Why did God shake the wrong people?

I knew it would happen, I don’t know why I feel so angry about it and want to cry… but I do. As soon as I read about the magnitude 6.8 earthquake in eastern Shan State, Burma last Thursday, I was anxious that there would be a repeat of the callousness of May 2008 after cyclone Nargis. (See YouTube video of earthquake damage here).

The ruling military junta of Burma has been systematically committing genocide against ethnic minorities in Burma for decades, outside media are tightly controlled or excluded altogether and so little is spent on infrastructure that natural disasters become another mechanism by which the military can eliminate those who are not Burman.

So what is happening in eastern Shan State for those affected by the quake? Official Myanmar media is singing the praises of the military and police relief efforts. Other, more truthful, sources are publishing reports of cover-ups, propaganda and incompetence:

On Saturday reporters from The Irrawaddy visited the Tachilek Hospital and saw it was overwhelmed by hundreds of earthquake victims, many of them forced to stay out in the open air. Hospital staff estimated at the time that about 700 patients were being treated.

Reporters from The Irrawaddy returned to the hospital on Sunday, but saw no patients outside of the hospital and only normal patients inside in numbers that totalled much fewer than than the day before.

When asked where the other patients went, hospital staff and patients said they were “sent away” by the local authorities.

In another report The Irrawaddy states that residents of Tachileik took their own limited supplies of bottled water and instant noodles to earthquake affected areas only to be prevented from assisting by local authorities and the supplies were seized, then military generals were photographed handing the confiscated donations to victims.

Despite the 73 to 75 deaths being officially stated by the Myanmar government, reliable aid agencies have reported at least 150 dead, and it seems that reports of 300 dead are likely to be true. Some aid has been accepted from international sources, but under close control of the military.

And while earthquakes are currently hot news, a bigger loss of life has already occurred in the Andaman sea where an estimated 7000 fishermen were lost in a storm two weeks ago (14-16 March). Of those, 3,374 have been rescued but the remaining fishermen are still missing, presumed drowned. Again, if this had occurred in another nation the world would be watching on their TVs and assistance sent. Admittedly the Burmese navy has been a significant part of the rescue effort, but open reporting of the tragedy is still being suppressed.

So my question remains, did God shake up the wrong people? Why are the poor and persecuted suffering from natural disasters while those who grind their faces in the dirt are still enjoying their expensive lifestyles?

The LORD has taken his place to contend;
he stands to judge peoples.
The LORD will enter into judgment
with the elders and princes of his people:
“It is you who have devoured the vineyard,
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor?”
declares the Lord GOD of hosts.
(Isaiah 3:13-15 ESV)

Have you ever said, even in jest, “If I ruled the world things would be different!”? I certainly have, and no doubt my children can vouch that it is a very good thing that I do not rule the world. We know Job’s response when God did answer his persistent why? (Job 40:3-5). Even so, I find an anger like that of Jonah (Jonah 4:9-11) rising in me as I learn about the injustice and blatant evil being committed by the Burmese military dictatorship. God saved the Ninevites whom He had pity on, I’m impatiently waiting in my impotent anger for Him to save the ethnic people of Burma.

… if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.  At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.”
(Hebrews 12:25-26 ESV)

Other posts related to this topic:

Image of injured man in front of ruined building: The Irrawaddy

Maj-Gen Aung Than Htut supervises rescue and relief works in quake-hit areas

Note: The New Light of Myanmar website uses scripts which prevent direct linking to pages so I have copied the content here without any editing.

New Light of Myanmar
Maj-Gen Aung Than Htut of Ministry of Defence looks into progress of relief works in earthquake-hit Tahlay, Monglin

NAY PYI TAW, 26 March-Accompanied by Deputy Minister for Progress of Border Areas and National Races and Development Affairs U Tin Ngwe, Deputy Minister for Health Dr Paing Soe, Deputy Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement U Kyaw Myint and officials, Maj-Gen Aung Than Htut of the Ministry of Defence yesterday afternoon arrived at Tachilek by air.

Together with Chairman of Shan State (East) Peace and Development Council Commander of Triangle Region Command Brig-Gen Than Tun Oo, they looked into damage to roads and bridges, houses and buildings in Tahlay and relief works being undertaken by officials. They comforted earthquake-hit victims and presented cash assistance to them.

Maj-Gen Aung Than Htut, the commander and officials met families of the earthquake-hit station and inspected damages at the local battalions in Monglin Village and medical treatments being provided to the earthquake-hit people at Tachilek People’s Hospital.

After presenting cash assistance to the survivors, Maj-Gen Aung Than Htut instructed officials to carry out relief tasks on a wider scale.

