Sunday, April 20, 2008

where was God in the Mangatepopo River tragedy?

Church services today gave time for people to process the Mangatepopo River tragedy. One of our artists offered a painting, titled “What becomes of the brokenhearted?” People were invited to write a one word response on a bandaid and place it on the artpiece, and/or to sign a card. Sermonically, I wrestled with the topic of Where was God in the Mangatepopo River tragedy? I got lots, and lots, of grateful comments. So I place my thoughts here, in case others find it useful.

For those who like the highlights, I point out that we are not the first people to face grief. I worked through Psalm 69. Where is God?
– in the love of the community
– in honesty
– in those who honestly examine their own lives
– in the gift of free will
– in our willingness to take action

And I conclude that God acts not by stopping suffering … but by stepping into our suffering.

Sometimes the events of a week simply engulf a planned sermon. Today, I’m taking a break from my series on Biblical pictures of witness.

Because New Zealand this week has been a nation in mourning. First, the death of 6 teenage school kids – Floyd Fernandes; Portia McPhail; Tom Hsu; Natasha Bray; Anthony Mulder; Tara Gregory – who drowned in a flash flood that swept down the Mangatepopo River on Tuesday afternoon.

And their teacher Tony McClean. Tony’s father is John McClean, and John is a Baptist Pastor. I went through Carey Baptist College with John and his wife Jeanette. And just last Saturday, 8 days ago, I caught up with John and we talked together about life and about ministry and how well things were going for him

As if these 7 deaths were not hard enough, on Thursday the body of missing teenager Marie Davis was found.

For me, I think this cartoon in The Press captures so well our feelings as New Zealand this week. We phoned and got permission to use the cartoon on our newsletter. And all around New Zealand we’ve been simply want to hug our children.

Which raises the question of where do we as Christians turn at times like this? How should we talk of God. Where do you open your Bible after such tragedy?

For me, I go to the Psalms. If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Psalm 69:
1 Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
2 I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me.
You start to read that in light of the floodwaters flowing down the Mangatepopo. Or the finding of Marie Davis in the waters of the Waimakiriri.

This Psalm, Psalm 69, is a psalm of lament. Written by someone who’s in deep trouble. Who feels like they’re drowning. And so when we grieve and when our nation grieves, it can be helpful to turn to the prayers of those who have grieved before us.

There are 150 Psalms. Some of them are happy psalms, the prayers of people who are thankful for good times. Some of them are special psalms, the prayers of people at weddings, at coronations, or on pilgrimage.

Lots of them are sad psalms. Prayers of lament, prayed by people in tough times. And these sad psalms, these psalms of Lament, generally follow a pattern. They have a
Call for help
Curse of enemies.
Often, but not always, ends with confidence.

Note the title of Psalm 69. “For the director of music.”

And so this personal psalm, this personal grief, has been given to the director of music. So the personal is becoming shared.

Which is the first response to the question; Where is God in the events of this week? God is in the love of the community.

God is present as we let our personal grief become a shared grief. As it says in 1 Corinthians 11:26, If one part suffers, every part suffers. And so in grief, we need each other.

And it’s this, I think, that has become such a powerful witness to the media this week. To hear John Campbell on Wednesday nite thank Elim Christian College for the cups of tea and the use of fax facilitities. And to realise that personal grief was becoming a shared grief.

This week God has been in the love of the community.

Call for help (1-4)

1 Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
2 I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me.
3 I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched.
My eyes fail, looking for my God.

And so here’s a second response to the question; Where is God in the events of this week? God is in honesty.

In a Psalmist willing to say help. I’m not coping. In a school Principal who’s willing to saying to his students on the Wednesday assembly at which the deaths were announced “.. be angry at God. God can handle that.” God in our honesty.

Or as Bono from U2 says: “a lot of the psalms feel to me [like] the blues. Man shouting at God — “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Psalm 22). … [F]or me it’s despair that the psalmist really reveals and the nature of his special relationship with God. Honesty, even to the point of anger.

Confession (69:5-12)
Picking up at verse 5: You, God, know my folly; my guilt is not hidden from you.

And so honest feelings lead to an honest reflection on one’s own relationship with God. They allow us to look honestly in our mirror. Name our shame.

Where is God? God is with those who honestly examine their own lives.

Jumping to verse 9 for zeal for your house consumes me,
and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.
10 When I weep and fast, I must endure scorn;

And again we see this honest reflection on one’s own relationship with God. Tragedy does this. It invites us to examine our commitment to God and to God’s church.

Complaint (69:13-21)
And so, picking up from verse 16,
16 Answer me, LORD, out of the goodness of your love;
in your great mercy turn to me.
17 Do not hide your face from your servant;
answer me quickly, for I am in trouble.

