It is such a difficult thing to have children on the other side of the world at the epicentre of an earthquake, devastation all round them, and you can’t do a single thing to reach them, let alone help them. An eight-month-old baby and no power, no water, no sewage, and no idea how long the food that’s in the house will have to last.
My little family in Christchurch were among the fortunate ones. Their house was not damaged and they were able to take in other family members who were not so fortunate. The power came back on just before they went to sleep on the first night and they were able to source water from a friend.
Christchurch survived the more powerful but less catastrophic earthquake in September last year and all its aftershocks. I think that people had just begun to relax again thinking that they were over the worst. Now this new catastrophe, and more aftershocks. 80 deaths confirmed and too many more still missing. The iconic tower of the Cathedral is in ruins as are many other buildings. The original Methodist Church, in which my son and his wife were married, is gone, only the front door standing.
Being this close to tragedy makes one realise just how anaesthetised we tend to be, unable to give full attention or take in the intensity of the anguish and distress that’s all around us.
I had a call at about six on Monday evening and another on Tuesday evening from a call centre looking for donations towards two different and well-respected charities. Worthy causes, but I am not enthused by either of them. Neither of them grabs my attention. Those suffering from the illnesses that the charities focus on have my sympathy and I am moved by what they suffer, but not moved to action.
HIV/AIDS, poverty and unemployment in South Africa produce untold stories of misery and heartache. The protests and violent suppression in North Africa are creating their own horrors. Then this news comes in from the other side of the world and I’m there, involved; my prayers are focused and intense.
I feel guilty about the intensity of my prayers. A voice asks why I don’t pray just as intensely for people dying in Libya, Bahrain and down the road. But I don’t think that’s God’s word of reprimand.
Prayer is not a shopping list that we throw at God hoping that he will take care of the details while we go about our business. Were that so, we could throw every news headline at God as it comes off the wires. “Here’s another one, Lord. Look after these folks, and these, and these. And intervene over here, and over there, and there.”
That’s not prayer. Intercession is much more than mere words. It’s a commitment. It’s engaging with God for the suffering in us and around us. That engagement is real. Sometimes it’s an angry, intense experience of wrestling with God against injustice or gratuitous suffering; the type of wrestling we find so often in the Psalms. Sometimes it’s a gentle ongoing talking with God, keeping ourselves in touch with the need and open to God’s interventions and his call.
I can throw all the needs of the world at God in a rush of chatter, but then I will not hear God calling me to action; I’ll be too busy worrying about the next crisis to listen. Far better to let God prompt me, either through close family involvement, or through some other connection, into meaningful caring prayer for a particular need. Then I will be able to listen to the prompting of the Spirit, whether God is calling me to more focused prayer or to more direct action. I might, through laziness, indifference or a host of other sins, miss God’s prompting towards a particular need, but I think God would rather I missed something to pray for than have me babble away about everything and anything without meaning and without engagement.
So, forgive me if I seem out of focus for a bit. My attention and my prayers are on a small city on a small island at the bottom of the world, where a terrible tragedy has engulfed a nation and buffeted a little family in its path.