Posts tagged ‘Houston’

Hurricane Harvey and Human Selflessness

The news in the wake of Hurricane Harvey just seems to get worse.  18 counties in Texas have been declared federal disaster areas.  Meteorologists are calling the flooding in Houston a 500-year event, though they admit that, by the time all is said and done, the effects of this storm may be closer to a 1,000-year event, or perhaps even bigger. In Beaumont, a toddler was found was shivering in the water, clinging to her drowned mother.  Scenes and stories like this are simply heartbreaking.

Of course, for every heartbreaking story, there are hundreds of heartwarming stories.  The picture below shows Cathy Pham, holding her sleeping baby, being carried to safety by a member of the Houston SWAT Team.

Then there was Spiderman who took some time to visit some of the children who were sheltering at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Images like these have made many people wonder out loud: Why can’t we always act this compassionately toward each other?  Why can’t we put the differences that normally divide us aside and come together like the Coastal Bend, Houston, and the Golden Triangle have?

On the one hand, it’s important to remember that the selflessness we see demonstrated in tragedies like these is not quite as universal as it can first appear.  Disasters bring out the best in many.  But they also bring out the worst in some.  From looters looking to pillage the possessions of displaced homeowners and damaged businesses to storm chasers who run from disaster zone to disaster zone trying to turn a quick profit off of beleaguered survivors by overcharging for a service and performing it poorly, or, sometimes, even not at all, there are still plenty of slick characters who will gladly trade the virtue of altruism for a windfall from opportunism.

In an article for Slate that has been widely criticized, Katy Waldman offers a somewhat cynical take on the staying power of human goodness, writing:

Humans may possess inherent goodness, but that goodness needs to be activated. Some signal has to disperse the cloud of moral Novocain around us. Some person, or fire, or flood, has got to say: now.

Ms. Waldman has serious doubts whether the goodness we see now in Texas can last beyond the storm.  The selflessness we’ve seen, she says, has only been activated by the terrible trials people have had to endure.  Once the trials pass, selflessness will ebb.  Sadly, she might be right.  But she doesn’t have to be.

One of the most compelling stories in the Bible is that of Job.  Job was a man who had it all, and then lost it all – his house, his cattle, his children, and even his health.  Job’s story recounts his struggle to come to terms with God’s faithfulness and providence in the midst of his suffering.  Throughout his terrible ordeal, Job maintains that he has done nothing to deserve the calamities that have befallen him, even boldly demanding to speak with God to protest his circumstances: “I desire to speak to the Almighty and to argue my case with God” (Job 13:3). Throughout Jobs’ protestations, however, God remains silent – until He doesn’t.

At the end of the book, God speaks:

Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that obscures My plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell Me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone – while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” (Job 38:1-7)

God’s basic point to Job is that even when life feels unfair and God seems either absent or incompetent, He is neither.  God really does know what He’s doing.  He really does have a plan.  And He really is quite competent at running the universe, for He put the universe together in the first place.

What is especially important for our purposes, however, is not only what God says to Job, but where God says it: “Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm” (Job 38:1).  Job’s stringent sufferings have constituted a personal storm of epic proportions.  But God has been there with him in the storm the whole time.  Out of the storm, God speaks.

What was true of Job’s storm is true of Hurricane Harvey.  With so much human suffering on display in the headlines and on our television screens, it can be tempting to think God is either absent or incompetent.  But He is neither.  God is in the storm.  This is why, for all the suffering we see, we see even more selflessness.  God is in the storm, leading people to help each other through the storm.

This is also why Ms. Waldman’s contention that when a storm subsides, selflessness wanes doesn’t have to ring true.  Human selflessness in the midst of extraordinary suffering is not a result of suffering, but a gift from God.  Suffering may be a vehicle through which God reveals human selflessness, but suffering itself is not the source of human selflessness.  God in the storm – and not the storm itself – is the true source of our selflessness.  And though God is in the storm, He is also beyond the storm.  He will be there when the floods of Harvey have dried and the recovery and reconstruction projects have reached completion.  Which means that the kind of selflessness that has been so beautifully on display in this storm can last long beyond this storm.

