“Are you OK?” — Sudden Suffering at Christmas

Sometimes the words “We’re OK” are a little unsettling, in particular when the message comes out of the blue and you didn’t realise anything was wrong or that your loved ones might not have been OK. We sometimes end up sending such messages but a few days ago were on the receiving end.

Having had a twin bomb attack in our city (Jos) a couple of weeks ago, and having fielded  kind enquiries from friends as to our safety, it was a strange reversal to end up hearing “We’re OK” from family in Glasgow after the George Square bin lorry accident. However, from here in Nigeria, the drama of the aftermath seems a little surprising. Perhaps it’s because we drive past horrific traffic accidents pretty frequently and regularly hear of Islamic violence affecting our communities and friends somewhere in Nigeria. And perhaps Glasgow is a much more tranquil place with less suffering.

Inevitably Facebook and Twitter, and the comment sections of news feeds, light up in such times with instant reaction. Leaving aside the ‘shock jocks’ who use tragedy to exhibit their immaturity, it seems you get something of an insight into a society’s religious outlook and their attitude to suffering.

Why – aside from the busier streets – is it particularly bad that this happens at Christmas? Perhaps because the sudden trauma seems out of place at a time when the commercial world is helping us to get as comfortable and happy as possible. And yet, while an unwelcome intrusion into Christmas cheer, the sober-minded would have to admit it is an element of reality. Computer games aside, Westerners are particularly keen on covering up death and suffering. So when you see it unfold in front of you, and particularly in places you walk daily (George Square, Clutha…) perhaps it disturbs our myth of control and calm and leaves us floundering.

Meanwhile in the many parts of the world ravaged by Islamism and all sorts of terror that myth doesn’t exist and people know that they just have to get on with life. So what do we do when tragedy strikes? In particular how should Christian people react?

Luke 13:1    Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.  2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

6     Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

8     “ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” [NIV]

Of course traditional religious urges always surface at times like this wherever we are in the world and we have Catholic masses and equivalent services being held to cater to those who feel we need to do something, but I think it’s fairly plain what Jesus would have us do: repent. Some will bring flowers, some mementos, some prayers, but with all of that there’s a profound danger that those who survive the catastrophe miss the one most important lesson to learn. All of us need to take seriously the wake-up calls that remind us how we are rebellious people living in a groaning world. Writing from Nigeria, that reality is fairly clear; perhaps in Glasgow it wasn’t so clear until disaster struck.

Seeing tragedy strike others is a warning; we – the useless ‘fig tree’ will face a day of reckoning. The fruit Jesus looked for was hearing his words, trusting him and keeping turning around to obey him, wasn’t it? Now that’s a fairly clear message which applies to all of us even if it’s not what our world is going to focus on. Westerners respond to tragedy with investigations and attempts to prevent something like that happening again, and rightly so. In Nigeria, maybe we just thank God it wasn’t me this time. But in both cases there’s more that we need to do, I think.

One final note: I don’t want to criticise people for being upset about tragedies which are near to home, but much much worse stuff is happening in north-eastern Nigeria to whole communities; not just random accidents. It’s heart-breaking to hear of friends and colleagues whose aged mothers have had to flee into the mountains for safety from islamic maniacs, whose childhood friends have been shot or hacked to death, whose whole communities have been dislocated and scattered across the country. Repent, and also pray for Nigeria.

Meanwhile, here’s a worthy reflection 10 years ago on the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, from Dr William Philip at The Tron Church.

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