Finding Strength in God’s Word

By Fr Kene Onwukwe

Father Kene Onwukwe, assistant pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Mosman, Australia, poses near debris Jan. 14, 2020, in the aftermath of bushfires in Australia. Father Onwukwe is a chaplain with the army reserve currently working full time alongside soldiers supporting exhausted firefighters in the bushfire relief efforts. (CNS photo/courtesy Father Onwukwe) See AUSTRALIA-FIRES-PRIESTS Jan. 28, 2020.

The bushfires that necessitated Operation Bushfire Assist 2019 were overwhelming. They brought the Australian public to a standstill and into a state of mourning. When the callout was made to the ADF I was overseas, and I’d been back in Australia for barely two hours when I got the text that I would be deployed the support the operation. Within six hours of my return, I travelled from Mosman where I used to live to Holsworthy Barracks where I did my deployment preparations. I then moved to HMAS Harman in Canberra and then to Cobargo which was one of the areas affected by the bushfires. We subsequently travelled to different parts of south-eastern NSW.

Some of the firefighters and residents in the affected areas lost their lives due to the consuming fire, as well as animals, both wild and domesticated. The whole ecosystem in the affected region was disrupted. But government, religious and corporate organisations threw their weight behind making sure the victims were well supported to the best of our nation’s ability and capability.

While the soldiers supported the communities with mending fences, clearing roads, felling trees and creating awareness of the support services available to them, the Chaplains (Padres) provided the soldiers with the ministry of presence to encourage them in their tasks. We led at daily worship services; prayed for and with them; and provided pastoral support and advice in different areas of their life journeys. The depth and breadth of the devastation caused by the bushfires could overwhelm the capability of the support services. SO our role in bringing positive energy and morale among the sailors, soldiers and aviators was vital. Our role in providing the required services to the community was also important and significant.

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What stood out for me was the cheerfulness of these community members ravaged by fire. Some of them could no longer have a long-term plan. They lived in a makeshift camp because their properties had been burnt down. Emotions of anger and frustration were commonplace. The community had experienced significant trauma which was amplified as they counted their losses. Yet in the midst of this, the majority of communities were welcoming and appreciative of our presence and support.

In one of my encounters, I met a man who had been an international preacher before he retired. He and his wife were devastatingly affected by the bushfire; only their two lives had been spared from it. Their animals, house and everything in the house were all torched by the raging fire. By the time I visited, they had returned to the property, choosing to clear a small portion of the area so that they could sleep next to their burnt out house.

They felt so happy that I visited them. Here were a man and a lady who had lost practically all they held onto for decades. Yet they were excited to welcome me, and I guess it was because of what I brought to them – the word of God – and because I communicated to them the words of St Paul in this letter to the Romans: ‘And we that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’ (ROM 8:28)

In the midst of turmoil, catastrophe, earthquake, floods, bushfire and terminal illness, we can easily (but wrongly) draw the conclusion that God is absent from human affairs. But to know that God works for the good of his people makes a big difference, just as it did in the lives of these people. It was consoling to them that a representative of God and nation visited. They saw this as a sign of God’s presence.

I prayed with this couple and as I was about to leave I gave them the military Bible that I had. This brought the man to tears. When this happened I asked myself, ‘Have I ignited old memories or dampened my effort with the word of God?’

When the man gathered himself, he told me, ‘Being a former preacher, I have many different versions of the Bible from different languages. They were all burnt in the house and I couldn’t remove any. Now, with this military Bible you have given me, I take it that Jesus is still with me. He has never left me and it means so much to me.’ That really touched me.

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The bushfires of 2019/2020 caused irrevocable havoc in the lives of Australians. These events will be part of our history. The untold hardships and sorrow the fires brought to people’s lives won’t be deleted from our stories. I can say this with confidence. The majority of people I visited looked to the future with optimism. Many opened their doors and hearts to welcome Jesus in their lives either though his word or through prayer, comfort and consolation.

We often undermine what God can do through his word in the most difficult circumstances of our lives. Reflecting on my involvement on Operation Bushfire Assist, it was an opportunity to bless others with the message of God’s word in the hard times of their lives. In times of adversity, God manifests himself to his people through his word. Our job is to believe it in faith – the door to his presence. His word enlightens our minds so that we can find solutions to our problems and take positive steps in unfavourable circumstances.

The Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt is a good example. In their sojourn, God spoke his word to Moses. Moses was to use his staff, which looked normal to the eye, as a sign of his presence and in getting them out of trouble. His staff was transformed into a snake (Ex 7:8-13), it parted the Red Sea (Ex 14:16), and it produced water from a rock (Num 20:11). God’s word helped the Israelites stay the course in tough times.

Through our prayer, sharing the word of God and practical pastoral support, the victims of the bushfires were able to take heart and feel a bit better for a while. The word of God can do the same for you if you read and reflect on it in faith. When we experience suffering and frustration, I recommend that we stick with Jesus Christ. Let his word be our guide, for in it we find meaning. In the words of St Paul, ‘We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed’ (2 Cor 4:8-9)

Story originally printed in “ My Story, My God” – Reflections from Christians in the Australian Defence Community and their families. Published by the Bible Society