Tsunami: 26 December 2004
The children were licking ice creams. Others, watched by happy parents, played on the edge of the waves – daring them to catch them. Older folk strolled along, commenting on how nice it was to have a bit of winter sun. The sea was blue and calm – and the tide turned….
But this was Lyme Regis on the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
It was meant to be a post-Christmas retreat. After a period of busyness, a time of self-indulgence with God. A trawl on the Internet on the Monday before Christmas had come up with a delightful thatched cottage – within our price range and in easy reach of Lyme Regis.
Then the tsunami hit.
In the fullness of a family Christmas Sunday, the emerging news made little impression but, during the Monday morning, the closing session of finalising a project before leaving was interspersed by reports from my husband and daughter speaking of the increasing toll of devastation: 11,000 dead – 15,000 – more than 20,000 (and now approaching 150,000).
Even then the enormity failed to penetrate – a family Christmas Sunday – a project to close before leaving on Boxing Day – packing and preparation - all meant that I had seen little television footage and had caught few radio bulletins.
Then, unusually, we “broke” our retreat by watching a programme devoted to the tragedy – followed by the News – and realised that, somewhere in it all, we were being called out of our daily work not just to enter a retreat but to hold in prayer a situation wholly beyond our comprehension – and utterly beyond the limits of all the compassion we sought to bring to it. The figures – the stories of miraculous survival and harrowing loss left us feeling that the irritation at the time the cottage took to warm up was indeed self-indulgence – so was it with God?
On the feast of the Holy Innocents we read the Readings of the Day – stocked up at the local Tesco (supermarket) and then went into Lyme Regis, a town set on a World Heritage coastline – a coastline different in its beauty from those of Thailand and the Maldives, but beautiful – and suddenly disturbing…
For here were children writing their names in the sand – running and playing with balls and, wrapped up as they were in snow-suits and hats and gloves, asking (astonishingly) for ice-creams! Others warmed their hands on cones of chips (French fries). Fishermen offered fishing and pleasure trips. The Royal National Lifeboat Institute shop was open and the (one) lifeboat was on show with a box inviting donations.
Standing on the Cob, made famous by Jane Austen and Meryl Streep in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, there was a shared feeling between us – echoes of images seen the night before - and a hint of “what if….?” There, too, children had been playing – parents watching – fishermen working – hotel and bar-staff looking after guests – beach-cafés serving tourists … And in moments, all became devastation…
“It couldn’t happen here…”
But, stood on the Cob, we were terribly aware that it had happened here – it had happened to people who share our planet. The sea flowing in and around Lyme Bay is somehow linked to that tsunami. The ripples that hit our shores may be imperceptible – but the oceans link us with people all around the world. We are a global community.
We bought a newspaper – again unusual – and saw a map showing the areas overwhelmed by the tsunami. This was (to be) used in our Evening Prayer on Sunday (2 Jan) devoted to those who died – who were injured – bereaved – whose businesses were destroyed – for those who could, if the will were there, help people through this crucifixion to the hope of resurrection.
In the same paper, a columnist said (in an article not written specifically about the disaster) that perhaps religion was in resurgence because the alternative, atheism, was “too cold and tough” … and people preferred to “enter into the comforting illusion that there is some source of meaning”. (Johann Hari, Independent 23-12-04)
It seemed that many of those most traumatised would, indeed. find atheism - the absence of God – too cold and tough to bear – a concept having nothing to offer them. The Muslim, desperate to find dry ground in which to bury his beloved wife and children. The Hindu, devastated that his children will be buried in a common grave – “a pit” – because there is no wood with which to accord them a proper funeral pyre. People did not find religion a "comforting illusion" but turned to faith – to the traditions that have given their lives meaning, often in the most abject poverty and hardship. They turned to faith which – while in no way explaining away – gives support and structure to their grief – a way forward when all seems lost.
“A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loudly lamenting: it was Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because they were no more.” (Gospel of the Day).
So where was God? An easy question to ask and one which people without faith delight in asking – for the answer is not a sound-bite but a Gospel – a history – a lifetime. But, at times like this, it is good to believe in God – to “have religion”. Remembering on that day the “Holy Innocents”, we brought into our prayer the holy – and unholy – innocents caught up in a natural disaster beyond anything witnessed in recent human history.
We believe that God is with them – and grieving with their loved ones. God is with those who saw it coming – and were helpless – for lack of money meant that there was no way that people could be warned. God is with those courageous enough to go among the decomposing bodies to try to reunite the lost with the still-loving - to collect DNA so that sometime - somewhere - someone will know where there loved one died and is buried. God is with those struggling to believe that there is a future beyond cholera, dysentery and the threats overhanging the rescue and reconstruction: God seeks to be with those who have the power to make a difference.
During Christmas-time, we celebrate the birth of Emmanuel, God-with-us. Our God was as vulnerable as the little ones swept from their parents’ arms – as powerless as those overcome by overwhelming odds and sent, innocent, to their deaths,
We believe in God-with-us – God in it with us.
As the global community – especially those with the power and wealth to make a difference – makes up its mind how to respond maybe religion - with its belief in love stronger than death and hope beyond despair has a part to play.
Instead of “where is God?” the question could become “where are we?” When confronted with the truth of “God in it with us”, God seeking to work through humanity to love and to heal those so dreadfully damaged by this disaster, the world could be challenged, “Where are we in it with God.”