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In response to the dawn peeking over the eastern mountains, roosters cleared their throats and began to cackle at one another, touching off the familiar routine. In the half light, bleary-eyed fishermen hauled boats ashore, then wearily scrubbed their nets after a night of working in the open sea. Mothers began to boil water for rice. Men stood from their morning prayers and reached for their first cups of steaming kopi Aceh. Children yawned and stretched on their rattan sleeping mats, delighted to be waking up on a Sunday, the one day of the week that Indonesian schools are closed. By 7:00 a.m., athletes were eagerly gathering to compete in a citywide field day. Minutes later, the grass they were standing on would be strewn with more than five thousand corpses.
The earthquake struck with a furious jolt. A 9.3 blitzkrieg of thundering chaos, it rocked northern Sumatra, Indonesia, for eight minutes. The cacophony of collapsing walls and shattering glass drowned out the thousands of screaming voices. Untold thousands had been crushed in their own bedrooms and kitchens.
But the worst was still to come.
The sound was unearthly. Later, many would say they thought two oncoming trains werecolliding. Three towering waves bulldozed the city, obliterating everything in their paths. Schools and bridges exploded. Palm trees snapped like twigs. Houses were forced from their foundations and carried away in a million churning, broken parts. In agonizing moments of decision repeated countless times across the disaster zone, mothers and fathers selected which of their children to pick up as they ran for the hills.
On that horrible morning, December 26, 2004, 283,000 people were swept into eternity, while double that number were instantly left without food, shelter, or clean water. The tsunami was one of the deadliest natural disasters to ever assault humanity. For hundreds of miles along the Sumatran coastline, villages, streets, coffee plantations, markets, and hospitals were annihilated. The survivors staggered to the edges of hastily dug pits, where they dropped the mangled bodies of their dead children, parents, neighbors, and friends. Within weeks, the survivors were gathered into sprawling, muddy internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.
Two months later, I arrived in the city of Banda Aceh. The condition on the ground was far more catastrophic than I had imagined. I felt like I'd landed on another planet. My stomach tightened as I stared in disbelief at wreckage that stretched to the horizon.
My reason for coming was to launch the rebuilding of a school. After surveying the chaos, I realized that the school would have to wait. I joined with a relief team that had identified a dozen IDP camps clustered around the city. Our purpose was to carry in critical supplies and provide medical care and counseling for the grieving. A nightmarish fog of terrifying memories hung over these camps day and night. Two months after the tsunami, men, women, and children stared at the world with remote storm clouds in their bloodshot eyes.
One night I was lying on my sleeping mat at our command center. The odor of death in the humid air was suffocating-hundreds of rotting corpses were still being pulled out of the mud every day. I was exhausted. Yet much worse than my physical discomfort were the repeated images of vacant, hopeless eyes. When I closed my eyes, I saw theirs. Every person I met had lost someone.
Earlier that day, one woman had told me in fluent English that she had been a professor in Banda Aceh. She had received her doctorate from an American university. Her husband was now dead and her two small children had been swept away. One of them had been discovered face down in the mud, and the other was never found. She was alone in a sea of strangers, languishing beneath the heavy sky for two months. She had no plan and no idea what to do next. In the great journey from birth to death, she and thousands like her were cruelly and viciously sidelined. as I thought about her, my heart cried out to god, Where are you in all of this? I feel so incapable of responding to these heartbroken people. They so desperately need you. Give me something to say. Oh, Lord Jesus, touch me with your words of life to speak to them.
The Spirit waited, leaving me suspended in the angst of my soul. Then he whispered, You cannot hear what I want you to say until I show you what I see. Fix your eyes on what is unseen. In that moment I pressed my eyes shut. Before me were beautiful souls with infinite value. They were the creator's masterpiece. Each was deeply treasured and eternally loved. Yet their world had roared, puncturing their souls and pressing the life out of them. Harassed and helpless, trapped between life and death, they were paralyzed and imprisoned by powers more devastating than any ocean wave.
A new realization began to form in my heart. Dozens of relief agencies were carrying rice, water, and blankets to the survivors. The construction of bridges, businesses, and hospitals was underway. These efforts were crucial, yet beyond the immediate needs in this catastrophic situation were even more salient necessities. each survivor must do more than survive-each must discover the faith to rise up through his gripping inner paralysis and begin to forge a new future. A glimmer of hope must somehow emerge from the twisted, rotting mess of wreckage. The resurgence of every street, village, and town depended on it. The people's lives hinged upon it. The survival of their culture demanded it. What could I do? I lay in the darkness, feeling overwhelmed by these thoughts. I tried to close them out of my mind and finally drifted into a restless sleep.
