These are perilous times. As I write this article on Friday, New Orleans continues to fill up with water as if it were a large bowl tipped over to take on a strange mixture of soup. The city’s a soup of debris, toxic chemicals, decaying matter, and even dead bodies.
Up the coast to the north and down the coast to the south, her neighbors have experienced the wrath of Katrina’s wind and storm surge, too. Entire communities are gone. Homes, businesses, and dreams have been washed away with the ease of sand castles.
Katrina may end up being the storm of our lifetime [I pray there’s never another like it], the costliest storm in our nation’s history, both in dollars and quite possibly in the number of lives lost. It will be impossible to measure the emotional damage.
However, Katrina is a reminder that great catastrophes can be great opportunities to establish good will and good relationships among nations. We can hope that other nations will reach out to us as they did during 9/11.
Among our own people, Katrina has broken down barriers, literally. A middle class homeless man is just as homeless as a lower class homeless man. In the weeks and months ahead, you will see people come together and there will be much good will shown as there was during 9/11.
On the other hand, Katrina is bringing out some of the worst character in people, too. The lawlessness among the water-filled streets of New Orleans is a grim reminder that the police force is the levee that has kept anarchy from flooding that city, and perhaps most others throughout our country.
It’s a reminder that in many instances laws are not kept because people are good at heart and want to treat others with love and respect. Laws are kept out of a fear of being caught and prosecuted. Without the law as a system of deterrent, in many places we’d need to pack a .38 and take justice into our own hands. Our cities would become an urban Bonanza or Dodge City.
Katrina has humbled us. She has shown us that we can literally have every possession stripped from us in a day. She has shown us that our concerns in life can quickly move from the mundane to the unusual concerns of finding suitable drinking water, a dry place to sleep, and a warm meal.
She has reminded us that if we have our family and our lives we have more than we realize and we should make more of an effort to treat both with dignity and respect, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Katrina has also reminded us that our best plans can be laid to waste. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plan or dream. On the contrary. It does mean we shouldn’t plan or dream arrogantly. It does mean our plans and dreams should include God, for without God, what will our accomplishments count for anyway?
James put it this way: “Look here, you people who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we are going to such and such a town, stay there a year, and open up a profitable business.’ How do you know what is going to happen tomorrow? For the length of your lives is as uncertain as the morning fog–now you see it; soon it is gone. What you ought to say is, ‘If the Lord wants us to, we shall live and do this or that.’ Otherwise you will be bragging about your own plans, and such self-confidence never pleases God.” (James 4:13-16, Living Bible)
All who were in the Katrina’s wake should understand the importance of James’ question a little better: “How do you know what will happen tomorrow?”
We’ve been taught that if we fail to plan we plan to fail, but we should also be taught that if we plan without God, then even if our plans succeed we fail anyway. If we plan with no thought of God and do not consult God with any of our plans, we should expect at some point in our lives to be humbled.
This is not to say that God sends storms like these to humble us. But if being humbled is a by-product of this storm and it causes Americans to rethink our values, rework our priorities, and make God a more integrated part of our daily lives, then maybe all has not gone with the wind.
Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. His column appears in The Moultrie Observer.