Two months ago, I received a letter from SIMaid, a Christian mission organisation that supports development across the world. I’m holding it now. Unopened.
On the front of the envelope, embossed in white against a black banner it reads:
“4,000 people will die today.”
It will probably remain unopened for some time. I cannot deal with it just yet.
In my email inbox sits a number of unopened press releases from International Christian Concern. I dread the words concealed inside.
On Monday morning, about 8am, I headed off to work.
I said good-bye to my family before getting into our family car and driving to Westfield, Tuggerah to take Christmas portraits.
At that point, it was a normal day for me, for the staff of the Martin Place Lindt cafe and the workers of the surrounding complexes.
The only difference is, I returned home after my shift.
I arrived at work at 8.30am, parked my car and walked through the shopping centre, past Target, past David Jones, past Max Brenner’s. I greeted the few retail assistances who met my eye-line as they opened their doors to another day.
It was a quiet morning. I spent it chatting to parents, snapping pictures of excited children on their first encounters with the magical Mr. Santa Claus.
And then at about 11.30, my brother texted me.
“Have you seen the news?” Is all the message said. I didn’t have time to respond. I was busy trying to sell photo packages to passer-by’s.
I finished work at about 1.30pm. On my way out of the shopping centre, I stopped in at Target. I bought a shirt and some food before leaving.
Upon my arrival back home, I walked into the sounds of a blaring TV.
Watching images on the screen, a Lindt cafe in the heart of Sydney’s business district. A flood of police. An armed man. A black and white flag with Arabic cruciform. A hostage situation.
I was now consumed by visions on my screen.
Laptop at the ready trying to find out everything I could about the shocking news. I flicked between channels for the rest of the day, watching and re-watching terrified hostages behind glass windows.
I continued to watch until I fell asleep at around midnight, Monday.
When I awoke, on Tuesday morning, the siege had passed.
Two were dead along with their armed captor.
I headed to work again.
Just like the day before, I walked through the shopping centre. But this time, I greeted no-one. Instead, I looked about wondering how it seemed nothing had changed.
Christmas carols still filled what little silence one could find. Michael Buble singing “Blue Christmas”.
I wanted to slap everyone I passed. I wanted them to wake up to their blind materialism. There are seventeen families who are now facing a very blue Christmas, when yesterday, their future looked so hopeful.
I walked onto the photography set and looked at Santa, the kids about him. And I felt numb.
How can anyone care about a fat man in a red suit and fake beard today? You bring no hope. You mend no wrongs.
In the days since the siege, I continued to work and I continued to become frustrated. When I wasn’t working, I was watching. As every new detail emerged, I felt more questions rise.
And then I’d turn to my Facebook newsfeed. The list of non-sensical, melodramatic dribble, problems that don’t matter, selfies from people I barely know.
And then, another breaking story. Another painful reality to punctuate my horror.
Scenes from a military school in Pakistan. Screaming children running terrified. Seven armed men. The Taliban. Classrooms and hallways painted in human blood. Charred furniture. 130+ casualties. All under 18 years of age.
Oh God. They’re dead! All of them! Where are You? Oh God!
The pent up emotions from the past few days flooded me. I felt such pain drive through my heart, I thought surely I would die. I wished for death to take me in its clutches. How does the world recover from such brutality when we are confronted daily with such evilness?
And then the numbness returned.
It’s a painful world outside my bedroom walls and there’s too much pain for me to care any more.
I found some solace in the knowledge that the perpetrators of these crimes – the seven Taliban gunman, the armed radical in the Sydney siege – had faced death for their actions. I know that God, as the Perfect Judge has and will bring all evil to justice.
Following the events, I saw a friend post on Facebook. Amidst her summary of emotional anguish she had experienced over the past few days, she quoted from the prophet Ezekiel:
“Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their evil ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die [people of Israel]?'” (Ezekiel 33:11)
Reading that, I cried. I cried loudly. I cried violently. I cried bitterly and I cried uncontrollably.
My grief deserved chastisement. How could I, a journalist in training, be so taken with emotion? I need to find composure and report facts unclouded by personal judgement.
I was reminded of a moment earlier this year in my Advanced Media Writing course at the University of Sydney. My lecturer asked us to read an article, Fatal Distraction, a heartbreaking account of the deaths of infants who had been forgot in their family’s car.
I burst into tears and couldn’t continue reading past the first few stanzas. I excused myself from the classroom to the vague sound of chuckles and the unfeeling reminder of my lecturer:
“Well, you’ll need to learn to detach yourself emotionally if you’re going to be a journalist.”
Humiliated and dejected, I returned home and cried more. But my outburst this week taught me something else. I cannot – will not – detach myself emotionally.
My emotion, my compassion and my yearning for justice is inbuilt by my God, who Himself shares my pain – only with greater intensity than I could ever survive.
Yet, God has not promised to protect us from pain in this world.
When God’s grace ends, He gives us over to the wickedness in our world. We have systematically taken God out of everything. We have removed Him from schools, from governments, and even unfortunately from many churches.
And yet, at times of crisis, our first question is:
Where was God when this happened?
Like a rubber band we have stretched God’s patience and now we are reaping the rewards of our disobedience.
That Scripture in Ezekiel reminded me that during the events of this week, I had so little turned to God. Except to question Him on why He had let it happen.
I am just as wicked. Yet, Jesus saw worth in my to save me.
When Jesus hung on that cross 2,000 years ago, He didn’t just see me. He saw the perpetrators of mass murder, the instigators of terrorism, the supporters of genocide and much, much more.
And He still willingly endured pain and harassment for us all.
But that’s the beauty of grace, that it makes life unfair.