THANKSGIVING: Hurricanes shift holiday preaching

NAPLES, Fla. (BP) -- In hurricane-devastated areas of Texas and Florida, Thanksgiving preaching might have been a unique challenge this year at congregations where homes, businesses and church buildings were lost to severe weather.

Yet pastors in Texas, where Hurricane Harvey hit in late August, and Florida, where Hurricane Irma hit in September, say their congregations have overflowed with thanks this fall, and Thanksgiving preaching has turned out to be a unique joy.

"We've been talking about the whole matter of thanksgiving ever since Irma," said Hayes Wicker, pastor of First Baptist Church in Naples, Fla., where homes were destroyed, thousands of trees were damaged and the church building sustained more than $200,000 in roof damage.

For Wicker, the thanksgiving began as he monitored Irma Sept. 10 from a government center, watching radar and real-time reporting.

"I was really praying for God to dissipate that storm surge," Wicker told Baptist Press. "And I literally saw on the radar the eye of the hurricane begin to break up as it passed over the government center [and] move to the east, which [eliminated] the storm surge effect .... It was absolutely amazing."

That experience, combined with testimonies of deliverance from other church members, led to weeks of emphasis on God's power and mercy.

First Baptist's thankfulness was heightened, Wicker said, by numerous ministry opportunities it received during and after the storm, from opening its gym as a shelter for some 150 people to becoming a mobilization center for relief workers in the days to follow. Among groups the church hosted were Southern Baptist Disaster Relief workers, the Salvation Army and Samaritan's Purse.

Wicker diverted from his sermon plan to preach from the Psalms as First Baptist gave thanks, with special emphasis on the statement in Psalm 46 that God is a "stronghold" for His people. The season of thanksgiving, which also included preaching from Acts, culminated in a Sunday evening service Nov. 19 as Wicker preached from the Psalms, the church partook of the Lord's Supper and people shared testimonies of gratefulness to God.

"We have continued to reference how God is our fortress and our stronghold and refuge all throughout the recovery time," Wicker said.

In Orange, Texas, some 30 miles east of Beaumont, where some homes took on more than three feet of water during Harvey, pastor Jeremy Bradshaw of Liberty Baptist Church has found a previously-planned sermon series in Luke 1 providentially applicable.

Because Liberty's two buildings both had six inches of floodwater during Harvey, the congregation met outside for multiple weeks and Bradshaw preached special sermons on grief and crisis. Approximately 75 percent of church members' homes were damaged, Bradshaw said, with some not expected to be fully repaired until February or March.

But within weeks of Harvey, Bradshaw resumed his preaching in Luke 1 and continued through Thanksgiving.

"It's been amazing to see how God has spoken to us through those passages we'd planned to go through anyway," Bradshaw said, "to see God's greatest gift in Jesus Christ and to be reminded of ... how God provides and satisfies all our needs in the Gospel -- seeing how God provided for Mary and Joseph, for Zechariah and Elizabeth."

First Baptist Church in Immokalee, Fla., approximately 40 miles northeast of Naples, has found the Old Testament book of Haggai comforting in a community were some residents lost all they had with little means to repair their homes. Pastor Timothy Pigg completed a previously-planned series on Haggai the week before Thanksgiving.

"The main thrust of [Haggai] is for the people [of Israel] to rise up and to work and be strong in the Lord's strength and to rebuild the temple," Pigg told BP. "So right in the middle of the hurricane, I ... got a chance to challenge our people that God is giving us an opportunity through this disaster for the church to be the church and to rise up and do the work of ministry."

The congregation "responded to that in an unbelievable way," Pigg said, completing 1,300 recovery-related work orders in the community within 52 days in partnership with the North American Mission Board and state Baptist conventions.

Also among First Baptist Immokalee's causes for thanks is a 20-percent increase in worship attendance since Irma and baptisms of new believers who found Christ in the hurricane's wake. The Sunday after Thanksgiving, Pigg said he will focus a special sermon on how to lead a generous, outward-focused life.

In Port Aransas, Texas, a city on Mustang Island due east of Corpus Christi, pastor William Campbell of First Baptist Church has found flexibility and sequential exposition to be keys for post-Harvey preaching. Some of the town's buildings were flooded with up to six feet of water, and 10-15 percent of church members left the area because their homes were unsalvageable.

That led Campbell to preach a special sermon series in September and October on Nehemiah, drawing parallels between the Old Testament leader's rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls and the rebuilding of Port Aransas.

"I had no intention to look at Nehemiah in September and October until the night of the hurricane when I was watching radar and the words of Nehemiah sitting and weeping [over Jerusalem] came to my mind," Campbell said. "I sat and wept and prayed and asked for wisdom in this."

Then "I sensed the Holy Spirit saying,'... The church needs to understand that it's OK to sit and weep, but it's also OK to be determined to [rebuild] and to realize that God has not left us,'" Campbell said.

Leading up to Thanksgiving, Campbell has at times sensed the Holy Spirit's prompting to shift his sermons in response to the hurricane experience as he finished his preparations on Saturday. Weekly he senses God's leading while preaching to make Harvey-related applications.

Two weeks before Thanksgiving, Campbell was still seeking the Lord's guidance on what to preach the holiday weekend. But he was certain any message of thanks would resonate with a grateful congregation.

Since Harvey, Campbell said, public testimonies of thanksgiving during worship services have been "what we are doing on an every-Sunday basis."

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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