Publication: Pastoral Letter, November 2004
Dear Friend in Christ:
I have been writing these monthly Pastoral Letters for nearly twenty years. My purpose is to draw life from where I am, and to share life with you where you are. I receive many responses that encourage me. I am grateful that you take the time to read the letters.
Where I am now is in the days following Hurricane Ivan, in early October. You will not receive this letter for a few weeks, but the truth of it will endure and serve us all in the years ahead. Hurricane Ivan was the worst storm to hit our area in many years. (Our area being the Alabama/Florida Gulf Coast of the United States.) Scores of lives were lost as the storm moved into Alabama and Florida and then up through the Northeastern United States.
Waves in the Gulf of Mexico were recorded as high as 52 feet, and wind gusts were clocked at 162 miles per hour. By the time Ivan made landfall, waves had “subsided” to about 25 feet and sustained winds of more than 130 miles per hour. Television recorded the devastation. Dreams of a life time were blown away by the terrible fury.
Immediately after the storm, I drove to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which is located approximately 100 miles northwest of Mobile, to speak at a seminar. Along the way, I stopped to get a sandwich. I had to drive awhile to find a place that was open. The lines were long, and just ahead of me in line was a family who had lost all. They were from nearby Pensacola, Florida. They described the horror of the night that Ivan came through their area and the tornado that destroyed their home as they hid in the bathroom. They had taken photos of what once was their home. Their escape was miraculous.
The family also described their journey out of Pensacola and the difficulty of finding an open road. All major roads were closed. They came in search of supplies, a generator, and some food. I could see the pain and shock on their faces, and I felt it too. I bought their lunch, listened to their story, and thought that there were thousands more like them.
My wife, Carolyn, and I also rode out the storm in our house. I had boarded up our house, and prepared as best as I could. We took in Carolyn’s 90-year-old mother, and Carolyn’s sister. The storm intensified Wednesday night as winds howled, and trees bowed before it. I stayed up to watch and see if my preparations would hold. Thank God they did. By 2:30 AM, when the eye of the storm finally came, I felt that the “Death Angel” had passed over our house.
I went to bed and thought of those to our east who were enduring a night of horror. The severe devastation began just about 10 miles east of us and would continue for 150 miles further east, as floods and tornadoes would rip through lives. We had loved ones there.
AFTER THE STORM
The dawn brings reality and with that comes an almost unbearable truth for some. Dreams have been destroyed, but life must go on and hard work is ahead. We had mixed emotions; our friends and family were safe, and our property was largely undamaged, but we had friends nearby who lost everything.
I noticed again what I had seen after Hurricane Frederic hit Mobile in 1979. People change. Sharing, patience, and neighborliness begin to take hold as people are bonded in common difficulty. Our neighbors had a large generator and shared power with us and two other families to keep our refrigerators running. People were drawn together and priorities changed in the storm.
I noticed that life goes on without lights, phones, or television. I noticed that more people were praying and sacrificing for what really mattered. And I noticed that people from other states came to share the burden. North and South became neighbors. And on Sunday, tired people gathered where they could to worship and give thanks that they were able to do so.
There is a spiritual side of storms; more than I can describe. Yes, I know that storms are the result of natural forces, but storms affect the spirit. They test our spirit and our faith. I do not blame God for the storm, though instead I could blame the Evil One. There are clear parallels between natural storms and the destructive forces that assail our lives.
Storms, natural and spiritual, come in the change of seasons. Spring brings tornados to some areas and fall brings hurricanes, which also spawn tornadoes in other areas. In September of 1979, when Hurricane Frederic came to us, we were moving to a new home, and again this year we were. We sold our home this year to get cash for new ministry projects: a school and an orphanage.
In many ways, it is a new season emerging through turbulence. In recent days, several friends have passed on to be with the Lord. People die in spiritual storms too, and new challenges face those that remain. Storms bring the unexpected. I have often said that life is more defined by the unexpected, than the expected.
