The temptation for someone who was in Vanuatu at the time of the recent cyclone – the most intense cyclone ever to have passed through the island group, wreaking the most devastating havoc ever witnessed – is to describe what that experience was like.
In this reflection I have chosen another approach for three reasons.The first is that stories of such experiences never seem to do justice to the event itself; secondly, by now we have all seen numerous first-hand accounts in the media; thirdly, the most important aspect of the tragedy is what we might learn from it, in particular what might the event teach us about the nature of God and what it means to be truly human.
This is not an incidental or indifferent question, at least not for the peoples of Vanuatu.Their traditional cultures uphold a view that the whole of life is determined by the presence and power of spirits; the good spirits who bring blessing, and the evil spirits who bring curse and punishment.
Within that cultural context, it is all too frequently heard that the Christian God operates in a similar way. In 1987, when Cyclone Uma damaged the nation, and soon afterwards the then-Prime Minister, Anglican Priest Walter Lini, suffered a severe stroke, the widespread view was that the country and its government were being punished by God – a God who was angry about the ways of the nation and its political leaders.
Such deeply held traditional cultural convictions continue to be carried over into the beliefs of the Christian Church in Vanuatu, so that for many the recent cyclone will be read as an act of judgment and a call to repentance. There is a clear logic about this belief and even some scriptural warrant, but that doesn’t make it Christian belief.
If our reflection on disasters such as Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu is through the logic of the season of Lent and of Easter, then this might lead us into very different understanding and insight. Let me suggest how.
In the church building known locally as PMC (Paton Memorial Church – named, not after the famous John G Paton but after his wife, Margaret Whitecross Paton), the damage done by the cyclone is immediately apparent… sections of two walls knocked flat and the flooded floor strewn with a carpet of decimated leaves. The damage is symptomatic of the chaos wielded by the cyclone across the country and across the hearts and souls of local people.
But on one section of the church ceiling there is a green banner bearing the words of Psalm 46: ‘God is our shelter and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble.’ This speaks not of a courtroom God who distributes blessing and curse according to worth, but of a relational God within whose breast human life finds its unique source of peace and courage within chaos. It is not a question of whether or not trouble will come; nor is it a question of whether such trouble is a deliberate act of punishment by a vengeful God. It is a declaration that, given that trouble will visit the homes of the faithful and the unfaithful, where can genuine peace and reliable strength be found?
The most vivid expression of an answer to that question is found in the Easter story of the suffering Christ who, in the midst of cyclonic devastation of his own life – devastation that finished in premature death and the experience of an utter absence of God – God’s word of life speaks its message of peace and hope.
There was a specific glimpse of that same answer amid the chaotic scenes on the Sunday morning after the cyclone hit. In one of the most severely damaged areas of Port Vila – an area known as ‘Seaside’ – the small community of people resolved to gather each morning for prayer, seeking the peace and strength of God. At the end of their morning prayers, they set their recovery plan for the day ahead.
The cyclone had done its worst, but the faith of the people was that God was now about to re-build, not only their dwellings but also their spirits. Their conviction is that this is a God of life and not of death, of order and not of chaos.
Share has set up a Cyclone Relief Appeal with donations for Vanuatu supporting UnitingWorld’s
Cyclone Pam Appeal. Their partners in Vanuatu are currently identifying their most immediate
requirements and UnitingWorld will respond accordingly. Donations for the Northern Territory and Queensland will be forwarded to the Assembly National Disaster Relief Fund. Funds will provide direct financial support and targeted recovery programs to people in the worst-hit areas.
You can support the cyclone relief efforts through Share by sending a cheque or money order to:
Share Cyclone Appeal
PO Box 24154
MELBOURNE VIC 3001
Alternatively, you can call 1800 668 426 or donate online at www.shareappeal.org.au.