Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Earthquake in China: God Taking Over the Ruin

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

At various times across the year, I’ll hear a Gospel and will also hear laughter in the background. This is one. The kind of humor it strikes is dark, or perhaps sympathetic—the chuckle under the breath that says, “Yes, isn’t that the truth?”

And if humor is struck, it’s rather like striking a match: it happens as one hard subject strikes against another. With wonder we see the sparks fly and what we laugh at may be ourselves, the weighty part of our own soul’s baggage that we have to drop in order to catch truth and light and love as they erupt. Here it’s anxiety bumping up against faith and its imperative: “But strive first for the rule of God and God’s right values on earth…” When beleaguered anxiety collides with faith like that, when the soul is summoned out of despond and into mission, we can laugh at the proverb about today’s trouble being enough for today because we are reminded that today’s grace will also be enough for today’s responsibilities.

But there’s nothing to laugh about in this week’s news from so many places: China, Myanmar, and the Tornado Alleys across the midsection of our own country. For these children of God, a day’s trouble is too much for one day, even for one lifetime.

There is something called disaster fatigue, a form of denial that distances its victim from taking in the enormity of someone else’s disaster, because it comes right on the heels of someone else’s tragedy, and it has been enough of a downer to hear about that one. Depending on what kind of day we’re having, it probably happens to all of us, this refusal to read anything more on the subject… today. Perhaps we even excuse ourselves with that verse of our psalm, “I do not occupy myself with great matters, or with things that are too hard for me.”

I do believe that disaster fatigue does enough collateral damage that we should consider ourselves its victims, because it’s our own humanity that may get lost in the shuffle as we skip those pages in The Eagle, The Times, or The Globe. If I’m not reading about China, eight or nine days into their national disaster, or about Myanmar as the fist of that nation’s junta finally opens, then I may miss the inspirations that come as the truest victims of cyclone and earthquake, and their helpers, reveal the beauty and power of their humanity.

The only people I know in China are Ling Ling Qi and her husband, Yiqiang Qi. She teaches opera; he is an art historian who spent a year here as a visiting fellow at The Clark. You can tell that they don’t live in a rural village. During their time here, Ling Ling worshiped with us. We’ve kept in touch ever since. Replying to my email after the earthquake, she assured me she is all right, her husband is traveling, and their daughter Shu Shu is still studying in Europe. Ling Ling wrote, in her own words, "But thank God, it is the first time for me to see that the determination of the whole country being holding together to conquer the difficulties, and Love that God created for the people show its power. I am sure He will take over the ruin for us and people will knowing God one day."

"God taking over the ruin…"-- what a phrase! The God Ling Ling knows and loves is Isaiah’s God who has inscribed her and all other children of God on the palms of his hands. When they suffer, the compassion of God will meet them because their suffering is felt by God, instantly and intensely, as a woman shows compassion for the child of her womb.

Think of all the hands of rescuers picking at rubble, sometimes finding and freeing people trapped beneath debris, think of those as the hands of God bearing the imprint of her children, and the voices of those rescuers giving voice to God as they say “to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’” Ling Ling’s God takes over the ruin much as Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, the mound of Jesus’s crucifixion, was taken over by redeeming love after the powers of this world had done their worst to the peasant prophet from Nazareth. It is what redeeming love did there that causes Ling Ling to say, “I am sure He will take over the ruin for us and people will knowing God one day.”

More than 50,000 people dead, over 60,000 hospitalized, countless more wounded, millions traumatized by three minutes of absolute terror and more than three hundred aftershocks. Hundreds of dams cracked, rivers diverted by the collapse of cliffs and hillsides. Four million homes destroyed, two hundred thousand public buildings in rubble, seven thousand of them schools, too many in session, some with as many as nine hundred or a thousand students inside.

Does God cause such ruin? That seems an uncivilized question to ask, doesn’t it? This question rattled Europe in 1755, when the greatest earthquake ever to hit Western Europe destroyed much of the city of Lisbon, killing 100,000. This was a watershed moment for western civilization, not unlike the Holocaust in the twentieth century, the acid test for all kinds of thinking. Enlightened thinking had been steering philosophy and theology in that century, but when this happened the tombs opened and countless voices explained the earthquake as God’s will.

Those same graves creak open today, as certain evangelical preachers have their way explaining disasters, both the natural kind and the manmade varieties, as being caused by the will of God. You know that “evangel” means “good news”, and we all know it’s hard to find much of that in tragic times, but I find no good news in blaming God for the fact that beneath the crust of the earth India and China are in constant collision, or that cyclones and hurricanes, barreling into deltas laid bare by decades of deforestation, should engulf and drown the poor who live where they live because they are poor and because their governments do not care.

Those who explain the unexplainable as God’s responsibility would do well to meditate on our reading from St. Paul today: “Do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.”

This does not excuse us from determining the purposes of our hearts. Here we are, kvetching about the price of gasoline and a 6% rise in the cost of hot dogs. That deserves to collide with the imperative of our mission, clearly put today by our Lord and Savior, the peasant teacher from Nazareth: “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

That is a much harder question to answer today in China and Myanmar. Whatever our own state of sticker shock, we are clothed and fed. They are not.

For two weeks, Raile’s Bowl has received gifts for emergency relief in Burma. Nearly $500 was gathered and routed to a Burmese healthcare organization which has its own people on the ground there.

Now we turn Raile’s Bowl towards China. Episcopal Relief and Development is using the Amity Foundation as its hands and feet in China. The Amity Foundation, an independent Chinese organization, was created in 1985 on the initiative of Chinese Christians to promote education, social services, health care, and rural development from China’s coastal provinces in the east to the minority areas of the west.

In an email written last Sunday, as China began a three-day period of national mourning, Amity’s staff announced their decision to focus relief work in certain rural areas of Sichuan Province. From their assessment, emergency relief was flowing to mainly urban areas. Outlying rural areas have not received much attention. With funding from Episcopal Relief and Development, and from ecumenical Church World Service, Amity is distributing rice, plastic sheeting, and quilts.

And volunteers. One, Ms. Liu Xiaofang, has traveled by train to Chengdu as Amity’s first counseling volunteer. Ms.Liu lost her son to blood cancer ten years ago when he was five. She reports that, having been helped abundantly and blessed by warm-hearted people, she has been waiting for an opportunity to pay back that debt. Now is her time.

Let’s make sure she does not go empty-handed.