The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

GOD AND HURRICANES

Delivered 9/19/99
Text: Matthew 5:43-45
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

A scary few days, eh? Just a week ago we were hearing about this incredibly powerful Hurricane Floyd in the Atlantic that might be heading in our direction - almost a Category 5 with sustained winds near the eye of 155 miles per hour. And it cut a wide swath too, hundreds of miles in diameter.

Fool that I am, I normally do not worry much about hurricanes. I have come through a few. During my years of living on the coast, I evacuated in the face of oncoming storms along with everyone else. I still have a home on Hilton Head Island to which I hope to retire one day, so I hope it does not get wiped out by wind or water. But Hilton Head has not been hit by a hurricane in over 100 years, so I have become blasé. But this one worried me. This one was powerful enough and wide enough to do major damage without ever reaching land. It could just skirt the coastline on its northward journey and act like a giant weed-eater swirling away huge chunks of coastal Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas...including my little house. Not a happy prospect.

As the storm drew nearer, a Sheila Watson of Charleston, SC wrote to friends on the internet with a prayer request:

I would ask for prayers from each of you, not that we are spared (that's as silly and fruitless as asking to be spared from hurts in life) but that we find courage and strength to make it through. Specifically, please pray:

  • that people get out of town and don't try to be stoics through 155+mph winds;
  • that we remember God is not in the wind, fire, or earthquake but with us always;
  • that people will love the creator more than the creation so much that losing everything will be nothing compared with what could be lost;
  • that we keep a sense of humor;
  • that help arrives quickly and that the [church disaster response] teams...are able to reach those in need;
  • that we remember God is still in charge;
  • that in the midst of rebuilding our material world, we nourish our souls (true story: a few days after Hugo, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra held a free outdoor concert downtown to celebrate the beauty that remained - isn't that perfect?)


Other than those specifics, pray as the Spirit moves you. If Floyd takes a different turn (you can't trust these storms), apply the prayers above to the people wherever it does hit.(1)

In the face of Hurricane Floyd's threat, Sheila, her family, and two to three million people (depending upon whose estimates you hear) headed inland - the largest peacetime evacuation in American history - clogging highways with more traffic than they were ever designed to handle and creating gigantic ribbon-shaped parking lots. The next evening (Wednesday), Sheila would write again:

Yesterday we headed inland to Rock Hill, SC (near Charlotte). It took 10 hours to go what should have taken 3 hours. It took 2 hours just to get off the island where I live. The traffic jam on the interstate is horrendous. The bad thing is that in the next hurricane, people will remember spending hours (some the entire night) on I-26 and will not evacuate...In addition to the specific prayers I asked for yesterday, I ask also that you pray for people to survive the evacuation. This is nuts. It wasn't until after dark that the governor allowed the east-bound lanes of the interstate to be reversed so people could get out more easily. Who designed this infrastructure anyway? You might need to pray harder for our sense of humor to stay intact.(2)

Probably so. Fortunately, the catastrophe that could easily have occurred did not. Floyd weakened as it moved north, so by the time it made landfall at Cape Fear, it was only a strong category 2 storm, and much less dangerous than it had been earlier.

Of course, as we in North Carolina know, a good deal of damage WAS done, most of it from flooding. According to news reports, the storm left at least 20 people dead, a number which everyone expects to rise. Hundreds of homes along the coast and inland have been destroyed - property and crop damage is in the billions. More than 200,000 folks are still without power this morning. Whole cities have turned into brown lakes. And the water could cover much of eastern North Carolina for a while to come - some rivers are not projected to crest for several days. President Clinton is scheduled to tour the devastated areas tomorrow. Governor Hunt has declared this weekend a time of prayer statewide for hurricane victims.

And pray we have, and pray we will. Meanwhile, here we sit. Relatively unscathed. In the safety and peace of a church sanctuary on a beautiful late summer day. And we reflect. Where is God in all this? People have long called hurricanes and other like events an "act of God." The Bible suggests so. The prophet Ezekiel believed that God used tremendous storms as a weapon to punish the unrighteous: "Thus says the Lord GOD: In my wrath I will make a stormy wind break out, and in my anger there shall be a deluge of rain, and hailstones in wrath..."(3) Likewise the Psalmist catalogues those elements of the natural world that follow God's commands: "fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind..."(4) The most famous of all the stories is Noah and the flood.(5) The biblical view is simply this: God controls this world...and that means nature too.

The story of Noah leads some folks to believe that God uses nature as a weapon. Ten years ago, that eminent theologian, Tammy Faye Bakker declared that Hurricane Hugo's destructive visit to Charlotte was God's vengeance on the city for the mean treatment Jim Bakker got in the pages of the Charlotte Observer (although she never explained why the steeple of First Presbyterian Church was damaged but nothing happened to the newspaper building). Last year televangelist Pat Robertson warned that the city of Orlando might well get a direct hit by a hurricane because it permitted the display of rainbow flags out of respect for gay people. Said Robertson, "I would warn Orlando that you're right in the way of some serious hurricanes and I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you."(6) Robertson does have some experience with hurricanes - in the days leading up to his presidential candidacy in the late '80's, a hurricane headed toward his headquarters on Virginia Beach. Pat said he prayed that the storm would be diverted, and it was (it made landfall at some neighboring city). He never did explain though, why, if his prayer was so powerful, he did not just pray that the storm head harmlessly out to sea. If you see Pat, ask him.

