It’s already moving off the front pages of print and online media, not spared of the relentless push for new news to catch the attention of audiences addicted to novelty. But this happened last Friday:
A powerful, 7.5-magnitude earthquake hit the Indonesian island of Sulawesi on Friday, September 28, triggering a tsunami and leaving more than 1,400 dead. Tens of thousands have been displaced, and the death toll is expected to rise.
Conditions in the devastated area are grim, with food and water supplies running low and few buildings sturdy enough to offer safety from aftershocks. Disaster officials say the inability to access the worst-affected areas has hampered recovery efforts.
I struggled to enter into the pain befitting any understanding of such an event and I found it hard. I found help in popular media: I recalled how the Obi Wan character in Star Wars 4 reacted when he sensed the destruction of the planet Alderaan.
“I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.”
And I found help in a powerful poem written by my friend Rev Dr Daniel Koh:
Strong men don’t cry.
I was not crying. It’s dirt that got into my eyes.
It is not hearing about a young mother whose two-year-old child was pulled away from her arms, by the strong waves that slapped her coastal village.
It is not about the man who said he couldn’t hold on to his wife. All he could find the next day was his muddied bike, and his wife’s purse.
It is not about a group of people using their bare hands to dig into thick layers of debris in hope of pulling someone out alive.
It is not the middle-aged woman praying that her brother would somehow appear to tell her he is safe.
It is none of these.
Strong men don’t cry.
It is dirt in my eyes.
(from Rev Dr Koh’s Facebook page)
Confession time: Theology doesn’t do much for me in the face of horrors like what happened in Palu. Ya, we live in a fallen world. Ya, God has a purpose for all He does. Ya, He can bring good out of bad. Ya, He is sovereign and His will is perfect. Yada, yada, yada. I am not particularly encouraged by stories of answered prayers and miraculous rescues. It only begs the question: “Why them Lord, and not the others?”
What helps is the picture of Jesus crying at the graveside of His friend, Lazarus, crying in the face of death (John 11:17–37). And from the following exchange with His disciples, Jesus seems less interested in debating about the theology of evil.
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:1–5 NIV)
He seems to be more concerned that we spend our energy helping those who suffer while we can.
Hence, I am inspired by and support folks like my friend, Dr Tan Hun Hoe, who has been on the forefront of disaster relief for many years. Indeed, many of my CMDF (Christian Medical and Dental Fellowship) friends in the region are responding to this disaster by helping in various concrete ways, as are others.
I am not downplaying the importance of proper theological reflection. All of us function from some truth base. I have no doubt that God is in control and has His reasons. I have no doubt that Jesus will one day return to usher in the perfect new heavens and new earth. I have no doubt that our prayers are somehow incorporated into God’s will. But surely it is not enough just to know. Do we care? How should we care? How do we go beyond “my thoughts and prayers are with you,” whatever that means?