Jesus and Sandy
I’ve been in New York for the several days visiting family. We came up last week because my wife was speaking at a mission conference in the church that sent us overseas 30 years ago. If you ask Peggy whether she prefers speaking in public or having root canal she might have to think long and hard before answering. But she did great, as I knew she would, by simply letting her passion to help abused and mistreated women around the world shine through in her talk.
Meanwhile I’ve been doing a lot of repair jobs at my sister’s house so I’ve managed to keep busy too. Peggy and I have both had a good laugh when we think of her doing the public speaking and me down in a damp basement wearing a face mask scraping mold-covered paint off the walls and doing water proofing. She, who detests the limelight, was speaking in public; I was about as alone, and grungy, as it was possible to be. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor?
As it happens, we are here exactly two years after hurricane/super storm Sandy ripped through this area. We came just as an extended Southern Baptist disaster relief team packed up and left. They did an outstanding job of helping hundreds and, incidentally, giving some cynical New Yorkers a different view of evangelicals.
A core principle of the Baptist help teams, and over the two years hundreds of volunteers came through, was that they were just here to help rebuild. There were no “strings” on the help they gave; no sermons delivered as a price for that help. Their witness didn’t include any of the efforts we so frequently call evangelism; although I am pretty sure that it included plenty of opportunities to trigger people to “ask…for a reason for the hope that is in you.”
While there is still some residual evidence of Sandy around, I’d guess that 90% or more of New York (and New Jersey) has rebuilt or moved on. But what made the Baptist effort unique was the depth and length of their stay. There was a bunch of other organizations who helped out for a week, a month, or a little more; few who came for two years and asked for nothing but the privilege to help. What help the Baptists needed came from churches, like the one Peggy was speaking in, that lent their grounds and facilities to host teams of Baptist relief workers.
I’ve concluded that there are two ways for evangelicals to screw up when people are in need, as they were after Sandy. The Southern Baptists did neither.
- They didn’t see this as a “witness opportunity.” They didn’t rush north so that they could witness, they came so they could help; and they stayed long enough to show they meant it. They chose to believe I Peter 3:15 and trust that what witness God wanted them to give would happen without they trying to shoehorn it into the conversation. I’ve actually grown to hate the term “witness opportunity.”
- They didn’t tell the afflicted that Sandy was God’s will or that God was in control. Did you ever think about how often we evangelicals do that? We tend to say pious but hurtful things to people who are suffering the tragedy to devastation, death, illness or whatever.
Here is a tip to avoid that latter screw-up. The next time you are tempted to say that God wanted something to happen, try substituting Jesus for God. You will find you can’t say “Jesus wanted you to (die, be seriously ill, lose all you own….). “ If your theology makes you think God acts in ways that you don’t see in Jesus then probably your theology is wrong.