“Leave God … out of discussion about Haiti” stated the second-page headline in Kathleen Parker’s syndicated column. She was reacting, of course, to public comments by TV evangelist Pat Robertson, who connected the earthquake in Haiti to the wrath of God and the curse of Satan.
Both of these comments leave unsaid the proper role of the preacher in the midst of a terrifying natural disaster.
First and foremost, a preacher is a member of the human community and is therefore also at the mercy of nature. Wind, fire, water and quake have, for millennia, devastated the natural and human communities. I visited Yellowstone National Park a few years after a fire destroyed much of the vegetation and some of the animal life of the park. It was sad.
Sadder by far is the earthquake that struck our hemisphere’s poorest people. Perhaps as many as 200,000 perished; millions are left without food, water, shelter and medical attention. It is a tragedy that dwarfs Yellowstone, 9/11 and the economic collapse – combined.
A preacher, as a human being, must be filled with compassion and energized by courage. The compassion will lead him or her to forsake normal routines of living and giving to invest in the assistance to Haiti. Many preachers, including some American preachers, were among those killed in the quake. Likewise, many preachers must be among those who volunteer time, labor, money and leadership to the recovery of our neighbors and the renewal of their land.
A preacher is also the public leader of a community of faith. In such a time, the preacher must lead in prayer, must call attention to the plight of others, must help those of us who whine about insignificant things to repent of such narcissistic behavior and take to heart the real tragedy of the world. A preacher must help us put things in proper perspective, must call us to deny ourselves and our petty preferences and give ourselves to the wider, nobler good of caring for people. If a preacher can arouse the listening congregation to such behavior, the work of the gospel will be advanced.
A preacher can take the words of Jesus and make of them the words for today. Jesus said, “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.” Neither the water of life nor the drought of death conveys the judgment of God; these are simply the fates of humans living on planet earth. The sun shines on us when we are at our most wicked; the quake rumbles even among the righteous. Regardless of external circumstances, personal or public, a preacher calls us to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.”
A gospel preacher calls upon us all to recognize the fragility of life. We may have no more days to live; today may be the last day. Repent, therefore, of selfish and worldly living, centered upon our own pleasure and preferences; this is the call of the gospel preacher. Live for God, the preacher reminds us: feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger and carry water to the thirsty. Or in the words of the apostle: hate what is evil, hold fast to the good, rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer, be generous to the needy, practice hospitality. In other words, be like Jesus.
Finally, the gospel preacher holds forth a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, wherein the river of life flows for the well-being of all and the tree of life blossoms for the healing of the nations. In that promised land, economic and political tyrants will not steal from the people the inalienable rights of life, liberty and happiness, and the four horsemen of the apocalypse (conquest, war, famine and death) will stable their evil horses and ride the earth no more. This is the hope of the gospel, and this is the gospel that we preach.
There is much work for the preacher in a time of turmoil; there is a time to invoke the God who made the heavens and the earth, the son of God who also suffered an early and unjust death, and the spirit of God that is able to lift us toward a life of steadfast faith, righteous deeds and eternal reward.
Preach the gospel, in season and out, so said the apostle. This is the season for gospel preaching.
Dwight Moody is a writer, preacher and professor living in Lexington, Ky. This column appeared previously on his blog.