Hurricane Harvey has put on display the divine gift of human selflessness.  And we have liked what we’ve seen.  So let’s make sure this precious gift doesn’t go back into hiding once Harvey fades from our headlines.  After all, if places like Houston can be wonderful because of people even when things are terrible because of weather, imagine what things could look like on a sunny day.

I’d love to see.

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September 4, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

God’s Presence in the Storm

Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 3.43.06 PM

I took the above picture two years ago when I was out for one of my early morning walks, cup of coffee in hand, along the beach of Port Aransas.  Each summer, my family and I vacation in this charming Gulf town.  The pictures I have seen of Port Aransas after Hurricane Harvey, along with its surrounding communities of Rockport, Aransas Pass, Port O’ Connor, Refugio, and, of course, Corpus Christi, are devastating.  Homes have been flattened.  Businesses have been destroyed.  And now, our nation’s fourth most populous city is feeling Harvey’s wrath.  Houston has been deluged by than 20 inches of rainfall.  Forecasters predict that, by the time this is all said and done, some spots in Houston may receive in excess of 50 inches of rain.

None of this is easy to watch.  I have called Texas home for 21 years and have many friends who live in the affected communities.  To see places I know that are home to people I love be destroyed by nature’s worst is heartbreaking.

As Christians, we are never called to be idle in the face of devastation and distress.  Here are a few things to consider – and to do – as this tragedy continues to unfold.

Pray

One of the many wonderful things about prayer is that it operates both as a support from God and an encouragement to others.  When we cry out to God in prayer, He does hear and He does care.  But prayer is important not only because of the connection it affords us with God, but because of the reassurance it can give to others.  Not only praying for people, but letting people know that you’re praying for them is important in a situation like this.  Pick up the phone.  Send a text message.  Pray for those in the Coastal Bend and Houston and then tell them you are.  A note from you about your prayers for them could be just the boon their souls need in this troubled time.

Give

A couple of days ago, a friend of mine went through a disaster relief class being held by the Red Cross.  He said so many people are volunteering to help victims of Harvey that the Red Cross is overwhelmed.  What a great problem to have!  Of course, just because lots of people are volunteering doesn’t mean there’s not lots of work still to be done and lots of resources still to be provided.  You may want to consider giving to a reputable organization like the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, or the Disaster Relief Fund of the Texas District of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.

Trust

In Adult Bible Class this morning at the church where I work, we were studying the story of Joseph.  When Joseph is sold into slavery to the Egyptians, there is this interesting line: “The LORD was with Joseph” (Genesis 39:2).  If Joseph looked only at his circumstances, it would have seemed not that the Lord was with him, but instead that the Lord had forsaken him.  But we must never confuse the sweetness of our circumstances with the reality of God’s presence.  The cross of Christ reveals that God’s presence is not ultimately indicated by the comforts in our lives, but by the compassion of His Son, who endured the worst of human suffering to see us through all of human suffering.  Christ is there with the people of the Coastal Bend.  And He is there with the people of Houston.  The same Savior who was with His disciples in a storm on the Sea of Galilee and who was with the children of Israel as they passed through the waters of the Red Sea is with the Texans who are being pummeled by this storm and trying to get through some very deep waters of some very big flooding.  Harvey may be catastrophic, but this storm is no match for our Savior.  He will see us through.

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.” (Isaiah 43:2)

August 27, 2017 at 6:00 pm Leave a comment

Subpoenaing Sermons

Credit: houstonmatters.org

Credit: houstonmatters.org

“Show us your sermons.” This was the message of the City of Houston to five area pastors. Last May, Houston’s City Council passed an equal rights ordinance prohibiting “any type of discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy”[1] among private and public employers. Almost immediately, those in faith communities and even in some businesses raised concerns. Will this limit a pastor’s ability to address issues such as same-sex marriage and gender identity in his sermons? Could a business be sued for refusing to allow a transgender person to use the restroom of the gender with which that person identifies, even if that identity does not match up with his or her assigned gender?

