Last week, a category 3 hurricane swept toward Maui, where I am living at the moment. I have experienced only one other hurricane in my life, in 2007, during my first-and-never-again time on a cruise ship. The ship’s captain had to negotiate with Cuban authorities to shelter us behind, but not too close, to their island. Still, we experienced rough seas; the rolling deck reminded me vividly of Titanic films, as we hid in our bunks and prayed.
That’s what I do when a hurricane is headed toward me. I pray.
Last week, about four days before the hurricane was predicted to make landfall, I received a text from my friend Shelley. Shelley lives in a faith and prayer life that I hope I can one day emulate. When she tells me something she’s heard from God, I take it very seriously. She has lived on Maui for many years. Like most Hawaiians, who have seen many dire predictions come and go, Shelley knows some people will hoard emergency supplies and others will do little to prepare. It is a big ocean and Hawaii is a small chain of islands surrounded by cooler water. The likelihood of a hurricane directly hitting land at top speed is small.
Still, it has happened. So we prepare. We watch the radar readings, we gather our supplies, we decide when it is time to drag in the patio furniture, when it is time to board up windows.
When Hurricane Douglas was still over 2000 miles away, when there was not much of a nod toward concern, Shelley sent out the following text: “There is a verse in Genesis (18:32) that is prompting me now. I am asking that ten of us will stand in the gap for Hawaii…certainly there are 10 of us willing to pray…specifically for forgiveness and repentance of hard-heartedness, fearfulness, unbelief, idol worship, apathy, spoiled-ness, being unlovely and unkind. This prayer of repentance is for Christians first and not unbelievers. Praying the Lord will mercifully turn the storm.”
What was amazing to me was that the night before, I had been on my face before God repenting for these very things in me. I had just watched Ava Duvernay’s 13th and I was (am) facing my own hard-heartedness, my own apathy, my own willingness to believe what was convenient for me instead of looking into uncomfortable issues that stirred my fears.
I joined the ten and prayed for Hawaii and for the church. I prayed for us who know with such certainty, who are so quick to judge. I prayed for my friends who saturate themselves in a single viewpoint, who see the investigation of other opinions as dangerous and compromised. I prayed for my sisters and brothers who rush to repost “proof” of the others’ conspiracies. My heart broke over the smiles of our triumph in the face of others’ suffering. Our closed minds and our closed hearts. The church divided not only along red and blue lines. Christians using Scripture to condemn other Christians, using faith and Jesus as weapons to win an argument.
I’m not sure who coined the term first, but both meteorologists and software project managers use a visual aid called “the cone of uncertainty.” In tracking the trajectory of a hurricane, analysts forecast the most likely path of the storm; with constantly changing data, they acknowledge the factors that may change its course. The cone of uncertainty is a predictive model reset at certain intervals to more accurately adjust expectations.
On Saturday, the day before Hurricane Douglas was expected to arrive, I ate breakfast under a beautiful deep blue sky graced with only a few puffy white clouds and a gentle breeze. Before stacking the patio furniture, I sat with my face to the sun. Michael commented how blissfully unaware we would be without weather-tracking technology.
On Saturday night, the storm was 300 miles away. It had not dissipated as much as anticipated; a wind speed of 90 mph was still predicted to “pass dangerously close to the islands.” We were smack in the middle of the cone of uncertainty. I went to bed, cognizant that I was on a small rock in the middle of a big ocean. What had felt like a place of safety from the troubles on the mainland was in reality, by its very isolation, vulnerable.
“In this world, you will have trouble.” No matter where you live, no matter how you try to insulate yourself from it, trouble will come. It sometimes seems to me that we in the church spend a lot of our time and energy trying to rid ourselves of trouble rather than welcoming the growth that comes through it. We haven’t been taught how to value our mistakes. We haven’t celebrated our failures. The tares of the enemy have grown up in our churches, tares of perfectionism and shame, pride and shunning. We don’t know what to do with leaders who turn out to be human instead of the epitomes of piety we expect them to be. (Has there ever once been a church that has repented in this scenario, taking responsibility for failing to pray for and support a leader who fell to temptation?) Friends, we have carried such a burden for such a long time, this striving to be the light in a dark world, this striving to be godly in our every word, thought and deed.
I believe God is inviting us to lay that burden down. He does not need us to appear godly. He’s already God, He has that covered. God doesn’t need us to be crusaders and warriors. He wants us to be real.
I believe this pandemic isolation can be a gift for the church. (Please know I’m not saying Covid-19 itself is a gift. It is a devastating virus, the source of so much anguish. My heart goes out to every person and family who has suffered from it; we must never minimize their pain.) Right now, church leaders are reimagining what church will look like post-pandemic. (Many educators and families are doing the same.) Some, I know, just want to return to “normal” ASAP. But many are taking the time to examine why we do what we do. With church, so much of our time and energy has revolved around a large gathering, with all its programs and performances. I’m beginning to hear some mature leaders confess a relief in the interruption of ceaseless activity. Others are starting to wonder who exactly our services have been serving. How much of our budgets are used for ourselves? When did caring for the poor and lonely among us get relegated to just another line item or outreach activity? Just because we’ve traditionally encountered God in church services, is He not greater than these? Can God not bless new ways of being church? Is it He or us so tied to these traditions?
These are uncomfortable questions. But God loves a good question, especially one asked in humility, with the willingness to hear whatever His answer contains.
When I woke up on Sunday, the hurricane had passed just north of Maui. (I had actually slept through the tsunami sirens.) Michael showed me the radar picture which showed the storm literally skirting the islands. “Looks like the hand of God to me,” the words escaped my mouth unbidden.
