There is deep inside each one of us a subconscious awareness that life is precarious. It is implicit when we kiss the children goodbye on their way to school with the words ‘Take care’ or to an adult friend, “Hope you keep well.” The fact is, disease can strike, accidents do happen, and unforeseen events interrupt our carefully planned and manicured lives. Naturally, we do everything we can to reduce the possibility. And in our relatively affluent, peaceful community, we can convince ourselves that we really are in control of our lives, cocooned from the world outside. Bad things happen to other people, and we’re confident they won’t happen to us.
When we live calamity-free for long periods of time, when the big issues have to do with the length of the grass at the golf course or whether the trains are running on time, or the availability of our favourite products at the local supermarket, not only do we feel a kind of invincibility, but we slowly begin to take life itself for granted. We stop thanking God for the daily blessedness of it – for sunrises and sunsets, for spring rains and autumn mists, and for our very own lives. We so easily grow complacent with our partners, our children, our parents, our friends. We get accustomed to the privilege of living.
Then a day like Tuesday September 11th 2001 or a Thursday like Thursday 7th July 2005, or a Tsunami floods whole countries or a Hurricane devastates an entire city, and our world is turned upside down. With biological contagions like Ebola seemingly out of control and terror extremists like ISIS radicalising our world, we realise no one is immune from danger, fear and even death.
Sometimes we have to experience brokenness and pain to understand how precious life is. When we discover that good friends from college days are divorcing and we remember with pain their joyful wedding day, we are reminded to thank God for a faithful spouse. When we learn that a parent is dying, we find ourselves overwhelmed by memories of all they have done to help us become what we are. We are grateful if we have the opportunity to express our appreciation, and guilt-ridden if we do not. There is also the pain we experience ourselves – perhaps from being made redundant, betrayed by a friend, diagnosed with a chronic illness. When we come face to face with devastation, even if only through our TV screens, we start to see life through stark new lenses.
Seldom are we able to turn the corner on a tragedy as quickly as we would like. How long, for example, does it take to finish grieving for a loved one, to start again when trust has been betrayed, to rebuild a shattered life? Certainly longer than those unaffected might think. No, once we’ve endured a personal tragedy, at some profound level, we think and feel differently forever. For example, I became the oldest man in my family at the age of 28 when my father died suddenly of a heart attack in his early 50’s. Now seven years older than my father, I am acutely aware of both the frailty and gift of life, and the importance of maintaining good relationships with those I love, on a daily basis.
In his little booklet, ‘Finding God in the Storms of Life’ Bill Hybels says, “Life on earth is relatively brief when set against the backdrop of eternity. But despite its brevity, life is a scandalously gracious gift from the hand of a good God – a gift that should be sincerely celebrated each day by those of us whose hourglasses still contain some sand. Yes, we should enter into the sorrows of people who suffer, praying that God will console and comfort those who have endured a tragic loss, but then we need to move from there to once again celebrate life.”
Having experienced deep suffering, we have to learn to adapt to a new reality: life after tragedy. But that comes later. In the moment of tragedy we are hit with a barrage of pain and urgent questions, not so much in need of answers, as for someone to empathise and be with us.
With Remembrance Sunday in mind, how can we recover from life’s disasters? Rick Warren suggests five steps:
- Release my grief. Don’t deny it or ignore it. Tell God exactly how you feel. “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4) “Pour out your heart to God, for he is our refuge.” (Psalm 62:8)
- Receive help from others. Don’t isolate yourself. Find support in a church family. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
- Refuse to be bitter. You have a choice: become bitter or better. “Some people have no happiness at all; they live and die with bitter hearts.” (Job 21:25); “Watch out that no bitterness takes root in you… it causes deep trouble, hurting many.” (Hebrews 12:15)
- Remember what is important. Relationships, not possessions, are what matter. “Jesus said…’Life is not measured by how much one owns.” (Luke 12:15); “We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” (1 Timothy 6:7)
- Rely on Jesus Christ. This is the secret of strength in tough times. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29).
One verse I have been meditating on this week sums it all up for me “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation… I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13)