For Holy Innocents, On the Tsunami 2004

On the Tsunami – 3 Days After

They rise and fall on the ocean waves: the children in the sea, the ones who ran to the great harvest of fish on the open coast, along the receding waters edge, before the flood. That is the image that stays with me this morning, after the news, radio and television, text and pictures, after coffee, email, breakfast and mass, after the news that one American friend who was there is found and, with his family, survived. After the numbness and the tears and the prayers: this abides.

It is an event of biblical proportions; earthquake and flood: people torn from one another, the coming plagues, the sea giving up its dead; all images found in those black-bound books that have accompanied Christendom around the world and – even if we are vehemently post-Christian – resound in our common memories, our hearts and minds.

How can there be a just or kind God in this world, either in its creation or in its workaday operations? Maybe the clock has run down, maybe the demons have come forth, maybe we are on that “darkling plain… where ignorant armies clash by night.” But this obscenity seems to put the myth of any caring God to flight.

I have seen the pictures of the dead, waving in the ocean, waiting to come to land. I wait for the news of people in this parish who were in Thailand, my pharmacist who was looking forward to a vacation on the beach there. I hear the stories of the dead prince, the grandchild of the television commentator, the football player on honeymoon. And this is only the surface: for thousands of dead wait in rubble, under mud, amidst the limbs of broken trees. The world of hope has turned upside down: so many lives rising and falling.

Where can faith come from today, in this world that watches, bound together once more by tragedy as the tube witnesses in our living rooms? Where can hope be found? Where can I stand while the world drowns in such awareness? What can I say? How can I pray?

I am some sort of Christian, ‘though most days I despair of the church, wonder about the traditions, doubt the phrasing of the dogmas and doctrines, and am disgusted by the more moralistic of my people. There is a story that Frank Lloyd Wright was taken to see the Civic Center of San Francisco years ago. He turned with disgust from the large classically French-inspired domed building on a large rectangular plaza: “Only a city as beautiful as this,” he said, “could survive what you are doing to it.” In my experience he could have been speaking of the church. But something survives.

Jesus doesn’t survive, not even in the biblical account. Killed by mediocrity, geo-political, hegemonies like those that surround us now. Factions came together to agree that his expedient death would be in order. And it was easily accomplished. There may be more to the stories, and I believe there is, but there’s a dead man in the center of it.

He may live beyond death, but we can all agree that he died. And if he did live in some new largesse of existence we can’t yet envision, then that’s not much help now. In a world where dead children surf towards broken land, where mass graves are being prepared, where this tectonic uprising that certainly intended no death or destruction brings mourning and grief beyond belief for people beyond number.

St. Paul, who wrote many stupid things, and was probably as psychologically damaged as most of the people I see every day, said, “mourn with those who mourn,” and I think that is a safe bet today. It would be a terrible thing to meet anyone with some pre-packaged re-assured hope at this time, but we can remember ourselves, remember our connection with the dead and dying, and those whose lives are torn and broken. We need instead to witness this act with them: we need to stand together.

It would be wonderful if all peoples and nations would put away the implements of war for some few days right now, could meet at the edge of the waters and watch the children rise and fall, as they come home to land; if religious leaders of all and any sect and tribe could stand together with tears and mourning for mothers and fathers, families over all the earth who are one in mourning. It probably wouldn’t matter much in a week or so, the inevitable pull of powers and principalities would resumes, nation make war against nation, and children die in dust and fire as well as water and the limb of broken trees. But, if just for a day, we could mourn together and remember.

Earlier this year I attended a memorial services for a visiting American student who had a virus-caused infarction that killed him instantly while he was working out at the University gym near where I live. As an American who served as a chaplain at several US campuses, I was invited to the service. Afterwards I talked to some students and staff who knew him. And the only thing I could think of was a beer commercial where someone took a swig of fresh brew and smiling, said, “This one’s for you.”

I told several people, young and beautiful students who have lost a friend they had just come to know, that they should say this to him when they saw a sunrise, drank a beer, made love, cried, lived life. That was my theological perspective and my ministry that morning; with tears and prayers, it was the best I could give them. That and some dumb conviction (that stays with me against all the noisy voices that tell me it isn’t so) that the dead do rise, and nothing and no one will be lost at the last.

I told them that when I was eight years old someone told me about the primary sexual act, how babies are born. I responded that I didn’t believe it, my parents would never do that, and I would never do that! I did change my mind, came to believe, but time had to take place and my body had to turn and change before I knew that this wild story might be true.

So it may be with the resurrection of the dead. Old St. Paul may be right on this one as well. We might need to get to a further maturity, some deeper ripening on the road ahead rising up within us before we can ken this truth; but it may be there, whether we know it or not. Most days I do believe that love will prevail, ‘though I am not sure how, and I try to base my life on this hunch, faith, whatever. This may not be true for you and I am not out to convert anyone to anything. I just want to stand alongside, by the edge of the sea, with you, and hope that all the children find their way home.

Robert Whalley is a native Californian who attended the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley,, did campus ministry in the San Francisco Bay Area and Melbourne, Australia, and retired as an Anglican Priest in a country diocese in Wangaratta, Australia.