On a shelf in my kitchen - when I still had a shelf - I had collected a line of plastic bottles filled with drinking water. I had two tins of beans and four packets of chicken soup and a carton of that UHT milk which tastes a bit like soap. I had a torch and a sleeping bag and a battery-powered radio. And I went about my business, secure in the knowledge that I was prepared for pretty much anything.
But, I wasn’t prepared for the earthquake that shook us over a week ago. None of us were. None of us are prepared for the names we know on the ever-growing lists of the dead and the missing. For some people, there is the horror of waiting still for news of a loved one or a mate who just never came home. None of us were prepared to get back from work and find our homes in pieces.
For many of us the streets we had played in as kids, the places we met the people we love, where we first worked – they’re gone or changed beyond recognition. The quake has taken the lives of so many, and the livelihoods of many more, and the memories of almost everybody. Who is ever prepared for loss on that scale?
When the earthquake struck, I was huddled in a doorframe in the back of the cathedral waiting for the bells to ring wildly as they had done in every major quake before. Instead there was a long, slow rumble as the tower fell down. I’ve been replaying that noise in my mind ever since, so when I heard on Saturday that no bodies had been found in the cathedral, I sat on my front step and wept. In one of the bleakest weeks I remember, it was a small ray of hope.
We can store up all the packets and bottles and sleeping bags we like, and tell ourselves that we’re secure, but it’s not really true. We are fragile people. We are so very fragile.
In the language of the insurance policies, the Christchurch earthquake was "an act of God". That sort of theology sees God like a puppet master who stands above the stage and pulls our strings with a supreme lack of interest. Some people believe that the earthquake is a sign God is punishing us, so they roll out our favourite hobby horse to blame. I’m already starting to receive angry emails from people who insist that everything from transvestites in Latimer Square to the ordination of women to the Christchurch Wizard and – remarkably - the floral carpet are at fault.
Nonsense. We look for blame because it’s easier to have an explanation than to live with uncertainty. But I don’t for one second believe in the sort of God who doles out misery like gold stars in reverse. I don’t believe in God the tax accountant, who tots up a careful arithmetic of blame. We have a God who believes in new life, life in all its fullness, and God is there among the rubble weeping with the lost.
It’s time now to apply some defiant common sense. As Dean Peter Beck said this week, the earthquake was not an act of God. It was just the earth doing what it does. Under our feet there are two unimaginably vast slabs of rock floating in the tides of a ball of liquid iron. They grind on slowly, as they have done for millions of years, and where they rub together the earth is pushed up at the seams into mountains, or swallowed up in vast trenches. Sometimes the slabs move, stick and then move again as they did for us. Into all this impermanence, we are born and set up camp for the briefest of periods.
But that’s not the end of the story. Behind this globe of molten rock, there is a God who designed it all and put it in place. There is a God who knows just how breakable we are and how much it hurts, because that God has been here and walked about, laughed and wept and died and rose to life again here among us.
The earthquake isn’t an act of God. The act of God is the way we care for each other in the aftermath. In the city, there are hundreds of search and rescue workers carefully lifting the rubble as they retrieve the bodies of the dead and return them to their families. There are police and military keeping the cordon secure. There are emergency workers in the Art Gallery co-ordinating the almost unimaginable task of the cleanup. What all these people are doing is an act of God.
There is the 20,000-strong student volunteer army who turn up in streets in Bexley and Aranui with shovels to dig people’s homes out of the contaminated silt, and to bring in supplies of fresh water. What they are doing is an act of God.
There are the dairy owners in Avonside who just gave their stock away to people in need after the quake. This is an act of God.
In my own street, there is an elderly woman called Jean who lives by herself. Directly after the earthquake, families all around her were moving out of the city. Her neighbours were so reluctant to leave her on her own that they brought Jean and her labrador with them to their relatives on the West Coast. This is community at work, and it is an act of God.
Jesus reminds us (in Matthew 25:31-41) that faith isn’t about what you believe. Faith isn’t a series of careful statements which you can argue, more or less cogently. In the end, I am sure it won’t matter terribly much where exactly you stand on the nature of the church or the authority of the pope or what you believe about the Anglican covenant. Faith is about what you do. Feed the hungry, Jesus says. When people don’t have water, give them something to drink. Throw open your doors to the stranger, look after the sick, visit the prisoners. Goodness isn’t planned. It’s not a heroic decision or a clever calculation. It’s an expression of who we are.
Faith isn’t something you can fall into like a soft job, without getting your hands dirty. It takes muscle and guts. It’s that kind of faith that builds and rebuilds communities.
We are never really prepared for an event like the earthquake, however carefully we might plan. But we are not left without a promise either. Paul sets it out plainly in what I think is the single most powerful passage in the whole New Testament:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”