God of the Flood

Psalm 29 deals with God’s power with particularly strong imagery around floods. God “shatters the cedars of Lebanon… convulses the oaks…. strips the forests bare… shakes the wilderness…sits enthroned atop the flood waters…”

These images are meant to amaze us with God’s power, possibly to comfort us that even in our weakness God is mighty. But I can’t help but be reminded that Fear is the cousin of Awe.

All these images of floods are striking a raw spot for me right now. For the last week, my newsfeed has been filled with pictures of pounding flood waters in central Texas, cedars shattered and cypress trees ripped from their roots, oak trees stripped bare.

The human debris is just as staggering. Foundations lay empty – the homes that once graced their bedrock, gone. Just gone. Pictures and clothing and silverware litter the ground, snatched by the river then dropped as the current twisted and turned through the heart of Texas.

camp riverThis particular area of central Texas is very dear to my heart. I spent 15 summers at John Knox Ranch, a summer camp near Wimberley, on the banks of the Blanco River – which is usually cool, clear and calm. It’s my favorite place to swim on Earth! Rob and I were married at John Knox Ranch and I swam in that river just hours before my wedding. The camp dining hall where we had our reception is about 100 yards up a gentle slope from the river. There were trees and a road separating the two so you couldn’t even see the river from the dining hall.

Once when I was a camp counselor, we saw the river rise to the edge of the field, about 50 yards away. And even then, we were told that it reached its 500 year flood plain. So it hadn’t been that high in 500 years!

Saturday night, I heard the dining hall was under 20 feet of water.jkr dining hall indoors

It’s unimaginable. This area of the Blanco isn’t bordered by canyon walls or cliffs or mountains. It’s rolling hills and wide river plains. I never thought if it as “flash flood” country. More like, “we’re watching the river rise” country. So a 40 foot wall of water was absolutely devastating.

I have friends whose homes were totally destroyed. I heard that one friend and her husband were rescued by a boat in the middle of the night while they were clinging to their second story window sill. Thank God that boat came before the house went.

Three families from my home town were vacationing together in a house on the Blanco River. The flood lifted their home from its stilts and swept them away. In a matter of minutes, all that tied them to this earth was gone. Just gone.

A father survived. The two mothers, a child, and two grandparents have been recovered. The rest – one father and two young children – are still missing.

In the face of this loss, this complete destruction, I have a tough time with the image of God sitting enthroned atop the flood waters.

It is not comforting and it certainly doesn’t fill me with awe. It is scary and horrible. It is a perversion of everything I expect from a loving God.

I know that God created the world and all that is in it – the grand cypress trees and the limestone cliffs, the grassy plains and the shady oaks, the cool clear water and the mighty torrent. But I simply can’t believe these floods were some sort of display of power – a show, meant to fill us with awe and fear.

This is always the fine line we walk with natural disasters:
If we believe that God is all powerful – and we do –
if we believe that God is sovereign over all the earth – and we do –
if we believe that God created the world and all that is in it – and we do –        
then how can we say this is not of God?

How can we say that hurricanes and tsunamis and earthquakes and tornados and floods are not at best, part of some unknowable master plan or at worst, God’s judgment?

I do not believe that. I cannot believe that.

We proclaim that death has died, that light outshines darkness, that the lost will be found, and I will not equivocate and say, “Oh, but these losses, this death, that’s part of God’s plan. God needed another angel in heaven.”

God doesn’t need anything. Need is a human experience and God is the provider, the comforter, the protector. God is the savior, not the one from whom we must be saved. Always. Because – more than anything else – God is love.
Full stop.

And that LOVE is mightier than raging river and deeper than a roiling chasm.  It pierces the night like a bolt of lightning illumining the cloud filled skies. It rumbles over the face of the earth shaking the ground with its message – a message not of fear, but of love–“Fear not, my beloved children. I am here.”

When I think of those families tossed about the rising water, the darkness of the night, the power of the current, I cannot bear to imagine it. But I also can’t stop from thinking about it, about all of them – mothers and fathers, grandparents, little children so close in age to my own… terrified and alone.

It is absolutely horrifying, and it is also completely impossible. Because God is love. And love does not leave when the water rises. Love doesn’t disappear when it seems all is lost. Perfect love casts out all fear and even death cannot stop the living.

So how do we reconcile our tragedy with God’s love?

We have faith, and we don’t turn away from the unimaginable – and this is where our images of the Triune God become really powerful, because those beloved children of God were not alone in the flood waters. And wherever they are now – in heaven or on earth – they are not alone. None of us are. Ever.

