Disciplines For Emergency Workers

29th December 2005; three days after the Tsunami disaster



Ajith Fernando


Today I want to help you to do one of the most important things that are needed at a time like this: pray for the relief workers. This came to me strongly when I heard that one of my colleagues, taking a van load of things to the North last night fell asleep on the wheel. He was driving the van I use. After some anxious moments, when the van travelled 75 meters outside the road, it ended up on the road 180º from the direction it was originally travelling. Miraculously the only damage was two flat tires. Two colleagues who were travelling East at the time turned and went to their aid.


During times of disaster we tend to push ourselves beyond what is healthy for us. That is inevitable, but there is a limit to what our bodies and minds can tolerate. We need to take care that we don’t neglect the essential basics of life for too long. Let me mention a few:


Sleep. However much we think we can survive on less sleep, sooner or later we must stop to “catch up.” Sleep is a basic human need, and if we deprive ourselves of it for too long there will be serious long-term consequences. Driving accidents, careless errors in performing our job, temper tantrums and burnout are four consequences that come to mind.


FAMILY. During emergency times it is very easy to neglect our families. This is inevitable, but must not be done for too long. Family ties are such that they need constant nurture. They must never be taken for granted. It is no secret that a high percentage of married emergency aid workers have (or had) stormy marriages. This is a discipline to cultivate: to be busy, but never to give our families the hint that they are not important to us. Because of this families need to meet and talk about the challenges they are facing. Frequent phone calls are a great help. And there are few things that calm family life as effectively as a time spent together in prayer.


It is especially important that however tired we may be we work towards being in harmony with our spouses. The last thing one wants to do when he or she comes home tired is to have a “love fight” with the spouse. But love does require an occasional emotion-taxing fight like that. The glow of love the next morning makes the red eyes that result from the fight well worth it.


TEMPER. Closely related to this is the chaos caused within our emotional lives by trauma situations. When I was travelling with two colleagues to see our staff worker whose house was destroyed, I mentioned how I suddenly found that I was losing my temper at home much more than usual. Both colleagues said the same thing about their home experience. A YFC staff wife mentioned to a colleague that she and her husband have had a lot of arguments during the past few days.


We need to know that this is a natural reaction. Then we can be alert to its possibility and moderate our behaviour so that it does not seriously hurt our loved ones. This is a time we must constantly praying Psalm 141:3: “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” We need to discuss this situation with our loved ones so that their hurt is greatly reduced by understanding the dynamics at work. When I told Nelun about this a short while ago, she reminded me of situations where I had lost my temper yesterday and had not even realised it! Understanding the dynamics helps us deal constructively with this type of problem.


DEVOTION. People like Mother Theresa have shown us that anyone who wants to do crisis ministry long term must have a healthy devotional life. God has built into our systems a rhythm of life which we must not violate: output and input; work and rest (Sabbath, vacation); service and worship; community activity, family activity and solitude. Yet it is so easy at a time like this to neglect some of the less active disciplines in this list.


During the past few days most of my work has been done from home: raising funds and prayer support through e-mail and calling or texting colleagues on the field to their cell phones. (How helpful cell phones have been to us these past few days. Add this to your list of famous last words: “I will never buy a cell phone.” Ajith Fernando, 2002). Staying at home should have made having my devotions easier. Not so! Every time I sit down to pray or read my Bible there seem to be so many other urgent demands that call for my attention. It has been a tough battle for me. How much tougher it would be for those on the field! Indeed God’s grace is sufficient. He will not strike us down if we miss a day or two of unhurried time with him. But this can only be an exception; never the rule.


Perhaps because of the urgency of the crisis I am finding that praying is easier than Bible reading. We must fight, with God-aided resolve, and win the battle for Bible reading.


PERSONAL MORALITY. I do not know why this is, but it seems that absorption in social emergencies often reduces ones cutting edge in personal morality. Good aid workers will use aid money indiscriminately and commit fraud. A university Professor friend of mine told me that if there is a fast-unto-death campaign in the university, usually after a few weeks there will be many students checking in at the abortion clinic. The moral indiscretions of some of the great social reformers are well known.


Does absorption with social morality often result it the neglect of personal morality? It seems to be so. Perhaps, because we find it so difficult to be rounded individuals, when we concentrate on one aspect of life we tend neglect the other. This is where lethargy often hits busy people—in the neglect of their personal life.


This tells me that we should follow the same principles of personal spiritual and financial accountability that we adopt in ordinary life during emergency situations too. How sad that many Christians today have no one to whom they are spiritually accountable; no one who asks them about their family life, their professional life, their devotional life, their money spending and their sexual purity. May those on the field be checked by the knowledge that they will have to report about their behaviour to someone.


How sad that for many of us, the humiliation of sharing with another human being is a greater deterrent to sin that the knowledge that the absolutely holy God sees what we do. Let’s face it; we are weak people who often act like idiots. May we find ways of keeping our lives pure that takes into account our folly and irrationality. If we are such fools as to act as if exposure to humans is scarier than exposure to God, at least may the prospect of exposure to humans keep us from sin.


THE BODY OF CHRIST AND THE WIDER COMMUNITY. I am praying that this crisis may help my colleagues appreciate afresh other segments of the body of Christ and also of society at-large. We evangelicals are so individualistic that we have a very weak theology of the body of Christ. We have so far sent YFC staff and volunteers to work for World Vision, LEADS, the Salvation Army, a Roman Catholic Refugee Camp, the Anglican Church, and a home (without a religious affiliation) for retarded children. I am praying especially that our YFC folk would admire what these other people are doing and find joy in it.


In body theology there is this habit of delighting over what others are doing. As joy is so basic to Christianity, we should always be yearning for opportunities to rejoice over God’s creation. Observing other Christians at work is one of those. Some who say that they find inspiration from God’s creation make no effort to be inspired by the summit of his creation: the body of Christ.


I tend to freeze in situations of crisis and not know what to do. Praise God, I have colleagues who do not freeze and who do know what to do. What a boring place the world would be if we were all alike. And how wonderful that each one of us has a significant work to accomplish in God’s plan for the world!


TAKING GLORY. This is a tough one! I think that this side of heaven our motives will always be mixed. If we wait till our motives are perfect, we may never do anything! I think we must share our joy over what is happening through us because the Bible tells us that Christians must rejoice with those who rejoice (Rom. 12:15) and also rejoice when one member is honoured (1 Cor. 12:26). Because Christianity is a community religion where people love each other, testimony is an important part of Christianity. So we need to share the good things that God has done to and through us. Besides, Paul talked about what he was doing and hoping to do as a means of raising funds for his Jerusalem church aid project (e.g. 2 Cor. 8-11)!


But we can publicise our work just so that people will be impressed by us. We can do some things during crisis situations primarily out of the desire to push our name forward. I think we are seeing a lot of this on TV and over the radio at the moment in Sri Lanka. May no activity of ours come primarily from the desire to push ourselves or our organisations forward. May we check such thoughts when they arise through specific confession.


These are some of my prayers and desires for my colleagues and me. Perhaps you too could pray on these lines.