Opponents of the ordinance rallied and gathered some 500,000 signatures in an effort to repeal it, but the validity of the signatures was called into question and the ordinance was not repealed. This is when things got really contentious. As The Washington Post reports:

A group of Christians sued the city. In response, city attorneys issued subpoenas to five local pastors during the case’s discovery phase, though the five pastors were not involved in the lawsuit.

The subpoenas sought “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession,” according to the Houston Chronicle.[2]

The City subpoenaed sermons. And people were furious. Indeed, when several national news outlets picked up on this story, the City had to change course.  Mayor Parker announced last Friday that the City would narrow the scope of the subpoena and City Attorney David Feldman admitted, “When I looked at [the subpoena] I felt it was overly broad, I would not have worded it that way myself … It’s unfortunate that it has been construed as some effort to infringe upon religious liberty.”[3]

So what are we to make of all this?

On the one hand, as Eugene Volokh of The Washington Post notes, the City, by all reasonable standards, overreached and needs to be called to account:

I don’t quite see how “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession” would be relevant to the litigation about the validity of the referendum petitions.

At the very least, the subpoena seems vastly overbroad. And the fact that it seeks the contents of religious speeches does counsel in favor of making the subpoena as narrow as possible (which would likewise be the case if it sought the contents of political speeches). I’m not sure what sort of legally relevant information might be contained in the subpoenaed sermons. But the subpoena ought to be narrowed to that legally relevant information, not to all things about homosexuality, gender identity, the mayor, or even the petition or the ordinance.[4]

On the other hand, if these pastors were indeed “using the pulpit to do political organizing … [by] encouraging congregation members to sign petitions and help gather signatures for equal rights ordinance foes,”[5] as the City Attorney suggests, even if such conduct is Constitutionally permissible, theologically, this kind of political posturing can compromise the integrity of the Office of the Ministry and can actually impugn the Church’s witness on the moral and ethical issues of our day. Charles Colson explains why:

Because it tempts one to water down the truth of the gospel, ideological alignment, whether on the left or the right, accelerates the church’s secularization. When the Church aligns itself politically, it gives priority to the compromises and temporal successes of the political world rather than its Christian confession of eternal truth.[6]

When pastors try to address concerns that are, at their heart, theological by using political means like petitions, theology can all too readily and quickly – even if unknowingly – get sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.  We need to be careful we don’t compromise our witness for the sake of cynical political gain.

Make no mistake about it:  I do not believe City of Houston officials should, in any way, shape, form, or fashion critique or try silence what pastors preach.  Such actions are beyond their purview of their vocations.  But as a Christian, I also believe that what the Church and her pastors have to say about human sexuality and gender identity is best said from the Word of God and not with a petition.

So, to the pastors who have been subpoenaed, I say: rather than looking at these subpoenas as infringements on your rights, consider them opportunities for ministry (cf. Ephesians 5:15-16). City Hall – even if the wording of the subpoena has now been changed – has invited you to send in your sermons. So do so! Inundate City Hall with the sermons from God’s Word – and not just with sermons where you happen to mention sex or gender. Send in as many of your sermons as you can. While you’re at it, include a charitable note indicating that you are praying for your leaders and praying that your sermons will be a blessing to them.

Remember, with God’s Word comes God’s promise: “My word that goes out from My mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire” (Isaiah 55:11). The preaching of God’s Word can do more than a petition could ever hope to accomplish. A petition can win a political war. God’s Word can change a human heart.

Which sounds better to you?

_______________________________

[1] City of Houston, Texas, Ordinance No. 2014-530.

[2] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Houston subpoenas pastors’ sermons in gay rights ordinance case,” The Washington Post (10.15.2014).

[3]Houston Backtracks on Church Subpoenas,” ktrh.com (10.15.2014).

[4] Eugene Volokh, “Is it constitutional for a court to enforce a subpoena of ministers’ sermons?The Washington Post (10.15.2014).

[5] Jacob Gershman, “Houston Mayor Says City’s Sermon Subpoenas Came as a Surprise,” The Wall Street Journal (10.15.2014).

[6] Charles Colson in Render Unto Caesar…and Unto God: A Lutheran View of Church and State, A Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (September 1995), 60.

October 20, 2014 at 5:15 am 4 comments


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