As far as limits are concerned, I think it best simply to remain silent and to leave the unresolvable unresolved. The belief in resurrection is not the ‘solution’ to the problem of death. The ‘beyond’ of God is not the ‘beyond’ of our cognitive capacity. Epistemological transcendence has nothing to do with God’s transcendence. God is ‘beyond’ [in] our lives. The church is found not where human capacity fails, at the limits, but rather in the middle of the village.
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Tegel Prison, 30 April 1944)
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to caste my lot with those
who age by age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
As the scale of the Asian tsunami disaster becomes ever more apparent — the United Nations is now describing it as one of the world’s worst-ever natural humanitarian disasters in modern times — people across the world are turning to prayer. (1)
For many in the secularised West this may be a puzzling reaction. The immediate aftermath of the earthquakes and tidal waves spreading out from Indonesia and the Indian Ocean on 26 December 2004 saw an outbreak of questioning in Europe: ‘What kind of God could allow this?’ It may not be the right way of putting the question, since it assumes a ‘god’ who is but a projection of ourselves writ large (as Bonhoeffer indicates), but the depth of the religious dilemma raised by such disaster cannot and should not be avoided.
However thought (and theological thought) is not the first, instinctive response. The first response is a cry of anguish, helplessness, despair and puzzlement mingled with hope, determination and willingness to do something (no matter how small) to respond. This is the response of giving, longing and desiring alongside those who are bereft, bereaving and destitute. It is prayer.
Often our prayers are incoherent, cliched even. It does not matter. In touching the heart of God (whether we intend that, or not) we are allowing our own hearts to be touched and melted. What was stone can become flesh in the face of the one we meet in Jesus, as Archbishop Rowan Williams has put it.
Such prayer is instant and agonising, planned and spontaneous, confessional and inter-confessional, faithful and doubting, knowing and unknowing.
On the morning of 1 January 2005 I did a web-search on ‘tsunami’ + ‘prayer’. There were 902 news items (far more, as you read this) and 180,000 regular web items. Again this will have mushroomed by now. And it is happening in a matter of days.
Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (the official ecuemnical body) is providing Tsunami prayers and information on the response of the national denominations in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales — together with news of churches action domestically and internationally. There is also a suggested liturgy, news from Sri Lanka, and a tsunami update page.
In the US Liturgies, reflection, hymns, prayers and texts are being made available by the United Methodist Church.
Church World Service, the international development arm of the National Council of Churches of Christ USA, has put up a Tsunami hymn, which is available for one-off congregational use in association with ecumenical fundraising efforts. It can be found here, with music. The story of the venture is here: ‘Christians unite in tsunami hymn and prayer‘. It’s not the greatest lyrical creation, but it is heart-felt.
Here is prayer service material from Catholic Relief Services (*PDF), from CAFOD, from Christian Aid (for youth), from various Anglican sources, and from the Salvation Army. This powerpoint presentation is from the Evangelical Alliance in the Netherlands. Another prayer from Redcliffe college.
There are general prayers for use in bereavement available on this site, too.
A virtual prayer room, a ‘quiet space’, has been established on an ecumenical site in the US. It is there so that we can pray alongside the victims. See also the Upper Room. This is from the Ascension Sanctuary.
The Canadian Primate Primates’s World Relief and Development Fund has a tsunami update on its site, plus some excellent resource materials,
“Even while we may feel your absence in our lament, we trust you to be the One who grieves with us and who is present in the touch of each of us, their brothers and sisters, who offer hands and hearts to rescue and to rebuild places and lives. May your healing love be felt through us as we remember and reach out to those in need.”
For a moment in the New Year, silence, prayers and vigils accompanied (often muted) celebrations. Life and death are with us in a moment of transition. The Pope led prayers and a Mass for the tsunami victims.
This from the Archbishop of Canterbury:
“The big picture doesn’t always help, if it takes our eyes off local, individual stories. Someone said about the slaughter of the Jews in the death camps, ‘It isn’t six million dead – it’s one person dead, times six million’. You could be overwhelmed by that; you could feel there was no hope or faith possible. But our Christian faith talks about a God who isn’t content with the big picture alone. In Jesus he comes alongside us as a human being, he shows that he is a God always involved with people one by one.”
This from CMS:
Merciful God, who in your great love and goodness hears the prayers of all your people and is ever-present with those who walk in the shadow of death: we hold in our prayers all who suffer loss and devastation in the wake of the tsunami disaster.
Comfort those who mourn. Give hope to those whose hope has been taken away. Strengthen the will of people everywhere to generously give help and aid. Guide governments and agencies leading relief programmes.
For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, who suffered and died for the life of the world. Amen
More CMS prayers, including to from Madagascar and Bangladesh, collected by John Carden, are available here. Reports are going up on the USPG site, including one from the National Christian Council of India and another from Thailand.
Prayer and worship resources are being created and curated by the National Council of Churches in Australia, by the Church of Scotland. See also Beyond Our Tears.
The hope people experience is often vulnerable, traditional and honest:
[Malaysia Star]: Jan 2: KOTA KINABALU: Candle-lit boats were sent off at the popular Tanjung Aru beach here at the stroke of midnight in memory of those who perished in last Sunday’s earthquake and tsunami.
[India News]: Porayar, Jan 1: A Special prayer for the departed souls in the Tsunami attack will mark the New Year in the Basillica at Velankanni, the battered pilgrim town in Nagai district.
According to Church sources, Thanjavur Bishop Dr Devdoss Ambrose who is coordinating relief works in the town, will conduct the special prayer.
For decades, Velankanni had remained a special destination for New Year celebrations for people of all religions. Lakhs (devotees) used to gather in this town on New Year’s eve to have a glimpse of the Lady of Good Health.
This is the first time [that] this church [will] wear a deserted look on New Year. Only the priests [from] the Church and very few people are found in the town today. PTI
[Asia News]: Thailand, 31 Dec: The local Bishop, Mgr Pratan Sridarunsil, said the death toll might surpass 2,000, whilst the known injured are 5573.
Leaders of the country’s various religions celebrated liturgies and suffrage rites for the tsunami victims and prayed for the families affected by the tragedy. Full story.
People of faith across the globe are united in hopeful silence.
“In Malaysia, even though the major religion is Islam, religious leaders of all faiths have held a mass multi-faith memorial service on Friday to be united in prayer for victims of the Asian tsunamis.
Sasana Abhiwurdhi Wardhana Society President Sarath Surendre said, “We want Malaysians from all walks of faith to participate in the memorial service. We want to show that people from different faiths can unite and pray for the tsunami victims.”