THE BILOXI BLESSING

THE BILOXI BLESSING

The woman was working hard, digging in her front yard, planting azaleas and poinsettias, obviously enjoying herself. She called to my wife and me as her little dog skittered and barked his way toward us, “Don’t worry, he’s very friendly!” And sure enough, he was.

We were taking our daily walk in a neighborhood in Durham, North Carolina, while our then teen-aged daughter took a voice lesson.

“He is friendly!” I said as she dropped another plant in the dirt and filled in around it.

“He’s a survivor too,” she said. “We both swam under the door frame and out of our house or we would have drowned in Katrina.”

“You’re from the Gulf then?”

“Yes. Biloxi. They said my house would never flood so I never bought flood insurance. You can bet I have it for this house!” She filled us in on how they escaped the hurricane and what it took to rebuild and finally be able to sell out and move to Durham.

“Wow, what a coincidence to meet you. A bunch of guys from our church went down in 2006 to help a Biloxi family rebuild.” I said as we headed off down the street in the quiet neighborhood. “We’ll see you later!”

We returned just in time to be called in to consult with the voice teacher, so we didn’t have time to resume our chat with the neighbor. But as we were backing the car out of the driveway, she dusted off her hands and hurried out to the street. I could tell she felt urgent about something, so I rolled down my window.

“You said your church helped people rebuild in Biloxi?”

“Yes.”

“Would you please tell them how grateful all of us are? I have friends whose insurance took four years to settle. Some still have no home. Had it not been for the Churches and all the Christians that came down to help us we never would have made it. Please tell them how much we appreciate it. And tell them this: A lot of people who had not gone to church in a long time started going again when they experienced the love of the Churches. And a lot of people got saved. Would you tell them that for us? And tell them thank you?”

“I sure will! And thanks for sharing your story!”

We had that conversation in 2009. Many hurricanes have come and gone since then, and the people of God are still helping rebuild. So, to everyone who helped, in whatever way, the people devastated by Katrina, Florence, Harvey, Michael, and others, know for certain that God used your efforts. You blessed others with his love, and you are blessed by the survivors in return.

TRUST GOD AND BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELT Dealing With Life’s Disasters

TRUST GOD AND BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELT Dealing With Life’s Disasters

Denny Hamlin’s win in the Daytona 500 was particularly poignant for Joe Gibbs Racing. The team had just buried their former president, Joe’s 49-year-old son, J. D., who died of a neurological disorder in January. I bet Joe’s family would happily forfeit the trophy and all their successes if they could have J.D. back. But that’s not how they roll.

It reminded me of other personal disasters I’ve witnessed.

Seventeen years ago, this week, I walked with my friends Phil and Shelley Ramsey, as we buried their eighteen-year-old son, Joseph, who died in a car wreck.

A late-night phone call, “Pastor, can you come? Our baby was born with undeveloped lungs and isn’t going to survive.”

A distraught counselee, “I’m thirty-nine and pregnant with our second child and my husband just left me. Where is God?”

Pregnancies that miscarry, dream jobs that become soul shredders, the number and diversity of things that can disappoint and disillusion in life is endless. But it’s worse when we think God has somehow let us down.

Evangelicals are particularly prone to this. We’re taught all our lives that God loves and cares for us: “His eye is on the sparrow,” said Jesus. “Cast your cares upon him, for he cares for you,” wrote Peter. That’s true, but not the whole story. Most of us have a truncated biblical world-view about suffering and it costs us dearly when trouble comes. We cherry-pick the verses we like and forget the context. We think life is supposed to be a Disney World ride when it’s more like the Daytona 500, where the big wreck is always in the offing.

Life’s inevitable disappointments are often about unmet expectations, of God, others, and our selves. When we line them up with what the Bible actually reveals about people, life, death, the world, and God they may not be easier to bear but they do leave us less confused and better prepared to overcome.

Scripture tells us: “time and chance happen to everyone,” including us. “His eye is on the sparrow,” but all sparrows fall. “He knows the number of the hairs on your head,” but they will turn white and turn loose. “We have this treasure in jars of clay,” that can be expected to crack without warning. All humans are “slaves of sin,” prone to follow our self-destructive passions and hurt those we’re supposed to protect. The heart is “deceitful above all things … who can really understand it?”[1]

Depressed yet? I’m not aiming for that, but it’s imperative to see that nowhere in the Bible does God promise us sunshine without sweat and smiles without sorrow. Aligning expectations with revelation dilutes frustration.

What has he promised?

