WORD FROM THE PASTOR: Out of the Storm

             As I write this, Hurricane Harvey is devastating the Texas Gulf Coast. The Coast, as we called it, was the site of my greatest childhood joys, so I obviously have some deep personal feelings as I watch it suffer. But of course, it has been hammered before. One thing I remember about my childhood is how a favorite fishing pier would vanish in between vacation trips–a victim of the last big storm. Harvey, alas, seems like the biggest storm of them all.

             Hurricanes were a regular event in my childhood. In the past decade or so, though, they’ve been much less frequent. (I would like to credit the regular hurricane season prayer that we instituted here after Katrina–but that would be a bit megalomanic). In fact, the newsfolk are calling Harvey the “first major hurricane in thirteen years”. (Sandy survivors in our ‘hood will greet that line with a snort of humorless laughter. Saying that Sandy was not a hurricane stretches technicality far beyond the limits).

             Hurricanes can have a huge impact. Our post-Katrina visits to Biloxi taught me how transformative major storms had been to that community. Before Hurricane Camille, Biloxi had been the center of the American seafood industry–but the storm destroyed its fishing fleet, and robbed it forever of its former status. But then the city reinvented itself as a gambling destination-with the casinos located on offshore barges to make it legal. But then Katrina drove all those barges onto the land–and the state of Mississippi, to avoid a future gaming apocalypse, made gambling on dry land legal. In our backyard, we might recall how the 1938 hurricane (they had no names back then) carved the Shinnecock Inlet–actually changing the landscape of Long Island!

             A storm can change a city’s economy, can change an island’s geography...and it also can have a huge impact on the human heart and soul. There are many, many stories about how storms have brought people closer to God–how they have forced people to examine their lives, and draw near to Christ. I can’t begin to tell all these stories here. But let me reference a few:

             –In the Bible, Jonah is commanded to proclaim God’s judgement on Ninevah. But he hates the Ninevites, and doesn’t want them to repent. God said, “Go east”–so Jonah went west, grabbing a ship for Spain. But a great storm came upon the ship. The crew reluctantly cast Jonah overboard, and he got swallowed by a Big Fish. In the fish’s belly, he got his mind right and headed for Ninevah to preach for the Lord. (Jonah 1).

             –Job complained about all the woes that God allowed to fall upon him–but then God “spoke to him out of the storm”, and Job got his mind right. (Job 38:1)

             –When Christ was with the disciples in a boat on the sea of Galilee, a storm threatened to capsize the vessel. But Christ said, “Peace, be still”...and the storm died away. The disciples got their first hint that Jesus was God: “Who is this, that the wind and waves obey Him?” (Mark 4:41)             –St. Paul’s ship was overtaken by a great storm, and sunk; but God in His mercy preserved the entire crew from death. (Acts 27).

             –St. Gregory of Nazianzen was going to be ordained into God’s service against his will (back then, the ministry wasn’t something you volunteered for–the church drafted you!) He tried to escape on a ship–but the ship was struck by a great storm. Gregory concluded that running from God was not such a good idea. He promised Christ that if He saved Gregory from the storm, Gregory would serve Him faithfully. (Gregory became one of the architects of the Nicene Creed).

             --John Wesley, founder of Methodism, went to Georgia as a missionary. In the voyage across the Atlantic, a great storm came upon his ship. He was impressed at the composure and the calmness of some Moravians who were traveling with him. They did not panic, but commended themselves to Jesus and sang hymns. He wanted that kind of deep personal faith.

             –Several hymns are credited to storms. John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace”, came to faith in Jesus while captaining a slave ship in a storm. The Swedish author of “How Great Thou Art” penned his hymn immediately after observing a violent storm on a lake. “Rock of Ages” was born when the author took refuge in a cave during a frightening storm. So stormy weather has immeasurably enriched the music of God’s church!

             –With the Reformation’s 500th anniversary coming up, we must not forget blessed Martin Luther! As a young law student, he was walking back home, when a terrible storm came upon him. Lightning split a tree just a few feet away from him. And he cried out to the mother of the Blessed Virgin: “St Anne, help me! I will become a monk!” Luther later rejected both monastic life and direct prayer to the saints–but had it not been for that storm, and the fact that it drove him into the church’s service, he would probably be (barely) remembered as a German lawyer.

             Why do storms change people spiritually? A simple reason: They remind us that God is in charge. They remind us that there are forces in this world greater than we. They remind us how important it is to make peace with the One who has all things in His hands. They thrust the thought of death into our faces, and show us that our lives need to be redeemed by Christ.

             In the film “Forrest Gump”, Lieutenant Dan and Forrest sail their shrimp boat into a violent hurricane. And in that hurricane, Lieutenant Dan begins yelling at God. And after his stormy altercation with God, Lieutenant Dan seems to have an abiding peace. This is what the storm ultimately means for the Christian. We face God in all His power and His majesty. Inevitably there is conflict. But we come to terms with His overwhelming power. And ultimately, we find peace.

             Not all storms are literal. Randy Travis released an album years ago called “Storms of Life”. Many of our songs use storm images to express life’s trials and disappointments:

“Stormy Weather”, “Storms Never Last”, “The Thunder Rolls”. It’s not always a meteorological storm that drives us to God. Sometimes it’s a metaphorical storm. An illness, an economic downturn, the deterioration of a relationship. Blessedly, whatever may drive us to Him, He is there...there with His strength and compassion. There to speak “Peace! Be still!” to our lives.

             Facebook friends know my fascination with a musical guy from my old East Side San Antonio neighborhood–“Sir Douglas” Sahm. The song that gave Doug his enduring nickname, “The Texas Tornado”, came out my first year in college–1973. Doug kinda mixed up hurricanes and tornados in that song, but it’s still a fine piece of work. (“It’s gonna tear up Port Aransas”–prophetic, because that’s exactly what Harvey did). And one simple line from that song stays in my mind: “The Lord’s gonna see us through.” In every storm, meteorological or metaphorical, that’s exactly what He’s gonna do. He’s gonna see us through. Praise to His holy Name!

             God loves you and so do I!