A key word is mercy; in v. 16; in your great mercy. The word is related to the Hebrew word for womb. The mercy that a mother experiences toward a child growing in her womb.

So this is the type of God we’re pray to, this mothering God.

But to be honest, says v. 17, it still feels like God is hiding. This honesty appears elsewhere in the Psalms. 13:2, 22:25, 27:9, 88:15, 102:3, 143:7; I know God is like a mother, but I don’t see it.

And so where is God? The Bible affirms God as the Creator. Creator of a free world. Creator of a world in which love is truly free to grow. Which always has a flip side. If love is truly free to grow, then it must also be truly free to die.

Yes, God as Creator can stop a flood. Yes, God as Creator can stop humans making mistakes. But if God does, the God is removing the free will at the heart of true love.

And so we live in a free world in which the laws of nature do not make exceptions. Whether you are Mother Teresa or Hitler, a flash flood is a flash flood.

And so Where is God? God is in the love of a community and God is in honesty. God is with those who examine their own lives. God is the gift of free will.

Which helps me make sense of Romans 8:22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
Because we live in a truly free world. That our decisions matter. That when wrong choices were made, when freak weather patterns occur, innocent people suffer.

Curse of enemies (69:22-29)
Which takes us to verses 22-29. A harsh section.
21 They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst.
22 May the table set before them become a snare;
may it become retribution and a trap.
23 May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see,
and their backs be bent forever.
24 Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them.

And so the Psalmist is starting to play the blame game. He’s so angry that he wants revenge.

What’s interesting is how this describes so well the events of this week. That by Thursday on National Radio the talkback lines are running hot, with people playing the blame game.

What I find fascinating is how here in Psalm 69 the Psalmist leaves punishment with God. We see this in V. 24. Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them.

Psalmist can be honest and angry. But the ability to take revenge is given to God. That’s very good therapy. Long before we had counsellors and anger management groups, we have a psalmist encouraging us to let it all out. Write it down. Express yourself. But leave the judging with God.

Which is perhaps why the Psalmist can then turn to

Confidence (30-33)
29 But as for me, afflicted and in pain— may your salvation, God, protect me.
30 I will praise God’s name in song and glorify him with thanksgiving.
31 This will please the LORD more than an ox, more than a bull with its horns and hooves.
32 The poor will see and be glad— you who seek God, may your hearts live!
33 The LORD hears the needy and does not despise his captive people.

So where is God? God is in our willingness to take action. The concrete actions by which the poor and needy, can experience life.

34 Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and all that move in them,

Again, God is in action. Our actions by which pollution is stopped and water is purified.

35 for God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah. Then people will settle there and possess it;
36 the children of his servants will inherit it, and those who love his name will dwell there.

God is in the actions by which community is rebuild in our city. In the ways we express love and care for those who grieve, in the ways in which we work to make teenage girls safe in our streets.

And as Christians, we hear this as a hope for a new earth. Your kingdom come, here on earth, as in heaven.

So perhaps this is the special gift that emerges from hard times. We are reminded of God’s desire for healing and wholeness. We are reminded that we are not here for our pleasure.

Rather, that we are here to restore God’s original intention for world. So that poor will have life and those in exile can rebuild.

So where is God when bad things happen to good people? In turning to the Psalms, to Psalm 69, we find
God in community
In honesty
With those who examine their own lives.
In the gift of free will.
In the ability to leave judgement with God
In our willingness to take action.

When tragedy occurs, we all want someone to blame. So often we blame God. The insurance companies even have a legal word for it; “acts of God.”

Christian answer is that God has acted. Firstly in Creation, in giving us free will.

Secondly, in Jesus. In Jesus God acts not by stopping suffering. Jesus doesn’t rush around like some Superman stopping natural disasters.

Instead, in Jesus God acts by stepping into suffering. In Jesus we see a human who weeps. In Jesus who see a person, who, just like Psalm 69, cries “Why is God absent? Why am I forsaken.”

At the cross we see a heavenly father who loses a son. And so this is the ultimate answer to where is God when bad things happen to good people?

God cries too. That God suffers too. I invite us to pray the prayer that we often pray on Good Friday, that day in the church when we focus on the suffering God.

