Not far from where we live is a Christian college (‘College’ in New Zealand is actually ‘high school’). On Monday, six students and a teacher from that school died in a flash flood during what was a week-long outdoor education course. The kids who died were 16 years old, the same age as our son Tim.
The students were at the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre in central North Island. As part of the course, 10 students with their teacher and instructor went canyoning on the Mangatepopo River. Now canyoning is an activity where you scramble, climb, jump, abseil and swim to travel through a canyon or gorge. When this little party entered the gorge, the water was at a very low level, and they were unaware that heavy rain was predicted.
The water level rose suddenly because of a flash flood. The group waited on a rocky ledge for the water level to go down, but it just kept increasing.
So the instructor and the teacher decided that they should all swim to safety. The instructor would make it to the next corner, from where she would pull the children to safety, as they swam by. Things did not go according to plan. The result was that four kids survived and six perished, along with their teacher. Soon after this the water levels returned to normal.
Dr Grant Davidson, who is the chief executive at the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre, referred to the event as a “rain bomb” and said, “I’ve seen the river increase to those levels before but never at such speed.”These were the first fatalities in more than 30 years for the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre, the previous fatality being in 1976 when a girl slipped under a log in the river. 120,000 kids have undergone programs at this center. Understandably, Dr. Davidson and other staff are devastated, the aim of their work being to provide safe adventure pursuits for kids. At this stage, it appears as if corrections and updates to the weather report had not reached the center, and so the instructor was not expecting high levels of water.
The kids were all beautiful kids who excelled academically. Portia McPhail also excelled in Netball, Tara Gregory was known in trampolining circles, Anthony Mulder loved sports and had a great sense of humour, Tom Hsu had battled cerebral palsy against great odds, Floyd Fernandes was a talented musician and loved sports and Natasha Bray was expected to be head girl next year. As for their young teacher Tony McClean, he was all set to return for mission work in Nepal.
Apart from academics and a love for sports, these children are said to have been committed Christians who had a desire to serve the Lord.
The reason I am writing this post is not to tell my readers about this accident. Sad as it is, such tragedy is not something unique to New Zealand; newspapers from all over the world are full of such news. But what is interesting is that these students are from a Christian school and the New Zealand public is intrigued, and even a trifle annoyed, by the way in which the school and the families are grieving.
They do not grieve as those who have no hope.
We do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, about those who are asleep, so you do not grieve as the rest who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are living, who remain until the coming of the Lord, shall absolutely not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a cried out command, with a voice of an archangel, and with a trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are living, who are remaining, will be carried away into the clouds at the same time with them to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord. For this reason, encourage one another with these words. (Apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 )
To the non-Christian observer, it appears strange that people should trust the very God who allowed this to happen. Where was God when these kids needed Him the most? The group, had prayed for safety before the trip. Did God not hear their prayer?
God did hear the prayers and cries of some of them. Kish Proctor, one of the few survivors, and the first child to jump into the water pleaded with God to save him and God heard his prayer. In his words: “I was just gasping for air and I was under the current most of the time. . . Every time I got up, I just breathed in air and I just called on God’s name. ‘God save me’, I said that, ‘God, please just do this for me,’ . . . I just felt it was God telling me, ‘You have to get up and go, otherwise you’re going to die’, because water just kept coming and it was getting higher.”
Sarah Brooks, another survivor, and second last among the kids to jump into the water, said: “I felt my face get smashed against a rock. I grabbed a branch and shouted for help because I saw one of the instructors. I was wedged between rocks and I felt myself sliding away again and I prayed to God.
But why had God not heard the cries of the others? And yet their families do not seem to be bitter.