When we face our fear and follow God into that dark and stormy night, we see the light of Christ beaming through the inky blackness and his grace, so amazing and warm, radiating from their fragile, beautiful bodies. We see the breath of the Holy Spirit entering their lungs and her powerful current flowing all around them. We see God the Father encircling them with his mighty arms keeping the fear at bay, and God the Mother gathering them under her wings, holding them close, and whispering in their ears, “fear not my beloved child. I am here.”

And so they were born, of water and the Spirit, into the dwelling place of peace.

May it be so for us all.

This piece is a sermon preached 3/31/15 at Faith Presbyterian Church, Greensboro, NC.

5 Reasons You Need to Be in Worship: A Letter to My Daughter

Worshiping Together

Worshiping Together

Dear 3-year-old-girl-of-mine,

I took your curly headed, rainbow-glitter sandaled, stuffed animal toting self to worship on Sunday. We sat in the first pew because that’s where you wanted to sit, and it helps keep you close to the action. You come to church almost every Sunday, but you very rarely come to worship. Your Mommy and Daddy are both pastors, and so we are usually busy. We can’t be there to sit with you and sing with you and pray with you and answer your questions, so you’ve been staying in the nursery with your little brother, but that’s going to change.

You know a lot of important things about church: you know that it’s fun and has lots of friends – some younger than you and some older, some much older; you know that you are loved by all your church friends; you know it’s a place to learn about God; you know it has a great playground, beautiful flowers, and a wonderful garden full of food; you know that it is safe; you know that it’s your church, but it’s also my church and other people’s church and God’s church, so we call it our church.

But you don’t know a lot about our traditional worship, because you aren’t there. I’m going to change that. Here are 5 reasons why:

5) Because of the music. Where else can a child – or anyone for that matter – hear piano and choral music – classical and contemporary – performed excellently not for the glory of self but for the glory of God? Music offered as an act of worship lifts your soul and brings you into the presence of God. You love the music. You love it so much that you want to sit in the front of the sanctuary so you can be as close as possible to the musicians, so you can watch and worship with rapt attention.

4) Because of the singing. You aren’t sure about the singing. You did not want to stand, and so we sat with the hymnal and I tried to sing loud so you could hear my voice. I worry that you are timid about singing, and church is a great place to find your voice. When the sanctuary is full of song – the piano playing, the many voices of the gathered congregation lifted in praise – you can make a joyful noise as part of the whole. You don’t have to worry what others will think. You don’t have to worry if you are singing the right melody or the right words, you can just sing.

3) Because of the prayers. We pray before meals and before bed, sweet memorized prayers that are so important in childhood, but you need to know there are many ways to pray. You need to hear prayers that use some words you understand and some words you don’t. You need to hear prayers from me and also your dear friends and mentors leading worship. You also need to hear the prayers we all say together, even if you can’t read along yet, because they speak the truth about us and about God. You know that God is good and loving and forgiving. You know that sometimes you make a mistake and then you are forgiven. These truths are not new to you, but you need to know that they are true to everyone. We praise God together. We confess together. We receive forgiveness together. Because we all need it.

2) Because you want to be there, and you are wanted there. I’m not going to keep you out because it’s inconvenient anymore. Jesus said, “Let the children come to me” and I’m not going to stand in the way of Jesus. But also, the other people in worship want you there. As we walked up the center aisle to that front pew, I watched their faces light up. They were excited to share this experience with you! When you come to worship, you bring your whole self – just like everyone else brings their whole self. You bring innocence, curiosity, and joy. You bring restlessness, shyness, boldness, happiness and sadness. Who you are is important to who we are. You make our worship more complete.

1) Because it’s not about you, it’s about God. So much of our lives revolve around you – from the moment you wake until you go to sleep at night, your life is full of people focused on you, caring for you, teaching you, playing with you. You are the center of your world, and that’s developmentally appropriate. But as you grow into a wider understanding of who you are in the world, I want you to find your center in God. You are old enough to feel the pull of the Divine, to reorient your focus – if just for a moment – to the Perfect Love which casts out all fear. You don’t have to understand the Holy Mystery – in fact, you will never understand it – but you can experience it.

So my darling, we are going to go to worship, and once your little brother gets a little older he is coming too. Get excited!
All my love,

This post is edited from the original post on http://www.covenantpcusa.org/blog in May 2014 after I began bringing my daughter to worship. We are at a new church now http://www.faithpresgso.org She worships with us every week and stays through the entire service. It is a little crazy, but ridiculously wonderful.