What God is saying to Christchurch: “Recovery”
Christchurch has suffered a terrible tragedy - devastation, loss of life, calamity, unbelievable, mind-boggling, mind-numbing. Some of us just don’t know what to think and what the way ahead is. Is it hopeless, just so overwhelming that we cannot actually see a way ahead? Some of us hear the words of confidence and determination but our hearts don’t leap at the words and they fall flat and we feel more hopeless. Such a small community really, we might know one person who died but we know six people who know someone who died. So we know of seven people who died. Two degrees and all that. And so we also wonder, what is God saying in and through this time? What is He saying to the people of God? What is he saying to the city? How should we respond? What should we do? And even if we don’t wonder, others are more than happy to tell us what God is saying. Some claim it is an act of God, of His judgement. I actually do want to claim that I know what He is saying... He is saying “recovery.”
The Bible actually contains lots of stories of recovery. Indeed the whole Bible is a story of recovery for a broken good creation. I want to suggest some lessons from a number of the stories. There is a whole time period and group of books dealing with a time when Israel rebuilt their capital city after it was destroyed; there is the original creation story building good out of watery chaos; there is the story of one man, Elijah and his recovery from personal trauma; there is the centre of Scripture, the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Nehemiah deals with a time when the people of God faced the task of rebuilding their destroyed city. The account begins with Nehemiah hearing of the devastation. It simply says:
“As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven,” Neh 1: 4.
I like the sense of that phrase “wept and mourned for days”, I think he is emphasizing that this was overwhelming. He did not rush out to be strong or powerful or cope, he grieved and it went on and on and on. And he had not even been part of the trauma. And some of us feel like that and a bit embarrassed and guilty that we haven’t been strong and charged out helping. We were just stunned and tearful. Thank God for those of you who leapt into action. We so needed your calm confidence but others of us just didn’t cope so well this time. We are all different aren’t we and as Mayor Bob Parker said we need to do what is right for us. Sounds kind of selfish, feels guilty – thanks for permission Bob (sincerely!). Some of us need to get out of the city, some need to care for needy family, some DO need to get out and help. The paradox is that the sooner we do what we need to do the sooner the energy will come to help. Some may say I don’t have that luxury just now. All we can say is thank you and we want to be there to give you that time when your time comes. This guy Nehemiah wept for days – later he would rebuild a nation!
There is another account of the recovery not from a natural disaster but from personal burnout. Elijah burnt out. And he was despairing.
“But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.’” (1 Kings 19: 4)
Look at how God helps him recover:
“5 And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” 6 And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. 7 And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” 8 And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God. (1 Kings 19:5-8)
What was God saying? “Eat and sleep and eat and sleep.” Wow, so personal, intimate, caring, human, so real, so “unspiritual” so unimpressive, so uninspiring but so necessary. Recovery starts with looking after yourself, doing the basics right, getting the routines back in place. Eat, sleep, rest. Why – because “the journey is going to be great” (vs.7) But if we have eaten and slept we too can go forwards in that strength.
Elijah’s recovery then involves a surprising encounter with God:
11 And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. 13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13)
I realize this is taking it right out of context but I want to boldly say “but the Lord was not in the earthquake”. I like the general sentiment of what the Dean of the Cathedral Peter Beck said: “This was not an act of God, it was the earth doing what the earth does.” Peter Beck went to say that the act of God is us loving one another. I would want to say that the act of God is us finding the faith, hope and love to be part of recovery. Don’t try to discern a specific meaning in the earthquake. We live in a broken world. Part of the danger and the very reason Elijah burnt-out was the addiction to the adrenaline of the big and the dramatic. The answer was to listen to the still small voice and that voice would speak not so much about the big, the dramatic and the why but firstly an invitation to share the personal story about what had happened (part of the grief process) and then specific small but strategic acts of recovery and restoration. As you dare to grieve, as you look after yourself, listen to the whispers of steps of recovery:
15 And the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. 16 And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. (1 Kings 19:15-16)
Go and visit that person; help that neighbour; give your child a hug; clear the gutter; go to work; volunteer today. One step at a time, small steps forward. I cannot emphasise too strongly – listen for the prompting of God about the small steps forward. God leads us forward into recovery.
There is nothing more foundational to Scripture than the very story of creation. We often assume Genesis 1 is an account of an explosion of creative goodness out of nothing. Verse 2 suggests that what God’s specific creative work starts with is an initial surge of chaos – dark, watery chaos (however we get from vs 1 to vs 2). And again there are lessons.
1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1: 1-2)
The spirit of God hovers above the chaos ready, desiring to bring order and life. That is what the Spirit does with chaos - broods like a mother hen, covers, cares; waiting to implement the creative word of God.
It is well-recognised that the chapter is structured around a pattern of two sets of three days, imposing structure and form for three days and then returning back through the same sequence and filling that form with life and abundance for the second three days (e.g. day one light and dark; complemented by day four sun, and night-time moon and stars; day two water above and below; complemented by day five birds and fish filling those dimensions). A formless and empty chaos formed and filled.
So the first day, light comes on (wow wasn’t it great when power returned!) and separates from the darkness. Day two the chaotic waters are divided. Day three the dry land is separated from the water.
One important dimension is the gradual process of the whole thing. It is presented as a week which in terms of science seems incredibly short but for God that is actually a long time – surely he could have done it in one pop! And he regularly stops throughout the process.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (Genesis 1:3-5)
There are important lessons around the ability to pace and to “celebrate the partial good”. Day one is still a watery mess but the light is on and so that is good and that is enough for day one! It’s little steps people. And each little step forward is good. Slow and steady, structured and ordered. It’s happening. Celebrate each step forwards. Restoring order and form and filling it with life. I am alive, the family is together, the light is back on, the liquefaction is cleared from the street, food is back in the pantry, petrol is in the car. Not to minimise the challenges ahead, the real loss, the question for which we have answers ... but we can only face that tomorrow if we celebrate what we got done today.
