Last Sunday, with Hurricane Irma bearing down on the state of Florida, my wife, Jill Beck, and I gathered in the fellowship hall of Wildwood United Methodist Church, to "Facebook Live" a makeshift service to our people at Wildwood and Webster United Methodist Churches. Services were cancelled, as our primary concern was the safety of our congregations, and the outer bands of the storm were already buffeting our communities. Over 1,200 people tuned in to the feed that day and almost 200 posted comments, far more folks than either of our congregations gathered in our sanctuaries on most Sunday mornings.
The fear was tangible. People were looking for hope. Much of the state had been evacuated and news reporters relentlessly warned of the dangers of this massive category 4 storm. The significance of the moment was not lost on us. Our goal was to offer a word of comfort and hope in the face of the impending disaster. We realized as we walked the empty church campus that Sunday morning, in strange silence, that this was the first time in many years — potentially in the 130 plus years of the church's history — that no songs of praise would be sung, prayers offered, or sermon preached. We refused to break that legacy, and began re-thinking what kind of worship needed to happen in that moment by harnessing the latest technology.
Oddly enough, I had just returned from Portland, Oregon, where fires raged up and down the west coast. Smoke blotted out the sun there, casting an eerie red apocalyptic glow over the area. The day before, a horrible earthquake ravaged Mexico. I flew back to Florida just in time to escape the fire, right into the oncoming flood. Weeks before: Charlottesville, violence, civil unrest, and massive political upheaval.
I couldn't help but to ask myself during all this, are these the "signs" that Jesus spoke of? Is this the end of the world as we know it? That anxiety was further fueled by Social Media doomsday prophets, trumpeting proclamations that God had abandoned us in anger because human sin had come to an apex. Some of those statements were to the effect of "God is punishing us with multiple natural disasters."
I struggle with this kind of world view in which God is deterministically micromanaging creation, using fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes to teach humanity a lesson. I was truly pressed in my faith to share my belief in an ultimately good and loving God, amid devastating natural disasters that claim human life.
While I don't have a sufficient theological explanation for why there are natural disasters in this world, I can share how I have experienced God's sustaining presence when in their midst, how God uses these destructive forces, and how, as the church, we are sometimes God's answer to them. Although I don't believe God causes suffering or natural disasters to "punish us," they are undeniably pervading forces in our world. Throughout my ministry, I have been brought to the understanding that there are questions to which no answer will suffice, and we must live in the mystery.
I have prayed over the response teams bewilderingly deployed in the wake of devastating natural disasters like Hurricanes Irma and Harvey. Honestly, I felt confused and inadequate as I struggled for words. In the wake of devastation and loss of life, I have also heard such well-meaning but misguided statements as, "Well, I guess God needed some angels" or "Nothing happens by mistake." Unwittingly, folks who offer those and similar platitudes are contributing to a misguided image of a tyrannical, micromanager God demanding blood and causing suffering.
Genesis reveals suffering and evil existed only as a potentiality in a "very good" creation. When humanity rebels against God, the mutability of creation is revealed, and sin, death, and evil enter the equation. A loving God immediately seeks out beloved creation with the missional call "Where are you?" (Gen. 3:9). This is the cosmic narrative in which humanity has participated ever since. Rather than God micromanaging creation in a deterministic fashion, God is shaping, guiding, wooing, redeeming, and sustaining in a universe in process of becoming good. Sin has created a ripple effect that is cosmic in scope. The universe as we currently know it is corrupted… not only does humanity need redemption, so does creation itself (Rom 8:22). Death, disease, and natural disasters (natural evil), as well as human evil flourishing in individuals, institutions, and systems (moral evil) are obvious features of our current sin-broken cosmos.
Yet David Hart warns against abstract answers in the midst of suffering.1 Indeed, any level of "explanation" is not always comforting in the face of a coming hurricane. Theological training and seminary education didn't adequately prepare me for what transpired that Sunday morning as Irma rolled in.
But [Jesus] was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" [Mark 4:38]
What do you say when over 1,000 people are tuned in, hunkered down in their homes, waiting for a word of hope with an oncoming hurricane? Jill and I simply shared a Biblical passage that had given our own family hope as we battened down the hatches in preparation: Mark 4:35-41.