Why do we have hurricanes? Hurricanes arrive, not because God is out to get some sinful city, but because the prevailing winds, ocean currents and frontal zones combine in ways that create them. This is so in good times and bad and without respect to the moral climate or condition of the people who happen to be living in a storm's path. Jesus made it plain. We remember it in the venerable phrasing of the King James Version: "[God] maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust."

It is interesting that that statement occurs in the context of Jesus' teaching on love: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." The point, of course, is that God cares about ALL of us, even those we might not be getting along with at the moment.

We can add to that those we do not even know, and that is one of those wonderful side effects of disasters like Hurricane Floyd. The Governor called for prayers for the victims of the storm. We will do even more. In addition to our prayers, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is rushing $50,000 from the One Great Hour of Sharing offering to both New Hope and Coastal Carolina presbyteries and stands ready to provide additional financial assistance as damage assessments become available. As soon as the flood waters recede, volunteer work teams will be dispatched for clean-up, repair, and rebuilding. People WILL reach out to other people. Good.

I remain convinced that God's hand IS in the midst of events like Hurricane Floyd - not managing the weather but managing human response. There are stories of true heroism - the U.S. Navy crews who rescued eight men Wednesday who had abandoned their sinking tugboat and were being hurled about by monster waves 300 miles east of Daytona Beach. Three survivors who became separated from the life raft launched shortly before the tug sank were picked up first by helicopters from the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy. The helicopters then refueled and returned to the scene to pick up the other five men, who were in the raft riding out huge waves.(7) The only word to describe it is heroic. Those men were doomed. No doubt we will hear more heroic stories in the days ahead.

There are other stories as well, not so dramatic, but just plain wonderful. Roger Kiser of Brunswick, Georgia, who writes occasionally for an inspirational web site called Heartwarmers4u.com recounted the experience he and his family had in his evacuation from the coast. He writes:

Traffic was so backed up that we never traveled more than six miles per hour nor did we ever move forward more than 500 feet without having to stop. I reached over and turned on the CB radio to see if there was an accident ahead.

Suddenly I noticed a woman and her friend stranded along the road with their hood raised. Their car had overheated. People were jumping from their cars and dropping off gallons of their own drinking water to the woman. As we passed, giving her another gallon of water, the woman was pouring water into her radiator when it spewed back into her face scalding her on the side of the head. Immediately three or four strangers jumped from their slow moving cars to rush to her assistance, offering her towels, and several men came over to cool her radiator for her.

Another mile or so down the road a trucker came on the radio and asked if there was anyone who could tell him where he could stop and get a soft drink -- he had nothing to drink as all the stores were sold out of beverages or closed. A voice responded and asked him his location. He replied that he was passing road marker 19. The voice came in response and told him to look on sign post 21 when he drove by it. Suddenly horns started blowing which could be heard for miles. As we passed marker 21 there sat a cold refreshing Mountain Dew on top the marker.

People who would ordinarily be pushed to their limits were jumping from their vehicles trying to help anyone and everyone they could. When we finally arrived in Waycross nine hours later (a drive that would normally take about 35 minutes) we had nowhere to go as all the motels for three states were full. We slept in the automobiles with all the animals. It was also one of the most restless nights I have ever encountered but we made the best of it.

The next morning we arose at about six o'clock and just stood around with thousands of other stranded people. It was cold, cloudy and the wind was blowing at about 45 miles per hour. Along comes the local electric company, asking us if we need any help finding a local shelter. We could not go to a shelter because we had animals and we were not about to leave our pets, even if it meant warmth and hot food. There were no restaurants open for fifty miles so there was no hot food and we could not find any bread as all the stores were sold out. So we just ate what we could and made the best of it.

Several hours later an African American woman drove up and stopped where we were huddled and said, "I know you do not know me from Adam but I would like to invite you to my home to take a hot shower and clean up if you wish." [We WISHED!]...

When the authorities gave the all clear, we headed back to our warm sweet home. Yes, it was a bad and dangerous experience and one that I never wish to repeat. But the strong winds that were ahead of us yesterday were the winds of kindness, friendship, courtesy and love. Not even the dangerous winds of this deadly hurricane could ever change the determination, the fortitude or the compassion of the wonderful people who make this country as great as it is. AMERICA, I am so proud of you!"(8)

Amen? Amen. Mark Twain once said, "The rain is famous for falling on the just and unjust alike, but if I had the management of such affairs, I would rain softly and sweetly on the just, but if I caught a sample of the unjust outdoors, I would drown him."(9) I would say Amen to that too!

Yes, we have had a scary few days, but Floyd is gone now. Thank God. But another will come...and another and another. Such is the cycle of nature. Where will God be? Right where God always is. In the words of Isaiah, "When you pass through the waters, I WILL BE WITH YOU."(10) Hallelujah!

Amen!


1. Posted by Bass Mitchell, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop 1999 09 21," #17, 9/14/99

2. Sheila Watson, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop 1999 09 21," #42, 9/15/99

3. Ezekiel 13:13

4. Psalm 148:8

5. Genesis 6-9

6. Quoted by Charles Henderson, http://christianity.about.com/library/weekly/mcurrent.htm

7. NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, 9/16/99

8. http://dispatch.mail-list.com/archives/heartwarmers/msg00421.html

9. Quoted in The Joyful Noiseletter, April, 1991, p. 5

10. Isaiah 43:2

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