The Black Sheep Diaries: God on a Billboard
- Friday, December 03, 2004
Not long ago I saw a headline that flashed me back to the Southeast's upheaval of just a few months prior. The headline read simply "Atlantic Hurricane Season 2004 Ends." Coming on the heels of a summer that brought four straight 'canes in a row, the words seemed a mocking understatement - or a wry twist of humor, depending on your perspective. As strange as it sounds, for me the headline also proved to be an unlikely reminder of God's grace. Let me explain.
During the worst of the onslaught, a savvy photographer captured a picture of a storm-ravaged roadway with a tattered billboard whose slogan managed to stay intact. The bold, block letters against a plain white backdrop read, "Don't make me come down there. -God." The photographer's insight gelled with what many weather-weary souls were thinking right then. I remember remarking to a group of friends online, "Boy, is God angry with us Floridians or what?" Although meant to be tongue-in-cheek, I'd by lying if I said there wasn't a shred of conviction in my comment. Deep inside I wondered. Was God pouring out His wrath, or was this just a fluke of nature?
The message of the billboard, part of a nationwide campaign to make people stop and think about God, surely found its mark. Whenever I watched television news of the hurricanes' devastation, I did indeed think about God. The usual questions about human suffering trickled down through my mind, settling somewhere deep in my soul. And at first God seemed silent.
It wasn't long, however, before I started to hear His whispers in my spirit, that still small voice the Bible speaks of. The whispers reminded me of God's provision and comfort when hard winds blow, literally and figuratively. God, after all, has more compassion for human suffering than any of us humans ever will. Flipping to an Old Testament book in my Bible, I even found irony in the description of how Elijah encountered God during his flight from Queen Jezebel: "And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out..." (1 Kings 19:11-13a KJV).
In the few months since the last hurricane ripped through the Southeast, I've thought a lot about that billboard. Whoever penned the words for the ad campaign may well have intended to "put the fear of God" in people, light a fire under our complacent rear ends. But now I find myself hoping the words spark the opposite reaction. I hope people hear instead the still small voice of God calling their names as they drive down the road, making their way toward home or work or the grocery store.
I suspect far fewer people are scared into the kingdom of God than those who are compelled by love. Yet, ironically, for many of us it's easier to imagine a harsh, punitive God than a loving Father. The harsh God delights in judging sinners and sending whirlwinds to devastate their selfish plans, but the God we see in Scripture - expressed in Father, Son and Holy Spirit - is full of compassion and patience beyond human understanding.
God often uses upheaval to awaken us to His true nature, it seems-that is, His overwhelming love and grace. Six years ago, while caught in the clutches of an unhealthy church, I was fed a steady diet of legalism and "God as judge of the earth." At Bible studies we whipped ourselves into a spiritual fervor talking about how Jesus died to save the world, and by golly we were going to go out and get people saved if we had to die trying. The only problem was that, as the weeks turned into months and then years, I started feeling wretched about the whole process. Instead of responding to our Bible thumping, most people slunk away, or found a sudden excuse for why they needed to be somewhere else, or got all up in our faces (who could blame them?).
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