Churches are usually packed for the funeral of a baby. But this funeral had just four mourners: the baby's young mother, her best friend, and the baby's two sisters. For whatever reason, there was no wider circle of family and friends to offer emotional support. The tiny coffin was dwarfed by the freezing cold emptiness of my Anglo-Catholic church. Blood ran down the mother's arm. In utter desperation she had scored the name of the child into her arm with a knife just before the service.
That night, and for some weeks after, I lost my faith. Oxford theology hadn't prepared me for the realities of parish life in the Black Country. I thought of WH Auden: "Was it to meet such grinning evidence we left our richly odoured ignorance. Was the triumphant answer to be this? The pilgrim way has led to the abyss."
Since then, I have sat through endless undergraduate tutorials on the so-called "problem of evil". If God is all-powerful and all loving, how can suffering exist? The essays that are most difficult to stomach are those that seek some clever logical trick to get God off the hook, as if the cries of human suffering could be treated like a fascinating philosophical Rubik's cube in need of an ingenious solution. Such "solutions" include: the universe is set up like some cosmic Gordonstoun where suffering makes us better people. Or - without suffering the world would become some sort of toy world where nothing has moral weight. Or - (believe it or not) devils are responsible, not God. Of course, none of them work, and one has to question the moral health of those whose only concern in the face of great tragedy is to buy God some dubious alibi.
So why am I still a Christian? Because, in part, the intellectual problem of suffering does not accurately depict the reality of human pain and how we respond to it. It is significant that in more than 10 years of being a priest, of taking heartbreaking funerals and of being face to face with much human tragedy, no one has seen fit to ask me how God and suffering can co-exist. Yes, there is the burning question "why?" - and sometimes it's spat out with great bitterness - but it's not a tutorial-type question as much as a cry of deep despair. This is not the sort of suffering that can be traded as an intellectual commodity in some wider game of atheist versus believer. And far from being a reason for people to take their leave of God, many find that the language of God is the only language sufficient to express their pain and grief, even rage.
As Rowan Williams put it, quoting one of his predecessors as archbishop of Wales who had himself lost a child: "All I know is that the words in my Bible about God's promise to be alongside us have never lost their meaning for me. And now we have to work in God's name for the future."
But this does not offer the Christian worldview unlimited protection from the stormy blast of the tsunami. Christians cannot go on speaking about prayer as if it were an alternative way of getting things done in the world, or about divine power as if God were the puppet master of the universe. What is so terrifying about the Christmas story is that it offers us nothing but the protection of a vulnerable baby, of a God so pathetic that we need to protect Him. The idea of an omnipotent God who can calm the sea and defeat our enemies turns out to be a part of that great fantasy of power that has corrupted the Christian imagination for centuries. Instead, Christians are called to recognise that the essence of the divine being is not power but compassion and love. And it's this love, and this love only, that whispers to me in defiance of the darkness: all will be well, all manner of things will be well.
Rev'd Dr Giles Fraser is Vicar of Putney and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005