How Do You Pray About a Tsunami?
By Ed Brown
It hasn’t been a year since the Gulf oil spill, which we rightly saw as the worst environmental disaster in memory. At that time I wrote a piece trying to come to terms with that situation: “How Do You Pray About an Oil Spill?” And now I sit pondering a disaster that could turn out to be exponentially greater than the BP/Halliburton fiasco.
I am doing so at my dining room table, in a part of the world that is seismically if not politically stable, many miles from the nearest nuclear facility. I am looking out at a landscape where the first birds of spring have arrived and are singing up a storm: Robins, redwing blackbirds, a cedar waxwing and (I think) a pine warbler just this morning. The contrast between my window and the stories on my computer screen could not be more different, and I am forced to ask: How do I pray about what is now happening in Japan?
Let’s start by experiencing the disaster just a little bit. Click here to watch one of the first live reports of the wall of water and debris engulfing the flat land bordering the sea in Miyagi Prefecture north of Tokyo. Take it at least through the first four or five minutes, remembering that every house, every vehicle being swallowed has people in it.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything, even in fiction, like this monster as it races across the landscape, belching smoke and flame, swallowing everything in its path. I feel similarly to how I feel when I stand at the base of Niagara Falls—small and inconsequential. Look—everything human is being obliterated. Our greatest works hardly slow it down. Instead, as human artifacts are swallowed they become part of the monster, swelling its size and increasing its power to destroy.
This is only the middle act of a three-part tragedy. To this we have to add, on the front end, approximately three minutes of the worst earthquake in recorded Japanese history, and on the back end a still unfolding nuclear disaster whose effects could last from decades to centuries.
This is happening in Japan—one of the wealthiest, most technologically advanced countries in the world. Japan is not only the source of many of our cars and electronic gadgets—she is the most prepared-for-disaster country in history. Japan knows earthquakes as Oklahoma knows tornadoes. Building codes are possibly the strictest in the world. Public education, early warning systems, disaster drills: Everything that could be done in anticipation of a disaster was being done. There is no way to blame this tragedy on greed (the Gulf oil spill), poverty (Haiti), or political ineptness (Hurricane Katrina). No—it seems like this is one tragic event that was going to happen and there was nothing anyone anywhere could have done to prevent it or to adequately prepare for it. An article in the New York Times sums up the situation nicely:
No matter how high the levee or how flexible the foundation, disaster experts say, nature bats last.
In such a situation, where the best that human society can offer is less than inadequate, how should we pray?
We need to put God back into the picture. “Nature” is a euphemism; God is the reality. Nature does not control the movement of tectonic plates, the displacement of billions of tons of sea water. But God does. Isaiah 40 might be a useful chapter to run to in these times of trouble and chaos:
He [God] sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
No sooner are they planted,
no sooner are they sown,
no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.
Does putting God at the center of the Japan disaster make you uncomfortable? It should. “Fear God” is a common exhortation in the Bible for good reason: overfamiliarity with the God of earthquakes and tsunamis is not a good idea. This leads directly to our second item.
We need to understand our frailty and adopt an attitude of humility. There’s a line I use often in my talks: “The entire human enterprise depends on two things: Six inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains.” No matter how clever our inventions, no matter how beautiful our artwork, no matter how profound our works of literature or how powerful our weapons or how vast our (imaginary) wealth, we are in the end biological creatures who suffer and die quickly without air, food and water.
Our frailty is evident in every disaster. Water and food become matters of top priority; their lack is often a major reason for breakdowns in security and social norms. But absent a disaster, we human beings act like teenagers who are invincible and will live forever. Could there be a better description of an economic system built on the premise that perpetual growth is possible, desirable and inevitable? Perhaps James’ caution could apply here:
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.
We need to admit the reality of our sin and repent. Think back to the image of the tsunami wave racing across the landscape, engulfing cars and buildings and then carrying them along, adding them to itself and using them to consume and destroy yet more cars and buildings. There is a powerful metaphor here: All of our economic, political and social structures have been built, like the Tower of Babel, on a foundation of arrogance and greed. We have in fact “added house to house until there is no more room and we live alone in the land” (Is 5). We have “destroyed the earth” and unknowingly lived on the blood of millions trapped in poverty. And the system we’ve built for our comfort and prosperity is in the process of destroying us—more slowly than, but just as effectively as, that tsunami wave.
Biblical repentance calls for a change of attitude as well as change of direction. “Go and sin no more,” says Jesus to an admitted sinner. Can an entire global society learn to “sin no more”? I’m not sure we can, but I suspect this is the great challenge of our time.
And this brings us to our one hope in all of this: We can appeal to the mercy and grace of a God who is not only wrathful but also loving. While we confess and pray, we can also hang on tight to the words of Jeremiah at one of the darkest periods of Israel’s history, words that are the source of one of our greatest hymns of prayer and praise:
I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.” (Lamentations 3:19-24)
Ed Brown is executive director and CEO of Care of Creation, Inc., and author of Our Father’s World: Mobilizing the Church to Care for Creation. This post is adapted from an earlier post at ourfathersworld.org.