Triumph Over Adversity
One of the interesting comments made by reporters covering the aftermath of the terrible typhoon which struck the Philippines was that the people they came across were remarkably cheerful. They could smile and laugh amid the rubble of their homes and lives. Another interesting comment was that the Christian Faith of the people was helping them in their grief and struggle. The relief operation is being much hampered by non-existent communications to islands and outlying communities. Once again America is to the fore is the relief effort. Russia is nowhere to be seen and China is invisible. The wealthy Islamic countries are doing little. In this country people have been quick to respond giving significant donations and setting up fund-raising events.
This was the most severe and most destructive typhoon ever recorded by the human community with winds of 170 mph. Can we imagine how that would affect us if it happened here. Electricity power lines down, buildings demolished, bridges broken, heavy flooding in lower lying areas, thousands of trees uprooted and lying across roofs, houses, gardens and roads. Hospitals severely reduced in capability, businesses damaged and closed, shops looted and schools closed. Above all, members of families lost and unaccounted for. Grievous injuries unattended and festering. Neither is there yet enough food, water or sanitation for the survivors. We have never and hopefully never will have to face what the people of Tacloban are facing.
Is there any point in asking ‘Where is God in all this?’. Does it make you lose the very fragments of your own faith when you see such suffering? Can you answer the question, ’Why does God allow it to happen?’. Is the severity of the storm and indication of such future events? Is this the real meaning of climate change and global warming? We know enough of how our planet survives and moves in its field of gravity in its place in the solar system to know that we are always vulnerable to meteorological forces greater than our strength as humans. The slightest movements of the earth on its axis or the exploding of the sun can result in huge changes to our weather patterns. What is the point of believing in God if God cannot help us avoid such destruction? The order and beauty of creation is one good reason for believing in God. But does this disorder mean the opposite? The Churches of Tacloban survived because they were built bigger and stronger than the houses. They became shelters, homes and hospitals. They became places where people helped one another and shared instead of looting. They remained places of worship where people gave thanks for survival and found comfort in their losses. Is that enough?
In the great pop song 'Stand by me' the words of the second verse go like this:
If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
All the mountains should crumble to the sea
I won't cry, I won't cry
No, I won't shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me.
In the Bible there are many such expressions of faith itself. Job 13:15 reads, 'keep silent and let me speak: then let come to me what may. Why do I put myself in jeopardy and take my life in my hands? Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him, I will surely defend my ways to his face. Indeed this will turn out for my deliverance for no godless man would dare come before him'.
Psalm 46 reads 'God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging'.
Isaiah 41 :17f reads 'The poor and needy search for water but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the Lord will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs. I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. I will set junipers in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together, so that people may see and know, may consider and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this, that the Holy One of Israel has created it'.
Isaiah 54 : 9f reads 'To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed', says the Lord, who has compassion on you. Afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will rebuild you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with lapis lazuli. I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones. All your children will be taught by the Lord, and great will be their peace. In righteousness you will be established:
Faith occurs in the midst of the troubles of this world which are an inevitable part of life and creation itself. Peace and untrammelled joy are promised in Jesus Christ but not necessarily or completely in this life. We are only a few generations away from the times when life for most people was a desperate struggle against disease and poverty – described by many people of great Christian Faith as – The Vale of Tears.
Ours is the first generation to expect to be entertained throughout our all our days and years by television, cinema and sport. The loss of direction in our society, the loss of good values, the loss of decent behaviour are attributable to the false idea and example set by advertising and entertainment that life is not about the higher aspirations of the human spirit at all but can be gratified at a much lower level. In the Psalm read for us earlier we hear the beautiful words of personal faith. 'Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you. On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. I cling to you; your right hand upholds me'.
The key to triumph over adversity is found in Jesus’ words from John 15. 'Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me'. If adversity, misfortune, grief or loss take us away from God, then we will fail. It is the testimony of many Christians that they found escape and unexpected overcoming of life’s trials, disappointments and difficulties. True Christians cannot imagine life without their faith in God. Jesus’ own triumph over adversity is our model. He has been there. He has seen it all. He has done it all. What is the alternative? The barrenness of your own hardness of heart? Your child-like rebellion against your Maker? Going in the huff with God? Worse perhaps for many, becoming indifferent, lacking enthusiasm, commitment and involvement. There are a lot of empty shells in pews throughout the country. Are you one of them?
In Jesus Christ are unsearchable riches of the spirit and soul, of the heart and mind and emotions. From the mud we can touch the heavens. That is the amazing thing about our human life – as revealed a little lower than the angels. St Paul was no stranger to adversity. And yet he reaches a pinnacle of praise and thanksgiving as a prisoner for his Christian Faith. 'Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you'.
The Christian Faith of those in the Philippines shines bright in their adversity. Their conduct is distinct from the looters and murderers. Placing the disaster in the context of eternal life allows them to avoid complete loss of hope. No matter what happens to us, we do not cease to be worshipping creatures. Let us not blame God for the typhoon. About 2,500 are known to have lost their lives so far. We humans have done worse, much worse to each other. We have just remembered the fallen of our wars. But remember too the 6,000,000 Jews who died in appalling circumstances. Yet most Jews who survived and Jews elsewhere in the world did not give up believing. Some did and we have enough humanity to understand why they might have done so. The 1st World War wrecked the inherited Christian Faith of many British men. Their innocence was lost. Their souls were traumatised.
No-one believes that the people of the Philippines are any worse than all other human beings. No-one would see typhoon Haiyan as God’s wrath being visited on them. Neither do we see any good purpose in the loss of life. We can turn away from God or turn towards God. We read in the New Testament that our Lord Jesus could speak to raging winds and tides and rebuke them and still them. I have always thought that our conduct is connected with our environment not just in terms of greenhouse gases but in the way we live as human beings. We do have Someone to talk to, repair to, confess to – One who overcame adversity and who lives to enable us to do the same.