To make us part of his tribe. To share with us his joy. To suffer with us when we hurt. To give us his strength. To counsel and comfort us. To love us even when we don’t love ourselves. To stand with us in life’s battles. To shape us into little Christs. To providentially provide for us and through us the things we need to survive. To empower us to participate in the awesome and terrifying task of advancing his kingdom. To give us a purpose, a future, and a hope, a reason for joy in the midst of pain. And to glorify us with Christ when he returns.[2]

Joy and sorrow will ever run parallel tracks until that day.

Joe Gibbs Racing took their fifty-four-pound trophy to Steak ‘n Shake, Sunday night, just like they did after their first win in 1993. It was the biblical thing to do.

Life is like the Daytona 500, a difficult, fascinating, disappointing, exhilarating, often dangerous, always high-stakes ride. Trust God and buckle your seat belt.

[1] See: Eccl. 9:11; Matt. 10:29-30; 2 Cor. 4:7; Rom. 6:6-22; Jer. 17:9

[2] See: Eph. 2:19; John 17:13; Matt. 28:20; Rom. 8:26; John 15:5; John 14:16; 2 Cor. 1:3-7; Rom. 8:35-39; Rom. 8:15-17; Rom. 8:29; Phil. 4:19; Acts 1:8; 1Pet. 1:3; Eph. 2:12; Rom. 8:18.

REBUILDING PEARLAND: A Day in the Life of a Samaritan’s Purse Volunteer

REBUILDING PEARLAND: A Day in the Life of a Samaritan’s Purse Volunteer

$125 Billion dollars. It’s hard to wrap your head around that number, especially when the city you are in seems to be functioning normally. But that’s the what Hurricane Harvey cost Houston, Texas when it dumped sixty-plus inches of rain on the utterly flat city over four days in August of 2017. That ties it with Hurricane Katrina as the costliest tropical cyclone on record.

Houston metro has about 6.6 million residents and Harvey damaged roughly 204,000 homes, seventy-five percent of which were outside of the 100-year flood plain.[1] Most were not covered by flood insurance. Only when you drive through the neighborhoods and see some new looking houses next to obvious rebuild sites with FEMA trailers in the driveways, others with swollen siding and water stains half way up the walls, and empty lots with camper trailers, do you begin to comprehend the scope of the damage. It’s everywhere.

That’s why Samaritan’s Purse has made a two-year, twenty-five-million-dollar commitment to the Houston area: to help homeowners rebuild. Our team of thirteen joined eleven others from Idaho, Oregon, Texas, and Georgia at SP’s Pearland, Texas base. From there we split up into four teams and traveled from ten to twenty miles to help rebuild flood-damaged homes. The base can host a total of about thirty volunteers per week and SP schedules crews at least two months out. Another indicator of the size of the disaster: SP has a similar base in Rockport, Texas three hours west of Pearland.

The day begins with lights on at 6:30 AM. Pack your lunch in the kitchen between 6:45 and 7:00, followed by a big breakfast—the food was great!— and devotions at 7:30 usually led by one of the volunteers. Crew assignments are issued at 8:00 and teams work together to load up the specially equipped construction trailers with supplies. The trailers, essentially customized fifth-wheel horse haulers, were a marvel of efficiency. SP engineers designed them one winter when work was slow and each one has a slot or shelf equipped with every tool a builder would need.

By 9:00 AM crews are on site and ready—after a brief prayer—to work. Local building codes do not allow unlicensed workers to do the technical stuff like plumbing and electrical installation, but there is plenty to do. Our crews painted, installed soffit and siding, did light carpentry, and installed flooring. SP has already helped rebuild over forty homes and helped other agencies pay for over 500 in Houston. Permitting has proved difficult with the city, but they expect to be building many new homes in the future.

Crews work until 4:00 PM before beginning clean-up and loading to head back to base. Meeting the homeowners is the highlight for most of the crews. Ours had prayer with Mrs. Williams each day before leaving. Watching the smile grow on her face as fresh paint brightened up her walls and the new flooring went down was a highlight of our trip.

Then it’s back to base for showers, supper—did I mention the food was great?—and sharing time which concludes by 7:00 PM. Crews entertain themselves (ours played a lot of Rook) till quiet time at 9:00 PM and lights out at 10:00.

If you’d like to volunteer, visit https://www.samaritanspurse.org/ and click “get involved” at the top of the page.

