Pleased to Be Crushed: One Houstonian Reflects One Year After Hurricane Harvey

Pleased to Be Crushed: One Houstonian Reflects One Year After Hurricane Harvey

Sunrise over Houston Northwest Church campus about a week after Hurricane Harvey.

Things happen. Sometimes, they are bad.

A year ago, the church I pastor was flooded by Hurricane Harvey. And, a year later, I’m finally beginning to understand what happened to me as a result.

I used to love storms. I went to college in West Texas, and I loved sitting on the porch of my apartment as the thunderheads would dramatically roil in off the Panhandle plains. Now those same sort of clouds give me mild anxiety attacks. They aren’t debilitating; I’m able to function. But I feel the nervousness rising up within me each time I hear thunder.

The Bible tells the story of a man named Peter who chose to become a follower of Jesus. Peter was bold and outspoken — the natural leader among Jesus’ inner circle. But at a crucial moment — as Jesus was on trial — Peter pretended as if he had never met Jesus — fearful of what others might do to him if he admitted to being Jesus’ friend. He lied to save his own skin.

The Bible says that he stood warming himself over a charcoal fire as he boldly lied.

After Jesus’ resurrection, the Bible says that Jesus came to visit Peter. As Peter neared Jesus, he found that Jesus was making breakfast — over a charcoal fire.

The literary significance cannot be overstated. The Greek term for “charcoal fire” is only used twice in the entire Bible — once when Peter denies knowing Jesus and again when Jesus meets up with him after his resurrection. The words connect the two episodes.

The text is clear: Jesus is reminding Peter of his weakest moment.

As Peter saw that charcoal fire, I’m certain he was crushed. He was reminded of his weakest moment, his greatest failing.

And Jesus led him right to it.

Our church campus had never flooded prior to Harvey. For 44 years she had weathered all sorts of storms, faithfully serving her community when needed. But on August 27, 2017, water entered her doors to almost unimaginable heights. Our church campus is 40 acres or so, with a slight incline running towards a county watershed that serves as a sort of tributary off of Cypress Creek — one of Houston’s eight major waterways. Which meant the water was deeper the further back one would go on our property.

Our auditorium stayed dry.

In our offices the water was three feet deep.

In our kids building the water was four feet deep.

In our student building the water was six feet deep.

Towards the back of the property near the watershed? Hard to know, but probably about eight feet deep.

Kids check-in area at Houston Northwest Church after water began to recede, August 28, 2017
Houston Northwest Church campus after water began to recede, August 28, 2017

As we waited for the water to recede off our campus, we mobilized almost immediately to serve our neighbors. We began serving on search and rescue teams with trucks and boats. We sent teams to “mud-out” houses in the surrounding neighborhoods. We opened a hurricane relief center on our parking lot. We worked almost around the clock. Sleep was rare; phone calls were unceasing; supply chains were created; adrenaline was flowing.

We worked as a hurricane relief center almost around the clock from the first day we could get our congregation into the auditorium (Wednesday, August 29th) until October 31.

The people of Houston Northwwest Church gather to serve Harvey victims, August 29, 2017.

“Steve, you need to come take a look at this.”

I hopped from my chair, grabbed my phone and backpack, and followed one of my team members into our kids building. He walked me to one of the outer walls of the large room we used each morning to gather our kids. He pointed upwards.

“See that?”

I did. The outer brick wall had moved out from under the roofline and had detached from the joists. But that wasn’t all. The sill plate of the building had apparently been damaged over years and years of previous Gulf Coast rains. And the mud-out teams had discovered all sorts of damage to the interior beams.

The building was structurally unsound. Harvey had been the last straw.

We no longer had a kids building.

Our church has a rich history of ministering to children in our community. She was started as a bus ministry to kids in the area in 1973. Over the years the ministry had grown to the point that every Sunday hundreds of kids would show up to learn about Jesus, sing songs, and play together. On top of that, we hosted a vibrant two-day Mother’s Day Out program for stay-at-home moms who wanted a place for their preschoolers to begin learning.

Just like that, we had no place to do those things.

Just like that, it was gone.

We were forced to raze the kids building, which, by extension, affected our adult building; the two were connected. As we tore down the kids building, it left our adult building and offices exposed to the elements (along with being gutted from the mud-out process). We suddenly had no kids space, no office space, no adult classroom space — and the road to recovery was no longer able to be measured in weeks.

It was looking like years.

I’m a Type A personality. I don’t like to lose. I work really hard. And I strive for excellence. I’ve failed in my life, to be sure. But I’ve been blessed to see many more “up and to the right” moments in life than those moving down.

Suddenly I was leading a struggling church.

Almost immediately after destruction of the kids building, our Sunday morning attendance dropped by 20%. It made sense; young families want a place to take their kids, and we didn’t have that. But it didn’t make things any easier. Fewer people in a church means lots of things: fewer volunteers to serve in critical areas, fewer people means less energy in the room; fewer people means fewer potential givers.

Yes, we had a plan to come back. Yes, we made a makeshift space as quickly as we could.

But people left anyway. They said, “We’ll be back when you get your new building done,” or, “We weren’t really committed here anyway, so this is a good time to go,” or they would just leave, quietly, without saying anything.

It didn’t matter what they said.

It hurt just the same.

One of my favorite encouragers, Beth Moore, letting us know that she was with us when things were low.

