is simply to accompany us through difficult times. He doesn’t pluck us out of harm’s way; he walks through the valley of the shadow of death with us. He doesn’t take us out of problems; he holds us by hand and walks through them with us.

As pastors, our job is to remind our people that God is present, even when the circumstances grow dark. And even more so, we become representatives of God’s presence, by being present with others in their tragedies. Paul called the church, “the body of Christ,” meaning that when we act and move, we literally represent Christ on the earth. So when you are called upon to perform a funeral, or comfort the sick, or visit the prisoner, you are doing the work of God on the earth. You are a symbol of God’s presence!

That’s a high calling, my brothers and sisters!