On Faith, a Tsunami, and a Caterpillar – Matthew 13:53-58

At the Oregon Christian Writers 2014 spring conference I led the introductory devotional, and though this will make long post, a friend requested I put it here.

“When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there. Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?’ they asked. ‘Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?’ And they took offense at him.
“But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.’”
“And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith” (Matthew 13:53-58 NIV).

When my son Seth was four years old, he spent many hours having Mom all to himself while his brothers were at school. Anything I thought he may have been lacking as the “overlooked third child” we made up for that year. We played with the puppy, explored our neighborhood, visited grandparents, made play-doh, learned the alphabet, and read stories.

used by permission. coolza.stockxchng

used by permission. coolza.stockxchng

On one of our adventures in our neighborhood Seth found a chubby caterpillar and adopted it, naming it Okie da Bokie. He put it in a canning jar and fed it leaves from the garden. He proudly taught it to do tricks, like crawling from one end of his finger to the other. But one afternoon a tear slipped down his cheek as he informed me Okie da Bokie wasn’t eating anymore.

To help him process his feelings, I asked him what he wanted to do about it. He answered that he wanted to pray. So we prayed for the caterpillar.
I tell this story to show that I normally choose to be a loving, compassionate person. In fact, I’ve prayed for thousands of people I’ve never met. Remember the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011?

My reaction led me to scour the internet. I was drawn to every video I could find of waves washing over the Japanese coastline. I played and replayed them, for myself and anyone who came by my desk—images of tidy but deserted streets, sirens and loudspeakers relentlessly issuing their warnings. In the distance dust rises higher, and higher, and in the cloud the silhouettes of buildings on the skyline twist and groan as they’re shoved aside by an invisible giant. Voices gasp, then grieve as the onlookers watch their city destroyed.

In the madness I spot a vehicle racing toward the devastation, instead of away from it. Moments later I see a car rolling to its side with its headlights flashing. The unidentifiable debris in the growing river shoves over a tiny store and claims its roof, wadding it up like paper. It picks up a parking lot full of cars, playing with them like a toddler crashing them into everything and then whisking them away. Wires in the distance spark and ignite.

People back quickly up the hill, camera still running, moaning as their business district goes under. Were they thinking, “Has someone moved grandma from the care home to higher ground? Is my little boy at school huddled safely on the roof?”

I studied before and after aerial photos to realize the impact on the land and its people, moving the slider to do and un-do the disaster right before my eyes.

And I prayed for them, like I’ve never prayed for strangers before. I believed I felt what they were feeling. I wept to think of babies in the rubble, the elderly crushed by their own furniture, and the hundreds, thousands, who were never seen again, washed out to sea. I prayed for salvation, for hope.

I found one video where a United States military helicopter landed with supplies in a small compound– for people who seemed bewildered that Americans came. I thanked God for that helicopter and those soldiers, and for being able to see people alive in the aftermath.

Two years later I was the one who was bewildered—bewildered by my own callousness.

It was in November last year when a mega storm of all mega storms aimed its fury toward the Philippines. The media continually updated projections of damage and loss of life, days ahead of it coming ashore.

But I decided I wouldn’t pray.

My father is a retired firefighter. Because of his experiences, forty years ago I made a commitment to pray whenever I heard a siren. I still do this. What had changed? Why did I chose not to care about the suffering of others this time? It was weird to feel this detached, but I had no desire, no intention to pray for the Filipino people.

I wrote these thoughts in my journal that night:

“Storms, fire, floods, tornadoes—they happen all the time.”
“It doesn’t affect me personally.”
“It won’t change anything if I pray.”
“I can’t be expected to pray about every single storm.”
“It would be different, of course, if I or my family was in danger.”
“I know my attitude is wrong.”
“It’s better it strikes there—than here.”
“The storm will go where it goes. God isn’t going to change it.”

I knew selfishness was at the heart of my thoughts, but there was something more. Was it pride? Had I grown weary with well doing? Was I just being rebellious? How could I be compassionate toward my son’s pet caterpillar and not these suffering people?

The Scripture says that Jesus couldn’t do many miracles in his hometown because of their lack of faith. Where was my faith when it came to the Philippines? I remembered in Luke 8 where Jesus asked his disciples this very thing when they’d feared for their lives, “Where is your faith?”

Where was my faith? Did it roll under the seat in my car? Did I leave it in my pocket and run it through the washing machine? I had no answer.

These two verses speak the most strongly to me right now.

“But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.’”

“And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.”

I don’t want to lack faith. I want Jesus to be free to work his miracles in my home and community. I want to honor him, promote him, in all I do. I want my faith firmly grounded in him. Hoping to restore my normally compassionate heart, I prayed this simple prayer.

Lord, have mercy on the people in the path of the storm. You are God, and you can calm the waves. As you have done before, tell the storm to be at peace and be still. But if you don’t, speak to the hearts that fear so they can trust you and live with you forever. And have mercy on us, O God, when we lose our way. To God whose love never ends, accept my thankful praise. Amen.

By Kathy Sheldon Davis

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