By Elijah Lovejoy
Following Hurricane Florence and the rise of the Cape Fear River, our congregation checked on one other and our neighbors. A few shingles were missing. Trees were down but most felt we had dodged the worst. From news reports, the same was not true in Lumberton. I decided to pay Lumberton a visit.
According to CNN, Lumberton received 22.76 inches of rain during Florence, only 4 inches less than the 26.58 inches that fell in Wilmington. Greg Riggs, the N.C. Baptist Men's Disaster Relief Team Leader, who also led Hurricane Matthew recovery efforts in Lumberton, said the high-water mark in downtown Lumberton from Hurricane Florence was two feet higher than the high-water mark reached after Matthew. Florence was far worse in scope and volume for Lumberton than was Matthew.
As I navigated the blocked streets of Lumberton and talked to hurricane relief volunteers, I was amazed how many Christian organizations ran toward the disaster on a volunteer basis. People mostly in their 50s, 60s and 70s, presumably retired, were serving meals, sanitizing utensils, answering phones, running administrative offices and heading out to damaged homes with chainsaws and muck-out tools. Whether the organizations name was the N.C. Baptist Men, the Red Cross or Samaritan’s Purse in the eastern part of the state, each organization had a historic or present Christian mission associated with its name.
This has not always been the case. Throughout history, people have not customarily run toward disaster to serve and comfort the suffering on a volunteer basis with no expectation of compensation. Often people have done the opposite when disaster strikes. Writing in 260 A.D., when plague had wiped out one-quarter to one-third of the Roman Empire, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, Egypt, made the following observation, “At the first onset of the disease, they (non-Christians in Alexandria) pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.”
Then Bishop Dionysius notes the following about Christians during the same plague. “Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.”
Why would Christian relief workers volunteer their time, energy and retirement to sleep on uncomfortable cots, work in the hot sun and clean out the flooded homes of people they don’t know? Going back 1750 years to the second major plague of the Roman Empire, why would Christians take care of the sick, knowing they would likely die and yet joyfully take on this responsibility? Even the non-Christian Emperor Julian complained to one of his Roman pagan priests around 360 A.D., “It is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans (Christians) support our poor in addition to their own,” recognizing the extraordinary care Christians voluntarily offered to other Christians as well as non-Christians.
To answer these questions, we must look to Jesus himself. He voluntarily came to earth, ran into danger and exposed himself to people he knew would kill him. He didn’t do this for himself, but for us. He didn’t do this under compulsion or fear, but thoughtfully, intentionally and with joyful expectation (Hebrews 12:2). His joyful expectation was resurrection – his and ours. Regardless of the worst Satan and the world could bring, his Heavenly Father would raise him from the dead, along with all who were baptized into his death and resurrection.
As familiar as this story may sound in the South, it is a story that transformed the world. Whether it is the creation of hospitals, orphanages, schools or disaster relief organizations, Christians are people who run toward need and even disaster, just as our Savior ran toward us when we were in need. Life on earth during times of peace and disaster would be very different without a Savior named Jesus who ran toward the cross.
A number of years ago I faced a daunting situation that caused me much fear. I did everything in my power to avoid the disaster I sensed looming. Regardless of my best efforts, the disaster occurred anyway. In the aftermath, I found myself wondering what to do and where to go with life and faith. Looking again at the life of Jesus, I noticed he ran toward the disaster of the cross, in anticipation of resurrection. What if, instead of fearing inevitable failures, sufferings and deaths that come my way, I ran toward them humbly like Jesus, anticipating resurrection (2 Corinthians 4:10)? In retrospect, I feared disaster and death because I believed no better life could exist than the one I had created for myself. I didn't believe in resurrection – Jesus’ power to raise me from death, failure and disaster both in this life and the life to come.
You may be a community recovering from a hurricane disaster or an individual reeling after a storm of life. Regardless, Jesus’ way of life brings a new reality into the world. Christians run toward disaster. Resurrection is coming.
Elijah Lovejoy is the pastor of Resurrection Church in Hope Mills.