From the Resurrection Comes Mercy
by Dave Sarafolean, pastor of Christ Community OPC, Midland, MI
Spring 2020 arrived in a way no one could have foreseen. When government shutdowns began to occur in mid-March due to COVID-19, life changed dramatically. Like many churches, ours—Christ Covenant in Midland, Michigan—was conflicted about the best path forward.
Initially we shut down, then we reopened using an FM radio transmitter to conduct worship in our church parking lot. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion about face coverings, social distancing, and when to resume worshiping the way we did pre-COVID. Neither the elders nor the congregation were united on the best path forward. Shepherding God’s people under such conditions is not easy and can make one despair.
Then, on top of it all, a historic flood hit Midland in the middle of May.
The Fall and Natural Disasters
When Jesus was crucified two thousand years ago, the disciples faced a crisis of much greater magnitude than our flood. Out of that hopeless situation, God did the unexpected by raising Jesus from the dead three days later. Ever since, Christians have celebrated Jesus’s resurrection and properly understood it to be central to our faith. As the Apostle Paul writes, “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:13–14).
Some Reformed theologians categorize redemptive history as having three phases: creation, fall, and redemption. If Jesus’s crucifixion was a consequence of the fall, then his resurrection must be understood as a reversal of the fall and part of the phase of redemption. The Apostle Paul understood Jesus’s resurrection to be a harbinger of what awaits us when our bodies are raised from the dust and reunited with our souls (1 Cor. 15:35–57). This stunning truth points to a restoration and renewal that will occur worldwide, when sin and evil will be purged forever (2 Pet. 3:10–13 and Rev. 21).
Where do natural disasters fit into the rubric of creation, fall, and redemption? Contrary to our age’s popular belief that the wilderness is pristine and pure, the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 8:19–25 that creation, both wilderness and city, is groaning in its current condition. In Genesis 3:17–19, we learn why the creation groans: it is under a curse resulting from Adam’s sin. The text mentions thorns and thistles as obvious manifestations of this curse, but other aspects of life in a fallen world, such as diseases and natural disasters, can also be included.
Redemption and the Work of Deacons
If natural disasters are the result of the fall, then the diaconal work of the church in providing relief is, in a sense, part of reversing the effects of the fall. When disaster strikes, deacons are called upon to bind up the broken-hearted. In so doing, they emulate what Jesus did when he visited Mary and Martha following the death of their brother, Lazarus. Jesus wept, in part, because of their sorrow (John 11:28–35). When disaster strikes, deacons are also called upon to minister to physical needs. They must provide expertise to assess the situation, manpower to clean up the mess, and resources like skilled labor to rebuild.
At times, deacons may also need to minister to spiritual needs. This involves praying with and for those who have suffered loss. Deacons can speak about the sovereignty of God and help believers to affirm God’s goodness, despite their loss. God, the divine vinedresser, uses tragedy to prune the branches of those who are in him to make them more fruitful (John 15).
Diaconal Ministry in Midland
Following the flood in Midland, we experienced all these things firsthand through the OPC Diaconal and Disaster Response ministries.
Even before the floodwaters crested, I received numerous texts, emails, and phone calls from ministers in our presbytery inquiring what their churches could do to help. Soon, Doug Vos, a deacon at Oakland Hills Community Church in Farmington Hills, Michigan, called. He is the chair of our presbytery diaconal committee. Within a few minutes, I learned how the OPC handles disaster response. He became the contact person for everyone who wanted to help. He also notified David Nakhla, coordinator for OPC Diaconal Ministries and OPC Disaster Response, for resources outside our presbytery.
Soon we learned that a trailer full of equipment used for hurricane recovery was on its way. The trailer arrived in town with two deacons from our presbytery who had many years of experience with disaster response. The fact that deacons were among the first to call and first on the scene was not lost on me or our church. Their presence modeled for us that the office of deacon can be broader than the boundaries of one’s local church.
These deacons met with our session and diaconate to explain how OPC Diaconal Ministries and OPC Disaster Response works. Their counsel led our elders and deacons to unanimously agree to embark on disaster response although still unsure how we, with our limited resources, could make much of a difference. That same day, we toured affected neighborhoods in Midland and visited the two families from our church whose homes were flooded. As the deacons assessed each situation, their gentle demeanor and wise counsel brought hope to these families.
A few days later, David Nakhla visited, offering encouragement to the affected families, to our congregation, and to me as the pastor. Under David’s guidance, God put together a team to make disaster response happen. God raised up Sam Phillips, from California, to recruit and schedule trained volunteers. God raised up Mike Greene, retired engineer and project manager and a member of our church, to coordinate volunteers and oversee work at the damaged homes of the two families. My wife, Rhonda, stepped up to coordinate hospitality for volunteers. Our church fellowship hall was converted into a dormitory. Classrooms became private bedrooms. A shower trailer was brought in from Reformed Mission Services, a ministry of the United Reformed Church. OPC Disaster Response volunteers from several states and Ontario came to offer their services. As all this was going on, the work of the church continued. We met regularly for worship. A young couple from church was able to get married. We were even able to have a graveside service for an elderly saint who died just before the flood. Now, several months after the flood, both homes have been completely repaired, and, for both families, life has pretty much returned to normal.
Looking Together Toward Restoration
Two thousand years ago, the disciples were devastated when Jesus died, yet his resurrection and the sending of his Spirit empowered them to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. By the same token, Christ’s resurrection points to the reality of a restored creation that awaits all believers. Mucking out homes and sorting through waterlogged possessions is not glamorous work, but it is necessary. Such labors are just a foretaste of the great restoration that God will accomplish when the new heavens and earth are revealed.
The sheer scope and size of natural disasters can try the faith of even the most stalwart believers. These words from the Apostle Paul put such losses in perspective: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). OPC Diaconal Ministries and OPC Disaster Response testified to this reality, both in word and deed, as they came alongside our church and those who suffered loss to help rebuild what the flood destroyed.
Some readers of New Horizons may know that our church is relatively new to the OPC, having joined in 2017. God used this disaster to strengthen ties with our presbytery and our denomination. OPC Diaconal Ministries and Disaster Response modeled what it means to be part of a connectional church and what it means to point to the great restoration that awaits all God’s children.
The author is pastor of Christ Covenant in Midland, Michigan. New Horizons, April 2021.