I heard sad words last week spoken by an Afghan woman in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that shook Paktika province, near the border with Pakistan.
“God is trying to find as many ways possible to kill us.”
With over 1,000 dead and thousands more left injured and homeless, there is mourning in every street.
At last the international community are being welcomed in with humanitarian aid, and the government are allowing them to be in charge of distribution; in the past the the Taliban were guilty of diverting aid to their own supporters. Operation Mercy has been waiting months for permission to do a nutrition programme for women and children. Now, they have a mandate from the Taliban to feed twice as many malnourished infants as had been proposed! The turn around is earth shattering!
Something similar happened in Iran in 2003. A huge earthquake hit the southern city of Bam, and many of the traditional mud brick houses collapsed; out of a town of 100,000, around a third perished in the earthquake. Suddenly the government that had expelled foreigners threw open their doors and 87 NGOs from all over the world were entering Iran, without difficulty, collecting visas at the airport. God answered our prayers to open the country, but not in the way we had imagined. Julyan arrived, representing Operation Mercy, to a scene of utter devastation.
Behind the statistics were countless tales of human tragedy. A woman in the graveyard was screaming and throwing dust over her head in hysterical grief as she mourned the loss of her husband and all five of her children. This childless widow in her destitute state seemed to express the immeasurable pain of the suffering community at a time of national disaster. She resembled the Daughter of Zion, the Old Testament people of God, who experience the calamities of God’s judgement. The prophet Jeremiah laments on their behalf,
‘Look around and see. Is there any suffering like my suffering that was inflicted on me, that the Lord brought on me in the day of his fierce anger?’ (Lamentations 1:12).
The Bible does teach earthquakes are a sign of the last days, when everything that can be shaken will be shaken, in order to reveal that which cannot be shaken. However, Muslims only understand God as Creator and Judge. It is the Christian’s privilege and responsibility to share he is also a gracious, forgiving Father who comes alongside us in our sorrows as a comforter, and who has overcome death in the resurrection of Jesus to give us hope. Those experiencing trauma and hardship, wherever they may be, need Christ’s presence alongside them demonstrating God’s compassion, helping to rebuild shattered lives, offering the true hope of the gospel. The church must be there in the hard shaken places to be both witnesses and advocates for the suffering.
If the inhabitants of Bam in Iran, or Paktika province in Afghanistan, are to find Jesus the Saviour God’s people have to go through the hardship with them. Like Jeremiah, the church must become the eyewitness, helping them to give voice and lament heavenward, acting as an advocate before God and the world. Those suffering mustn’t feel forgotten. Someone needs to speak tenderly and cry out like the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort my people!”
Footsteps of Blessing
Initially in the city of Bam there was need of relief work, but as the months passed the larger NGOs left. Operation Mercy staff stayed. They stayed through fiercely cold winters and suffocatingly hot summers to establish a rehabilitation centre to help survivors with spinal injuries who couldn’t find work. Sohrab was one who had to be carried to the centre in a blanket. Since breaking his back he had suffered terrible bed sores. Unable to cope, his wife had left him, and Sohrab had given up the will to live. With nursing care, good nutrition and the hope filled atmosphere at the centre, Sohrab’s health improved. He found the strength to persevere with the physiotherapy that enabled him to sit up and use a wheelchair. His wife returned, and he took up wood carving again.
After the earthquake in Iran, a local driver commented,
“The footsteps of the Christians have blessed Bam.”
What did he mean? The blessing was in their coming. It was in their staying, walking with them in their pain. As Paul said, quoting the prophet Isaiah, ‘Beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News’ (Romans 10:14-15).