Just over a week ago, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, upending the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and flooding an area the size of Connecticut. The storm damaged at least 100,000 homes, displacing families to shelters and other temporary housing where they may wind up staying weeks or even months until it’s dry and safe enough for them to go home. Normal life in Houston has been turned upside-down. Toxic chemicals are being released into the water and the air. School won’t be able to start on time. People can’t get to their jobs. It’s likely that meetings for worship, like ours, needed to rethink and adjust their worship plans for this morning.
I got in touch with Live Oak Meeting in Houston to see if we could be of help. They told me they came through the hurricane surprisingly well; one regular member had water damage to her home, but most are fine and are now helping with the recovery effort. Friendswood Friends Church, in Friendswood, Texas, which is just outside of Houston, had many members displaced by the floods and homes that have suffered significant storm damage. Very quickly, the meeting put together quite an organized team of volunteers—they are providing childcare and meals at the meetinghouse, while those who are able go out to members’ homes to remove wet carpet and drywall so houses can start to dry out.
One night early this week we had a blustery thunderstorm in the middle of the night here. It woke me up about 3am, and as I lay there in the dark, watching the lightning and listening to the wind and rain, I thought about the people in Texas. Big storms can bring up anxiety for many of us—if you’ve lived in Indiana for any amount of time, you learn to watch the skies for the tell-tale signs of tornados—but I simply couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for the people in Texas and Louisiana to experience what they’re now calling a thousand-year-storm, which rages in and then stays, for four long days, dumping 50” of water on your town.
At one time or another, we’ve probably all been in situations when we felt overwhelmed, when things seemed to be running out of control (or at least in a direction we didn’t choose), when we were afraid and couldn’t see what was even a few steps ahead of us on the path. What was coming next? We didn’t know. Perhaps the out-of-control situation was something about our health or the sudden loss of a job. Or maybe it was a wrench that got thrown into a plan we were really excited about, a goal we were headed toward, something good we wanted to achieve.
When times of crisis or major interruptions hit, it can make us question everything—ourselves, our plans, the goodness of life, the intentions of God. What is God thinking, allowing this great calamity? Did I do something to deserve this? Why do people, why do we, have to suffer?
Our New Testament reading today tells the happy ending to the story of Noah, who, along with his wife and sons and daughters-in-law, and two of every kind of creature on the earth, lived in a handmade ark for 40 days and 40 nights, while a flood covered the entire world. As the story goes, God brought about the flood as a kind of reset button—he’d been despairing of his creation and wanted to begin again, with just a few people who seemed able to live out the values radiant in his image and likeness.
I don’t know whether God felt remorse for the destruction caused by the flood or not, but after Noah and his family weathered the storm, God made an interesting statement—which was really a statement and a promise. God put a beautiful, multi-colored bow in the sky: the bow–which was also a symbol of war, as in bow and arrow–was turned upside-down and made into a promise of peace. God said, “When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature.” I think it’s interesting that God said, “I will remember my covenant.” It is not only that we get reassured that God’s promise to preserve life still stands, but that when we see the rainbow, God also sees the rainbow, and remembers.
Especially in times of crisis, when our plans have been derailed, we need to know God remembers us, God is caring for us, and that there is something good in store, coming even from the difficulty of the moment. We may be washed over with anxiety or doubt or even anger as we live through the scary part of the struggle. That’s the darkest part of the path.
I remember reading once, 20 years ago or more, that when it comes to God’s promises, we need to claim them, even if we don’t feel them. Claiming a promise is a way of putting our own rainbow in the sky, making our prayer visible, asking for help, showing God we remember his promise. When I’m struggling with something, I’m sure the rainbow I paint in my prayers is an imperfect one—it is probably muddy and full of holes; it’s likely the colors clash and are in the wrong order. But from God’s side, he shines away the imperfections and patches the gaps; he shines everything that isn’t in harmony away, and the result is beauty, and peace, and light. And that draws me toward a deeper sense of understanding and an abiding calm, even in the midst of difficult times.
Most likely, God doesn’t need our help remembering to love us and look out for us, but when we claim the promise of God we need in a situation, it focuses our energy on God’s ability to act in our lives and helps us feel the security we need. Often when we’re struggling, our emotions get churned up like flood waters, rising higher and higher as our anxiety or worry or discouragement grows. We may start with one or two doubting thoughts but they quickly multiply until that’s all we can think about. I am sure God understands that about us: We are emotional beings. We were created this way.
