When the Worst Happens

How do you Keep Faith when the Worst happens? That was the question raised at a conference of school chaplains that I was privileged to attend last week. On 15 April last year, the worst happened to the staff, students and parents of Elim College, an integrated Christian school not far from here. Six students and a teacher lost their lives, in a flood at an outdoor education centre in Turangi, and their families, teachers, friends and community were utterly rocked. Those of us who were around at the time offered to help as far as we could, but the weight of responsibility fell on the shoulders of Murray B. Principal at Elim and a man of firm Christian faith. How do you deal with tragedy of this magnitude in a school community? How do you face up to the practicalities of shock and pain and grief and anger? How do you manage a student body and their whanau through seven funerals and myriad other memorial events, under intense media scrutiny? How do you answer the "How?" and "Why?" questions, for yourself, as well as for those for whom you must care? Over the weeks and months, many folk in our area of Manukau City came to admire Murray’s ability to keep his cool, to avoid inadequate theology and pat answers, and to lead with grace and compassion.

Murray was one of our speakers. He shared with conference delegates, from church schools around New Zealand, the very personal journey of professional and emotional chaos on which he was launched with that first phone call from the Outdoor Pursuits Centre in the early evening of 15 April. He retold with compassion and dignity of how had to deal with the slowly unfolding saga of tragedy, and the parents and others most deeply affected by the deaths. He paid tribute to the help of other schools and churches, of police and victim support personnel, and of the staff of OPC itself. He explained why he decided not to follow conventional trauma policy, which is to send the students back to class, with the option of seeking counselling if they wish. His decision, and he holds to it, was to meet that next morning in full assembly (the school is not a large one and they can all fit in the hall/chapel at once) for prayer, hugs and tears. At the appropriate point, he said, students slowly peeled off back to classrooms, in their own time. He accepts gracefully the compliments of media and community groups for his exceptional leadership, but acknowledges that in some mysterious way he was simply "given" the words to say.

Murray invited to join him, Pastor John M. whose son Tony was the teacher who drowned at Mangetepopo. John too offered outstanding leadership in the aftermath of the crisis, all the while dealing with his own shock and grief. For conference delegates, John offered an insightful, challenging and deeply personal take on the sudden death of a loved one, and how we might Keep Faith when the Worst Happens. He told us of the unfolding drama from the point of view of a father travelling through the night, deep into the King Country hills, to reach the site of the calamity. At the outset, he said, he and his wife, a staff member at the College, thought they were needed there to provide support and pastoral care, but then with phone calls and texts came the slow but certain realisation that early reassurances of Tony's safety were totally erroneous. The last part of the journey was driven through rain and tears, in the lee of a huge truck with an array of lights on the canopy, that at least helped a distraught father navigate his path to a hugely-demanding personal and family crisis he had never anticipated.

Here is not the place to tell John's story of pain and grief and confusion over the last sixteen months. It is his to tell, but he did tell some of it, to these Heads and Chaplains, totally engaged in the drama and some openly weeping. What he found most comforting, he said, was the shared journey with that small community of parents, a disparate group of people who didn't know each well, if at all, before, and how they have provided support and strength through the immediate crisis and its lengthy aftermath of legal inquiry, police investigation and an inquest still to come. What captivated me was John's utter commitment to make sense of it theologically, and we were blessed to hear snippets of his personal journey as he moved through an early stage of not being able to read Scripture at all, through a disengagement from the well-meant talk of heaven, to a new appreciation of the tangible reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I am still processing what John shared about trauma, destiny and hope. But I was struck by his clear delineation of two paths we can go down in our theology of Human Suffering. In face of tragedy, I think he said, we can decide that our God is sovereign, in a way that is cold and whimsical, and find that there is an ambiguity about his love and his purpose that leaves us lonely and confused. The alternative view sees him as not sovereign in that way at all, and therefore beholden to human decisions and their consequences. The first is usually identified with John Calvin, the second, more popular, view, possibly with Arminius. In face of tragedy, he said, it is difficult to find hope in either of these.

I hadn't realised this, and I haven't yet found the supporting reference, but apparently Calvin's doctrine of Election - from whence we derive his notions of sovereignty and destiny - originally formed part of his writings on Pastoral Care. This is where the rubber meets the road, in making sense of the human drama. It was only later, John told us, that it was moved, by Theodor Beza , Calvin's successor in Geneva, into the more abstract sections on the Nature of God. In light of that, I find it easier to align myself with Calvin than with the popular theology that lays tragedy totally at the feet of human choice. I have taken hundreds of funerals, many celebrating the long life of a beloved parent, but some marking the tragic loss of a child. I try to be acutely pastorally sensitive, and hope I have never served up the trite phrases that John and Jeannette were offered, by misguided people trying to help. But if it were my son who died, I would privately find more comfort in the face of a sovereign, though at times inscrutable, God, than in a God who was powerless to do anything to change human destiny.

John has found - afresh - that the story of Jesus can help us make some sense of it. In Him, God's hand can be seen, bringing hope in face of defeat and despair and pain and alienation. When we know the Risen Christ in our daily experience - and that reality is the core of the Christian gospel - we find real comfort and hope. Resurrection, says John M, is a first order reality, compared with the deduced, second order notion of heaven. Resurrection is our source of Christian hope. And the community of faith, is, as John and Jeanette found, not only a witness to this hope but a conduit for it.

Tjis led me back to a book I purchased last year, from Borders in Sunnyvale, CA, for which I had seen positive reviews. Until now, it has sat on my window seat untouched. I saw it again on Sunday, and realised it is time to read it. Tom Wright - Bishop of Durham - is the man whose article on the Authority of Scripture I found enormously helpful when I was writing a sermon for Bible Sunday. His metaphor of the Bible as an unfinished Shakespearean drama requiring the active participation of committed and sensitive actors to complete the grand story, is inspiring. His 2008 book - a hardcover that I can read in the bath! - is called Surprised by Hope, Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. It is a brave attempt to challenge some of the sentimental, shonky and in some cases heretical perspectives on death and the afterlife that are found in popular theology, liturgy and hymnody, as well as in the In Memoriam section of the newspaper. At least that is what he has started with, I don't know qiuite where it will end up. Except that I did sneak a peep at the end of the book, and discovered a revealing little Appendix he originally wrote for the superb spoof website Ship Of Fools. Called Two Easter Sermons, it contrasts the Easter message of "Pastor Gospelman" - focussed on the miracle of the Empty Tomb and its promise of a blissful heavenly home "beyond the sunset" - with that of "The Reverend Smoothtongue" whose take on the demythologising of Easter is firmly in realm of liberal ethics and "rolling away" the stone of social legalism. The first is an invitation to experience the risen Christ today, so we can be in heaven with him tomorrow. The second is a rejection of any pre-modern notion of empty tomb, in favour of a "true resurrection" that releases the human spirit to a new life. Both, says Wright, miss the point. Resurrection is not about going to heaven when you die (the rest of the book is about this thesis) but it is about an actual, physical, earthly reality that brings about a renewed life here on earth. Paul's great resurrection chapter of First Corinthians doesn't end with a dream of a future life in an unearthly spiritual realm. It concludes by his enjoining his people to get on with their daily work, which has value for the Kingdom. "Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort."

When the final resurrection occurs, the realities of this present world will be included in the celebration. This means that somehow our pain and trauma, our worst as well our best moments, have value in the economy of God. I am still working out what that means for our own faith community, but I believe it says something deep and true about grace and redemption and hope.

To Chew On: What is your take on destiny and hope? Do you see this earthly life and especially human tragedy, as having deep value? How?

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
John Donne.