It’s hurricane time, as Irma approaches Florida. Note here that I make again the error of many Americans, which is that the hurricane tends to become of interest when it’s arriving at our shores. It has already been quite destructive in a number of places and right now in Cuba.
Yet the discussion intensifies, and we are, inevitably, confronted with loads of hurricane theology. I think it’s because we get to watch hurricanes approach for such a long period of time. Earthquakes and tornadoes happen quickly more quickly. But we track the hurricane, we pray, and we do theology, generally bad theology.
I do not here claim to have a corner on good theology. I am quite unabashedly regarding as bad theology any theology that seems particularly bad to me. So there.
I am not, however, alone. Behold this tweet from author Carol Howard Merritt:
In light of the hurricanes, my first worry is for the people. Then the homes. Also bracing myself for all the terrible theology…
— Carol Howard Merritt (@CarolHoward) September 9, 2017
Now before everyone gets the wrong idea, I do pray, and I do believe in prayer. It’s just that what people believe prayer will accomplish starts to get particularly silly when there’s a hurricane trundling along nearby.
I’ve even prayed that God would mitigate the storm, or perhaps send it out to the open Atlantic, with due warning to all sailors who might get caught in its path. I have not, however, claimed that this prayer was likely to do a great deal to change the path of the storm.
So why on earth did I pray it?
This reminds me of talking with my Dad. My father was an MD, and a missionary. When he was not overseas, he was trying to serve those in need in the U. S. and Canada. He never made any money, and came as close as anyone I know to accomplishing John Wesley’s goal: Dying with only the change in his pocket.
I occasionally had conversations with my dad about the possibility of going into practice in an area where he would make money. The nice thing about that, from my viewpoint, would be that I could afford more stuff. In my case that would have been books, parts for my radios, chemicals for a photo-lab, etc. (In relation to nothing in particular, I would note that I often feel sympathy for parents of children such as myself.)
With my dad I would express my interest in such possibilities and how nice it would be to have more money. What I didn’t expect was that he would actually abandon his lifelong calling of service to others and go find a way to make money. I was honest about my desires, but I did not hold the discussion with some kind of expectation of results.
Why? Because I knew my father. I knew who he was. I knew what he believed. There was as much likelihood that my father would abandon his calling as there is that God will discard the laws by which he has chosen to run the universe.
Theologians may look upon general revelation, the revelation of God in God’s creation, with a bit of a jaundiced eye. Observation of nature does not easily result in the sort of ethical rules that a “Thou shalt not kill” does. Yet some of the most stable and definite indications of the way God works are displayed in the form of natural laws.
Air over heated water. The rotation of the earth, the way in which a heated gas (like the stuff in air) will rise. High pressure ridges. Troughs. These are some of the many things that result in the formation of hurricanes and in directing their courses. “He makes his sun to rise on the just and the unjust” and “summer and winter will not cease” are reflections of this nature of God’s action. Of course, we already knew that from observation. Unless, of course, we have not been observing.
So when I told God it would be nice for the hurricane to head out over the Atlantic, that was fine. But knowing just a bit about God, I wasn’t expecting that God would drop all the laws of physics just to suit me. God has been running the universe according to those laws by an estimated nearly 14 billion years.
But I tell God in prayer anyhow, because that’s what I do. Then I more seriously pray for the people who are in the way of the storm and that those who can will provide the needed help, that we’ll all give as we are able. There’s the common saying that prayer changes things. Personally I think that’s fairly rare. What it does is actually much harder: It changes me. It changes you.
And if it does that, it has done well.
(I wrote a series of articles on this back in 2003, which are also included in my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic. They are The Hand of God, The Hand of God: Miracles, and The Hand of God: Prayer. I recently published a book by Dr. Bruce Epperly, Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles, which also deals with this subject.)