Soon after Typhoon Haiyan wreaked its devastating effects on the Philippines, people began drawing attention to a Jesus statue that withstood the storm.
The typhoon practically leveled the coastal town of Tanauan in which the statue of Jesus continues to stand tall – his crucified hands outstretched for the watching world to see.
This was one of a few structures remaining intact in the wake of the storm that destroyed tens of thousands of homes and left almost 4,000 dead and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
Despite this devastation, media outlets like The Christian Post report that some see the statue as a sign from God. But a sign of what?
Reading the comments in articles reporting on the statue, it becomes apparent that the statue is an ambiguous sign at best.
It has been seen as a sign that the Christian God is cruel or simply nonexistent, a sign of judgment or a sign of hope. Some simply express confusion about what the statue means. One might ask, “Why should it mean anything at all?”
Yet, there is something decidedly Christian about finding God in a statue. Because whether or not one sees the statue as a sign, Christians must say something about the confusion caused by suffering.
In these moments of confusion, I believe Christianity speaks this difficult word: God is present in our suffering. This is a difficult word because God’s presence in suffering is as ambiguous as the statue of Jesus standing in the Philippines.
If God is present in typhoons, then why doesn’t God stop them? Is God powerless to do anything? If God is powerful enough to save a statue, then why not the innocent victims? In any case, why should we continue to have hope?
As a hospital chaplain, I encounter questions like these daily. Like the statue, chaplains are often seen as a sign to families that God is present.
We do not always speak eloquently; we make mistakes and are often ambiguous signs at best. But we are present, and it is this presence that Christians are called to bring to the world.
In the face of tremendous disaster and suffering, we are not always called to speak an unambiguous, perfect word.
Sometimes, we are not even called to speak. But we are called to be present. I have left many visits wherein I have not spoken more than 10 words and been told, “Thanks for coming, chaplain; it means a lot.”
People will continue to make meaning of tragedy, whether we speak or not. They will remember the meaning of our presence.
So, what does that presence mean? What does the statue of Jesus mean? Christian presence always brings with it ambiguity, but I believe it is a meaningful ambiguity.
Christian presence brings lament because we recognize that this disaster happened and God did not stop it. Further, we are reminded that God has not prevented countless other disasters.
A cursory reading of Christian Scripture reveals this reality, and the crucified hands of the Jesus statue in the Philippines reminds us that God did not stop Jesus from dying, either.
So we lament and we question, even as we remember that God groans with us (see Romans 8:26).
But that is not all. Christian presence also brings hope, reminding us that we are not alone.
Even now, thousands of Christians and Christian aid organizations are flocking to the Philippines to bring supplies, human capital and financial aid.
Such a response reminds the people of the Philippines that others are willing to enter their suffering and bring hope that the wreckage of their lives can be rebuilt.
As Christians help with the recovery efforts, perhaps the Jesus statue should remind us of the hope that God raised Jesus from the dead. Even amid the disaster, God is making things new.
So we hope that the God who raised Jesus will raise these communities out of the dust, and we join with God in seeking to make this hope a reality.
As Christians, we are to lament disaster. But we are also called to bring hope in disaster. To do this, we must practice the virtue of presence.