When the magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck on Sept. 4, 2010, I was fast asleep. We were flying off to Auckland that morning and I had gone to bed late. But the bed started rocking at 4:35 am and then Iain flew into the room shouting “Earthquake!” I was so terrified I jumped out of bed shouting the name of JESUS! “Jesus, help us,” I yelled. I couldn’t run straight. The earth was thrusting so violently that I lurched from side to side as I dashed towards the nearest doorframe.
Iain and I sandwiched Charis between us. A violent roaring accompanied the turbulence, as if everything around and beneath us was being shaken. We prayed for it to stop but it continued to rage relentlessly.
The first thing that crossed my mind was this: If I were to die today, how would I feel about it? To my surprise, I felt okay. I could leave everything behind. My second thought was whom do I need to forgive? I couldn’t think. I tried and tried to remember the words to Psalm 91 but nothing came to mind beyond, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will find refuge in the something of the Almighty.” Petrified, I just kept praying “Hide us in the shadow of your wings, Lord. Keep us under your wings.” I was hyper annoyed with myself to have been unable to remember a thing! My mind was so blocked by fear!
Iain had swapped beds with Charis the night before because both Charis and I wanted to go to bed early, since the airport shuttle was coming for us at 6:15 am. Obviously, the next day, we didn’t need the alarm which was set for 5 a.m. J When it finally rang, I adamantly refused to leave the doorway. The quake lasted about 45 seconds but we stayed under the doorframe for nearly an hour, dashing out quickly to grab a Bible and a flashlight, then heading back under the doorframe. The power was out and it was hellishly dark. No power. No radio. No TV news. The aftershocks were rolling in. To date, there have been over 1500 aftershocks.
Iain related that a minute before the quake struck, he awoke suddenly and felt prompted to pray for our protection. He did, and a minute later, BANG! It was rockin’ and rollin’!
I can’t remember ever having been so terrified that it was impossible to think or function. I kept upbraiding myself, telling myself to buck up and be a better role model for Charis so that she would stay calm. Model calmness, model calmness, I chided myself, but my hands and knees were shaking so violently that I could not mask the trembling.
At 5:30 am, we finally ventured away from the doorframe and I rang our pastor to make sure his family was okay. Then I rang some other friends. All those I called were shaken but unharmed. We had no batteries for a radio so I listened on my trusty old Walkman and we started hearing the horror stories flooding in…about how buildings had crashed in the central city; how roads had buckled, rising and falling like waves of asphalt; how walls and chimneys had come crashing down on cars, on beds, on streets. And the MIRACULOUS news that, so far, no one had died!!!
In the days that followed, the miracle tales bubbled to the surface. A young boy had been thrown, bed and all, out of the second storey of their house. He lived to tell the tale. A young woman’s cheek was brushed by a falling brick, but her cousin had roused her from sleep before the wall came crashing down. A 57-year old man living with his 80+ year old mother jumped out of bed to save his mother’s precious china cabinet just before the wall tumbled like loose teeth into his bed. A baby who had been crying and who’d been moved to the parent’s room before sleeping…had the lamp in her nursery fall off the ceiling and the ceiling crash onto her bassinet.
My friend, Pat, lives alone. When the quake struck, she leapt out of the house and got into her car in her pajamas, completely forgetting to grab her eyeglasses. She drove blindly to her friend’s house, thanking God that other cars let her through even if there were no traffic lights working, and she could not see clearly to drive in the dark.
Cars filled the roads as terrified folks dashed to their elderly parents’ homes to check on them. Gas stations were jammed with cars all wanting to get gas in case their owners needed to flee the city.
Needless to say, bread, milk and water sold out pretty quickly. Supermarket staff donned gumboots to wade through knee-deep-high merchandise that had cascaded into the aisles. We were prepared because we had stocked food, but I wasn’t sure our stored water was still drinkable and the pharmacies had run out of water purification tablets.
When I think that a week or so before, I had gazed on our emergency stock of food and thought, “When is this earthquake ever going to come? Perhaps we should go ahead and eat our store of food before everything goes off!” I feel irrationally ashamed now…almost as if my impatience to have it over and done with had in fact precipitated its coming.
The friend we were planning to stay with in Auckland rang over and over again. She wanted to know if we could still come. The airport was closed and everyone had been sent home. All flights were cancelled. But can you keep an eye on it and come up when they open the airport again, she begged.
Her family was coming down South to ski and we were flying up North to spend time with her. We hadn’t visited Auckland in over a decade and needed a holiday. Her family members were annoyed that the earthquake was threatening to get in the way of their ski plans. And I was beginning to feel indignant and annoyed at their attitude!!! It felt like hubris in the face of the great Uncontrollable…as if their impatience and their ski plans could convince an earthquake to back off so that their pleasure goal wouldn’t be blocked.
