I’m not sure how you’ve been doing, riding out this windy, rainy weather that’s come to us from Hurricane Florence. As I am writing this, 1:25, Saturday afternoon, we have had power and no problems. I’ve made trips to Walmart. It’s been OK.
I know people in Wilmington and along the coast are significantly affected by floodwaters, wind, and rain. As of this writing, 7 have died in hurricane-related incidents. It’s a tragedy. I have no inspired words to make emotional sense of it. We believe in God and rely on God, and then a natural disaster comes. Why? I don’t have a good answer.
One of the people in the Bible frequently referenced in times of catastrophe is Job. God boasted of Job’s righteousness and Satan challenged God on this. God allowed Satan to harm Job. Through weather disasters and military assaults from foreign enemies and accidents, Satan, with God’s permission, was able to kill Job’s children and take all of Job’s things. A key phrase in that sentence is with God’s permission.
Why would God let Satan do that? In the 1000’s of years of Bible students combing through the scriptures, the “why” question has never been sufficiently answered. But know this. From Job’s perspective, the issue is with God, not Satan. The book of Job has 42 chapters and Satan is off the scene after chapter 2. Job’s wife, who lost everything just as Job did, loses faith. She says to her husband, “Do you … persist in your integrity? Curse God and die” (2:9).
Curse God and die. Someone prays fervently in the days leading up to Hurricane Florence. He has relatives in Wilmington. For whatever reason, they don’t evacuate. They’ve ridden out hurricanes before. They’ve got things at home they need to protect. They’ve got a parent in the hospital in Wilmington that cannot be moved and they don’t want to leave dad behind. It’s doesn’t matter why. They stay. And the cousin, who lives here, away from the flooding, away from the danger prays for them.
Then the hurricane comes, power is knocked out, and the cousin loses touch. Finally, the dreaded call comes. The one who stayed died in the flood waters. Does the cousin who prayed so hard now look to Heaven with heartbroken frustration and curse God? What words does a pastor offer to soothe the ultimate loss? I don’t know.
For his part, Job responded, “”Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Frustrated, Satan asked permission to attack Job’s body. Job was made deathly ill, breaking out in loathsome boils.
He professes faith even in the face of terrible loss. His wife blames God and abandons faith. Read on through the rest of the book, and Job brings his own complaints to God even as his three friends mercilessly blame him for what’s happened. He needs comfort, and they weigh him down with bad theology that puts all the responsibility for his plight on his own shoulders. It would be like saying to the people at the beach, “It’s your fault this hurricane happened. If you had not sinned, it would never have come.” Job’s friends relentlessly pound this idea.
However, before they get started in their misguided diatribes, look at their action in chapter 2, verse 13. It says, “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” Sometimes, that is the only response a pastor or a loving Christian friend has. Sometimes to be a Christian is to sit with another person in their misery.
You see someone in a terrible mess. It doesn’t matter who made the mess. You see the mess and the person who can’t get out of it. So, you say, “I love you and God loves you. I can’t think of how to show that. I can’t think of what to do. So, I’m going to sit with you in this mess.” There comes the time to do the recovery work. Maybe the building needs to be cleaned. Maybe the church needs to provide supplies to the family who lost everything. Maybe the building is so damaged it needs to be leveled. To save money, some the work can be done by volunteers from the church. We had a bunch of volunteers from here head to Eastern North Carolina last year to do recovery work. The time for that comes. But, sometimes, the only we have to offer is presence. I don’t know what to do. But I’ll sit with you because God loves you and I think that’s what God wants me to do.
Philip Yancey has spent his writing career trying to see God in the midst of the world’s greatest pain. Pain produces fear. The dire forecast of what kind of damage the hurricane might bring sent people in our area into a mania of worry. I was in Lowe’s hardware earlier in the week. They had cases of water bottles. At that point several stores were completely out. I grabbed one case, but other people had their carts stacked high with cases. They had enough water for over a month. The fear of being out of something drove people crazy.
Don’t get me wrong. Preparation is important. Many who decided to ride out the storm regret it now, even if they survived. We should prepare and heed warnings, like the warning to evacuate, but we do not need to be ruled by fear. Yancey writes, “The cure to fear is not a change in circumstances, but rather a deep grounding in the love of God. I ask God to reveal his love to me directly, or through my relationships with those who also know him – a prayer I think God takes delight in answering.”[i]
A deep grounding in the love of God; is that what allowed Job, at his lowest point, to say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord?” Was he so grounded in God’s love because he had so much, a big family and great wealth? If he had no children and was a poor man, would he have said that?
Is that deep grounding in the love of God what led the author of the New Testament letter 1 John to write these words in chapter 4? “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). That New Testament letter claims that we are able to live in love and show love because God has first loved us (4:19). The ultimate expression of God’s love is the death of His beloved and only son, Jesus, on the cross for our sins. Jesus is God’s testimony of love. When it feels as if our own deaths have come upon us, is the love of God that we have in Jesus enough to help us face it?
What does deep grounding in the love of God look like?
Often, it looks like people who show God’s love. It looks like Job’s friends when they sat with him in silence, before they started blaming him. Just sitting with him, they were God’s presence. They didn’t heal his painful condition. They didn’t bring his deceased children back. But, they communicated that he was not going through this alone. Their presence said to him, “You are beloved. We will stand by you.”
Yancey relays a story from Tony Campolo.
Tony Campolo was going to a funeral home to pay his respects to the family of an acquaintance. By mistake he ended up in the wrong funeral parlor. It held the body of an elderly man and his widow was the only mourner present. She seemed so lonely that Campolo decided to stay with her for the funeral. He even drove with her to the cemetery. At the end of the graveside service, as he and the woman were driving away, Campolo finally confessed that he had not known her husband. “I thought as much, said the widow. I didn’t recognize you. But it doesn’t really matter.” She squeezed his arm so tightly it hurt. She said, “You’ll never know what this means to me.”[ii]
Yancey goes on to say, “No one offers the name of a philosopher when I ask the question, ‘who helped you the most?’ Most often they answer by describing a quiet, unassuming person. Someone who was there when needed, who listened more than talked, who didn’t keep glancing down at a watch, who hugged and touched and cried.”[iii] Presence.
The first time I ever saw my dad cry was when I was about 8 or 9. We would run out of the house when he got home around 6 PM yelling, “Daddy’s home.” Well, one day, he didn’t come. And it got dark out. This was the late 1970’s, so no cell phones. We didn’t know where he was. Mom didn’t know where he was.
Finally, after 8PM, we heard the garage door open. I went into the garage to greet him. He had a strange expression on his face. I had never seen such a look in his eyes. There was blood all over his overcoat. He sputtered out, “I couldn’t help him. I couldn’t do anything.” And my dad cried. I didn’t know what to do. I had never seen this.
The story came out. He was making his daily commute home on I-75 from downtown Detroit to 14 Mile Road where we lived in the small town of Clawson. He saw someone walking on the Freeway get hit by a tractor trailer. My dad always carried an old army blanket in his trunk. He stopped the car by the stricken man, and got that old blanket out. Stooping by the man whose body been run over by an 18-wheeler. My dad covered him with the blanket and stayed with him so he wouldn’t die alone.
Why was Dad crying? He was crying God’s tears. This man was a stranger to my dad. This man was God’s beloved child and God wept at what happened. God weeps for those who fall in the hurricane’s path. God weeps with you when life hits you hard.
Grounded in love, my dad was the presence of God for a dying man. Grounded in love, Job’s friends were the presence of God with him as he suffered. In the aftermath of the current storm, our church will send people to do whatever kinds of relief efforts and clean-up efforts we can to help. Going and working is important. Going with a heart of love to be with people in their distress – that’s living grounded in love. God’s love for us, demonstrated in the sacrifice of Jesus, expresses itself when we are present with people who need to know they’re not alone.
None of these words fix what hurricanes break. None of these words heal the wounds in your life. These words insist that God is with us and is with you and will stay with you, no matter what you’re going through. Because I believe in the goodness of God and because I believe His loves overcomes all that we face in life, this is the best I can offer. God is with us. And when we sit with those in pain, God is there.
[i] P. Yancey (2000), Reaching for the Invisible God, Zondervan (Grand Rapids, MI), p.83.
[ii] P. Yancey (1990), Where is God when it Hurts?, Zondervan (Grand Rapids, MI), p.195.