Japan: Lessons learned in Vulnerability

There are a number of things that I believe about catastrophes of the kind that struck Japan yesterday:

  • God does not cause disasters.
  • God does not use them to punish people.
  • God does not use them to teach us lessons.
  • Disasters like this are not a blessing in disguise.
  • They are not sent or allowed by God as a test of our faith.
  • There is, in fact, no lesson to be learned from the tragedy itself because it is without content.
  • But I do believe that we can learn in the midst of a tragedy like this and we can be changed by it.
  • Not because God uses an experience like this as some kind of sadistic teacher.
  • But because suffering of the kind we have seen today should radicalize our understanding of life.

So what are some of the spiritual lessons to be learned from making ourselves vulnerable to the suffering of others at a time like this (knowing that practically speaking our ability to lend first hand aid and comfort may be severely limited or, at best, indirect — through the aid that our nation offers another or the work of recovery that many agencies might offer in the months and years ahead)?

First, we can allow an event like this to challenge and change the way in which we order our priorities.   We can stop majoring on the minor and minoring on the major.  This morning as I drove to the airport I tuned into NPR and its continued coverage of NPR.  The incongruity of it was jarring.  Yes, I understand that there was other news; life goes on; and we can’t endlessly live in crisis-mode — but this morning of all mornings was the time to focus our attention on the needs of another nation tragically struck by disaster.  If this had been an earthquake off the coast of Washington, Oregon, or California there would have been little bandwidth for anything else.  There were issues of greater moment this morning.

Second: We can allow an event like this to reorder our relationships with others — honoring the claims that our common humanity makes upon us all.  Our differences in culture, history, language, politics, religion, language — the human condition itself — will always draw us into debates and conflict.  But an event of this kind should lead us to affirm our underlying responsibility to care for one another.

Third: If we are willing, we can allow a tragedy of this kind to nurture deeper humility in each one of us.  Reminders of our mortality are never welcome and part of the reason that we cover the suffering of others with quick, cursory attention has nothing to do with brain chemistry.  It has to do with our refusal to own our own mortality reflected back to us in the suffering of others.  We can run from that realization or we can allow it to teach us a new way of living in the world — one marked by compassion, tenderness, attentive care, and vulnerability.

“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.  Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.  Amen.”

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), live in Highland Park, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and four grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, and Sophie.


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