Again, in the last few weeks, we find ourselves in prayer for our brothers and sisters far away who have faced a devastating event. This time again it is a storm - a tornado in Oklahoma. It has been painful to watch the scenes unfold in this small town of Moore. It has been difficult to hear the stories, witness the tears and feel the pain as these citizens have been interviewed for the world to see. Now, the media will leave and they will be forced to start the summer wondering just what to do next, just where to go next.
I do not know anyone in Oklahoma except one of my college roommates and, as far as I know, she and her family are fine. I have heard from other friends that their family members are fine as well. I do not know any of those folks whose lives are suddenly changed forever. It would be easy to just give some money and move on with my life, thankful that our area did not see such a disaster, but I don't think that is what God is wanting me to do. I don't think that is what God is wanting any of us to do.
So what can we do besides send money? Sometimes there are no profound, hidden messages for us. Sometimes it is important that the people of God search out the stories, hear the stories, be reminded of our call and pray. Then we are open to the message from God showing us what else we can do for our brothers and sisters who are faced with disaster.
There are many stories already coming out of Oklahoma, but as I was thinking about and praying for these people, I thought of another disaster - Hurricane Katrina - and a story that came out of it.
When he left his home and church in New Orleans on Aug. 27, 2005, the Rev. Darryl Tate took only enough clothes for a three-day trip. What he packed that day was all that he had left when he returned home 30 days later, after the storm destroyed much of that region. On Sept. 27, he returned home to see what was left of his church and neighborhood. What he saw was painful and difficult to behold.
He commented upon his return that it looked as if a bomb had been dropped in his neighborhood. He remembered his parsonage as a pretty little house, where he took pride in the yard. On that hot September morning, he looked around his yard and found a picnic table that did not belong to him, his porch swing in the mud, his white car brown with dirt and muck and the water line on his house looking as if it would extend beyond the roof as if it had someplace else to go.
At first he could not enter the home because he was full of such emotion. A friend, another pastor, entered for him with the instruction that Tate's wife Carolyn only wanted to find her gumbo pot. When his friend returned, he was carrying the gumbo pot and the top to their wedding cake. Everything else was completely destroyed. Nothing could be saved.
The Tate's home and church were in a part of the city of New Orleans that was not supposed to flood, ever; but, as the Rev. Tate drove through the neighborhood, he saw destruction everywhere. On various houses, he found number codes painted in red. As he saw these numbers on the houses of people he had known, he grieved, for these particular numbers indicated that dead bodies had been found at these houses. He wondered how many of his own parishioners left before it was too late.
On the morning of Aug. 27, a Sunday, Tate asked the question at the morning service: How many of you are leaving and where are you going? He and his wife had come to the conclusion that they weren't going to leave, but they would weather the storm at home. As the reports became bleaker and bleaker, they made reservations for a motel in Houston and left.
When he asked the question to his congregation, he discovered that most already had packed their cars and were ready to leave. One recently widowed woman, Eve, was determined to stay. Tate begged her not to stay, but to go with them, but she refused.
As Tate drove toward the church on that September morning, he thought about them all, but wondered most about Eve.
When he arrived at the church, he was told by the checkpoint officers to go slowly. As he pulled up in front of the church, he found everything dead and brown. As he walked to the front of the church, he was startled to see the banner across the stop that proclaimed: "Welcome: A Place for You." His heart was filled with emotion.
As soon as the door opened, the smell jumped out and hit him like a physical blow. Tate took in everything - every nook and cranny - and he realized that there was nothing that could be saved.
Mud, mud, mud was everywhere. Mold was everywhere. The piano and organ were completely turned upside down. An eerie glow was cast over the sanctuary as the sunlight streamed through the red and blue windows.
Upstairs, things were a little better, but not much. He found his Bible, his robes, some photos, but not much of anything else. He was grateful as he realized that he did not really think there would be anything left to take.
In the midst of devastation, God surprised Tate. Eve, the widow who did not want to leave, was safe and sound after all. At the last minute, she had decided to leave the city. After they greeted each other with hugs, they began to plan a special service for their congregation at another church not too far away.
Tate commented that people needed to get back into church, that he needed to get back to preaching, and that even in the midst of disaster, God is good.
During Hurricane Katrina, there were 80 displaced pastors from the Orleans Parish. Ninety churches of that parish were damaged or destroyed.
There are displaced pastors and damaged or destroyed churches in Oklahoma now. There are many of our brothers and sisters in the faith who might not feel God's goodness at the moment. The people of those congregations have no homes to speak of either, and their faith may be challenged beyond anything that we can imagine just now. And even though we do not know them by name, they need us right now.
We need to pray for all of the victims of this storm, but let us be specific in our prayers. Let us pray for shelter, for food, for clothing, for comfort. Let us pray for resources for rebuilding. Let us pray for those who are in shock. Let us pray for those who have no one to go to and no one who will come to them. Let us pray for those who are without homes, without jobs, without schools, without hope.
Let us pray for those who will be helping to sort things out. Let us pray for the first responders who will remember those first hours and the horror and fear of that community for the rest of their lives. Let us pray for those who will bring comfort to those who have lost loved ones, especially to the children who are mourning the loss of classmates, of their schools, of their normal way of life. Let us pray for the pastors and counselors who will be with the people even in the midst of their own grief. Let us remember those community officials who will hear story after story and bear huge burdens as they see their community in pain.
Let us pray for the presence of God's Holy Spirit, the comforter, to hover over this community, to surround each one who is connected to this tragedy, and to breathe peace and calm into this community. Let us pray for the people to feel the comfort of the spirit, the prayers of all of the people all over the world praying, and hope for better day.
God is calling us to do more than just utter a quick prayer for the people in Oklahoma. God is calling us to put our hearts and minds into our prayers for Oklahoma. God is also reminding us that at any given moment, someone is facing a disaster. God is calling us to deeper prayer for God's children throughout our world.
As we pray more deeply and more fervently for our brothers and sisters in the face of disaster, we may find that God is compelling us to some other action, either for them or for someone else close by. Don't pass up the opportunity that God gives you for action.
This morning, as I am writing, the sun is shining brightly and, after a chilly night, the irises in my garden are standing straight and tall as if nothing happened last night that could have hurt them. The possibility of freezing didn't bother them. They inspire me with the beauty of God and the gifts of beauty all around us that encourage us with hope and love and joy. Part of my prayer for those facing disaster this day is that they might find the gifts of hope and love and joy that God gives us each day. This is also my prayer for each of you.
To God be the glory!