On the terrible August day in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, the daughter of a friend of mine was living in Waveland, Miss., and decided she would ride out the storm at home. After all, she lived a few miles from the water and no storm, at least since Hurricane Camille in 1969, had forced her or her family to flee.
When the wall of storm surge rose so deep that it covered the peak of the roof of her house, the only place she could go was high in the pine trees behind her house. In the urgency of the moment, she escaped into a tree with only the clothes she was wearing and a crucifix. She clung to both for hours.
If you asked her what got her through the horrible, dangerous hours of storm and fury until being rescued, she would tell you she would not have survived the trauma or pain but for believing the Christ who suffered for the world’s sins was now suffering with her. In that spiritual knowledge, she found the physical strength to persevere.
In 1944, JÃ¼rgen Moltmann, to me one of the most important theologians of the last 50 years, was imprisoned in Allied prisoners-of-war camps in Belgium, Scotland and England. Having been drafted into the German army as a boy of 18 years old, he had seen his country collapse under the weight of its sin. His home town of Hamburg lay in ruins. He felt abandoned by God and human beings, “and the hopes of my youth died. I couldn’t see any future ahead of me.”
Into this situation an Allied chaplain put a Bible into his hands. Having come from a secular family, this was the first Bible he had ever had. He began reading without much interest “until I stumbled on the Psalms of lament. Psalm 39 held me spellbound:
I was dumb with silence; I held my peace and my sorrow was stirred.
I have to eat up my suffering within myself.
My lifetime is as nothing in Thy sight.
I am a stranger with Thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.
“They were words of my own heart,” Moltmann said, “and they called my soul to God.”
Later, while reading the Gospel of Mark, he was overwhelmed by the suffering of Jesus on the cross as he was dying in loneliness and distress. For Moltmann, Jesus’ cry of desolation – “My God, why have you forsaken me?” – was his cry, too, and to him it meant he had found in Jesus one who understood him and who would be beside him when everything and everyone else was gone: “I grasped that this Jesus is the divine Brother in our distress. He brings hope to the prisoners and the abandoned. He is the one who delivers us from the guilt that weighs us down and robs us of every kind of future. And I became possessed by a hope when in human terms there was little enough to hope for.”
Both the experiences of my friend’s daughter and Moltmann are important to me. I have not gone through the hurricane or the desperation and danger of war but, as a pastor and friend, I have walked with those who have. Every week, I am with beloved families and friends who are dealing with suffering brought on by illness, grief, disappointment and betrayal. As for myself, I have known times of aloneness, abandonment and dark nights of the soul in times of overwhelming grief or when my children were very ill.
In the depths of inner darkness, I, too, have found hope and found that Hope has a name: Jesus. When I have plumbed the depths, I have found the hope that is the Lord Jesus who suffers with me and who has gone before me, who has suffered to save me and who is waiting always with a warm embrace at the end of my darkness.
As I watch the images of crushing suffering brought on by the earthquake in Haiti, I am remembering these who, in the mystery and paradox of the way God works, found hope in the suffering of God in Jesus. I am remembering, too, as I believe the Lord Jesus’ teachings, that he is with those who suffer and is suffering with them. Indeed, I believe he told us that when we go to the sides of those who suffer and are in distress, we are by his side and we are ministering to Jesus.
This is why I do not doubt that we who take the name “Christian” must help in Haiti and every other place where human beings suffer. I have no doubt that, whatever the cost, Jesus calls us to his side to help. Holding on to Jesus will get people in the worst of circumstances through. Heeding the call of Jesus will bring his people as bearers of hope and healing to the side of those in whom his great love resides.
Whether through prayers, presence, witness or money, the Spirit of God calls on God’s people to help.
Robert W. Guffey Jr. is pastor of First Baptist Church in Conway, S.C., and a board member of the Center of Hope (Haiti) Orphanage in Hinche, Haiti. This column first appeared on his blog at LightReading.org.
Pastor of Freemason Street Baptist Church in Norfolk, Virginia.