But if we can recognize how our thoughts are being flooded, we can interrupt the emotion long enough to reach for a promise from God. When we can do that–no matter how bleak things look—we open the door for the light of peace to shine into our situation. We remember we don’t have to face the struggle alone.
In fact, there’s a promise for that. When we’re feeling small and overwhelmed and not up to whatever we’re facing, we can claim the promise of Christ, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
When we’re worried about our children, we can stop and plant our feet and remember what God said about our families, and about us, as God’s family. In Isaiah, God says, “I will pour my spirit on your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring.” (IS 49:25) Also in Isaiah, God promises, “I will contend with him who contends with you; and I will save your children.” (Is 49:25) That’s a promise worth claiming, especially if we worry.
God promises us protection in Psalm 121: The Lord is our keeper, keeping us from evil, keeping our life safe, watching over us as we come and go. In Jeremiah, we learn that God has a plan for our lives: A plan to prosper us and not to harm us; a plan to give us a hope and a future. In Deuteronomy (4:29), God promises that if we search for him we will find him. In fact, the promise reads, when we pray, God actually draws near to us.
Jesus promises us abundant life, the realization of the kingdom within, abiding peace, nourishing rest, care for our daily needs, reconciliation with God, and ongoing, eternal life. God knows that in this world—flooded or not—we face daily, if not hourly, challenges to our faith, challenges to our belief of “that of God in everyone,” challenges to God’s earliest scriptural promise: “It is good.” When crisis or unwanted events occur, we struggle to feel that life is good, that it all works out, that God is in it with us. And I know God understands that, too.
Fifteen years ago I suddenly had the opportunity to go to ESR on a full scholarship. I hadn’t been expecting it, but all of a sudden doors flew open and it seemed possible and real. Excitedly I said yes and began to make plans to go to seminary the next fall. But shortly after that a series of things happened in my small business that made it impossible for me to take the time away, and as a result, I couldn’t go. I was crushed. In fact, I was mad—mad at God, maybe for the first—or at least the most serious—time in my life. A friend at my Quaker meeting mentioned that it seemed like I’d lost all my joy.
One day during that time when the kids were at school, I got my bible and began looking up promises. One by one, I read them aloud, pointing to the page, and saying, through angry tears, “What about this promise, God? Where is that showing up in my life right now?”
In that moment, all I wanted was to be real with God. My upset was raw, and my pain was overflowing. Instead of trying to silence my anger by telling myself to just accept God’s will, I painted a big, muddy, imperfect rainbow in the sky that day. I shouted and cried at God and told him how I thought he was letting me down. And when I’d worn myself out, I felt—or maybe heard—something quite remarkable. It felt like a big, warm, loving, holy laughter. Like you might hear from a grandfather who gets a chuckle out of seeing his grandchild throw a temper tantrum. I felt or heard that rumbling, loving laughter, and for the first time in two weeks, I felt peace.
That for me was a big, dramatic way of claiming an important promise of God. Even with my petulant, defiant attitude, I was reaching out to God, asking God to be closer, to explain, to help me understand and give me comfort. And God did all of that. What’s more, the temper tantrum I threw helped ultimately to deepen my faith; it created more intimacy in my relationship with God, because now I knew there was nothing I ever to hide from him. I felt God wanted to see all of it because I knew the covenant, the intimacy, the promise matters—to God and to me. When circumstances arranged themselves so I could go to ESR a year later, I knew God was in it. Almost like there was a smile in the sky.
Our New Testament reading today, from the book of John, is a snapshot from the moment when Jesus is reassuring his disciples and preparing them for the difficult time head. Jesus lets them know that change is coming but that ultimately all will be well. God loves them and they are not alone in facing the circumstances of their lives. Jesus ends by saying, “In the world, you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”
I like the saying that, “Courage is fear that has said it’s prayers,” and I think that’s a fitting way to look at the courage Jesus was calling for. Claim the promises of God, he was saying, to them and to us. Paint your rainbow in the sky, and let God make it perfect. Remind God that you remember the good he has promised, and claim those promises as best you can, right in the situation that is challenging you. God will respond by bringing his very own presence– along with the kindness, protection, provision, and holy laughter we need—to remind us that we never face anything alone.
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- OT: Genesis 9: 12-17
- NT: John 16:25-33