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Boxing Day 2004 was shattered by the developing news of the tsunami disaster in the Indian ocean and as more and more details of the horrific results of this tragedy emerged we have had to try to come to terms with one of the greatest natural disasters of the last 50 years.

Of course ‘disasters’ happen all the time and often they are close and personal or in our extended families. And then there are the larger events such as train crashes which affect dozens of lives. But this ‘tsunami’ event we have witnessed has affected millions of lives across many countries not just because of the widespread effect of the giant waves crossing the ocean but also because of the large number of people on holiday in those parts. It is, perhaps, this all encompassing effect that has made this tragedy so prominent in our news programmes and newspapers and such a challenge to our thinking about God and the way God works in the world.

To those who profess no belief in God, such a violent and destructive event tends to reinforce those views. To those who do believe in God, it raises questions about why God allows such things and why he does not intervene – and these questions inevitably bring doubt and disbelief. After all we might not be surprised if bad things happened to bad people but when bad things happen to good people or innocent people we are at a loss to explain it.

But how might we begin to try and make sense of all of this?

I think we need to start with asking ourselves who we really are. Are we just a wonderful human body driven by a vastly complex brain and so able to operate in the natural world around us? Or are we really deep inner spiritual beings with the potential to grow as we come to terms with the events that affect our lives?

I certainly feel that we are indeed spiritual beings and that the greatest gift God gives us is the freedom to choose on the one hand to be selflessly loving in our relationships with others or on the other hand to be selfishly loving towards ourselves. As we take what this freedom offers and choose the selfless pathway, then we grow spiritually, and this growth can continue past the death of our physical bodies and on to eternity.

But what if God did intervene in a disaster? What scale of disaster would merit this divine intervention? Would it only be something on the scale of the ‘tsunami’ event or would smaller scale disasters also receive God’s attention? Would family tragedies also be avoided by God’s intervention? Commonsense suggests that if God intervened at all there would be no limit to that intervention and ultimately nothing in the world would go wrong, whether caused by nature or caused by men and women. Our world would become a world in which we existed like robots, with no problems or difficulties to face and where choices to act selflessly or selfishly would be meaningless.

So we have an apparent paradox that whilst we can think of God as all powerful, nevertheless God cannot act against his love that we should live in freedom. God doesn’t want disasters or accidents or terminal illness but these are allowed because only in that way can true spiritual freedom be maintained.

Now this is an easy thing to say if you are not watching a loved one being swept away by a tidal wave or if you are not caring for someone dying as a result of some terrible accident. In these situations no words can really give comfort, however true they maybe, it is only love that can make a difference.

But don’t we often say that God is Love?. We might ask the question – “where is God at work in the ‘tsunami’ disaster?” and if we cannot find an answer it is probably because our understanding of God is limited in some way (perhaps by thinking that God should act as we act in a “quick fix” kind of way). But if this is so then we should ask instead – “where is Love in this disaster?” And surely an answer to this question comes immediately! We have seen love at work in the desperate attempts by people to save those overwhelmed by the gigantic waves, even if in that attempt they lost their own lives. We have seen love at work in the rescue workers searching hour after hour, day after day, to find those whose lives could be saved. We have seen love at work in the outpouring of concern and giving around the world. And in all this love, is God.

Bad things happen. We know that from our own personal experience and we also know it from observing the world around us. But however bad the situation it is love that can lift us up and lead us forward again. And the source of all the true love we can experience and share with others is God.

“Saying that God allows something to happen does not mean that he wants it to happen but that he cannot prevent it because of his goal, which is our salvation.”

Emanuel Swedenborg in Divine Providence 234

For a further article on disasters covering Hurricane Katrina follow this link:

What lies beneath?

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Tragedy – What if it happened to me?

Tragedy always seems to happen somewhere in the world; like an earthquake destroying buildings, someone running amok with a dangerous firearm, or civil populations of non-combatants affected by weapons of war.