This morning, Maj-Gen Aung Than Htut, accompanied by the commander and senior military officers, looked into damage to houses and buildings in the station. In meeting with families of the quake-hit station, he gave cash assistance to the families.

Afterwards, they viewed relief works of local Tatmadawmen, local authorities and relief teams in Tahlay, loss and damage to houses, religious buildings, schools, departmental buildings, roads and bridges.

After inspecting loss and damage at Basic Education High School, township departmental office, people’s hospital, Tahlay Police Station, and participation of local Tatmadawmen, local authorities and rescue teams in relief works, Maj-Gen Aung Than Htut and party cordially met with earthquake-affected departmental personnel and local people and presented cash assistance to them. Maj-Gen Aung Than Htut gave instructions on construction of temporary medical wards for giving emergency treatment to the patients and carrying out relief works on a wider scale.

Maj-Gen Aung Than Htut, the commander, Secretary of National Disaster Preparedness Central Committee Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement U Maung Maung Swe, Deputy Minister for PBANRDA U Tin Ngwe, Deputy Minister for Health Dr Paing Soe and Deputy Minister for SWRR U Kyaw Myint at 11 am arrived in Tahlay. They met quakeaffected families of the station and presented cash assistance and relief aid to them.

At Tahlay (Okkyin) Relief Camp, they comforted the earthquake-hit people. Minister U Maung Maung Swe gave instructions on disseminating knowledge about earthquake to the people for taking preventive measures.

They presented cash assistance, relief aids, medicines, foodstuff and bags of rice to the victims.

They viewed loss and damages at roads, bridges and houses in Tahlay. After cordially meeting with the victims and staff, they presented cash assistance and relief aid to them.

They looked into health care services being provided by health staff to the patients at the relief camps in Tahlay and participation of Tatmadawmen, members of social organizations and relief teams in relief works in Tahlay and earthquakehit villages. They left instructions on matters related to the relief works.

At the relief camp in Monglin Village, they cordially met with local people and provided cash assistance, relief aid, medicines and foodstuff to them.

At another relief camp in Tahlay, Maj-Gen Aung Than Htut, the commander, Minister U Maung Maung Swe and the deputy ministers presented cash assistance, relief aids, clothes, foodstuffs, bags of rice and medicines to the victims.

At 2.30 pm, Maj-Gen Aung Than Htut, the commander and the deputy ministers attended the meeting between Secretary of the NDPCC Minister for SWRR U Maung Maung Swe and Shan State level departmental officials at the hall of Tahlay Station.

The commander reported on progress of rehabilitation works in the earthquake- hit area and officials on progress of their respective sectors.

Maj-Gen Aung Than Htut gave instructions on works.

On 25 and 26 March, Tatmadawmen, members of Myanmar Police Force, members of social organizations and local people under the supervision of the commander of Kengtung Station loaded relief aid, foodstuff, clothes, household goods and personal goods onto vehicles. The goods arrived in Kengtung by Tatmadaw aircraft from Yangon. They all participated in transport of relief aids to the earthquake-hit victims in time.

Two wise women and a dull man

boy asleep on a big book

Within five minutes this evening the wisdom of two women brought the focus in my life back to where it should be. A conversation with my wife about how the last week has really been for me took her only seconds to zoom in on a key element of wellbeing that I have been ignoring. Then a blog post by a woman of thanksgiving who was feeling pressured carries a hint right at the end about goals for the year set and forgotten.
In January I wrote about making 2011 a year of essentials – one of the first non-essentials was identified as too much time spent catching up on internet happenings, a focus that has been lost in just a couple of months!

When I am finding the world and life all a bit much I like to retreat into the quiet spaces of my days and pursue ideas as they arise. Blog links and Google give extra leverage to such a process. However, the time spent has to come from somewhere, in my case it gets stolen – from my usual time with God and from time that should be spent asleep. This is actually stealing from God, or at least taking something God made as good and corrupting it for my own selfish ends. Consider the following extract of an article by John Piper:

A Brief Theology of Sleep

Why did God imagine sleep? He never sleeps! He thought the idea up out of nothing. He thought it up for his earthly creatures. Why! Psalm 127:2 says, “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved in his sleep.” According to this text sleep is a gift of love, and the gift is often spurned by anxious toil. Peaceful sleep is the opposite of anxiety. God does not want his children to be anxious, but to trust him. Therefore I conclude that God made sleep as a continual reminder that we should not be anxious but should rest in him.

Sleep is a daily reminder from God that we are not God. “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4). But Israel will. For we are not God. Once a day God sends us to bed like patients with a sickness. The sickness is a chronic tendency to think we are in control and that our work is indispensable. To cure us of this disease God turns us into helpless sacks of sand once a day. How humiliating to the self-made corporate executive that he has to give up all control and become as limp as a suckling infant every day.

Sleep is a parable that God is God and we are mere men. God handles the world quite nicely while a hemisphere sleeps. Sleep is like a broken record that comes around with the same message every day: Man is not sovereign. Man is not sovereign. Man is not sovereign. Don’t let the lesson be lost on you. God wants to be trusted as the great worker who never tires and never sleeps. He is not nearly so impressed with our late nights and early mornings as he is with the peaceful trust that casts all anxieties on him and sleeps.
In quest of rest,
Pastor John

I think it is important for me to be humbled by the reality of my need for sleep. I also need to remember in whom I should put my trust as I sleep:

At the very least, sleep is a good opportunity to entrust yourself, your entire self, to God’s care. You’re trusting something when you lay down your body and, with it, the control of your conscious mind. That moment when you consciously choose unconsciousness, and let yourself go, is a daily opportunity to relinquish control to a God who you have to trust.
(Fred Sanders 2007, The Theology of Sleep)

I must admit that I don’t generally consciously entrust myself to anything other than my mattress and bed when I go to sleep – I have been blessed with the ability to go unconscious within minutes of my head hitting the pillow so sleep just happens. Perhaps I need to learn the prayer I was never taught as a child:

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

I pray for my children before they go to sleep, that God will keep them safely in His arms whatever may happen, yet oddly I do not pray the same for myself!

Sleep is an essential element of being human. I need to thank God for sleep as a gift and also as a command to cease striving and rest, trusting in Him for things left undone and for His renewed blessing every morning. Perhaps one of the reasons we must sleep is to be awakened to the wonder of God’s blessing of a new day, every day.

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;great is your faithfulness.
(Lamentations 3:22-23 ESV)

The hope of the Gospel

After even a few chapters of John’s Gospel I knew that Jesus was no ordinary man, but after the nails, the blood and the water, it was clear that he is the Saviour I’d never known I needed.

the-hope-of-the-gospel

A little bit of how I came to faith in Jesus Christ.
I have been thinking about Colossians 1:23 this week, which begins:

If indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard…
(Colossians 1:23 ESV)

This week I have felt anything but ‘stable and steadfast’ – stumbling and stuck is a better description. Fortunately Paul throws a tow rope to haul me out of the bog – the hope of the gospel that you heard.

Depending on where I’m at, there are varying degrees of how fresh the hope of the gospel is in my mind – sometimes it has been resonating within me as I consider Christ, the cross, and my desperate need of grace. Other times much older memories need to be dragged up to remind me of the gospel hope. Today falls into that second category.

Knowledge of the gospel is still very real to me. Acute experience of my need of the gospel is painfully immediate. It is hope which has faded in intensity, so it is good to be prompted to recall the hope which once blazed so intensely that it tore me away from worldly hopes.

I vividly remember sitting in my room in a flat, feet propped up on the desk, leaning back in my chair reading the Gospel of John from a yellow Good News Bible. The ancient words of a carpenter from Galilee arrested me. “Follow me”, he said (John 1:43). Not an invitation, a command. Yet a command I wanted to obey.

After even a few chapters of John’s Gospel I knew that Jesus was no ordinary man, but after the nails, the blood and the water, it was clear that he is the Saviour I’d never known I needed. That was over 20 years ago now but the memory is burned into me – by this stage I’d already been on a 4-year quest to figure out what it might mean to live a worthwhile life1. I was looking for what I could do to make my life have meaning and a philosophical framework that made everything make sense.

I was certainly not looking for a religion and not looking for a god. Reading John’s Gospel I encountered God – and somehow knew I was in big trouble, if God is real (and after 6 chapters I was convinced He was) then I had spent 18 years denying His existence and had no right to be in His universe. So in Jesus I found this paradox, the terror of encountering God, yet the hope of his words, “Follow me”.

So I followed…

I still am.

“Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who had been reclining at table close to him and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”
(John 21:20-22 ESV)


1) Calling my blundering a ‘quest’ makes it sound much more purposeful than it was. In effect I just explored every philosophy or worldview I could get my head around in the hope of learning what this thing called life is all about – otherwise it was looking to me to be utterly meaningless.

Shan resources

Mission Websites about the Shan people:

OMF | Shan of Myanmar

OMF | Shan of Thailand

Shan Missions

Joshua Project profile for the Shan of Burma

Prayer Guard page for Shan of Burma

Websites written by Shan people:

The School for Shan State Nationalities Youth

The School for Shan State Nationalities Youth (SSSNY) was formed by a group of youth from Shan State in May 2001, and provides a social justice education program for youth to take an active role in the movement for social and political change.

Vision

To produce dedicated and pro-active Shan State youth with necessary skills for social and political change, through a social justice education program.

Goals

  • To empower Shan State youth age 16 – 35 of different backgrounds and ethnicities.
  • To educate and encourage youth to have a more active role in the struggle for democracy, human rights and gender equality.
  • Support of educational development in and for Shan State, Burma
Shan Human Rights Foundation

The Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) is a non-profit, non-governmental organization which was founded on 6 December 1990 by its late founding Chairman, Khun Kya Oo.

Aims:

  1. To strive for human rights and restore justice to the victims;
  2. To promote democracy in accordance with the desire and will of the people, and establish a popular government based on democratic principles;
  3. To strive for unity, fraternity, equality and cooperation;
  4. To strive for world peace, freedom and prosperity.

Websites about freedom for Burma

Free Burma Rangers

The Free Burma Rangers (FBR) is a multi-ethnic humanitarian service movement. They bring help, hope and love to people in the war zones of Burma. Ethnic pro-democracy groups send teams to FBR to be trained, supplied and sent into the areas under attack to provide emergency medical care, shelter, food, clothing and human rights documentation. The teams also operate a communication and information network inside Burma that provides real time information from areas under attack.

Articles on International websites:

The New Internationalist

My fridge is smarter than my soul

How come a fridge is smarter than my soul? I drift and drift and completely lose internal stability before realizing that some work needs to be done to get back to where I should be.

fridge

It has become my habit to use the quiet once everyone has gone to bed to check blogs, write a draft post, search for a picture for that post, check the news, scan Facebook, then wearily do the dishes and fall into bed. There was no plan of pushing God aside in my evenings, I am thinking about him as I do all these things. I’d like to spend less time on the computer but there are so many things that ‘need’ to be done online.

This evening, with no particular intentionality, I changed the order and did the dishes first – the computer was OFF, it still is as I write, with pen and paper – my favourite way. It took a while for the urge to be checking updates, editing, tweaking, researching, to subside.  Gradually the hum of the fridge became my new baseline – a monotonous drone maintaining the status quo. After a long reset my heart synchronized itself with this being here, maintaining a steady internal environment. It took over an hour to settle and regain the internal state of thirsting for God:

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water
(Psalm 63:1 ESV)

Eventually homeostasis is achieved, the fridge stops humming – it will resume once it’s internal state drifts away from it’s set point. How come a fridge is smarter than my soul? I drift and drift and completely lose internal stability before realizing that some work needs to be done to get back to where I should be. Only then can I do the work God made me to do.

Being poor in Burma

Burma is a beautiful and fertile land, very rich in natural resources such as productive agricultural land, teak, gems, gold, minerals, oil, natural gas, rich biodiversity and culture. Unfortunately its rulers are very poor in the one resource they most need to turn Burma into a great nation again – wisdom (Proverbs 28;16,  Proverbs 16:16). The Burmese Government hijacks a massive proportion (23.6%) of the nation’s scant wealth for its massive military force of over 500,000 personnel. A meagre 1.3% of GDP will be spent on healthcare. (For comparison: New Zealand spends 3.5% of its budget on military and 18.4% on health;  the US spends 19.3% on military and 19.3% on health. [Note: figures for comparison only, not a detailed breakdown. Data from Visualeconomics.com])

Burma has a population of 50,519,000 (11.5 times the population of NZ) with a land area of 676,552 square kilometers (2.5 times bigger than NZ) which equates to a population density 4.5 times that of New Zealand.

The GDP per capita is Intl.$ 1,100 compared to $28,000 for NZ, meaning that we are basically 25 times better off than the people of Burma. However, this figure masks the vast inequalities that exist within Burma, with by far the majority of wealth being taken by the ruling classes and the ‘average’ Burmese existing on more like US$ 450 per year, whereas we average around US$ 29,000 per year with the lowest income in NZ about 40 times the average income in Burma.

The Burmese currency unit is the kyat, which at today’s official exchange rates is 20 cents NZ and 16 cents US. More realistic data from within Burma is that US$ 1 costs 895 kyat as of 20 February 2011. The daily pay for a manual labourer is in the range of 1500 kyat for men, 1000 kyat for women (working from 6am to 6pm).  In practise this works out that a 2kg bag of rice will cost a Burmese labourer up to a third of a daily wage, by comparison I pay one 24th of a day’s pay for 2kg of rice (and I work 8 hour shifts, not 12).

