Here's the situation: a billion-dollar spacecraft manned by three astronauts is speeding toward the moon when suddenly an oxygen tank in the service module blows up. Stability disintegrates; the craft wobbles dangerously. While its trajectory is restored, the oxygen level drops. As the hours pass, carbon-dioxide buildup from the men's own lungs threatens to poison them. All systems must be shut down to conserve power, but reserves are so low it's doubtful if there will be enough to propel their return to Earth. Back at command center, a worried official succumbs to despair: "This could be the worst disaster NASA's ever faced." The flight director looks him in the eye and says, quite levelly, "With all due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour."
That's a favorite moment of Apollo 13 for fans of the movie: Ed Harris, as flight director Gene Kranz, making a deadpan statement that thrums with all the tension building up to that point. It's a moment when you feel your heart swell, because you know what happens. The heroic effort to save the crew of that doomed spacecraft will succeed. Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert will live to see another day, and the failed mission of Apollo 13 will become a touchstone of American can-do spirit.
I was in a motel room in Oregon on that Sunday night when the storm named Katrina approached the Gulf Coast. I happened to catch a showing of Apollo 13 on the History channel; otherwise Gene Kranz's immortal line wouldn't have been fresh in my memory a few days later, when Katrina was revealing herself to be the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.
What do you think, brothers and sisters? Could this terrible storm one day cause some church historian to write of American Christians, "This was their finest hour"?
Many evangelicals are involved in short-term relief efforts. They are helping displaced people from Louisiana and Mississippi to find shelter and meet basic needs. Other congregations are going further and making long-term commitments to affected individuals and churches. They are giving evacuees the gift of time: time to talk about it, with someone to listen. Time to mend broken connections, find family members, mourn lost friends. Time to consider what to do next. Even time, perhaps, to make a new start in a new community with new friends.
I'm not naïve about human nature: This massive offering of Christian aid to the poor and tempest-tossed is bringing and will bring disappointments as well as successes. Some evacuees are taking and will take advantage. Some are and will be impossible to discipline. Some are repaying and will repay kindness with retribution over imagined slights. But I keep thinking of how it is for others.
Like Joseph Brant, whose story was reported in The Washington Times. After his city became a war zone he made his escape past floating bodies and looting thugs, only to find himself on a northbound road with no place to go. Desperately he stuck out a thumb, and a van stopped to pick him up. Mr. Brant is black. The people in the van were white. During the long and anxious ride to Houston, his lifelong distrust of white people began to crumble. On Sunday, according to the Times, he was praising the Lord. "This thing changed me forever," he told the newspaper. "It was a spiritual experience, man."
Maybe one day there will be thousands like him, who felt the fist of God knock them to their senses. Maybe those who were trapped in bad lives, squalid conditions, false ideologies, are blinking in the sunlight. Maybe they will be able to say, "We went through fire and through water, yet You have brought us out to a place of abundance" (Psalm 66:12). Where else but the Lord's church?
"Behold, I am making all things new." The renewal of all things, it's true, awaits heaven. But we have the keys. What if, some day, thousands look back on that terrible storm of August 2005 and say, "It was the best thing that ever happened to me"?
What do you think? What are you doing? What will you do?