For the last two weeks I have been grieving for the loss of life and suffering here in Victoria, due to the tragic bushfires that struck on February 7th, known as Black Saturday. 209 people have officially died in the fires, although it is thought that the final death count will be well above 300 people.
Many have grieved in this time. Many would ask about God's role in all of this suffering. I know without a doubt that God has been grieving too in this time. God is well acquainted with suffering. God entered this world in a very real and human way. He became a human in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus died a very cruel death, and faced much suffering in the lead up to his death. He suffered for our sake to pay the price for our sin.
God has not been absent in this time of suffering for Victoria. Every time that people have called out a desparate prayer in the last two weeks, he has been near and acting to answer people's prayers. But why did God allow such suffering then? At once this is a complex and simple question. Complex, because suffering is always so hard to understand. It is even hard to understand how Jesus' suffering could be effectual for us, but it is. Simple because there is an explanation, even if it is not pretty. I see the simple explanation as this: Long ago people sinned, and God could not allow sin in his presence; this sin brought decay and death into the world; the planet earth is sick as a result, not all is as it should be. Tragedies and natural disasters occur because the world is sick, it has a disease, suffering is inevitable. This does not mean that God does not care. God does care and has indeed intervened for there to be an end to suffering. That is a complete story in itself, that I have only alluded to here.
But I want to draw the attention to Australia as a nation. There can be no doubting that Australia is a post-Christian country and is far from God. I have a thesis however that Australia (the quintessential working class, descended from the convict spirit Australia) has never really heard the gospel. The church has always been known as a distant authoritarian structure of the upper and eventually some of the middle class. The church has never been something that working class Australia has been able to relate to, nor has the church ever taken the time to relate to working class Australia. So in a sense it is not strange that much of Australia does not have a good relationship with God. In the words of Kenny (recent Australian comedy movie) "if God shows up mate, I will give him my full attention." This could easily be extrapolated that the evangelical church in Australia has taken little time to show up in the culture of working class Australia. There is certainly a large cultural divide there.
It would have been my hope that people would turn to God through the tragedy of the horrifying bush fires that struck two weeks ago. The response of Australian society though has been that "we can and we will rebuild." Don't get me wrong, yes it is good and right to rebuild, but it is not good to have the pride to think we can do this all by ourselves.
I attended the memorial service at the Rod Laver arena yesterday. It was an important opportunity for Australia as a nation to grieve the loss of so many lives. However, there was almost less grieving and pausing than there were affirmations of human strength and our ability to rise above any adversity that strikes us. If we stop for a moment though, we have to remember that some of these fires could not be stopped. We did not have the human strength to stop fires leaping 30 kms in 6 minutes. We were exposed as vulnerable and fragile. We are weak on this planet, and do not have the strength to face every danger.
My heart has been grieving for the last two weeks for the loss of so many lives, and the pain of so many families. God has been grieving too. But yesterday my heart grieved on a deeper level, for a nation without God. God was given only cursory mentions yesterday. No mention was made of the fact that he too has suffered. No mention was made of the fact that he shares our pain in this time. In short, God was not allowed to fully participate and show his love and compassion for us as a nation. God was censored yesterday. But it goes deeper than that.
My wife turned to me during the service and said "what does it take for a nation to turn to God?" What does it take for people to admit that we are weak and that we can not do it without God's help. The over riding religious paradigm yesterday was that we as humans can triumph without God's help. The presence of various religions were there, but they were ALL impotent. None of them actually offered a voice of true hope in God's love. They were found wanting. I found it particularly embarrassing that neither the Catholic or Anglican Archbishops could not actually offer a message of hope. Kevin Rudd himself actually had more positive things to say than them. Of course I expected nothing of the Uniting Church moderator who could not even bother to take the time to mention the name of Jesus (surely their realisation as a humanist liberal religion has come), nor a Buddhist abbess who neither had a message of hope.
I don't actually expect that the nation of Australia would somehow have miraculously fallen on its knees and worshipped God with abandon yesterday. But surely a simple cry of "help!" would have been enough. I actually think that if as a nation yesterday some leaders (any leader, please) had taken the time to simply ask God for help in getting us through this crisis, that something special would have happened. A simple cry of help from the Prime Minister or one of the Archsbishops (even the Buddhist, but that wouldn't be possible as Buddhists are atheists) would have started a transaction with God that would have opened a new day for our nation.
We are found wanting as a nation. Kevin Rudd says that we passed the test, because we have pulled together in unity. But that unity can never be complete until we ask God for help. If we think we can go it alone, then we are found wanting.
The most telling moment for me was an eerie one. In the thick midst of pluralism a young man was called forward to play the Jewish Shofar. A watered down description was given, platitudes about the Jewish new year and a call to prayer were given as an explanation of its purpose. This is inaccurate. The Jewish Shofar is used as a call to Worship. I have played a Jewish Shofar before, and I have gotten a sound from it. It fills the room, with an all encompassing trumpet call that speaks to the deepest depths of our souls. When the young man stood yesterday to blow the Shofar, he tried at least ten times to get a sound from it, but nothing but sputters came. Now I am sure that they would not have asked someone to play it that was unable. At first I thought it was embarrassing that he could not play it. But nobody in the arena (well very few) would have known that he failed to make the Shofar play. I then realised what was happening. The Shofar is a call to worship the LORD. As a nation it would have been a call to worship. It would have been the beginning of the transation of which I spoke. If we had have called on God as a nation for help, then he would have responded by calling on us to worship Him. But we could not call out for help. Sadly, (but I completely understand why) God would not call us to worship either. I fully believe that God did not allow the Shofar to blow. It was eerie. Most people in the arena would have had no idea.
God is not punishing our nation. I don't believe that his time for judgment is now. There will be a time for judgement, but I actually think that God reserves this for the end of our lives. Hebrews 9:27 explains this simply : "Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgement." God is waiting for our nation to call to Him. He loves us and has compassion for us in our suffering, but he will not force himself upon us, he will wait patiently. Again the question remains, "what will it take for us to turn to God as a nation?" Perhaps war, or economic depression?
Last evening we had a time of prayer and worship back at Kangaroo Ground with some of the other students. We took some time to pray for Australia, a nation without God. As my wife prayed, she admitted that she would like to pray for rain, but that she had a sense that God is even more concerned that Australia would turn to him. There is a very telling promise in scripture, that I think is timely for Australia. It comes from 2 Chronicles 7:14 "If my people who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land." This is a promise of good things, not of punishment. But it will first take humility from Australia, not pride as we have been showing recently. God is waiting and will act when we turn to him.
We have now had 12 years of drought in Victoria. Our water reserves in Victoria are below 30%. The fires have furthered damaged our water catchment areas. We are facing a dire time, of potential water shortage. Water is the essence of physical life. Our spiritual lives as a nation, at least in Victoria are progressively void. In a symbiotic kind of way, the sicker we get spiritually as a nation, the sicker the land gets.
How long will we wait before we turn to God? I hope not too long. The land is getting sicker. What will it take for us to turn to God as a nation? I hope that it will not take more suffering for us to wake up. But I fear we are quite deaf, and that worse tragedies are yet to come, be that economic depression or even war (that seems to follow such trends).
Australia I call on you, turn to your God.