This afternoon I sent our donation to the United Methodist Committee on Relief to provide aid and comfort to the hundreds of thousands of victims of the tsunami that devastated shores and islands in the southern hemisphere. And though it's the largest check I have ever sent to UMCOR, it seems hopelessly inadequate.
We watched the long stream of reports on TV. Stories of miraculous survival. Stories of mass drownings, children and women the greatest casualties. Stories of gut-wrenching choices forced in the moment. I think of the mother who had to choose between two children because she had to hold on to a pole with one arm and one child in the other arm, while letting the other older boy go.
I live in a world (maybe you do too) that seems largely insulated from natural disaster. Our focus in recent years has been the evil that human beings do to each other. We have developed early warning systems for hurricanes and earthquakes, blizzards and floods. We worry about global warming, the ozone layer, endangered species, and overpopulation; but with the worry the implicit message seems to be that we shall be able to do something about these problems if only we find the political courage.
Then the tsunami hits Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Thailand, and even Somalia. Confidence, in the ability of human technology to master the elements, drowns.
The Greeks had a name for our prevailing attitude: hubris... overweaning confidence in our own ability to master our fate. The Hebrews had another name for it, one with which most of us are very familiar, though rarely in this context: sin. Think of our first parents' desire to have life on their own terms, not God's, taking the forbidden fruit, persuaded they could build a better existence without regard to the limits of their mortality. Just so, "the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom," not because God is mean, but because we are such momentary creatures, so readily forgetful of our needs and their gracious daily provision. Humility (and gratitude) is the wisest, and ultimately the most accurate, approach to life.
The tsunami is a dreadful reminder that man, after all, is not the master of all things.
The tsunami is also a forceful reminder that we are all in this thing together.
For a day or three Iraq doesn't fill the front page of the newspaper. Once the charge of stinginess by the UN undersecretary was laid to rest, better news was publicized, about the international outpouring of food, money, supplies, and the assistance of people who know how to handle disastrous situations. I spoke New Year's Eve with the publicity director of UMCOR who predicts that the response from Methodist churches alone will surpass the $20,000,000 raised in the aftermath of the destruction of the Twin Towers. People everywhere want to help. Which puts to rest the cynical view of our world, that most of us think only of ourselves. Human suffering elicits sympathy in all but the hardest of hearts.
I shall continue to avoid screenings of natural disaster movies. But I shall pay more attention to those periodic reports in the science section of newspapers, about dangers from asteroids or a new bubonic plague or the sinking of New Orleans with a headon hit by a hurricane or... well, you get the disaster picture. The one that sticks in my mind, however, I found on the op-ed page of a recent issue of The New York Times, about another tsunami, one aimed at the northeast coast of the United States. The question isn't whether or not it will happen but when. Apparently a volcano on a Canary Island rests on the fault line of a continental plate. Some day half of it will slide into the sea, creating a wave as tall as the Empire State Building, which would be in its path, after, of course, sweeping across Long Island.
Spaceship Earth may not be the Titanic, but the natural hazards way beyond our control should encourage us to take a few lessons from that disaster in the North Atlantic:
1. To use our technologies to stave off disaster, while avoiding the thought we are, therefore, unsinkable.
2. To make the most of the time we have, celebrating the sunlight when it shines on us and the gentle rain when it falls upon our gardens.
3. To go at life with a strong sense of our own mortality, knowing in our bones that nothing human is for ever.
4. To draw more closely to one another, family, neighbors, nations, to create shelters of warmth and love against the devastations which will come without warning and without regard to the virtue (or lack of it) of its victims.
So send your check to UMCOR, the Red Cross, Save the Children, or whatever other denominational or secular agency you favor.