Reflections on an Earthquake—20 Years Later

On July 16, 1990, I was standing in front of my nipa hut (picture a tropical “grass” hut) when the papaya tree in the yard began swaying back and forth—its branches almost touching the ground as it lurched from side to side. I was on a missions project, living just outside the town of Victoria on the island of Mindoro in the western Philippines. This was the first earthquake I had ever been in. Later on I would learn that it measured 7.8 on the Richter scale—leaving one of those movie-like cracks in the ground stretching from Dingalan to Cuyapo, 125 km in length (although I was far from there when it happened). Within days I was standing in the Canadian Consulate offices in downtown Manila when another quake—one of many powerful aftershocks in the weeks that followed—caused the whole office tower to sway back and forth. As we looked out the window at the office tower across the way, we could see that the two towers were swaying in opposite directions, like two kids on a swing-set passing each other midway. I began to feel nervous when we saw a crack in the concrete snake up the side of the opposite building. Perhaps for the first time I missed, at that moment, my grass hut and my papaya tree. Sky-scrapers and office districts are not very safe places in an earthquake.

During the next few weeks I served as part of a team surveying the damage and taking part in relief work in the northern Benguet province, based out of the devastated city of Baguio. I was very young at that time: only 18 years old. Many of the sites and smells of death that I witnessed then still linger with me today. But two other memories stand out to me in contrast to the devastation caused by the earthquake. One pleasant memory is of many times gathered together with people from various parts of the Philippines gathered together to pray for those suffering the death of loved ones or personal injury. We were moved by love and compassion for people we did not know. Another memory is of my first time preaching a full sermon in a church building. Our team was working in a small village in the mountains, based in a Catholic Church. There was no priest there and as Sunday approached I was asked to prepare a sermon. I seem to recall a pretty good crowd in that little mountain church on Sunday morning. To a people whose lives were literally shaken, I spoke of God’s faithfulness and offer of salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

 

Last night as Heather and I watched the horrific images of waves washing Japan in destruction, my heart was heavy. I felt sick with sympathy for pain past imagining thundering down on so many hapless people. People all over the world will respond with sacrifice and courage to bring aid to the Japanese. But Christians must remember, in addition to helping in any material way possible, both to pray and to preach the Gospel. As Pastor John Piper reminds readers in this blog article posted just after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, (and in this update) in every catastrophe like this one, there is both judgement and mercy to be found. If some of the things I witnessed in the Philippines over 20 years ago affect me even still, how much more will such a massive tragedy have deep and long-term consequences for the people of Japan? And how great, then, an opportunity for Christians to rise up with compassion, practical care, with hope and with the Good News of Jesus Christ… for many years to come? That scar that stretched 125 km across the Philippine landscape is not so long or deep as the scars that will be left behind in the wake of the Japanese earthquake of March 11, 2011. But there is no safe place in an earthquake or tsunami—there is no safe place to escape the wrath of God that one day will fall in judgement on the whole human race. People might hide in their sky-scrapers, or long for the lost tranquility of grass huts and papaya trees. But there is no hope other than in Jesus. There is no safety in any other Saviour.

The Church of Jesus Christ in this world alone has the message all people need to hear. But our compassion has tended to be short-lived. When disaster strikes we do a pretty good job rising up to meet the need for a little while. How well will we still be meeting the needs of those who survive this disaster 20 years from now? How long will our compassion last? How long will our prayers continue? How long will we persevere to earn the trust of those who need to hear the Gospel?

 


A Prayer for Japan, by John Piper [source]

 

The power of moving water is greater than most of us can imagine. Nothing stands before it. We are driven to our knees:

Father in heaven, you are the absolute Sovereign over the shaking of the earth, the rising of the sea, and the raging of the waves. We tremble at your power and bow before your unsearchable judgments and inscrutable ways. We cover our faces and kiss your omnipotent hand. We fall helpless to the floor in prayer and feel how fragile the very ground is beneath our knees.

O God, we humble ourselves under your holy majesty and repent. In a moment—in the twinkling of an eye—we too could be swept away. We are not more deserving of firm ground than our fellowmen in Japan. We too are flesh. We have bodies and homes and cars and family and precious places. We know that if we were treated according to our sins, who could stand? All of it would be gone in a moment. So in this dark hour we turn against our sins, not against you.

And we cry for mercy for Japan. Mercy, Father. Not for what they or we deserve. But mercy.

Have you not encouraged us in this? Have we not heard a hundred times in your Word the riches of your kindness, forbearance, and patience? Do you not a thousand times withhold your judgments, leading your rebellious world toward repentance? Yes, Lord. For your ways are not our ways, and your thoughts are not our thoughts.

Grant, O God, that the wicked will forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Grant us, your sinful creatures, to return to you, that you may have compassion. For surely you will abundantly pardon. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord Jesus, your beloved Son, will be saved.

May every heart-breaking loss—millions upon millions of losses—be healed by the wounded hands of the risen Christ. You are not unacquainted with your creatures’ pain. You did not spare your own Son, but gave him up for us all.

In Jesus you tasted loss. In Jesus you shared the overwhelming flood of our sorrows and suffering. In Jesus you are a sympathetic Priest in the midst of our pain.

Deal tenderly now, Father, with this fragile people. Woo them. Win them. Save them.

And may the floods they so much dread make blessings break upon their head.

O let them not judge you with feeble sense, but trust you for your grace. And so behind this providence, soon find a smiling face.

In Jesus’ merciful name, Amen.