Empty Foundations

For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”   Hebrews 11:10

Empty FoundationsFollowing the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, a familiar sight along the 500-kilometer (310 miles) stretch of devastated coastline were empty foundations in field after field where bustling towns and villages once stood. Over several months, mountains of debris caused by the tsunami were painstakingly removed and the only remaining evidence of prior human habitation were thousands of vacant concrete slabs. Vegetation slowly took over and the seemingly empty fields eventually begin to appear like ancient archeological ruins lingering from a previous civilization. Long stretches of collapsed sea walls usually accompanied these sites, offering muted testimony of their failure to protect the inhabitants against the destructive forces of nature.

Most of the survivors from this massive disaster were relocated to hastily assembled temporary housing units that were tucked further inland on higher ground. There, the survivors stoically waited for months and then years for the return of normalcy and some form of permanence in their lives. Each community worked with government officials to develop master plans for rebuilding and renewal as they struggled to recover from the past and yet still dreamed of future prospects.

This process understandably took time, and transpired in phases as mammoth machines moved earth and rubble to give way to a new infrastructure, hosting new communities. As part of this transition process, temporary buildings sprang up everywhere, almost like weeds, providing a variety of badly needed services. Temporary grocery stores, gas stations, drinking establishments, restaurants, local shops, business offices, clinics, police stations and even a public bath dotted the landscape, reminding everyone of past and present hardships while fostering hope of a better future. Some businesses managed to reopen on the top floors of badly damaged structures that would later be demolished. All of this served as a constant reminder that we lived in the midst of a deeply stricken community desperately struggling to survive.

Living in such a prefab world only served to increase our thirst for things of a permanent and even eternal nature. As we tread carefully among the rubble of people’s lives, our thoughts were often lifted heavenward and we began to “look forward to a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10) Much like our spiritual father Abraham and other heroes of the faith, many of whose lives are chronicled in that same chapter, the incompleteness or temporary nature of things characterizing our lives reminded us daily of heavenly realities that yet awaited us. As we often pondered on what those empty foundations represented in the past, they also served as a powerful reminder of much greater things that were only visible through eyes of faith. That’s the city we should seek in the midst of life’s storms.

A High Place

“He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he causes me to stand on the heights.”            Psalm 18:33

high ground 2

The importance of being located near a high place or “takadai” (高台) in a tsunami prone area became vividly real to us shortly after we arrived to assist with relief efforts following the cataclysmic Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. At the bottom of one particular set of stairs leading up a steep hill in a tsunami ravished town, we were puzzled to discover a jumble of carts typically used for transporting small children. When we raised our eyes to survey the landscape below us, we soon noticed what remained of a Japanese preschool that had been obliterated just a few days earlier by the massive onslaught of water. Then we understood the mystery of the jumbled carts. Following the siren warnings of a coming tsunami, teachers at that school had obviously snatched up all the children in their care and fled to the nearest takadai for safety. Later, we were thankful to learn that only one child from that particular school perished that day, but stories up and down the coast were far more sobering.

As many of the towns and villages in that part of Japan are forced to hug the coastline due to adjacent mountains, inhabitants can become easily trapped by an incoming tsunami. Therefore, it is important to know where a nearby takadai is located and how to access it. Evacuation signs to higher ground are common place in these areas and sets of stairs that often seemingly lead to nowhere are part of the proactive measures taken to save lives in the event of another disaster.

Much of the energy on those ravaged coastlines continues to be focused on ensuring the safety of residents against future calamities. In some localities, major construction projects are raising the level of towns while leveling nearby mountains for fill dirt, that in turn become alternative sites for rebuilding on higher ground. Crumbled seawalls are also being demolished and reconstructed according to taller specifications, as the general aim is to move everything higher. The quest for a takadai understandably seems to be the preoccupation of most surviving local residents who seek to rebuild their homes, businesses, schools and hospitals on higher ground. There they would have assurance of safety, security, normalcy, and more importantly, a measure of control over their lives which they dramatically lost on March 11, 2011.

Under such circumstances, one can easily understand the desire to obtain a takadai, but an imbalanced pursuit of safety and security in a world full of potential threats can actually lead us astray. As we struggle with the inevitable challenges of life, we may be tempted, apart from God, to seek “higher ground” upon which to build our lives, with safety and security being our sole objectives. God does not guarantee such things in our present life but instead, we are exhorted to flee to Him when life seems dangerous or out of control. He alone is our takadai or higher ground. There is no place safer.