While speaking at a rally for the Texas Restoration Project, Arlington pastor Dwight McKissic asked if God might have a purifying purpose in the shaking Katrina gave our country. A few people had a fit about it. Others sought to distance themselves from such a politically incorrect question. Governor Perry was on the program with Pastor McKissic and a spokesman for the governor’s office said: “The governor does not agree with that. But far be it for the governor to try to divine the will of the Almighty.” Was the preacher’s even raising that question insensitive or was it prophetic?
Christians are often asked by cynics to answer for God in the face of tragedy that only he could have prevented. The implication is that we must have settled this question if we continue to follow a god who must be either powerless or wicked. No simple answers are to be had. In fact it’s a bad question. It’s narrow to think of God having a single purpose for New Orleans on August 28 any more than for Austin on that same day. More importantly, he has millions of purposes for that day, and for the blessings and tragedies of this one. Some of those will become clear in the lives of individuals.
For this reason (dangerous ground here), we expect to meet people for whom August 28 marked a positive life change, as well as those for whom it was a lifelong catastrophe. For most, it will be like the other shakeups of life, an experience that may bring us important lessons but no one would choose to repeat. When Jesus said, in Matt. 5:45, that God brings the rain on the “righteous and the unrighteous” he was referring to indiscriminate blessing, but we can also imagine in most every case that some will find the details of this common grace to be inconvenient or destructive.
Don’t forget in the midst of our focus on one tragedy that thousands of events just as devastating for individuals happen each day in large and small towns not directly affected by a hurricane. Lost jobs, sick children, crime, broken families, and thousand other manifestations of sin’s effect tower over the other details of our lives anytime we face them. They happened in New Orleans also, perhaps at a higher than average rate, during what most considered to be the best of times. Some find these more localized disasters to have a refining effect. Others never get past the bitterness of the loss. To a large degree we all trudge through the same corrupting creation. Some can do it without ever seeing the mercies that often accompany the wounds. As neighbors who bear many of the same scars, we carry the good news of those mercies and of the God who grants them more generously in the midst of suffering.
Katrina was not the gentle soaking rain that breaks a drought. It was furious and destructive. Hundreds of thousands had their calendars cleared in a harsh way. Many hundreds were killed. There is no single description of God’s purpose for all these people. There is a purpose for each one, an impact that washes over the lives of many others who travel to Louisiana or Mississippi, or Alabama?and for those who meet evacuees in their own home towns. A thousand journalists working a thousand days will not tell all the stories. And the stories will move outward from here. Some will never return to their former homes. New communities formed around evacuees will plant in Lubbock and Ft. Smith and Shreveport and a score of other places. Small changes have an impact we may hardly notice. Massive changes are unavoidable for a whole generation. Though with less loss of life, the hurricane of 2005 will ultimately affect more lives than the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in 2001.
Even in our limited vision, the stories will not be all bad. Thousands who formerly scoffed at Christians have been touched by the love of Christ in the past few weeks. I’ve seen Moslems praying in a Southern Baptist church and I’ve seen self-absorbed suburbanites anxiously pursuing a chance to help those very strange to them. No doubt some children who lived in squalor will now grow up with new opportunity, and safety. Some who were oppressed by demonic lives of drug addiction will be set free and begin a new life in Christ. Some who lived in thrall to dark religions will spend eternity with God. And many of us for whom the poor were abstract, now put precious faces and names to Jesus’ call to feed and clothe the least among us.
What about judgment, though? That’s Dwight McKissic’s question that sent the more timid running for high ground. Do we squirm a little because the idea is daffy or because a prophetic word is supposed to make us squirm? Most of us live in cities that could be righteously judged, and we would know the reason why. God extends patience toward our home towns for the sake of both the saints and the lost. New Orleans, or for that matter Biloxi and Mobile are no exceptions. Many who would accept a prophetic message about God’s mercy (and only potential judgment) on unrighteous communities are unwilling to hear that message when mercy is lifted ever so slightly. It seems ungrateful and nearsighted to think we’re owed forbearance.
Although we’re not privy to much of God’s purpose or his evaluation of a people or place, we can easily judge the fruit of a life or community. The most pertinent evaluation we can make is of our own community. Hurricanes, and other “acts of God,” should remind us of his power and of his mercy.
If we look at the human stories we’ve already seen and further imagine those likely to unfold, purification is an apt description. Those formerly lost people who return to New Orleans saved will add a purifying element in a town that has a bad rep among respectable people. Those who remain lost will never be quite so confident in their self-sufficiency. Many of these will have heard the gospel from someone during their exile. It will either take root in their lives or continually judge their unbelief. Again, purifying.