Even today, I bump into folks who complain that people outside of Christchurch don’t understand what it’s like to live here post-quake. They cannot comprehend the perennial state of hyper-vigilance we’re all in, and the stress and exhaustion that produces. They say their non-Christchurch friends flippantly prescribe medication “Just take this and you’ll be sorted.” Or they say, “It’s finished now so you’ll be right.”
They don’t see the quake-conditioned responses of Christchurch folks. They don’t know that a mammoth cement mixer rumbling down and making the road tremble can make us dive under a table. That the sound of wood creaking can puncture our sleep and make us leap out of bed. That sudden dizziness (from lack of sleep) makes us imagine an aftershock is underway when it’s only us who are swaying.
I’ve been in earthquakes in the Philippines and Japan. Outside my 6th floor office window in Tokyo, I saw high-rises swaying towards each other. I knew that if I stuck my hand out of the office window, I would be able to touch the building next door as it bobbed our way. But I have never experienced an earthquake which was succeeded by weeks of aftershocks, some sharp and pointed, some long and shallow…but all contriving to keep us vigilant and on adrenalin. It’s not unlike the torture inflicted on spies on TV where prisoners aren’t allowed to sleep but are subjected to a constant and unpreductable barrage of sensory stimulation so that the senses are always on alert and the mind and body are not allowed to rest and recover. It fazes you. You feel disoriented, not knowing what day it is – your body yearning for sleep, your mind too terrified to surrender to the seductive allure of sleep for fear of another shock and all of its fearsome possibilities.
In the early hours of this morning, two aftershocks swept over us. As usual, I immediately peeled back the duvet to scramble out of bed, but Iain grabbed me and held me tight and still, whispering “Peace. It’s going to be all right.”. The other night, a longer aftershock rumbled through the city and I immediately tore down the corridor screaming my daughter’s name before jumping into bed to shield her. She thought I had come in for a cuddle.
We are still waiting for this endless saga to end. It doesn’t help when the media circulates the news that “Folks, big as that was, that WASN’T the Big One we’re expecting! Nope. We are still expecting THE BIG ONE!!!” Punters are placing their bets on the big one striking the West Coast of New Zealand along the Alpine fault. The Moon Man, Ken Ring, (http://www.predictweather.com/) has boldly predicted it could happen on March 20, 2011, and that the Hokitika Wild Foods Festival would best be rescheduled.
Thankfully, we recently had two days of relative peace…enough to cause some of us to dare to think of unclenching our fists and relaxing our grip. When that fabric of peace was riven by yet another unexpected shock (and we’ve had several of varying magnitudes including 5 and 6), you realize you can’t really let your guard down. Who knows if one of these triggers the Big One???
So, this is life “in the wilderness” where we can’t control the awesome forces of nature, and basically need to surrender our lives and all we have to God’s care. As human beings we do all we can to protect and provide for our families. But in the end, we inevitably come to the end of ourselves and are forced to realize that control is an illusion. There is no such thing as control. I hate that thought but there it is.
We can’t predict earthquakes, much less prevent them. I feel like a puny ineffectual little worm whose acclaimed superior thinking, planning, and strategic skills avail me little before the powerhouse of Nature. So who am I to think I can even question God who created this blockbuster called Mother Nature?
I’ve been asking God about this, because the earthquake’s handiwork has been marked by startling randomness. One building disintegrated into rubble while its neighbours on either side stood unscathed. In the subdivisions that were hardest hit, some houses were written-off while others were deemed safe. One family sold its house and moved happily into a new one, while the new owners of their old house were jolted awake the morning after the moving-in party to find their dream house irredeemably ravaged.
There’s no getting my head around it. I have to let it go. Newsflash: God doesn’t owe me any explanations.
33Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
34“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor? (Romans 11:33-34 NCV)
Or as the New Living Translation puts it:
Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! For who can know the LORD’s thoughts? Who knows enough to give him advice?
I have often thought of giving God advice. Haven’t you? Have you ever played the game, “If I were God, this is how I’D rule the world”? Well, you don’t get far because every decision you make has a consequence which sparks an unexpected consequence and yet another until you get very tired. If you play this game with someone, that person’s role is to ask you, “So, if you do that, what about this? If that move benefits this group, what about that group? If you take that course of action and this results, what will you do then?” And you end up thinking that if you had only known this decision of yours would spark that series of reactions, or if you had only known how that choice would result in chaos, then you’d have done such and such instead of what you did. The sad but inescapable truth is that we’re human…much as we’d prefer to be divine. We don’t know things in advance and we can’t see all of the past or all of the future, so it’s difficult to plan wisely and take EVERYTHING into account before making a move. Only an all-seeing all-knowing God sees all those planes and dimensions all at once, takes into consideration all the factors and players involved, and moves in wisdom. It is as Paul writes, “Who can understand His decisions and His ways? His paths are beyond tracing out!”
Therefore, as the uninvited would-be adviser of God, I have an announcement to make: