Surviving the Tsunami Emergency

A Personal Reflection

Ajith Fernando

Soon after the tsunami I wrote a paper on disciplines for emergency workers. Now with the emergency phase over I thought I will write about my experience of going through the emergency.

This has been one of the most intensely busy periods of my life. As we have few staff skilled in English writing and as most of the staff needed to be on the field, I took on the responsibility of doing most of the writing in relation to the relief work (after all, I was supposed to be on a writing sabbatical!). Because backlogs become unmanageable, I decided that I will not go to sleep until all my planned projects for the day were completed. This meant going to bed at between 1.00 and 4.00 a.m. on most days and later on some days.

I thought I will tell you something about how I have survived the strain of this emergency. I have not done what has been given below with the regularity of a disciplined person. But I think God used my blundering efforts to help me survive. Warning! Emergency periods are temporary times when we push the limits. We must not live perpetually on the emergency mode. And we must be careful to see that there is some level of balance in our lives even during emergency times.

  • One of my hardest battles has been to find time to pray and read the Word. I have fallen short often, but what I did do has truly been the highlight of my life these days. There is no substitute for time spent with God daily. We may miss having the usual length of time for a day or two. But we cannot let it pass for more than that. There is nothing in life as refreshing as meditating on the majesty of God, and I know of no better way to do that than spending time with the Scriptures and with the hymn book. When we are overwhelmed by the faith-challenging destruction of a thing like the tsunami, clinging to the truth that the Lord God omnipotent reigns helps us to maintain our sanity amidst the tears and bewilderment.

  • For me as a Bible teacher one of the greatest treasures in life is learning new insights into the mind of God. I think trying to reflect biblically on the issues we have faced after tsunami has brought me many new and thrilling insights. When you are thrilled, you can work hard!!

  • Physical exercise at least three times a week is essential to keep the body and mind in trim condition.

  • God has given me the gift of sleeping anywhere, in most postures and at any time. So I had short or long afternoon naps and several cat naps which helped keep me going. In the northern city Jaffna when all our people were at the trauma counselling workshop and I had nothing to do, I just slept and slept for hours: morning, afternoon and night.

  • Though somewhat at a reduced scale sometimes I continued my schedule of preaching, teaching, doing small group Bible studies (at church), visiting church members, and having personal appointments. Having a chance to do even a little of what we love to do gives us the lift that enables us to persevere with spending most of our time fulfilling gruelling demands which we may not necessarily like to do.

  • My precious wife and children were all totally committed to this task. So I did not have the strain of coming home to a hostile family.

  • There is great thrill in knowing that you are leading a group of enthusiastic and dedicated workers who are paying a huge price because they love God and people. True they have much more energy than us older folks, but their sacrificial service energises us and pushes us to go beyond our usually accepted limits. I am so grateful for each of our YFC leaders and the teams that they lead.

    The YFC family has brought me much pain over my close to 29 years as its leader. But pain is a normal aspect of family life. Much greater than the pain is the sheer joy of sitting back and relishing the sight of the family-members working for God. They have gifts I do not have. They laugh at my weaknesses and try to compensate for them (except during times of serious conflict when the leader’s weaknesses are blamed for the problems!). For a Christian there is no substitute to body ministry. The pain is more than compensated for by the security of belonging, the thrill of appreciating the work of others, the joy of being loved and the mutual enrichment of collegiality.

  • I had some wonderful experiences of divine providence which encouraged me and gave me the sense that God was with me. When you know that God is with you, you can push yourself to do tough, unpleasant and tiring things. I will mention two providences.

1. On the first work day for the year our Colombo staff met for a half-day of prayer and fasting. I usually speak at this meeting. I completed my preparation around 2.00 a.m. the night before. The next morning as I was praying before going for the meeting, I felt that the message I have prepared was not appropriate. So I discarded it and quickly prepared another message. But I discarded that too for the same reason. I drove to the meeting with no message!

My daughter, who went with me, asked me what I was going to speak on, and like Abraham told Isaac on the way to Mount Moriah, I told her that God will give me a message. Just before we reached our destination some thoughts began to form in my mind. During the praise time before I spoke I jotted those thoughts down and went to speak. That message developed into a message to the church in Sri Lanka which RBC Ministries has put into a booklet in Sinhala, Tamil and English. I think it will have a circulation more than anything else I have written. It will appear or has appeared in books and periodicals in Dutch, German, Chinese and English and has been posted on numerous websites!

2. At the last session of our trauma counselling workshop in Jaffna, our Jaffna leader Hariharan told me that several people had come there expecting to hear me to speak. Some of my most precious ministry experiences as a Sinhalese have been when I came to Jaffna during the war and ministered to the wonderful Tamil people there. But this time I had come simply to accompany the teaching team. Haran said that I should say something. “When?” I asked. “In about five or ten minutes,” came the answer! I prayed a desperate prayer to God, and I went up and spoke about the connection between suffering and greatness in the Bible and in history. Haran later told me that this talk had been a highlight to those who attended.

  • In the midst of macro-disasters like a tsunami, God’s micro-providences give us the strength to persevere as agents of his healing. When we know that God has entered into a situation, we have strength to grapple with the hopelessness around us knowing that God’s brightness is greater than the darkest night.

I have come to believe that maintaining the balanced life is one of the greatest challenges of a Christian. But the idea that the balanced life means doing everything in moderation does not fit in with the radical agenda of the kingdom of God. I see the balanced life as ensuring that all the areas of the Christian life are included in our schedule (work and rest; personal, family, church and social responsibility; devotion, worship and fellowship etc.). Now, the strain of trying to do all those things may be our cross. But, for us, the cross is always the gateway to life.

I do not think that we will find a perfectly balanced individual (except Jesus) in this fallen world. But God will bless our blundering efforts to be obedient to him in all the areas of life. And the variety that balance brings—of intake and output, of work and rest, of serving others while caring for and being cared for by family—will help us remain fresh amidst the strains of ministry. When we are fresh we are free to savour the joy of the Lord. And the joy of the Lord is our strength. Braced by it we can endure the rigours that the life of service brings.