After the earthquake, May 2015

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After the earthquake – ‘a double descent’
On 25 April an earthquake of 7.8 magnitude shook Nepal violently. It was followed half an hour
later by an aftershock of 6.6, and one the next day of 6.7. In the weeks since then there have
been numerous more, though smaller, aftershocks. These not only put already shaky buildings at
further risk, but they also spread panic and alarm.
As I write the death toll has passed 8,000. Those treated for injuries number over 17,000. It is
reckoned that over 500,000 houses have been destroyed or badly damaged. All of these tragic
figures will only rise as details become clearer.
Since the earthquake I have found my main source of spiritual comfort in the Old Testament
book of Lamentations. The parallels between the situation described there, and Nepal now, are
striking. Jerusalem had been sacked in 587 BC by the Babylonians. The city had been
devastated. Its people were traumatised and fearful. In this bleak setting the writer does show
some glorious nuggets of continuing hope and trust in God, especially in chapter 3 of his book.
It contains the best known verse in Lamentations: the Lord’s ‘compassions never fail. They are
new every morning; great is your faithfulness.’ But this is not the dominant note. As a whole
the book is a searing expression of grief, of protest, of lament. But to say all this – especially in
the context of corporate worship – is a rich and deep act of faith. For if there is no God to whom
are we addressing our complaints?
Nonetheless, I have found something lacking in Lamentations. It seems that the impact of the
destruction of Jerusalem fell equally on all of its inhabitants. The attack, and the terrible aftereffects, were universal and indiscriminate.
The same cannot be said of the earthquake in Nepal. As I’ve said, all of us feel some degree of
anxiety or fear over what will happen next. Nepal straddles an area that is highly prone to
earthquakes. The question is not ‘whether’ another big earthquake will strike again, but only
‘when?’ This gnawing uncertainty, stirred up by the continuing aftershocks, unsettles us all.
Yet in terms of the dreadful loss of life, of limb, and of livelihood, there is no doubt that in Nepal
the calamity has fallen far and away predominantly on those who were already poor and
vulnerable. Solid, substantial houses, - like the one we live in – have only cracks to tell the tale.
We have been ‘saved’ not only by our prayers, but also by the pound in our pocket which has
enabled us to rent a well-built house. A number of expensive-looking high-rise buildings have
been so badly damaged that they are now uninhabitable, but we have not seen any that have
actually fallen down. By and large it has been the poorer, older, sub-standard buildings that
simply and immediately collapsed in the earthquake, with devastating consequences for their
inhabitants.
In Kathmandu there are some areas, including where we live, that have not been too badly
affected. In Nepal as a whole it seems that the worst afflicted will be the poorest parts of
Kathmandu, and those who were already living out in the margins of this mountainous and
inaccessible country. With some exceptions the last people to receive relief or reconstruction
will be those in very remote communities. They already survived from one day to the next on
the bread-line, and they live several days’ hard and steep walking from the nearest jeep track.
In our part of Kathmandu life is beginning to get back to some semblance of ‘normality.’ To us
it very feels odd, unreal, and somehow ‘wrong’ that although we are so geographically close to
so much suffering we are physically unscathed. Isn’t the Christian faith meant to be about
identifying fully with those in need, not just living fairly comfortably beside them or near them?
As I thought about these things I then remembered the ‘double descent’ that Jesus made for us
all. In Philippians 2 Paul quotes from an early Christian hymn. It tells us that Jesus ‘came
down’ first of all in that he became a human being. He took on flesh for us. That step is
wonderful enough, - but there is more. This human Jesus then made a vast second step which
took him even further down: he died on the cross. According to Deuteronomy 21 anyone who
died on a cross was under God’s curse. So, for us, Jesus went on to the utmost limits of human
suffering.
As we try to continue our work and lives in this stricken, post-earthquake country of Nepal we
give great thanks to God that the Jesus we follow and seek to serve is not merely our companion
who comes alongside us in the school of suffering. Much more than that, he has personally
plunged to the depths of human suffering.
Malcolm & Cati Ramsay
Kathmandu, Nepal
11 May 2015
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