Giver of life we wait with you.
to bear your hope in earth’s darkest places.
Where love is denied: let love break through
Where justice is destroyed: let righteousness rule
Where hope is crucified: let faith persist
Where truth is denied: let the struggle continue

Posted by steve at 11:59 PM


  1. Good stuff. Very helpful – glad I dropped by.

    Comment by AnneDroid — April 21, 2008 @ 5:06 am

  2. I happened to play a MercyMe song today called ‘Homesick’ and couldn’t help but think about the families of those who lost sons/daughters in the river tragedy:

    Your’re in a better place, I’ve heard a thousand times
    And at least a thousand times I’ve rejoiced for you
    But the reason why I’m broken, the reason why I cry
    Is how long must I wait to be with you

    I close my eyes and I see you face
    If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place
    Lord won’t you give me strength to make it through somehow
    I’ve never been more homesick than now

    Help me Lord because I don’t understand your ways
    The reason why I wonder if I’ll ever know
    But even if You showed me the hurt would be the same
    Because I’m still here so far away from home

    In Christ there are no goodbyes
    In Christ there is no end
    So I’ll hold onto Jesus with all that I have
    To see you again

    Comment by Carolyn — April 21, 2008 @ 6:07 pm

  3. Thanks Steve – a relief to read after hearing so many statements that suggest God was responsible and that we “don’t understand His ways” (sorry Carolyn). I do have to ask though where you see prayer as fitting in, I imagine that all prayed for help and one of the survivors feels that God did intervene and help him survive. Do miracles happen? Does God occassionally bypass the rules of freewill to preform a miracle. If so, then you are left with some big questions of why for some and not others. The other bit I’d take issue with is the leaving judgment to God bit. Are you saying if someone murdered Marie Davis there should be no blaming, no justice here and now??

    Comment by Jack — April 22, 2008 @ 8:53 am

  4. Jack,

    some brief comments

    – i wonder if “we don’t understand God” can be used in a number of ways. One might be a pietistic response that makes God responsible. The other is (and I suspect I heard this on the TV last nite when John McClean spoke), is that we as humans don’t understand and yet we still choose to trust, hard as that is.

    – prayer. 2 be honest, I don’t know and I have thought about this long and hard as I have run over the last days. I really struggle with the testimony that says God saves me, cos it does imply that God did not save others, and that raises all sorts of tricky questions about what type of God we have. But equally, I do not want to deny God the opportunity to intervene. So I am still searching for a helpful way forward on this. I see in the Bible that God can change as we pray, I see in my life that prayer can change me.

    – re judgement – no i am not. i am saying that we give over our right to take personal revenge. I have been helped in this by the work of Miroslav Volf, himself tortured by the Serbians, and trying to maintain a coherent faith in that. it struck me when he said that if we take revenge on injustice, we are simply continuing cycles of injustice. in Christ, cycles are stopped. In terms of Marie, we give matters of revenge/justice into the law courts, rather than allowing the parents to take action. and we work hard to make sure those systems of justice are as rigourous as possible.

    does that help? these are big issues and its now obvious that even in a 2,000 word sermon, i failed to touch all the bases. I am sorry.


    Comment by steve — April 23, 2008 @ 11:47 am

  5. Thanks Steve for your thoughts following the tragedies of the past week. It has been interesting to be working in the media and watching the reactions of people at this time. Soon after the Mangatepopo tragedy, TV3 did a story with a survivor of a canyoning tragedy in Swizterland 9 years ago. It was a interesting juxtaposition with what was seen of the reaction from the Elim College community. It was obvious that the survivor of the Swiss tragedy still held a lot of pain, hurt, anger and hate (she lost her husband-just married at the time – in the tragedy). Compare that with the peace that seemed to permeate the Elim community and as you mentioned it, the openness to share their grief and pain with others. Three things touched me as I helped prepare stories on this tragedy. 1. There was an acceptance that getting angry was okay, 2. there was a willingness to extend forgiveness and grace (see the TV3 story on Floyd’s funeral where his parents hug and embrace the instructor), and 3. an ackowledgement that God is there in the hard times and it is good to “praise” or cry out to Him in those dark times (summed up beautifully in the funeral with the singing of Blessed be Your Name). These 3 things are what Christianity can offer the world, and I felt that the Elim College community showed that beautifully. It has generated a lot of interesting conversations at work.
    And in regard to Jack’s final comment, I think it is fair to say that there is a big difference between the Mangatepopo tragedy and the murder of Marie Davis in regard to leaving judgement to God. With the Mangatepopo tragedy no one will really know whose fault it was, as there are a number of factors that worked against them. The Marie Davis murder is a deliberate action by someone. However, in saying that, both incidents have natural consequences. In the Mangatepopo tragedy the natural consequence is that there are a number of inquiries which we can learn lessons from. In the murder of Marie Davis, the law states that it is illegal to kill and that the natural consequence of murder is a court case, and if found guilty, a jail term. I think that in either case though, the point is not to seek revenge, not to damn the person responsible or not to publicly “hang” them in the media. It is to let things take their natural course and trust God and allow His justice to flow. By trying to seek justice or revenge ourselves (vigilante justice) we get in the way of God’s justice. Hope that helps, despite its wordiness.

