Churches across Moore, Okla., have transformed into disaster relief centers this week — the area is, after all, about as Bible Belt as America gets. The city website lists over 80 churches, and nearly a third are Baptist. Church after church has turned sanctuary into donation drop-off site, and lobby into insurance filing center or food bank. This Sunday, pastors are offering another type of assistance, one intended to feed the soul: preaching.
Pastor Ted Miller of Crossroads Church has led his 1,500-member church for only one year, and this is his first time pastoring a community though a tragedy of such magnitude. While none of his immediate church members lost their lives, all have walked through the valley of the shadow of death this week. Many families had children at Plaza Towers Elementary and faced the traumatic reality of little ones missing. Thirty-two families in his congregation suffered total or significant property loss.
Miller’s main Sunday message is to remind parishioners that the tornado’s May 20 destruction was not God’s judgment. Equating natural destruction with God’s plan can be a dangerous theological path to tread — God is not mad, he says, but rather the opposite is true. God comforts people in the midst of their grief. “God is our refuge and strength, our ever-present help in trouble, therefore we will not fear though the Earth should change and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,” he says, quoting Psalm 46. Miller also points to the New Testament book of Romans, in which the Apostle Paul tells of the Earth’s groanings. “The earth groans, weather patterns change, they come and go with climate changes,” Miller explains. “A natural disaster and an act of God are not the same thing.”
Miller has many stories of hope to share. Miracle after miracle happened last Monday, and the loss of life, while tragic, could have been far more widespread. There’s the man in his congregation who raced home to awaken his sleeping wife and warn her of the storm’s approach. They rode out the tornado in a closet. Another boy broke out of locked-down South Moore High School and ran two miles to Plaza Towers to try to find his little sister. He dug through the rubble until he pulled her out alive.
Rubén Cabrera is a teaching pastor at Iglesia Bautista de Quail Springs, a Latino church in Oklahoma City that has also been assisting with Moore’s recovery efforts. Their sister church, Ciudad de Dios, is located just half a mile from Plaza Towers. Cabrera had planned his sermon topic before the tornado hit, and it could not be more timely. “We read the Bible chapter by chapter, and this Sunday’s portion of the Scriptures is Luke 12:13-21, which talks about possessions and what our attitude should be toward material things,” he explains. “It is strange and it is by providence — I do not think it is coincidence.”
Material possessions can be blessings, he says, but they can become idols if people hold to them too tightly. That does not mean the church is not providing for people’s basic needs — pastors and volunteers have been working 20-hr. stretches, from 7:00 AM until 3:00 AM, to make sure people receive the clothes, food, and shelter they need. But Cabrera’s message is about the attitude of the heart. “The encouragement to the church is to put our trust in God because material things can be gone,” he says. “Where your treasure is, that is where your heart is.”
It is a message that Americans across the country can embrace as they remember the people of Oklahoma from their own pews. Even if the tornado and its victims aren’t explicitly mentioned, Moore’s theological messages will likely be present. After all, worshippers across traditions and throughout the country will likely be singing the old familiar hymns: “O God our help in ages past, our hope in years to come,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” and, the ever-poignant, “Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.”