News commentary throughout the day ranged from relief to nonchalance, from “Twenty miles south and it would’ve been much different; hopefully, we’ve learned to be prepared” to “It always happens like this; no big deal.” I wondered, “Does it even matter if anyone else believes God’s hand turned the storm?”
Pondering this question, I recognized that while I did have a sense of urgency leading up to the hurricane, I didn’t have fear. (Except for that moment of anxiety when I realized we still haven’t gotten around to writing a proper will. Darn.) I trusted that we were in God’s care no matter what happened, so I wasn’t surprised as the sense of urgency dissipated somewhat throughout the day. I was surprised, however, when it returned the following day, along with the radar images in my mind.
“What’s going on, God? The hurricane’s over. Why do I still feel such a sense of impending doom?”
The image that came to mind was that cone of uncertainty. Except in the place of Maui, the American church was sitting directly in the path of a storm. The church I had been praying for. The stubborn, unrepentant, convinced-we-are-right family of Jesus-believers.
And the storm? I think the storm is the consequences of our behavior. I’m not talking about Judgement Day or the Apocalypse here. And I’m certainly not talking about politics, although I suspect it will be dismissed as such.
I think what Jesus is indicating is that there is a brewing storm directly tied to the consequences of our behavior. The unkindness, the angry rants, the satisfaction at others’ misfortune, the lack of compassion, the apathy, the pride… we have let our fears drive our words and actions. We have listened to men who claim to speak for God but who do not know His heart. We have chosen what is easier over what is better. We have not believed Jesus. We have not listened to His whispers.
I don’t know exactly what the storm will entail. But I can imagine. I can read the signs, even when it is still a beautiful sunny day. I hesitate to write what is in my mind, because I fear that dismissal that comes with partisan politics. Please know I’m not writing out of a concern for ballots right now, but out of a concern for souls.
Some of you, my dear friends, believe that Covid-19 is, if not entirely a hoax, a matter of grossly inflated statistics and part of a conspiracy to withdraw support for President Trump by devastating our economy. You may believe that any proposed vaccine will be used to erode your rights at best and at worst, become the very “mark of the beast.” You may believe there is a cure, a simple, inexpensive protocol being censored off social media by big pharmaceutical companies. You may believe masks are muzzles, a sign of compliance with overreaching government. You may also believe that people who disagree with you are either foolishly deluded or actively harmful.
Or perhaps others’ disagreement doesn’t phase you. “What has light to do with darkness? The foolish things of the world will confound the wise,” you are assured by your church friends. “The world has never respected us.”
When you are offered a mask, you respond with, “If you die tonight, do you know if you’re going to heaven?” You see yourself as agents of truth, standing against a sea of lies.
Except, dear friends, the world doesn’t see you as agents of truth. They see you as incredibly selfish. They see you shouting about your God-given liberties while bodies pile up outside morgues. Maybe you don’t believe the statistics, but the world does and they see you as being callous in the face of others’ suffering. They see you disbelieving empirical evidence, facts proven in laboratories by nonpolitical scientists, and embracing simplistic (sometimes ridiculous) claims and lies that are immediately disproved by minimal investigation. Have you ever considered how your “witness” for Jesus is damaged by all the brazen claims you lump in with Him?
The world has lost respect for you, dear friends. You’re right, it was never much to begin with. You were always that quirky neighbor who spent so much time at church. But you did help at community events and you were kind to children. Maybe there was something in those prayers of yours…
But now. For the past four years, your credibility has been deteriorating. Back when Bill Clinton was caught in a sex scandal, you railed about accountability and personal integrity. Now, when the same media reports increasingly outrageous moral failings of this president, you rail against the media. You have traded your own integrity for political power.
True or false, this is what the world sees.
And why should we care what the world thinks?
Because, dear friends, Jesus cares about the world.
Because, dear friends, you are wearing Jesus’ name when you belittle and mock and spread gossip. You are wearing Jesus’ name when you turn your backs on asylum-seekers who want nothing more than to live. You are wearing Jesus’ name when you shake your heads over Black Lives Matter protests, shrugging off any notion that it may have anything to do with you.
And lest my friends on the left get too comfortable here, you are wearing Jesus’ name when you distance yourselves from your brothers and sisters. You are wearing Jesus’ name when you are dismissive and refuse to listen. You are wearing Jesus’ name when you are arrogant, when you use your education (or any gifts you have received) to assert your power over another.
Our Creator loves variety. We are each born into a personhood of inestimable value. When that personhood is not esteemed, when lies uproot the truth of our belovedness, we begin to treat one another as less than. We disrespect, are unkind. We group into camps of us and them. We blame and allow falsehoods to grow. And we don’t acknowledge the wrong of any of it, not until a steely-eyed glare stares into a camera over the neck of a dying man.
Our differences are not dangerous in themselves. We are created different, every one of us. The danger lies in our discomfort with difference. So, let’s listen to each other. Let’s talk about vaccine damage, about the role of government, about the role of the media. Let’s talk about who is qualified to speak for us, if we don’t feel our individual voices are being heard. Let’s talk about socialism and welfare reform. Let’s talk. And let’s listen. It is only in the conversations between us that we can truly see where we actually agree and where we differ.
A storm is coming, dear friends. Unless we repent, all of us, for how we have treated each other (Christian or not), we will bear the consequences of our behavior. What has been kept in-house will be shown to the world. It is a reckoning that will not pass us by.
Pray with me?