Our fragile existence

January 3, 2005

ENOUGH BAD NEWS FOR A WHOLE YEAR SEEMS TO HAVE SWEPT OVER US IN THE FEW DAYS SINCE CHRISTMAS! One of the greatest natural disasters in our time has taken a huge toll of life in a dozen Asian and African nations. Thousands of western holidaymakers are still reported missing. The estimated 140,000 deaths so far dwarf the casualty list of 9/11, and even surpasses the human ‘collateral damage’ inflicted in Iraq over the past two years. It all reads like a sensational script for a second-rate movie about the end-times.

What a shaky start to the new year! As if the start of the still-young century has not been shaky enough! Adding to the insecurity and confusion caused by global terrorism-including the political murders here in Holland of Fortuyn and Van Gogh-we now seem to have the forces of nature ganging up with Al Qaeda against the human race. I see the face of one little Asian boy interviewed on television saying how the sea always seemed to be so calm and friendly, but now they could never go back there again!

Jesus aptly described such as time as this in Luke 21:25: ‘On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world…’

Whether or not these are ‘end-times’, it is an appropriate moment to ponder the fragility (and improbability) of our existence and of our dependence on God’s grace. We tend to take for granted the stability and predictability of our world, as if humankind was in control. Let’s face it. We had nothing to do with our being here on this planet in the first place.

Over Christmas I listened to U2’s latest album, How to dismantle an atomic bomb. It comes with a notebook containing sketches and personal musings by the band members, contrasting despair and hope. One page is a hand-written labyrinth starting in a spiral and working outwards towards a cross. Part of the text reads as follows:
The Big Bang was of the perfect strength to cause the creation of the universe as we know it.
Any stronger and the force of expansion would have made the formation of matter impossible,
the energy of the Big bang would have continued outwards in the form of radio waves.
Any less powerful and the pull-back to the centre caused by gravity would have instantly sucked everything blown out
back into the tiny pinpoint where it all started.
That this occurred has made possible the formation of all matter, in the form of gas – the substance of all stars, and all other substances, liquids and solids.
The threshold for the existence of matter is so tiny that the existence of the universe is either the greatest fluke imaginable
or the inevitable result of some ultimate creative influence…

Add to that an awareness that our planet is so finely tuned for the existence of life – exactly the right distance away from the sun, the right size to have the right strength gravity for life as we know it, the right thickness of atmosphere to sustain life, hurtling at the right speed through space, the right angle of tilt to give us seasons, the right conditions for life-giving water (earth is the only place known in the universe where hydrogen dioxide exists as liquid, thus the only place in the cosmos where a tidal wave could even happen!) – and we begin to glimpse the awesomeness of our very existence!

The wonder is that our planet is as stable and hospitable as it is.

No, we are not in control – and never have been. We were given a stewardship role over our world, but even that we messed up. Ever since the fall, creation has been in an unnatural state, groaning, longing for release from the bondage to decay, as Paul puts it (Romans 8:19-22). We live in a fallen world. Natural disasters happen and will continue to happen, taking a toll of human life. Scientists predict that sometime in the next two centuries, a volcanic activity in the Canary Islands off the coast of north Africa could release a massive wave swamping the whole east coast of the United States.

U2’s ‘Ultimate Creative Influence’ has promised to shake everything-‘that is, created things-so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire”.’ (Hebrews 12:27-29) Communism has been shaken. Islam is being shaken. Multiculturalism is being shaken. Capitalism will be shaken.

Reverence and awe for the King of the unshakeable kingdom. That’s our appropriate response when things around us are shaking. In the midst of the calamity of Jerusalem’s destruction, a lamenting Jeremiah said: ‘But this I will remember and therefore have hope: great is your faithfulness.’ (Lamentations 3:21,23). Isaiah spoke words of comfort to Israel, restoring cosmic perspective to their situation of suffering: (chapter 40:12-31)
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand?
Who has understood the mind of the Lord?
Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket;
They are regarded as dust on the scales;
He weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.
Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Lord;
my cause is disregarded by my God’?
Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth.
His understanding no-one can fathom.
Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings likes eagles;
They will run and not grow weary,
They will walk and not be faint.

None of this is to minimise the overwhelming suffering and grief for those directly affected, or the heroic work of those aiding the victims and burying the dead. It should however make us feel appropriately very small, very vulnerable and very dependent on God’s grace.

Three years ago, prior to the first Christmas after 9/11, Mayor Rudolph Guiliani told his fellow New Yorkers they had to learn to mourn and cry, even while at the same time celebrating Christmas with more enthusiasm. Christmas is after all that season when we worship the Awesome King of the cosmos who came among us as a small, vulnerable and dependent baby.

And, by the way, while most of us in the west have put away the Christmas decorations and are picking up the normal rhythms of life again, Eastern Orthodox believers celebrate Christmas this week on Thursday, January 6, the Twelfth day of Christmas, also known as Three Kings or Epiphany. More about that next week.

Till then,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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