It’s August 25th. Later tonight Hurricane Harvey will make landfall on the Texas Gulf Coast, the area I now call home.
Harvey will land not so close that I need to evacuate, but close enough that my home is likely to receive 12-15 inches of rain in the next several days.
Flash floods are guaranteed. Damage by wind and trees is likely. Weather professionals and regional leaders anticipate that in the next five days, some people will lose their homes or even their lives.
Though I'm writing from my local perspective as I anticipate Hurricane Harvey, at some point, we all face disasters and crises that upend our physical security.
How do we preach when natural disaster looms?
How do we preach after it’s come and gone?
What can we say to put a natural disaster in perspective and comfort those affected?
Pastorally and theologically, we need to reinforce that a natural disaster is not God’s punishment.
Tongue-in-cheek, as far as I know, the people of the Texas Gulf Coast are pretty average sinners. I have no reason to think our level of sin has risen so far above that of the people on the Florida Gulf Coast, for example, that God would have concocted Harvey specially for us!
A disaster and its suffering can make us feel singled out, targeted, alone and isolated.
But it’s important to put ourselves in perspective. We have not caught God’s attention to be targeted for suffering; that is hardly Christ’s leit motif for the resurrection.
No. We already have God’s attention because we have God’s love.
- We have God’s attention as we anticipate what is to come.
- We have God’s attention while our attention is glued to the Weather Channel as we do our mighty best to capture a sense of control even though we can’t know how this disaster will unfold.
- We have God’s attention when, after the disaster, we turn to the work of clean-up and rebuilding and learning the lessons of how to be better prepared next time.
And we have God’s attention while we grieve.
Sermons must name the grief of our losses as clearly as we do at any funeral.
There are many deaths to grieve during and after a disaster, individually and as a region, that are not limited to loss of life.
Some will lose dry and stable houses when roofs are torn away, foundations soaked, and coastlines rearranged.
Many will lose routines, schedules and appointments as we suspend school and work activities. Our usual productivity will be replaced by calling insurance companies, arranging for tow trucks, and acquiring dumpsters.
We may sacrifice a little of our humanity if we compete with one another for scarce goods and supplies, and if we look with contempt…and envy…upon those who succeed.
In varying degrees, we'll lose economic benefits—crops and low gas prices, electricity, carpeting, dry wall, and furniture.
We may lose faith in engineered water run-off systems or in our judgement, having driven through high water from which we should have turned back.
Certainly, we’ll lose a bit of our bravado that we can manufacture our world strongly or reliably enough that we needn't fear anything.
And most bitterly, of course, we will grieve any who lose their life.
Preachers can also offer perspective, reminding us of God's eternal, Unchanging truths.
The Book of Common Prayer has this in the opening anthem of our Burial Office (Rite Two):
“For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord’s possession."*
We need to be reminded that none of us has life in ourself, but only as God gives it to us.
Nor are we ever our own master, in this life or the next.
Disasters remind us of our true size, if only for a moment.
Though our mind resists mortality, we are still flesh and blood, heart and bone. However, we needn't fear God nor our own demise because we belong to God through every circumstance.
Whether we are stripping our home’s sodden carpet or huddled in a Red Cross shelter; whether we still have electricity or are pulling rotten meat from a warm freezer; whether we are the family member at the hospital bedside berating their loved one for not turning back from high waters or are the one lying in the bed, we are the Lord’s possession.
We are the Lord’s possession before the disaster, during, after, and everlasting.
As pastor and preacher, remind us that though natural disasters change everything, because we are the Lord’s possession, they change nothing.
Help us see that though we may not feel well in home or body, it is still well in our soul.
*The Book of Common Prayer. The Church Hymnal Corporation (New York: 1979), p. 491.
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