By now Hurricane Harvey is now a bed memory, the survivors to clean up the mess and try to make the best of it. Yet no sooner did Harvey pass that Irma rise, is roaring through the eastern Caribbean and Florida, and Jose is close on her heels. You may have even missed Hurricane Katia… At this point it is still early to tell, and there is still three months left in what is proving to be a moderately active hurricane season, and storms it seems are currently a regular part of our news cycle. Yet, as severe as these storms are, they do pass over, and the survivors pick up carry on, even if it is a long road to recovery.
When watching these storms, I remember an experience I had at Naramata Centre’s Music Week with a massed choir of more than 170 voices. Some of you might have been familiar with this tradition. I had a chance to go to it twice. Once in 2005 and then in 2011. I remember when we were there in 2005, we sang a piece called “The Storm is Passing Over.” Ironically, it would be merely a few weeks later that Hurricane Katrina would swamp New Orleans. The words for it go something like this:
“Have courage my soul, and let us carry on.
Though the night is dark and I am far from home.
Thanks be to God, the morning light appears!
The Storm is Passing Over! Hallelu!”
I remembered this song this past week as I was watching the news coverage on Irma, and as I was reading the story of the Passover in Egypt. Initially I wasn’t going to even go near the Passover, as it has these really awful elements of the death of the firstborn, but the images of the Storm passing over wouldn’t let me go… because Passover isn’t about lives taken and lives spared, it was about the dawning light at the end of a very long and very deep storm. It is what Exodus is all about.
Yet the storm I’m talking about here isn’t the thunderstorm that passes, or even the great devastating hurricanes… The storm is a metaphor for a great struggle in circumstances beyond one’s control. For the Israelites the storm was generations of indentured service at the hands of the Egyptians. They were once welcomed as guests, and now had been turned into slaves as the decades turned to centuries. This storm had lasted for generations, and now at this moment the light was finally begin to break through the darkness. The Passover meal was to be a sign of hope, that the darkness was coming to an end, freedom is at hand, the storm is passing over…
It’s hard to imagine such circumstances when for the most part we do live reasonably comfortable lives. None of us had to dodge bullets, or evade soldiers to gather in this place this morning. At worst we might have had a small traffic tie-up, or perhaps we would have been pulled over by the police for trying to get to worship too fast. That did happen to me once.
The storms we experience are far more likely deeply personal. The turmoil of relationships, work situations, life circumstances that trouble us, that keep us up late at night with worry. Passover assures us that these storms will end… but we need to hold in just a little bit longer and trust that God is with us there in the midst of whatever storms we face.
But as a church, we are facing a storm as well. After several centuries of clear sailing, we have all been aware of the decline. The tides were good for us, people were flowing in the doors of our churches without a great deal of effort on our part… and in fact it was so easy that we began to think that we thought the purpose of the church was for… a place for people to come to, rather than to go out from. The consequence has been that the winds have shifted away from our favour, and for the past fifty years, more than my entire lifetime, the church in North America has been in a state of perpetual decline. Efforts that we make as individual churches are very much like trying to make the tide come back in with a bucket. No matter how hard we try, the tide is still going out.
But it isn’t all bad news… not at all! Keep in mind that outside of North America and Europe, Christianity continues to grow and thrive. It seems as if in those places where Christians have not had an easy ride, is where it is thriving and growing. In South America, Africa and Asia, we are seeing a growth in the church that goes beyond what can be accounted for by birth rate. Something right is happening in these places, where the good news of the gospel is finding resonance with people. It is helping them find meaning in the midst of their own struggles and trials. The good news that Jesus Christ loves all of us, no matter where we come from, no matter who we are, gives strength to those people who find themselves in situations where they might otherwise lose hope. There is strength to be gained while weathering the storm… and maybe that really is the lesson to be learned from Exodus. The storm is passing over… In the end God is the one who is in control, and God loves us more than we can ever imagine.
The real question is, what can we learn from the Christian experience overseas? It used to be that we would send missionaries over there someplace… to convert the heathen, or so it was once portrayed. Yet where it took hold, and flourished, because the gospel found resonance with people and gave them meaning, now there are missionaries from those countries who are coming to western nations… perhaps to remind us of what we have forgotten: God has been there, is here now, and will be here in the future… no matter what. The good news of Jesus Christ is eternal, and has a resonance for all time and space, even if the church – a very human organization – has forgotten that. No matter how small or insignificant we might feel, we matter to God!
A former church leader once remarked that what the church really needed was a good round of persecution for us to rediscover our purpose and passion for the faith. I’m not sure this is something that I would ever wish for myself, but I can say from experience is that my faith has been of a far greater value to me in the midst of the storms that I have faced in life, than they have been in the good times. It’s not to say that experiencing God’s love in those moments of joy does not have merit, but the strength to carry on in times of personal darkness is what truly makes a difference in life. The strength comes from God’s assurance that the darkness will end, freedom is coming, the storm is passing over. Hallelu!
May we find hope amongst the darkness of the storm. Amen.