And, we have endured a great political storm here in the United States. Much has been destroyed, but we have come to a new season. America desperately needs a renewal of neighborliness. We must rebuild together.
LORD OF THE STORM
where will renewal come? To those of us who know the Lord, the answer is clear. When the unexpected comes, He is not taken unaware. Like many who were unprepared for Ivan, many are unprepared for the horrific trials that face us. The Scriptures teach us that God can help us through and after the storm.
Matthew 14:23-33 tells of an occasion when Jesus sent His disciples across Galilee and He remained behind to pray. As they sailed the familiar waters at night, a great storm arose. They could make no progress against the raging seas. Even with all their sailing experience and seamanship, they were terrified. Then, before the dawn broke, they saw Jesus walking across the waters coming toward them. At first they thought they were seeing a ghost.
Much could be said about this logic-defying miracle. But the point is that He demonstrated His mastery of the storm, the winds, and the seas. Another occasion is recorded in Luke 8:22-25. When Jesus was asleep in the boat during the storm, they awoke Him saying, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” He rebuked both the storm and their fear and lack of faith.
Some may dismiss these stories as “myth,” but the disciples believed and confessed Jesus as the Son of God. Their later impact upon history is no myth.
If we are going to have an impact on history, we too must remember that fear and faithlessness stand rebuked before God. We must remember that Jesus Christ is Lord of the storms. When we have done what we can, there is peace to be had in trusting in Him. Wars or spiritual and physical storms do not change that reality.
THE EVIL STORM
Evil wears many faces. It is the intentional harm inflicted upon the innocent. It can come militarily, economically, criminally, politically, or in some marital conflict. At its roots lie fear, intimidation, and destruction. The evil storm, like the hurricane, comes as a strong wind with great gusts and turbulence. It comes first from one direction and then another, with dangerous debris flying through the air. Life itself is at stake.
Our society has been conditioned in recent years by secular pluralism: They say there is no God or that He is irrelevant, and all religion is equally unimportant. “Good and Evil” are not terms that are in vogue. To admit evil is to admit good, and that is too close to admitting the sources of both.
The problem with this is what keeps happening: wars, crimes, and social tragedies perpetrated by some malevolent individual or group. Hurricane Ivan lasted a few days; Nazism a few years; Communism a few decades; and now radical Islam which has lasted for centuries. Yes, Mohammed believed in conquest by the sword. Radical Islamic cultures have and still do spread by fear and intimidation.
I was in Belgium when terrorist murderers struck the Russian School house. Hundreds of innocents were killed. Those who call these people “freedom fighters” are worse than naïve; whether it is Russia, Spain, or New York City, it is the same spirit. We face an evil storm that has lasted and will last for years to come – it will be bloody, intimidating, and divisive…that is Satan’s intent.
THE PROMISES OF GOD
Isaiah writes in chapter 25 about a storm of terrible foreign enemies, and he writes about God’s help. He speaks of strength. Verse 3 says, “The strong people will glorify you.” Verse 4 says, “You have been strength to the poor, strength to the needy in distress, and a refuge from the storm.”
Later in the chapter he says, “God will swallow up death and wipe away tears from all faces.” He prophesies victory. Strength and faith lead to victory. Remember, when Jesus rebuked the storms, He also rebuked fear and faithlessness.
We are here today in our land, our schools, churches, and homes, because of God’s grace and imparted strength to those who lived before us. Our way of life must now be preserved the same way. God promises that the weak can become strong in adversity (see Hebrews 11:34). Storms can make us stronger and better if we turn to Jesus Christ.
Our strength is not the foolish bravado of the untested or the fanaticism of mob fervor. It is the quiet confidence of God’s Holy Spirit and confidence in His Word. The righteous are as bold as a lion (see Psalm 28:1 and Isaiah 30:15).
I urge you not to be shaken as a sapling in the wind, but to build your house on the Solid Rock. We cannot look to the nations. They will prove unreliable. We can look to the Kingdom that cannot be shaken (see Hebrews 12:28). Jesus Christ remains the Lord of the storm.