Four Preaching Lessons from Hurricane Harvey

Bronze Statue: "Once Playing, Now Praying Girl." Photo by Lisa Cressman

Bronze Statue: "Once Playing, Now Praying Girl." Photo by Lisa Cressman

I, along with six million of my best friends, were caught in Harvey's "Groundhog Day," when every day of rain felt exactly like the last. Harvey demanded an encore, however, and is now replaying in Eastern Texas and Western Louisiana. My heart aches knowing what they're going through even as I write this.

I hesitate to look too much at news reports to see the devastation that begins within a half-mile of my house and spreads across an area that is larger and affects more people than the state of Rhode Island, and is still growing.

I look only at these reports occasionally; it's simply more than I can take.

The heartbreaking, terrifying, and frustrated stories of parishioners, friends, and colleagues, people I know and love personally is as much as I can take for the moment.

Whether we're in the middle of our own crisis and feel overwhelmed about what to do next, or we want to do something, anything!, to help someone else who is, here are four responses we can offer in our sermons at the intersection of the Gospel and experience.

1. Alternate between self-care and caring for others.

When Jesus had enough, he went off to pray.

Sometimes he selected his closest friends to talk to.

Jesus never worked day and night but took breaks to eat and sleep and take his mom to a wedding, and only with dire need did he break his Sabbath rest to teach or heal. When Jesus was ready, he went back at it, to teach, heal, and offer his presence.

Our American work ethic makes us feel guilty when we take care of ourselves, and that can be intensified when we see so much need around us.

Yes, there may be spurts of intense effort on others' behalf, but then, we need to stop, pray, and breathe. Sometimes we need to walk away, journal, exercise or talk to close friends about what it's "really" like.

Jesus never apologized for walking away to take care of himself even though there was still more to do. Neither should we.

2. Acknowledge how hard it is.

Jesus had his "moments."

"How much longer must I be with you, you faithless generation?" And in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said, "If it is your will, let this cup pass from me."

Tied up in these short sentences are grief, fear, anger, frustration, and maybe, maybe, even a little self-pity?

Somewhere along the line we need to admit what's happening inside us.

Whether that's only to God, in our journals, or to a trusted listener, therapist, colleague, or clergyperson, our experiences of heartache, frustration and grief need to be honored and acknowledged.

Discounting our suffering as compared to another's doesn't count.

Jesus never compared his suffering to someone else's as if his were easier, the same, or worse; it was what it was. So is ours.

3. Do the next one thing.

At times Jesus was inundated by those in need. He faced five thousand hungry people.

Where even to start? With one thing.

There was a loaf of bread and a few fish at hand, so Jesus did only one thing with them: he gave thanks. Then he blessed them.

Then he did the next one thing. He broke the bread.

Then he did the next one thing. He handed the bread and fish to his disciples.

The disciples did the next one thing. They handed out the food.

By doing only the next one thing, five thousand were fed. 

And when they weren't hungry anymore, the disciples did the next one thing. They collected baskets-full of leftovers.

In a crisis it's easy to feel paralyzed by overwhelming and competing needs. But really, there's always only one thing to do: the next, one thing.

4. Connect.

"I didn't want to bother you so I didn't call."

This is what many of us say either when we're affected by a crisis or know someone who is.

For those who hesitate to reach out when they're in the midst of a crisis, consider Mary, Martha, and Nicodemus.

When Lazarus died and Jesus was trying to save the world, did Martha and Mary hesitate to send him a message?

When Nicodemus needed to talk, did he stay home because it was after Jesus' working hours?

Of course not! They needed Jesus now! They asked. Jesus was free to say yes, no, or not yet, and he did two out of three.

When we know someone in crisis we often hesitate to reach out because we think we might be adding to their burden by giving them one more thing to do. But if we hold back, we lose the chance to offer Christ's compassion and be the living witness that they are not alone.

Most of us are grateful to be reminded others care. Most of us are grateful to feel we're not alone even when there's nothing more anyone can do. In addition, most of us are also able to say thank you, AND, like Jesus, respond with, "Yes, I can help now," or, "I'll help as soon as I can." Don't hesitate to offer to connect while trusting you'll hear what works best for them.

It's my crisis this time. It'll be yours the next. Preach this Good News that makes us Good News for each other.

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