The next morning our group hauled relief supplies to another IDP camp. Now terrified of the sea, these survivors had fled into the mountains south of Banda Aceh. Taking notice of a group of elders sitting together, I approached and asked if I could join them. They politely made room for me. After a few minutes of small talk, several of the men shared their stories, vividly describing tragic losses during the tsunami. As they talked, others sat quietly, staring at nothing in particular.
Seeing their eyes, I wondered what might happen if I spoke about the future. Was I overstepping my bounds? I decided to run the risk. After quietly praying, I began to speak, slowly at first. Having expressed my sorrow for their loss, I said, "People all over the world are praying for you." Then I wondered aloud, "does god have another future waiting for you?" Looking at their faces, god's love began overwhelming my heart and shaping my words. "From out of all the thousands of people who were lost, god chose to keep you and these others alive one more day. That must mean that he has a purpose for each of you."
They began to lean forward. Something about my words had caught their attention. I continued, "Will you lead your people again?" several men lifted their heads. The invitation to respond had fanned the embers of life in their tired eyes. I pressed forward: "Those little children playing over there are waiting for you to stand up and take action. They need you to look into their eyes and call them into their future. I believe God is offering you the chance to help the next generation grow up to become men and women of strength and courage. Imagine what might happen if they saw you creating, working, rebuilding your lives, and offering them a new hope."
To my amazement, not a single man reacted by saying, "How could you possibly know what we've been through?" Instead, they drank in the challenge. It seemed that their hearts were already primed to rise up and rebuild their lives. All they had needed was a voice to call them over the tipping point into action. They began to interact in the early light of new possibilities. Imaginations stirred. Within minutes they had reoriented themselves to a radically new mindset. Excitement rose into their voices. Ideas flew. What would happen if the entire community worked together to help one family, then another, then another? eventually I was no longer a part of the conversation. Over the next few hours, I listened with astonishment as they wrenched themselves free from the chains of mental paralysis and activated the creative process.
Soon they were outlining their plan of action. Their strategy was to gather all of the able men, return to their destroyed communities, and rebuild together, starting with whatever materials they could pull from the wreckage. They would all work together to serve one. By a roll of dice, they would select the second family, then the third. Purpose had emerged from lassitude. By choosing to activate solutions in response to the urgent problems around them, they were creating-creating life and hope out of death and despair.
Responders were being set free.
No conversation has ever affected me so deeply. To this day, the stark contrast between humanity reduced and humanity rising is etched in my mind. Returning from Sumatra to my home in eastern Indonesia, I began to see the parallels in my own life. I realized that in numerous ways I am the one who is internally displaced. Be assured, I am not equating anything I've been through to the horrific agony tsunami survivors have endured. In comparison, the waves that tend to reduce me are more like tiny ripples on the surface of a pond. Perhaps this is why the responsiveness of that small group of elders left such an unforgettable impression on me. This impression eventually became the spur that caused me to begin writing.
My own life is the setting for this book. I apologize for this, but I just don't see any other way to approach a subject like faith. I would be irresponsible to write about awakening into god with a cold detachment, as if I were a biologist dissecting a dead frog in a laboratory or a researcher analyzing a survey. Even now, the words on the pages ahead are being dragged through the battleground of my soul. This battleground is strewn with defeat and marked by victory. I am determined not to be ashamed of either.
When I began to write, I was personally challenged by pains-taking questions. If individuals who lost everything can rise up and create after a tsunami, what prevents me from responding to a critical statement with a genuine expression of kindness? If they can rebuild a city, can I rebuild a stranded relationship? Does adversity tend to wash over me, reducing me to a mere shadow of the life God created me to live? Am I a responsive husband and father? When I come across antagonistic individuals or people who are noticeably different from me, how do I respond? Do I tend to shrink away into my own made-up, vicarious universe?
Is God's Spirit alive in me? Does his Word empower me, forging a Spirit-filled response to others? Am I borne along by an activated faith that lifts me into God's heart and propels me forward as a joyful responder to the world he loves? Is my soul rooted in the One "who so loved the world," a world stranded in spiritual, mental, physical, and emotional isolation and powerlessness, that he gave his life in response?