Watching the television news you wonder ‘What if it ever happened to me?’ It is so easy for the innocent to suffer damage to limbs, destroyed home, or even death of family members. A tragedy might so radically change your life that you would lose your means of earning a livelihood or other important roles.

tragedyJim & Maureen’s tragedy

Even an ordinary event might be personally catastrophic. In 2002 a forest fire made over 2,000 families homeless in one county in California. By 2006 many homes had been rebuilt. One couple, Jim and Maureen, moved into their replacement home with their teenage son after four years living in makeshift temporary accommodation. However, they were then faced with a higher adjustable-rate mortgage.  On top of that, Jim was obliged to close his business which had been affected by the fire.

Selling their rebuilt home and downsizing became the preferred option but the housing market had changed. Buyers had become wary about living in fire-ravaged areas, even if the rebuilt homes included sprinklers, tile roofs and other protective measures and so property prices dropped. The tragedy was that having failed to make loan repayments for several months and receiving no offers on the vacant property, the couple not only expected repossession of their home by their mortgage lender with a cheap sale of their only asset, but also faced the prospect of bankruptcy.

Tragedy exposes assumptions about life

All this just shows the fragility of the things of the world that one takes for granted. Previously and without realising it, you had assumed that bodily and material things were permanent features of your life. You thought they sustained you and that you could not do without them. However, seeing personal effects of tragedy like the plight of people like Jim and Maureen, made me realise how transient such things really are – here today and gone tomorrow.

A personal calamity would throw anyone upside down so that they feel in utter turmoil. Our comfort zone would be no longer available. The blow is harder to take if we had unwittingly assumed that whatever it was that we loved would always be there. We feel like shouting out `It’s not fair’. `It’s not the way things are supposed to be’.

Tragedy can reveal hidden things

So what happens next? One thing some victims of catastrophe report is that although they may have become immobilised by a disastrous change in their outward circumstances, gradually they began to realise that is they themselves that really needed to change if a new happiness is to be found. You won’t always be able to carry on blaming others and fate for what has happened. So, you may decide just to get on with things remembering that ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ We are never too old to move with the times, never so beyond it that we cannot adapt and find new things, new people, new relationships.

It may sound unbelievably harsh to ask this, but is it possible that a personal tragedy brings it home to us that divine realities like compassion, belonging and courage, are the enduring bedrock of our life? Are the things of the world, we  previously valued so highly, mere illusions of happiness? After all, no worldly loss can damage things of the spirit  – things like consideration for others, pulling together, and trying to be positive in the face of adversity.

If things we see and touch cannot be relied on, what about things we cannot? Heaven is one such idea. If it is true that the kingdom of heaven is within ’ (Luke 17:21) then we are all capable of experiencing heaven in our daily lives. Is it not an inner state of mind? A spiritual reality that our bodily senses cannot detect? A very real and permanent feature to human life that physical events cannot harm?

Goodness emerging from tragedy

Our confidence can start to increase a little as we see a heavenly state of heart and mind motivating the efforts of rescue workers in flooded areas; leading the deliberations of planners and politicians to be better prepared in places at risk,  like for example setting up a world-wide Tsunami early warning system ; and giving those suffering loss, some comfort and financial expectation that they can recover their lives.

Even though we cannot see or touch heaven, becoming more conscious of this state of mind inspires us and fills us with hope. We cannot take the things of the world with us when we die; only things of the spirit. I would argue that this shows that spiritual reality is more permanent and safe from destruction than what is merely physical; for a worldly disaster cannot destroy heaven. Rather, we find what is indestructible interiorly within ourselves if only we would look for it.

Even if (after death) you are attached to worldly goods left behind, you will not be able to possess them, and they will be of no use to you. Therefore, abandon weakness and attachment for them; cast them away wholly; renounce them from your heart
(Tibetan Book of the   Dead, ii,I.  – Buddhist tradition)

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems