As you may know our kids and grandkids in Houston were hit by Hurricane Harvey. At one point during the flooding our 11-year old grandson Lukas asked his mother if they had flood insurance. When she told him sadly that they didn’t he summed up the way millions of storm victims must be feeling today in typical pre-teen fashion. He said, “Well we should. We’re screwed!”
Today I am talking about something far better than flood insurance. There are no deductibles on this policy and the premiums are paid up forever. I’m not talking about in-surance, but the as-surance in our Scripture for today. Did you hear it? That Scripture from Isaiah was chosen several weeks ago to be part of our series on “Longing to Belong”–before Hurricane Harvey laid siege to Southeast Texas and Louisiana, before Irma was even born and began doing even worse to the Caribbean Islands and Florida. The words of the anonymous prophet known to biblical scholars as Deutero or Second Isaiah could not be more timely: “When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” Or as Eugene Peterson paraphrases that verse in “The Message,” “When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you. When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down. When you’re between a rock and hard place, it won’t be a dead end.”
Two weeks ago, seems like a year now, my pastoral prayer focused on the early devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey. My concern was real but still came from a safe distance. At the time my step-son and his family who live in a suburb on the North East side of Houston were still dry. The speed at which that situation changed over the next 24 hours made Harvey’s flood waters very personal and real.
By Monday morning the street in their small neighborhood was flooded. By afternoon the water was lapping at their front and back doors. They moved some of their possessions upstairs and were still hopeful they could ride it out without too much damage. Within a few hours that hope was washed away by the filthy water rapidly covering their floors and flooding their garage.
We were kept abreast of their situation with texts and videos all during the day. And then there were two extremely long hours when we didn’t hear from them. We didn’t know if they were able to evacuate or not. At last we got a short video of them climbing into a truck that came down their street in waist high water in the late afternoon. By that time the situation was so urgent that they fled with almost nothing but the clothes on their backs. The good news is they are safe. The fact that my step-son and his wife had separated earlier this summer became an ironic blessing because Matt is living in a rented house which thank God is on higher ground and out of Harvey’s reach. That house became their refuge.
Living this frightening disaster vicariously through our kids and knowing that thousands are in much worse shape has been exhausting emotionally for us. The sense of helplessness that there was nothing we could do to help them from 1000 miles away was somewhat alleviated by the outpouring of love and prayers from our church, friends and family. Social media was a blessing as we felt surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
Two days after they fled the flood our kids were able to return to what had been their beautiful home. Six feet of flood water had destroyed the entire first floor of every home on their street. All of those yards are now full of ruined furniture, appliances, toys, carpets, curtains, pictures and family mementos – everything that makes a house a refuge from the storms of life. Most of Harvey’s victims, like our kids, do not have flood insurance and have lost most of their earthly possessions. So now they are all working in the stench and muck 12-hour days to begin the long process of recovery. Our 11 year-old grandson is having nightmares and his parents are living in one.
These are times that make or break one’s faith. Like all tragedies, storms like Harvey and Irma are also an opportunity for all Americans to prove that we are indeed our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers. There have been many heart-warming incidents of heroic and radical generosity and hospitality. A friend of Diana’s said he felt called to go to Houston and help; so he organized some friends to go with him. They collected supplies and donations, were able to use a brand new pick-up truck donated by Lindsey Honda and pulling a U Haul trailer full of donations and supplies, drove straight through last Friday night and spent the weekend helping with the recovery effort. Our daughter-in-law tells us how much it means when strangers stop by and give them water to drink and food to eat as they are working on what they now call their Harvey House. This past Thursday a bit of normalcy was restored when the kids went back to school. They took a first day of school picture none of us will ever forget with the mountain of debris from their house as the background.
This nightmare for Harvey’s and Irma’s victims will continue for years. But Isaiah was writing to a devastated people who endured an even longer disaster. II Isaiah was writing to the Hebrew Exiles in Babylon. His powerful images of water and fire are very real to us as floods of biblical proportions pummel not only our country but India, Nepal and Bangladesh. But Isaiah’s images of water and fire are also metaphors for all of life’s crises that sometimes gang up on us and threaten to overwhelm us. The Hebrews were political prisoners in a foreign, hostile land for 60 years longing to belong again to their nation and their God.
The need for stronger faith to handle difficult times has been very personal for Diana and me in the last two weeks. I share our experience, not because we are especially unfortunate or cursed, but because all of us have to deal with these kinds of crises from time to time. In addition to our hearts breaking for our kids and other victims of Harvey and Irma, we’ve had other pressing family concerns recently that have left me at times feeling like a ping pong ball being bounced from one crisis to the next. My 95 year-old father is in failing health and had to be moved from assisted living to skilled nursing, and that transition which has robbed him of the last shred of independence has been very difficult for him, my sister, and for the nurses and staff at his retirement community. And then last week, Diana’s wonderful 99 year-old mother was hospitalized with confusion caused by a serious urinary tract infection.
She’s doing better now, but all that happening at once felt overwhelming. I have not felt so battered by life since Holy Week of 1993. On Palm Sunday of that year my mother had emergency brain surgery for the cancer that been diagnosed only 3 days earlier. On Wednesday of that week my mother-in-law from my first marriage died and was buried on Good Friday. It was both the hardest and best Holy Week of my ministry as we experienced our own passion and felt the power of resurrection in the lives of two wonderful women.
They say (whoever “they” are) that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I believe that, but I like the way St. Paul says it a little better. In Romans 5 Paul says, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5) “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
Is that a “no pain, no gain” kind of theology? Does it mean we should seek out suffering to make us stronger? No, and we don’t need to because there’s always plenty of suffering around that we can help with. There’s so much suffering in the world right now even our 24/7 cable news junkies can’t keep up with it. Wild fires are raging all over the western part of the US killing livestock and destroying homes; floods many times worse than the ones in Houston have killed over 1200 and affected 41 million people in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. And I shudder to think how much suffering Irma will inflict before she’s done.
Closer to home 4 families in our neighborhood on Donney Lane are homeless because of a fire last Saturday. These are refugee families from Iraq who have no family or community support, nowhere else to go, no one to trust in a country that once prided itself on Lady Liberty inviting “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Those words from Emma Lazarus use flood imagery too as they go on to say, “The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Those huddled masses are now afraid to answer their doors or to give personal information to agencies trying to help them for fear it will lead to deportation.
When the first sunshine in many days broke thru the clouds in Houston after Harvey pounded them with 50 inches of rain our daughter-in-law sent us a video of the sun’s rays. She was like a little kid at Christmas, just to see the sun again. In a similar way I’m so proud to say that our brown bag ministry with the families affected by the recent fire has established a level of trust that is a ray of hope in a painful and tragic situation. There’s an old saying that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” It’s also true that a PB and J sandwich, or a few hundred of them, can unlock the doors of fear and mistrust. A simple gesture to feed some hungry kids has built relationships so strong we’ve been able to offer help and love to these families who lost their homes.
Through the persistent efforts of a bunch of wonderful brown bag servants and the heart-warming generosity of all who have made donations to help NW church has been able to live out Isaiah’s message of hope with these neighbors. To Lamar, Laith and Mohammad and their families we have said– “When you’re in over your head, Northwest church will be there with you.” “When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” because we all belong to God.
How could God say that to the Hebrew exiles in a hopeless situation in a foreign land filled with pagan gods? How can God give that kind of flood and fire assurance to any of us when we feel like we’re going down for the third time? When we want to shout like the Psalmist, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”
This is very important — the assurance is not because of who we are or that we’re better than others. God’s assurance is not because we’ve done anything to deserve it. It’s simply because of who we belong to. All of us long for human helpers in any crisis. We want to know we are not alone, that we are a part of a community, a family that will rescue us like the Cajun Navy in their bass boats, or like the NW church van delivering food and diapers and blankets or whatever is needed on Donney Lane. But gifts of material things as important as they are do not make us belong. One stark lesson of Irma and Harvey is that all of our material possessions can be wiped out in a heartbeat by a natural disaster, a stock market crash, a fire, a health crisis or a plane flying into a world center tower. But the ties that bind us to one another and most importantly to God can never be destroyed by flood or fire.
Why? Because Isaiah says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine!” Do you hear that church? God knows us by name! God says, “You are Mine.” Our deepest longing to belong is assured. We belong to God – always have, always will. Come hell or high water, come grief or mourning, or fear and nightmare—the one unchanging certainty through it all is that God is with us, We BELONG! Thanks be to God.
Benediction: When the storms of life are raging, God stands by us. God empowers us to face each day of life, each new challenge because we have the assurance that the future belongs to God and so do we. Go share that good news with others longing to belong.
[Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH, September 10,2017]