    Comment by wokboy — April 23, 2008 @ 12:13 pm

  6. thanks wokboy.

    i have just written a 500 word piece for a magazine titled “God’s name in vain” – exploring the TV coverage of the events. Since they pay me, I can’t put it up here for a month or so, though


    Comment by steve — April 23, 2008 @ 12:33 pm

  7. Everybody that has ever lived has died.

    How many hundreds of thousands human beings die every day?

    Billions of living biological entities die every day.
    How many living microscopic enitities to we each kill via the process of breathing.
    How many chickens (etc etc)have you eaten so far?
    Have you ever visited a slaughter-house?
    In and of itself the world process is compelely indifferent to the well-being and survival of any “created” biological form, including the human form.

    Every time more than one person dies in an unfortunate circumstance we seem to go into some kind of hysterical reaction.

    And yet depite all the countless zillions of deaths, life and the totality of manifest “creation” continues to arise spontaneously.

    Where does “it” all go when you go to bed and fall into a state of dreamless and formless deep sleep.

    Comment by Sue — April 23, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

  8. Sue,

    as i ponder my vegetarian dinner tonite (chicken free :)), i will be wondering if there should be any differences between death by natural causes and unexpected death through murder, as in the case of Marie Davis, or flood, as in the case of Mangatpopo, which is the context for this post?

    i will also be wondering in what ways what you are saying is a help to those who grieve?

    i do find your final sentence of resonnace, as for me the image of God as ongoing sustainer and lifeforce of the universe is one I find energising and one that helps me align my life,


    Comment by steve — April 23, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

  9. Thanks for your comments Steve. You are right that “we don’t understand God” can be used to say different things. I’ve been watching a blog discussion of God and Suffering on belief net with Bishop NT Wright and he raises the issue of Gods ways often being so different to human expectations, in light of Jesus being so different to what was expected. Should we expect God to be this big powerful figure focussed on ending suffering? Or could our expectations be all wrong again and too self-interested?
    Thanks for your honest thoughts regarding prayer. I tend to think that God can ‘intervene’ through a person listening to the Spirit within and doing His will (ie, transformed hearts)but I don’t believe God intervenes with supernatural powers that bypass the laws of physics etc. I dont believe, for example, in medical conditions such as a broken neck, being healed by God. I dont believe God would intervene and place a log in the river for someone to grab but i do believe that a Christian could find mental/spiritual strength through their faith and this aid their survival. The hard bit I guess is that, like you, I have to acknowledge that God could if he wanted to – this is a God with the power to create the universe. For me, it comes down to asking what the point is of our earthly existence, in this ‘world process’ as Sue says, that is indifferent to us. If it is to learn, to raise a family, to love others, to help the poor – then to address Sue, of course we are upset when the young die because they are denied all opportunity to do these things. Well that’s enough ramblings from me, thanks for the ideas all – but Sue, I dont think I’ll try “Well everything dies” as my next line of consolation to a grieving friend.

    Comment by Jack — April 23, 2008 @ 8:23 pm

  10. PS Forgot to ask, Steve can you elaborate a bit on your comment that “God can change as we pray?” Thanks for taking the time, Jack

    Comment by Jack — April 24, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

  11. Sure Jack. I was referring to places in the Bible like Genesis 18, where God’s standards for judgement get lowered as Abraham asks and you wonder, as you read that, how low would God go, ie what would happen if Abraham did not stop.

    Also in Amos 7, again we see the prophet praying and God changing a promised future action because of the prophet’s prayers.

    In both these cases, we see God changing in response to prayer. It still leaves unclear the mechanism ie did God change because the person praying changed, or did God really decide on a different action. I don’t know, but it does encourage me that prayer is significant.

    enough, i really should be working on a sermon


    Comment by steve — April 24, 2008 @ 1:03 pm

  12. Thanks for that Steve ,hope you got the sermon done. In Genesis I think God’s answer didnt really change – that no matter how low Abraham went, the answer would’ve been the same. Amos 7 certainly reads like a change of God’s mind though. Here is God feeling sympathy and therefore preventing destruction. Why doesn’t this happen today or do you believe it does? Is it that we don’t need to fear destruction due to Christ coming and showing death is not the end?

    As an aside from that, I read in the paper tonight that the Salvation Army have decided to refuse any funding generated by gambiling. Many other churches gladly take this money. I was stoked to see the SA sticking to their values, it will be costly for them but they are determined to fund raise through more ethical means : ). They don’t want to be a part of anything that helps to justify gambiling because of all the suffering it causes for many families. Now that perhaps is God acting to stop suffering.

    Comment by Jack — April 24, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

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