A household in Burma with access to electricity may only have power available for 3 hours a day, for this it will cost half a labourer’s monthly pay. Consequently most people use wood and coal for fuel, the electricity gets sold to Thailand, China, India and Bangladesh. The monthly wages for factory workers in Burma is about US$ 30-50, whereas across the border in Thailand equivalent workers earn at least US$ 120 per month. (The Irrawaddy)

However, numbers do not paint an adequate picture of what being poor in Burma is actually like, the extract below is quite a common situation for Burmese people:

“But, when I was little the living situation changed and we didn’t stay together. First, my father passed away when I was a young girl.  Then, my family’s income wasn’t very good and it was very difficult to stay together.  Since we were farmers we had to pay very high taxes and we didn’t have enough for food.  So, my mother had to find money to support her children.  She had many jobs and tried to work hard for our family.  She did housework, and sometimes she went outside the house to make money for our family.”
By a Student of the School for Shan State Nationalities Youth (Letters From Shan State)

Note: The information used for this post is the best I could access at the time of writing. As better or new information comes to my attention I will post again on this topic.

Other posts related to this topic:

External links related to this topic:

Image of woman farming: iStockphoto
Image of tarpaulin house and power pole: Vision Beyond Borders
Image of collecting water at well: Vision Beyond Borders
Cartoon of Than Shwe’s budget by Harn Lay: The Irrawaddy

Tell me what you think

It generally takes me at least 2 hours to write a blog post. This time is often spread over a couple of days as I think through what I want to write, jot down some ideas in my notebook, write a draft of the post, tidy up my lousy writing, find a picture if I want one, edit the post, preview it and find yet more mistakes to edit, then click publish. That’s for an easy post. Some have taken considerably longer and there are a couple in my drafts folder which look set to take upwards of 20 hours by the time research is taken into account.

I enjoy this effort and overall I am convinced that writing this blog has helped me grow greatly in my Christian walk. The fact that a few people are interested in reading the end result is a bonus (and feels like a pat on the back, thank you all).

As I consider future directions for this blog there is no shortage of ideas rattling around in my head, but it is now feeling like a joint-enterprise between me writing and you visiting to read the end result. Therefore I’d love it if you would take five minutes to do the survey below to let me know your views on what you would like to see here. It is completely anonymous and therefore you can be totally honest. You won’t hurt my feelings my being critical – my worst critic lives inside my head and I really do want to make this a blog worth reading so truthful feedback is extremely valuable.

So, a huge Thank You for reading so far, and another Thank You for filling out the survey. There are 8 questions and it should only take about 5 minutes.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

Please explain

I’m not quite sure where to start, I have things to do, stuff to read, prayers to pray and blog posts to write… Meanwhile Japan is deeply grieving a major catastrophe and fearful of a potential nuclear disaster on top of that. Despite our recent earthquake nightmare here in New Zealand I am finding it impossible to comprehend the magnitude of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, let alone the threat of nuclear radiation leaking from several damaged reactors.
In the days after February 22 it felt like our little nation had been kicked in the stomach, a much more vicious kick than the explosions at Pike River dealt us. On Friday evening the owner of that enormous boot sunk it into my guts again as we watched the ocean suddenly rise up to encroach upon peaceful towns and cities in Japan with complete disregard for life. Japan may have a much bigger population and economy than NZ, but their pain is the same. Their fear as the earth heaves is the same. Their terror as enormous waves crash upon them is something unknown to us. Apprehension at a potential radioactive menace is also foreign to our nation.

What are we really experiencing as we consider the tragic events in Japan? Surely there is empathy, mourning, shock. Yet if we are honest there is also fear – fear of the future, of what might yet be to come that may affect us more directly. The news is full of it, interviews of experts asking them why that building collapsed when others didn’t. Official inquiries into industrial accidents. Quizzing world experts on seismology asking whether more ‘big ones’ might be in store for us. Accosting theologians, ministers and pastors for an explanation of what God is doing. We are scared. The very fact that we are watching these events on our TVs and over the internet testifies that we are distant from them. Distant from catastrophe, fearful that it might happen to us.

Some like to blame God or other people, some say “I told you so”, some take the ‘let’s eat and drink for tomorrow we die‘ attitude. Those of us who are trying to trust our Father commit ourselves into His hands (Luke 23:46), knowing He may lead our lives directly into suffering but also knowing He has redeemed us (Psalm 31:5). This certainly doesn’t take away the nagging questions or the fear, but it does help me to quieten my soul (Psalm 131). The future is supposed to be unknown to us (Ecclesiastes 8:17), we are called to trust the One who controls it all.