What was the hopeful message for us in that moment? "Jesus is in this boat!" I captured a picture of a rainbow in the sky, hanging in bold, colorful opposition to the oncoming storm, Hashtag #JesusIsInThisBoatFlorida. It was amazing to watch that simple statement storm across our social media networks like a counterwave of hope in the tempest tossed sea of despair. "Is Jesus in your boat?" became the rally cry.
In this story, Jesus is in the boat asleep in the middle of the storm. He's sleeping "on the cushion" meaning he's not just dozing off, he's sound asleep! Exhausted from his work among the crowds, the "do not disturb sign" is out. The disciples freak out and wake him up. Even in his sheer exhaustion, with no Starbucks for miles, Jesus then tells the storm to shush and it obeys him. When Jesus says, "peace be still" there is a "dead calm." He then criticizes their lack faith, which makes me wonder what he expected them to do during a storm when the boat was sinking? Should they have stilled the storm themselves? Or was Jesus going to use this as a group water-walking 101 class?
Now we know that Jesus doesn't calm every storm. In this case, I get the sense that just having him in the boat should have been enough. If only one of the disciples would have said "hey guys, we have the carpenter of the universe in the boat with us, seriously, everything is going to be okay."
Can we have "peace" and "dead calm" even during a hurricane? I think we can, if we know Jesus is in the boat. Where is God amidst the storm? The short answer is "with us". This passage shows us that God is not manipulating the wind, sending the tempest tossed sea to flood the boat, Jesus is in the boat with us. If Jesus is in our boat, the hurricane can do its worst, and we are going to be okay.
God's triune power is demonstrated through God's "with-ness". God's not sending storms, fire, and earthquakes to punish us; God's suffering with us during the storms. While God does not deterministically cause these disasters, God certainly has a way of using them for good (Rom 8:28).
In this world of storms and rainbows, I have seen the powerful way God's grace works among fallen realities. The Church embodies — in a shaky, imperfect, and vulnerable way — God's with-ness in the world. Our response to hurricanes is not one of simple explanation but of with-ness. We remain with the suffering, showing love in presence and tears. We, as the Church, proclaim that God's unconquerable love (Rom 8:31-39) and power will bring all things into renewal and perfection (Rev 21:5).
In the devastating aftermath of Irma, the people of Florida emerged from the wreckage with their sleeves rolled up and work boots on. Immediately we began to rebuild. Power crews and first responders have worked around the clock to begin the process of restoration. Millions of people without power have banded together with a new sense of community, working together to overcome the circumstances. The most exciting thing is the way the Church has led the recovery effort, truly embodying the kind of community Christ has called us to be.
Following the storm, several large uprooted trees and piles of debris were strewn all over the Wildwood church campus. Church folks, neighbors, and a group of men from a nearby faith-based rehabilitation center worked together to clear the campus. The very next Sunday the people of Wildwood UMC were back in worship.
The work of restoration is far from over, some areas were completely devastated. The people of Florida need your help. If you would like to assist the recovery effort in Florida, here are some simple ways you can help.
- Pray for us, and pray for the power companies and disaster relief workers.
- Adopt a church. In smaller churches like Wildwood, Webster, and many more, not only do the people depend on the church for food, resources, and spiritual care, but the churches depend on the weekly worship experiences as their primary source of income to fund the ministries and work of the church. Missing several weeks of worship is devastating.
- Show up where invited. Florida is ready to receive volunteers, as are areas in Texas. For full opportunities, check out UMCOR's page.
- Many communities and churches are hosting drop off sites. Begin collecting the following items to send: Unopened bottle water-in any size. Prepackaged unperishable food items. Unopened snacks that do not require refrigeration (single or multi pack). Batteries. Disposable plates. Disposable Cups. Hand wipes. Hand sanitizer. Diapers. Baby wipes. Baby food. Bug spray. Sunscreen. Gallon Ziploc bags. Black contractors trash bags. Tarps. First Aid Kits. Work Gloves. Adult Diapers. Can Openers.
- One of the most effective ways to help would be to give to UMCOR. Remember 100% of donations go to relief work.
- Bishop Ken Carter and the Florida Cabinet have established the Hurricane Irma Fund, which will help to repair local churches in the Florida Conference and rebuild the communities that surround them.
Rev. Michael Beck serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.
 Hart, David B. The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami. Grand Rapids, Mich. Co, 2005. Pp. 99-100.