[1] https://www.thebalance.com/hurricane-harvey-facts-damage-costs-4150087

IT WASN’T ALWAYS THIS WAY: Why We Do Disaster Relief and Other Good Things

IT WASN’T ALWAYS THIS WAY: Why We Do Disaster Relief and Other Good Things

“If it hadn’t been for the Christians—all the churches that showed up—we’d still be mucking out,” said the man, a Casino worker in Biloxi, Mississippi. This was October 2006, a little over a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of Biloxi. A crew of about ten men from our church, partnering with Samaritan’s Purse, were in Mississippi to help a family rebuild. I had taken a break to do some man-on-the street interviews with my new video camera.

“My house didn’t get destroyed like some of my neighbors,” he said, “but it was full of mud and water up to waist high. I’m not a churchgoer, but as soon as the storm stopped this group of kids from a church showed up and asked if they could help me clean it out. I was ready to start the rebuild within a week. No way it would have happened without their help.”

That, in a nutshell, is why we’re taking a team of 13 people to Pearland, Texas, next week, to partner again with Samaritan’s Purse and help another family rebuild after Hurricane Harvey. And the thing is, no one is surprised that a small church group from Virginia is traveling on its own dime to help people in Texas. Americans just assume that is what people do, but it wasn’t always this way. That ethos came from Christianity.

Followers of Christ have, since the beginning of the church, shown up to serve when the rest of the world was headed for the hills. When a pandemic broke out in ancient Rome, Christians, including key leaders, stayed to help the sick and dying. When the plague took hundreds of thousands of lives in Europe in the middle ages, Christians stayed to serve while others fled. When the tsunami destroyed Banda Aceh, Indonesia in 2004, Christian missionaries already in country rushed to help the Muslim population there. When the Ebola epidemic hit Africa, Christian missionary doctors and nurses stayed to fight it. That service ethic, based on the individual’s value as an image-bearer of the living God and Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan, changed the world. Now, American’s just expect it.

Some people are wondering out loud these days what it would be like if we could just get rid of Christianity, or somehow limit its cultural impact. Nikolas Kristof, of the New York Times, reported in 2015 that, “In liberal circles, evangelicals constitute one of the few groups that it’s safe to mock openly.”[1]

This is especially true when Christians, who are called by God to love their neighbor as themselves and to stand for truth in all things, speak and act on their convictions regarding human sexuality, gender, marriage, abortion, and religious freedom.

But, historian and theologian Jeremiah Johnston, who along with his wife and five kids had to evacuate his home near Houston during Harvey, says, “It was the Christians, the people of faith, who immediately mobilized and invaded this city to help saying, ‘I love Jesus. I believe people are made in the image of God. We’re not going to sit here and let you suffer alone.’ I live in the most diverse county in America … but I never saw an Atheist tent anywhere, or an agnostic society tent, I never saw the ‘Free Thinkers’ helping people whose lives were destroyed. There’s a real world-view reason that is behind that.”[2]

Kristof concurs, it’s “true that there are plenty of secular doctors doing heroic work for Doctors Without Borders or Partners in Health. But I must say that a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns or priests.”[3]

The faith that causes Christians to serve disaster-stricken people is the same faith that causes us to provide free marriage counseling, speak up for the unborn, encourage adoption, help women with unplanned pregnancies, advocate for traditional marriage, fight porn and sex-trafficking, provide free meals, tell the truth about transgenderism, advocate for prison reform, and stand up for freedom of conscience and religion in the market place. The same Lord that calls us to serve tells us to speak truth in love to all who will hear. It’s why we do what we do

[1] nytimes.com/2015/03/29/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-a-little-respect-for-dr-foster

[2] Warren Cole Smith interview of Johnston on the Listening In podcast, December 21, 2018. See also Johnston’s book, UNIMAGINABLE: What Our World Would Be Like Without Christianity.

[3] ibid

MAN OF THE HOUSE C. R. Wiley’s interesting handbook for serious men

MAN OF THE HOUSE C. R. Wiley’s interesting handbook for serious men

John is a grizzled grey, mid-fifties motorcyclist who thinks most people have their heads in the sand about disaster preparedness. “My friends laugh at me, think I’m crazy,” he said, “but I’m like, ‘Dude, you buy life insurance, right? You buy health insurance. Why wouldn’t you buy a little disaster insurance by setting a few things aside and being prepared?’”

John has a “bug-out ranch” a few miles outside town fully equipped with food, water, fuel, and guns.

I met John in Austin, Texas, on assignment for a journalism course last January. We were doing post-hurricane Harvey “man on the street” interviews to see how prepared people were for disaster. The answer was, and I include my fellow motorcyclist in this, not very well.