Andy Bray, father of Natasha who lost her life said, “We have lost some amazing difference-makers, some role models, and my daughter was one of them.” But he was not bitter. Instead, he said, “They were selfless, giving their lives to make a difference. They loved God and wanted to be part of making this world better. . These were kids of extraordinary character who set themselves aside to want to be involved in building up others who were struggling”
But Mr. Bray also admitted that it was not easy. He said, “It absolutely tests my faith. Of course it does. Doubt is a part of faith. Without doubt, you don’t have faith. And so sure, We are saying to God, ‘Why has this happened? Where does this fit into Your plan?’ I do not have an answer to that . . . but I do have a place to go in my heart, and. . . I can trust that we are going to get through this. Not only that, my other two kids are going to be so much stronger.”
The School principal Murray Burton while praying said: “We don’t have words, we feel numb, and yet we must trust in You.”
On what might have been the most difficult day in his life as a school principal, he acknowledged that it was hard. “I will not deny that I am angry at why this has happened to the kids and the families. It’s a natural reaction. It’s not an anger that is white hot – it’s ‘Why us? Why this? Isn’t it needless?’ . . .My strong faith overcomes that anger. It hurts, and it hurts badly and it will hurt for a long time, but my faith will sustain me. There’s a bigger perspective to this.”
Thus through all the news, New Zealanders hear about Christians trusting in God through this very difficult time, and many questions are asked of Christians. Sometimes people answer the questions very clearly, as did the pastor of the Elim church on TV last night. But often times, Christians are not very clear about the role of God in this tragedy. So while to them God is their hope and trust, observers confirm and conclude that religion is a crutch for people in trouble.
Also, as Leighton Smith expressed in his radio program yesterday morning, it sometimes looks as if people are laying on God the blame for human choices and negligence. Thus the matter gets dragged into the area of the classic debate of Sovereignty of God Vs Free will of man. One gentleman, knowing that people were accountable for their choices, tried to resolve the matter by explaining that man is responsible, but God foreknewthat this was how the choices would be made. The rest of what this gentleman said in the radio program was splendid. But again, conveniently for the unbeliever, God gets relegated to the role of a passive bystander, who may be loving and concerned, and who occasionally in an arbitrary fashion chooses to involve Himself, as it might appear in the cases of Kish, Sarah, and the two other survivors.
For whatever it is worth, let me put down in writing what I believe about these matters:
I believe that all human beings, those who have committed their lives to the Lord Jesus Christ and those who have not, are cared for by God’s providence. The Bible tells us that God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on all people without discrimination. This world, because of man’s sin, became a place that is fraught with danger and evil. God’s restraining hand is over us all. That is why we are alive today. When the appointed time comes for us to die, He will remove that protection and we will complete our course at that point. But for those who trust Him, He promises to be with us even in that situation, not preventing it, but supporting us and encouraging us. I am reminded of the much loved scripture that my mother repeated even in her last moments of consciousness, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”
So for these kids who trusted Him in life, we believe that a loving God was with them in their last moments, and they went home to be with Him. Of that place we do not know much except what is shown us in the scriptures, which is enough to let us know that it is a good place, not some mystical creepy dreamy place, the sum and total of our gleanings from ghost stories, fairy tales and Sunday School, with baby-faced cherubs and ghosts, but a real place with real people.
Do you have this confidence, that when your appointed time comes, to finish the course, that you will be in the hands of a loving God? You may or may not own a nice house, you may or may not get down to taking that dream holiday. But you will die one day. Not to think about death is a bit like the proverbial ostrich. Of course, if we had no hope of having a hope, then death is truly something morbid that we are better off pushing to the back of our minds. What can I do or say to assure you that there is hope because of what Jesus did on the cross. Please do get in touch with me if you are interested in knowing more.
I am thankful that in spite of faulty and imperfect replies of Christians, including my own post here, our country of New Zealand is getting to hear and think about God and eternity. If I may say so, this is a thought-provoking, praise-worthy exit from this earth for these young believers who have finished their course so creditably. Who knows, in terms of eternal worth, what more their passing will achieve.
If you would like to know more, check out these links on my God and Human Suffering page.