Taking a good, hard look in the mirror is healthy for anyone's soul. But there was something else that I needed to answer. Am I fated to stay the way I am, or is it possible for me to change, to become a man who gathers the raw materials of adversity and creates eternal works of art in the world around me? This is not an easy question, but I am persuaded that, yes, you and I can move from internal paralysis to becoming responders. The apostle John phrased it this way: "Everyone born of God overcomes the world." Certain individuals around me are living evidence of John's audacious statement. Take my grandmother, for example. What person driving down the street would ever have guessed that the elderly woman limping along with a cane toward church on Sunday mornings was a creative prodigy?
Throughout her ninety-three years, my grandmother never would have dreamed of acting in a drama, playing a piano, or even singing in her church choir. I don't ever remember seeing her with a paintbrush. We all had a big laugh at the confused look on her face when she asked sheepishly, "Why do computers come with mice?" Ah, but how she exuded creativity in response to everything life threw in her face. Her responsiveness to other people always began by drawing from the hope that bloomed deep within her. Whether she was fixing Yorkshire pudding for a homeless mother or caring for a friend in the hospital, she always seemed to paint her world with the purest expressions.
The most remarkable thing about my grandmother is that she suffered immensely. Her unrelenting abundance of hope defied logic. If anyone had the right to slither away into cynicism and bitterness, she did. My grandfather came home from soldiering in the Second World War, moved the family from her beloved prince Edward island to faraway British Columbia, where they knew almost no one, then died of cancer, leaving her alone with their four boys, little money, and no income. She responded by sinking every last penny into opening a restaurant near the Victoria harbor. She continued to raise her sons alone. The miracle of her humble life was the sublime contrast between her circumstances and her staggering fortitude of hope. Somehow, she gathered the raw materials of adversity and used them to create hope in the hearts around her. The art of her life was painted as the brilliant, more radiant primary colors of hope rose out to overpower and even replace the darker, more oppressive colors of grief.
People like her are rare, but when we find them, we want to drink them up like a refreshing glass of cool water on a hot summer day. We want to stay close to them, to let the hope in their souls irrigate us. They are all the evidence I need that god is pervasively at work throughout his creation. He is whispering, creating, redeeming, orchestrating, and drawing all of humanity to himself. God is calling us to rise into the paths he has marked out for us. some are responsive. They see God everywhere, hear his voice, and taste the love for the world that burns in his heart. They intimately know the warmth of god's voice, thrive in the beauty of his dreams and see his purposes being worked out in all circumstances. Others are unresponsive. The difference is found in one word. This word gets tossed around in sermons, but at the office it's a bit more difficult to dig up. Jesus was astonished when he met people who lived with it.
This word is faith.
Faith is often defined as a mental affirmation that God is what the bible says he is and that all the stories about Jesus are true and so on. I believe that the faith Jesus was so enamored with is something much deeper than that. Our mental affirmations about God are symptoms of faith, but they are not faith itself. What is faith? Faith is an intimate and responsive relationship with reality. I realize that faith is not typically defined this way. After all, what am I, some kind of a Buddhist? What could I possibly mean that faith is an intimate and responsive relationship with reality? Reality is, well ... reality is real. Faith is all about believing in God, right?
Ah, but can you see the problem?
Jesus described calloused hearts as "ever hearing but never understanding ... ever seeing but never perceiving." Perhaps the easiest way to understand faith is to identify what it is not. Those who lack faith tend to compartmentalize reality, mentally tearing apart the elements of reality and stuffing them into separate chambers as if they have nothing to do with each other. We see this compartmentalization running rampant in society. The objects and people we cherish are naturally given the places of honor. Everyone else is rounded up and crammed into another chamber. Joy and laughter live in the den. An addiction might be shoved under the bed. Other secrets are stuffed into a closet. Hurting and lonely people rent space in the garage. Our own sour attitude sits impatiently in the car waiting for the ride to church. The glory of God politely greets us as we pull into the church parking lot. God tends to be held at a distance and walled away from the rest of life. Everything is disjointed.
Excerpted from A Certain Risk by Paul Andrew Richardson Copyright © 2010 by Paul Andrew Richardson. Excerpted by permission.
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