That’s part of the reason C. R. Wiley’s Man of the House: a handbook for building a shelter that will last in a world that is falling apart, caught my eye. Guys like John—also known as “preppers”—are realists about the potential disasters we face but are mostly thinking about themselves.

Wiley is not a prepper in the strict sense. He isn’t writing about how to stock your bug-out bunker with enough food and ammo to survive a sudden catastrophe but a long slow one. And not just for yourself, but for your children and grandchildren. “I am convinced,” he writes, “that the world as we know it is like a drunk that just won’t hit bottom. When things get bad, it sobers up a little and promises to change its ways—then when things get a little better it’s back to binge-drinking again. But there will come a day when we find the old boy comatose and gone for good. If we work at preparing for that day, we may find that we are more relieved than saddened by the end.”[1]

Man of the House picks up where the turn-of-the-century Christian men’s movement dropped the ball. Finally, someone has left “the elementary teachings about the Christ,” and gone on to maturity. Wiley assumes a basic understanding of the gospel and spiritual life and moves on to the practical matters of living out the faith in an increasingly unstable world. He unearths the ancient idea of the household, not as a place to eat dinner, watch a sitcom, and go to bed—a place from which we depart every day to work in the “real world”—but as it once was: a spiritual, social, economic, and political shelter that creates a world for generations of those who come under its roof.

Having given that endorsement I hasten to add that I disagreed with some of his ideas and found others not quite wrong, just over-torqued. Still, he is at least asking the right questions and offering thoughtful answers, a rarity in Christian men’s books.

Most guys don’t like to read, but this one is written to men for men. Wiley is a preacher, but unlike many of my kind he doesn’t waste words just because it comes easy (See? Those last five were superfluous. I can do this all day!). He uses what I call “man-speak.” Reading his book is like sitting around the table with Lewis and Clarke, planning their trip or a group of engineers and thinkers, planning to build a city. Serious men gathered for an interesting, challenging job, with enough humor thrown in to keep everybody’s egos in check. At twelve chapters and 135 pages it is also short. Each chapter takes about 15-20 minutes to read.

If you’re a young man trying to figure out how to navigate your family through this unstable world you would benefit from this book.

[1] From the Introduction.

GOD & HURRICANES

GOD & HURRICANES

Carl F. H. Henry, a well-known theologian of the 20th century who was respected for the profundity of his work and revered for his intellectual brilliance, wrote: “I think we are now living in the very decade when God may thunder his awesome “paradidomai” (“I abandon, or I give [them] up,” Romans 1:24) over America’s professed greatness … Our nation has all but tripped the worst ratings on God’s Richter scale of fully deserved moral judgement.”[1]

Henry said that in November of 1980. Almost four decades have passed. Things have gotten worse and better at the same time. Should we be thinking about hurricanes and other natural disasters as the judgment of God, or is something else going on?

No one on this planet knows when judgment will come or where it will fall, not even Jesus (See Matthew 24:36-39).

On the other hand, natural disasters provide opportunity for God’s people to excel themselves in showing mercy by serving those in need. As Mr. Rogers said, “When bad things happen, look for the helpers.” Thousands of Southern Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, and other faith groups like Samaritan’s Purse, which our church supports, coordinate their relief efforts through National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) and stay in disaster-stricken areas long after the storm has passed. In 2017, NVOAD’s CEO, Greg Foster, reported that “80% of all disaster recovery happens because of non-profits, and the majority of them are faith-based.” That’s where God is working.[2]

The only natural – disaster – type judgments recorded in scripture occurred after they were specifically prophesied by one of God’s servants as such. Think of Noah and the Flood, Moses and the ten plagues, and Sodom and Gomorrah. Calling a natural disaster the judgment of God after the fact is theological Monday-morning-quarterbacking.

God is able and sometimes does use the natural elements to execute his judgment, but his habit is to tell us beforehand. Short of that, we should understand all natural disasters as the result of the fall and the curse.

Every natural disaster is an opportunity for us to consider our mortality, our impending personal interview with the judge of the universe. The book of Hebrews explains that, “It is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgment.” Jesus said that on the Day of Judgment we will give an account for every careless word we speak (Matt.12:36). Hurricanes are an opportunity for humility and reflection, as are other near-death experiences.

The best news that anyone can ever hear is that judgment has already happened, and they missed it.

Scripture says all of us carry enough sin to be swallowed up by God’s ultimate judgment. But it also says that all of us can, if we are willing, take refuge in the cross of Christ. He absorbed the energy of God’s judgment for our sin (Romans 3:22-26).