There is nothing more foundational than this picture of God at work through his Word and by his Spirit bringing recovery. And at the end “it’s all very good.” Some can see that now. Some find the leap too big but as we grieve, look after ourselves, and take small steps, then energy will rise from deep within to move forward and hope will return. We might just catch a glimpse of what could be.
31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (Genesis 1:31)
Some of us were ready to rip into it straight away. People have been heroic and amazing. For others of us we did that last time but this time … well we were overwhelmed, we felt shattered. There is a lovely sentence in Nehemiah: he had taken time to grieve and now he had something in his heart he wanted to do:
Then I arose in the night, I and a few men with me. And I told no one what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem. Nehemiah 2:12
This is the guy who cried for days. Now he is ready to act, not with some external expectation of what he should do but it is in his heart. My God had put it in my heart – that’s integrity, that’s authority, that’s confidence.
It all gets a bit more strategic from here. Nehemiah surveys the domain of his world and evaluates the challenges. We are created in the image of the creator God to be co-creators, carers, developers and managers of some part of his world.
Nehemiah comes up with a strategy, he creates alliances, teams and community, he inspires people to join with him:
17 Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.” 18 And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hand-s for the good work. (Nehemiah 2: 17-18)
Lovely language - the hand of God upon him for good. Not just a good idea, even a God idea but God’s empowering presence. God strengthens and they strengthen themselves … to do good. That is why I know God is saying ”recovery” – because that is his heart.
Just like Genesis 1 God is at work to do good, to bring good. But this time it is through people. God is brooding for recovery, speaking about recovery, empowering for recovery.
The language of the hand of God being upon him points forward to an even greater sense of empowering presence in and upon the people of God – the resurrection power of Christ at work in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. And so we are at the heart of Christian faith. The brutality, and evil of Good Friday already now reversed in resurrection life. A literal physical resurrection to come but resurrection power already at work. Resurrection – think about it – life out of death, hope out of despair, a future when it was all over:
And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:6)
Having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead (Colossians 2:12)
18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, (Ephesians 1:18-20)
This is enacting the central mystery of the Christian faith resurrection life out of Good Friday death.
Sometimes I think we misunderstand resurrection, Visions of the hallelujah chorus and great victory and celebration – but that’s confusing the final victory with now. There is a beautiful picture of resurrection in the gospel of John.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener,…” (John 20:15)
The gospel of John tends to play with ideas at multiple levels – yes at one level she mistook him for a gardener but in terms of the whole Bible a resurrected human being, a new beginning and he looked like a gardener... where it all began in Genesis 1 -a quiet presence reminiscent of Genesis 1 and 2, normal life restored, normal tasks, original purpose. Signs of new life, restored life. More like spotting the new shoots in spring. Little signs again, little steps of resurrection power bursting through. In the midst of weeping spot the signs of good creation recovered. In fact I wonder if I ever have really ‘got it’ before – that we live in “resurrection” power.
There is a wonderful picture in Nehemiah of each family group working on their part of the world and together it being rebuild.
1 Then Eliashib the high priest rose up with his brothers the priests, and they built the Sheep Gate. They consecrated it and set its doors. They consecrated it as far as the Tower of the Hundred, as far as the Tower of Hananel. 2 And next to him the men of Jericho built. And next to them Zaccur the son of Imri built. 3 The sons of Hassenaah built the Fish Gate. They laid its beams and set its doors, its bolts, and its bars. 4 And next to them Meremoth the son of Uriah, son of Hakkoz repaired. (Nehemiah 3:1-4)
And so it goes on and on … and next to him… and next to her… and next to them…, each one next to the other, each doing their part in the total task of recovery.
Once we get to this phase there are important other lessons in the next phases – dealing with discouragement, and opposition, finding hope, faith and belief, making big decisions about the way ahead. Maybe later we could consider a part two. But for now let me finish by noting that in the account in Ezra there came a point where they got so discouraged that the work stopped:
24 Then the work on the house of God that is in Jerusalem stopped, and it ceased until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia. 5:1 Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them. 2 Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God that is in Jerusalem, and the prophets of God were with them, supporting them (Ezra 4:24-5:1)
Let the prophets of the Lord speak clearly to support the people of God and the leaders: God is with us to bring recovery.
Those whose arena of responsibility is large have important decisions to make – what do we rebuild, how do we create a city our grandchildren will thank us for? What kind of CBD do we want? How do we take this once in a hundred years chance to reshape a city? For churches, which buildings should be rebuilt, which ones should we combine? Big questions! Lord help those tasked with those decisions. We love this city. More so now than ever before. We are one body, one family. And we serve a good God who is speaking recovery.
• Grieve: be true to what your heart and your body are saying you need to do. The sooner you do the sooner you move through that phase.
• Take care of yourself: do the basics: eat, and sleep.
• Listen for the heart promptings of “good” you could do
• Begin restoring order and filling – and celebrate each small step and pace yourself as you do it.
• Team together and focus what you can do knowing others will be building right next to you.
• Find the life giving presence and power of God, the resurrection power of God, to rebuild hope life, laughter, joy, order, love, structure and fullness.
• Let hope begin to arise – God is with us for recovery and this great city can be rebuilt.
Christchurch was beautiful city with a great legacy – but as Gerry Brownlee says legacy also plays forward. This is our chance to recover and build a legacy in this city for our grandchildren. May they be thankful for the recovery we brought, led and empowered by God.
Dean of Laidlaw College, Christchurch