The day we were cleaning out the building for the first time after Harvey, my father-in-law called my wife. My mother-in-law was exhibiting the signs of a stroke, and he was taking her to the hospital. My wife got in her car and drove to Dallas.

She didn’t return for a month — only after her mom had died.

About that same time, my oldest son was broadsided by another driver. His car was totalled.

Right after that my car finally gave up the ghost (at a healthy 280,000+ miles).

The church was floundering, our family was grieving, and our finances were taking a beating.

And I was exhausted.

In the middle of life treating you like a punching bag, you rarely have the luxury of stopping.

And so I kept going.

Eventually, our attendance leveled out. Some new families began to attend. We were nowhere near our pre-Harvey attendance, but we had come through the worst of it, it seemed.

We continued to do ministry in the community, both with Harvey victims and those with other needs.

We buried my mother-in-law and began the process of walking through the death of a loved one.

A family in our church graciously gave us one of their older vehicles, and we saved enough to replace the one that had been wrecked.

Our church began to give generously so that we could rebuild.

We met with architects and contractors to begin the slow process of repairing our facilities.

We were slowly on the path to healing.

The first anxiety attack happened when I was driving.

The weather in the immediate wake of Harvey was uncannily calm. The temperatures were cool for Houston in that time of year. We went several days without any sort of rain, which, on the Gulf Coast in August, is a rareity.

When the first storm moved in a couple of weeks after Harvey, I was in my car. Almost immediately, I was anxious. My first thought was ridiculous: “What if we flood again?” I knew it was ridiculous. We had literally experienced the most rainfall in the history of the United States in a single recorded event — 51 inches over three days — and it took a perfectly organized storm to make that happen. A pop-up thunderstorm simply wasn’t capable of doing that. Nevertheless, the ridiculous thought entered my mind. And then it stayed there. And then my heart began beating rapidly. And then I started to sweat. I put the car in park and sat in the church parking lot until it passed.

It passed. But it would return several times — almost always when it would rain. Or when we faced a massive decision at church regarding construction. Or when we had our normal meetings to discuss progress at church.

Every event that reminded me of Harvey put me face-to-face with my brokenness.

And I was anxious.

Just recently — almost a year after Harvey — one of my church members who is a medical professional told me I probably had mild PTSD. She didn’t say it dramatically. It was matter-of-fact. And I think she is right. It made sense then, and it still does now. The anxiety, the triggering events — they all point to some sort of trauma.

Harvey did a number on me.

In some ways, it broke me.

When Jesus brings Peter to the charcoal fire, he asks him a pointed question:

“Do you love me?”

Jesus asks Peter the question three times — one for each time that Peter lied about knowing Jesus.

Jesus takes Peter face-to-face with his greatest failure.

But then — surprisingly — he does not leave Peter at failure. He reverses that failure into commissioning. He takes the liar and the coward and asks him to do ministry in his name.

“Feed my sheep,” Jesus says to Peter.

In a single moment, Jesus recognizes Peter’s historic betrayal and deep brokenness and almost simultaneously charges him to lead the newly-birthed church.

From coward to commissioned in less than a minute.

That’s how Jesus works — even with the broken.

My problem, specifically, is that I don’t like to be reminded of my weakness. I especially do not want to be broken. I like my comfortable successes; I like my life to continue on its predictable path.

Harvey was jarring because it seems that God brought me to a church at the same time He would flood the church. He brought me to a city to be broken.

I am more convinced now than I have been in the last year that the best days of my church are ahead of her. We will emerge from this disaster at some point in the future with an even better understanding of who we are, and we will do great ministry in our community — better than we ever have.

But I will still have anxiety attacks when it rains. Or I think I will.

How does that happen?

It happens, I think, because God is not above using one of his people — or two of them or dozens of them or hundreds or thousands — to accomplish His purposes.

He will crush us to get His work done, because we have said to ourselves, and to the world, that His work is more important that we are. Jesus, we say, is more important that me.

It’s a great motto. But it is painful to live.

The Bible, however, says the same thing about Jesus himself. The prophet Isaiah spoke of Jesus, “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him,” (Isaiah 53:10).

If God would crush his own Son out of love for the world, would God crush me, too? If I had surrendered to Jesus, declaring that I wanted the world to know God’s love, would God allow such pain to enter my life? Would I walk with a spiritual limp the rest of my days? Would God choose that I tremble every time it rained? Would God allow me to be broken by His hand so that our church might show His love to our community in the midst of disaster?

In short, yes.

That’s the story of the Christian. We take the likeness of Jesus, and we agree to follow Him. Often is beautiful. Other times, it is terrible. Sometimes, it is more than we think we can bear.

But if Jesus took Peter the Coward and made him into Peter the Commissioned, what does that mean for me? For you?

I think it means that he continues to redeem, to rescue. He continues to pour out His grace in the middle of our brokenness, our anxiousness, our obsession with success.

And when he pours it out, he turns our brokenness into something that is attractive to the world — to those who resist being broken at ever turn. And, somehow, gloriously, it makes those who resist brokenness, interested in this Jesus of Nazareth.

If my brokenness means that others see Jesus more clearly, how could I decline the honor? How could I cry out, “Not me, Lord! Not now.”?

I cannot.

Instead, I must embrace the moment — for such a time as this, as Esther says — and decide that I, too, am pleased to be crushed.