Hurricanes and other natural disasters are to be expected on planet earth after the fall and cannot always be avoided, but they can be prepared for. So too with the judgment of God: It cannot be avoided, but it can be prepared for by taking refuge in Christ.

[1] Citation: Carl F.H. Henry, The Christian Century (Nov. 5, 1980). Christianity Today, Vol. 30, no. 8.

[2] https://dailycaller.com/2017/09/10/christians-provide-more-aid-to-hurricane-victims-than-fema/

GOD, KIRK CAMERON & HURRICANES

Former Left Behind actor Kirk Cameron made some comments about the recent hurricanes that, taken out of context and twisted by headline writers, made it sound as if Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were God’s judgment on America. As if on cue the blogosphere went bananas.

Patheos blogger, Michael Stone is a good example:

“Cameron is toxic. His glib explanation and justification for his imaginary God’s cruelty and immorality is moronic … Cameron’s God is a misogynistic, moral monster, that lacks any moral standard, and apparently approves of rape, incest, genocide, and slavery, among many other unsavory and decidedly immoral acts.”[1]

Others, including actress Jennifer Lawrence, agreed with this blogger’s sentiments:

“Well, maybe it’s God punishing America for voting for a racist, self-serving, ego driven President. The hurricanes are hitting two states who voted for him. Like you said Kirk…coincidence? I think not!”[2]

Such charges against the God of the Bible are common, so what exactly does it teach about judgment and natural disasters?

First, no one on this planet knows when judgment will come or where it will fall, not even Jesus (See Matthew 24:36-39).

Carl F. H. Henry was a well-known theologian of the 20th century, respected for the profundity of his work, revered for his intellectual brilliance and spiritual depth, and the farthest thing you could imagine from an actor in a Left Behind movie.

Henry said:

“I think we are now living in the very decade when God may thunder his awesome “paradidomai” (“I abandon, or I give [them] up,” Romans 1:24) over America’s professed greatness … Our nation has all but tripped the worst ratings on God’s Richter scale of fully deserved moral judgement.”[3]

Henry said that in November of 1980. Almost four decades have passed. Things have gotten worse and better at the same time. It is presumptuous of anyone to say that any hurricane is God’s judgment.

It is, on the other hand, an opportunity for God’s people to excel themselves in showing mercy by serving those in need and that, according to USA Today, is exactly what they are doing. About 75% of the National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster, an alliance of organizations that help FEMA, is made up of faith groups. Samaritan’s Purse, whom our church supports, is among them.[4]

Second, the only natural – disaster – type judgments recorded in scripture occurred after they were specifically prophesied by one of God’s servants as such. Think of Noah and the Flood, Moses and the ten plagues, and Sodom and Gomorrah.

God is able and sometimes does use the natural elements to execute his judgment, but his habit is to tell us beforehand. Otherwise we may understand disasters as a result of ‘curse on the ground’ from Genesis carrying out its work. Calling a hurricane the judgment of God after the fact is theological Monday morning quarterbacking.

Third, every natural disaster is an opportunity for us to consider our mortality, our impending personal interview with the judge of the universe. The book of Hebrews explains that, “It is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgment.” Jesus said that on the Day of Judgment we will give an account for every careless word we speak (Matt.12:36). So Cameron is right when he says hurricanes are an opportunity for humility and reflection, as are other near death experiences.

Fourth, the best news that anyone can ever hear is that judgment has already happened and they missed it.

My brother lives two blocks from the ocean in Panama City Beach, Florida. A direct shot from Irma would have left his home under water and his town looking like New Orleans after Katrina. While he is concerned for his neighbors to the south he is also greatly relieved. Other towns absorbed the energy of that monster storm.

Scripture says all of us carry enough sin to be swallowed up by God’s ultimate judgment. But it also says that all of us can, if we are willing, take refuge in the cross of Christ. He absorbed the energy of God’s judgment for our sin (Romans 3:22-26).

Hurricanes and other natural disasters are to be expected on planet earth after the fall and cannot always be avoided, but they can be prepared for. So too with the judgment of God: It cannot be avoided, but it can be prepared for by taking refuge in Christ.

[1] http://pulpitandpen.org/2017/09/08/kirk-cameron-says-god-sends-hurricanes-internet-collectively-loses-mind/

[2] http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/kirk-cameron-draws-controversy-hurricane-comments-1037129

[3] Citation: Carl F.H. Henry, The Christian Century (Nov. 5, 1980). Christianity Today, Vol. 30, no. 8.

[4] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/09/10/hurricane-irma-faith-groups-provide-bulk-disaster-recovery-coordination-fema/651007001/