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 (see pic below and tell me if I’m right, birders!) 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 the same question I asked last summer: How do I pray about what is now happening in Japan?
Let’s start by experiencing the disaster just a little bit. The clip below is 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. I don’t expect you to watch all 18 minutes, but take it at least through the first four or five, remembering that every house, every vehicle being swallowed has people in it.
My first reaction to this is that Hollywood’s disaster flicks don’t come close to duplicating the real thing. 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. My second response is similar to how I feel when I stand at the base of Niagara Falls – very 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. There is powerful metaphor here – read on.
This 20 minute disaster by itself is enough for a lifetime. But 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.
Now would you like the really bad news? This is happening in Japan.
This is 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 on disaster preparedness sums up the situation nicely: No matter how high the levee or how flexible the foundation, disaster experts say, nature bats last.
[Note for international readers: That last phrase comes from the American sport of baseball, in which teams have to take turns at bat, the only time a team can score runs. The home team always bats last and therefore always has the last opportunity to win the game. In the great game of life on earth, we human beings are the visiting team, and nature will always have the last say.]
So let’s get back to the original question: In this situation, where the best that human society can offer is less than inadequate, how should we pray?
First, 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:
21 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
22 He 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.
23 He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
24 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 a bit uncomfortable? It should. “Fear God” is a common exhortation in the Bible for good reason – over familiarity 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 that applies here:
“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, and lack of these 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:
13 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.” 14 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. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.
And 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 but just as effectively as that tsunami wave whose destructive force was magnified by the cars and houses it had swallowed. (See previous posts that relate here and here and here and here.)
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:
13 “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. [II Chronicles 7:13-14]
And 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 that are the source of one of our greatest hymns of prayer and praise:
9 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.” [Lamentations 3:19-24]
And so I turn from visions of disaster and tragedy to think again of the warbler I saw this weekend, who has survived a long, hard winter and a flight of thousands of miles, and who spends his morning singing praises to his creator, and mine:
Is it a warbler? Let me know…