Wednesday, March 27, 2013 |
Philip Yancey, author of numerous books on Christian faith, has witnessed a lot of tragedy over the years and has comforted the survivors of the Virginia Tech mass shooting and the Mumbai Massacre. He visits people when their grief is fresh because he is looking for answers. Even though he is a believer, he still has questions, and in his latest book, he tackles a big one: What Good Is God?
In 2007, Yancey had a car accident and woke up in the hospital, where he lay for seven hours while doctors ran various tests, trying to figure out how badly injured he was. As it turned out, he had a broken neck, and went through a long rehab period, but suffered no lasting effects. He regards those seven hours "as a very precious time, a gift where I really was forced to confront what matters most in life. And I realized that so many of the things we concentrate on, focus on, worry about, don't matter if this could be your last day on Earth," he said. "I decided only three things matter at a time like that...who do I love, what have I done with my life and am I ready for whatever is next?" For Yancey, those three questions are constantly in the back of his mind. "They took on a prominence in my life that, hopefully, inform the decisions I make, what I write and the rest of my life."
When he was still on the mend, Yancey got a phone call from the pastor at Virginia Tech, where 33 people had been killed, asking if he would come and address a campus-wide meeting. Yancey was in a neck brace, and had been told by his doctor not to travel by air. But he wanted to try to go. As it happened, he knew of a wealthy man whose corporate lawyer had a daughter who had been wounded in the Columbine shooting. The father and daughter gave talks about their experience, and it occurred to Yancey to ask them to go to Virginia too. The man's boss then offered the use of his Lear jet, and Yancey's doctor gave him permission to take the trip.
At the gathering at Virginia Tech, Yancey was struck by how everyone looked "shell-shocked," and desperately in need of some kind of comfort. It prompted him to reflect that "you only experience grief if you're not alone, if you're touched by people, if you love. Grief was really a sign of love. It was the connection that causes the grief that I was seeing in their faces."
Yancey went on to quote Dr. Paul Brand, a leprosy specialist he wrote three books with, who said that "a healthy body is a body that feels the pain of the weakest part. " Yancey believes that applies not only to the physical body, but to "a corporate body, like a campus, or even a nation... Health is not pretending there's no problem, health is facing into the problem, but not facing it alone."
Yancey described meeting with a survivor of the 2011 tsunami in Japan who had been swept into a pile of debris and trapped for several days before finally being pulled to safety. While she was waiting for rescue, she was afraid that she had been forgotten. Afterwards, she also worried that her town, which had been completely destroyed, would not be remembered."Please don't forget us," she told Yancey.
"That's the message to us who are in health and strength, I believe," he said. "Our job is to feel the pain of the weakest part, and then to reach out and offer whatever comfort and practical help that we can."
When asked whether his faith has ever wavered in the face of tragedy, Yancey said no. But he also understands that tragedy can make people angry at God, and he believes there's a place for anger and frustration in prayer. He pointed to the Bible's Book of Psalms as an example: "about two-thirds are songs of lament, songs of complaint."
Yancey says that his own prayers have changed. "I used to think of prayer as my way of trying to get God to do what I wanted done...now I see prayer as my way of tuning in to what God may want done, and what my role should be in that."
Yancey is considered an "inspirational" author, a term that can be looked upon with cynicism. Although he acknowledges that platitudes are of no help in difficult times, he said that people who have experienced trauma "need hope, you need inspiration, you need belief, you need comfort." In well-off countries, where the majority of us have our basic needs met, it may be possible to grow cynical. "But in other parts of the world, they don't have that liberty."