A Letter From a Florida Pastor to His Displaced Congregation After Ian: ‘Sanibel Community Church Still Stands’
Editor’s Note: Pastor Jeramie Rinne of Sanibel Community Church in Sanibel, Florida, (Sanibel Island) last Sunday wrote a letter to his congregation, which has been displaced after Hurricane Ian. Here’s what he had to say to his church family.
Dear Sanibel Church Family,
It’s Sunday morning, Oct 2, 4:30 am. I’m writing this from a hotel bathroom so as not to wake my wife. I couldn’t have imagined a week ago that this is where I would be today.
Normally on a Sunday morning, I would be waking up around 5:30 am or so and head out for a beach walk with my poodle to pray and think through the sermon I had spent all week preparing. This Sunday in particular would have been the beginning of a new sermon series in Daniel, followed by the Lord’s Supper in our last one-service gathering.
But instead, I’m sitting in a hotel bathroom.
I don’t have a house. My earthly possessions can now fit in my truck. I can’t go to my favorite beach. I have no idea when I will preach again in my pulpit on Sanibel to my beloved congregation. And no, I didn’t get around to studying Daniel much this week.
Where are you this morning?
Some of you are also in hotels on the east coast. Some are staying with family and friends, wondering how long the arrangement will work. Others are up north watching this disaster from a distance, filled with more questions than answers, and plagued by a vexing sense of helplessness. Some are in the Ft Myers area without power or internet or consistent cell service. They can’t even read this email. Some are stuck in shelters at Shell Point because the storm surge wiped out most of the cars there. Some … I don’t know where they are.
Is it sinking in yet or are you still in shock? The feelings and thoughts come in waves.
I haven’t had much time or capacity to reflect on the events of the past week. Most of my mental energy has been spent on trying to coordinate efforts, solve problems and find people. But this morning, sitting in my bathroom office unable to sleep, I find myself in a rare moment of contemplation. I’m thinking about Psalm 46:
God is our refuge and strength,
a helper who is always found in times of trouble.
Therefore we will not be afraid though the earth trembles
and the mountains topple into the depth of the sea,
though the water roars and foams
and the mountains quake with it turmoil.
The Psalmist meant the roaring sea as a metaphor for turmoil and danger, particularly the danger of hostile nations around Israel. But this week we saw the literal referent for that metaphor. We saw the sea rise up and swallow homes, cars, bridges and lives. The storm cut the causeway islands in half. The incredible power of the sea flung boats and cars all over Iona. Ft Myers beach is completely devastated.
The Psalm describes an earth-shattering ocean storm. These verses will never again be an abstraction for us.
Yet we must not forget how the Psalm begins. “God is our refuge and strength, a helper who is always found in times of trouble.” God is our refuge. No storm touches God. God needs no insurance policy because he reigns above the flood. He is the only safe place. God is our strength. God never loses power or fuel. The Lord doesn’t feel anxious or perturbed and has no troubled thoughts about the future. Our heavenly Father is not passing through phases of shock, grief and despair. The Triune God dwells in perfect peace, joy and delight at all times. He is not exhausted or depleted. A helper who is always found. Unlike us, our God is not helpless. He isn’t stuck watching the news, imagining himself renting a boat so he can sneak onto the island and do something. He is our helper who is always found in times of trouble. Trouble comes and goes. Hurricanes pass. But our Helper never changes or leaves us. Even when our future is uncertain and our lives have been completely overturned, we know these things about God. He is almighty, he is eternal and he loves us.
No wonder the Psalmist can look into the tempest and say “Therefore we will not be afraid.” The psalmist is not in denial about the power of the storm. Rather he beholds the greatness and power and loving-kindness of our Lord toward us. God is infinitely willing and able to help his storm-tossed people. The fury of hurricane Ian is a gentle breeze compared to the might of our Savior God.
And if the Psalmist knew these things about the Lord, how much more should we who live in light of the cross. Our Lord Jesus has rendered the ultimate aid. He bore the terrifying storm of God’s wrath to save us from our sins. The cross is our refuge. Jesus is our strength. He is risen and ever present to help us. Let us go to his throne boldly for mercy and grace.
This faith in the Lord as our refuge, strength, and help gives us an internal strength that stands in stark contrast to the chaos of the storm:
There is a river — its streams delight the city of God,
the holy dwelling place of the Most High.
God is within her, she will not be toppled,
God will help her when the morning dawns.
Yes, there is a raging ocean. But remember there is also a river. From our Lord flows peace and life. We have been shaken but because the Lord is within us, we will not topple.
Look to the Lord brothers and sisters. We won’t topple. We won’t collapse. Sanibel Community Church still stands — and I’m not talking about the building on Periwinkle.
And this stream isn’t just for us. The Lord wants his living waters to flow out of our lives into the lives of others. I bet even in the pain and confusion of this past week, the thought has crossed your mind, “How will the Lord use this to advance the gospel and display his glory?” Keep asking that question. Turn it into a prayer.
God’s calling on his people to be salt and light and to bear witness to Jesus has not changed. Our mission remains intact. We are still here to multiply maturing disciples of Jesus and healthy churches for the glory of God and the good of the world. All that has changed are the circumstances and contexts where God is calling our congregation to execute that mission.
On Wednesday as the storm raged, I was sitting in a mall in Boca Raton trying to get internet. One of the stores had a TV with news coverage of the storm. Starved for information I walked over to watch with a few others. We started talking and I told them I was a Sanibel refugee. The strangers around me stood in shock as I described what little I knew was happening on Sanibel, Captive and Ft Myers.
The conversation ended, and I returned to my computer. A few minutes later one of the store employees came over and said, “I’m sorry but I just have to ask. Why are you so calm? You’re losing everything and yet you seem so nonchalant.” It was a funny question because I didn’t feel calm or nonchalant. Yet that’s what he perceived.
So I started to explain, “Well, I’m a Christian, and I pastor a church…” I didn’t get to finish my sentence. His face lit up and he said, “Of course! You have God. I got it! It all makes sense.” And he walked away smiling.
I bet there are lots of conversations like that waiting for us in the coming weeks and months.
I pray today that wherever you are, you may take time to sit beside the river of God and be filled with his peace. And then take his Word, his gospel, and his love to a helpless and hopeless world that’s still sinking.
Love in Christ,