So just over three months after we left Florida, Hurricane Irma hit our old town of Naples dead on.
And they say in comedy “timing’s everything.” Add hurricanes to that too, I guess.
I watched on TV this week as my favorite street in downtown Naples got pummeled. Fifth Avenue had been where I’d hang out, drink coffee, and talk with people about God. It was the street where my theater had been—with so many happy memories onstage and backstage with dear friends.
As I watched the storm on every news channel I could find, I felt both thankful and guilty I wasn’t there anymore. You see, being a pastor is a lot like being a parent. You feel protective of your flock like a father feels for his kids. You want to help them get through the tough things.
But instead of helping them, I sat by the TV all weekend long, watching my former hometown get flooded while the sun shone cheerily outside my window. I sat, prayed, and, generally, felt useless.
While my friends were going through a literal hurricane, I was in the midst of an emotional one. Not at all to minimize their suffering, but I was already in the midst of feeling a little lost when the winds started blowing in my old city.
You see, I was already disoriented from moving across country to St Louis. I’m in a new church with completely different challenges from what I had in Florida. And while I love my new church family, I don’t really know them yet. And that matters. In every family, no matter how good they are, there are some family members you can depend on and some you can’t.
Right now, I don’t know who those people are yet. I don’t know who I can share my heart with, or who will walk away and share my heart with a hundred other people. The fact is no matter how nice people are, you’re essentially alone for at least a while.
You miss family who are further away from you, and you miss your old friends. They were your support system, and now the distance makes things harder. You worry that distance will eventually weaken those friendships, and that makes you grieve harder.
This is exactly the kind of recipe Satan cooks up to get you to start second guessing yourself. But it doesn’t take a hurricane to make you wonder if you missed God. Just a load of guilt, loneliness, and misplaced regret.
And by the way, I’m going to be referring to Satan in a literal sense. Sorry if that throws you off, but I don’t see him at all as just a symbol of the world’s evils. In my life, it is clear someone is pushing just the right buttons in me at exactly the right times to get the worst possible reaction from me.
No, that’s not symbolism. It is strategic, tactical aggression that’s calculated to at least disable me—or ultimately destroy me.
One of Satan’s greatest tools is a completely unfruitful little exercise called regret. He takes scenarios from your past that you can do absolutely nothing about now, and then dangles them in your face, taunting you.
He tempts you to question decisions you made along the way…
“Should I have left and moved so far away from family and friends?”
“What if I was supposed to stay there? What if I missed what God wanted me to do?
“What if I’ll never be as happy here as I was there?”
Of course, he never points out how miserable the past was at times.
Frankly, I hated Florida. I don’t like the beach, and I despised the retirement mentality that saturated our town like the rains of Irma. Florida would never even be habitable if it weren’t for air conditioning, as my old friends are now learning all too well!
But the one thing I truly loved were those friends and church family. They were awesome, because those relationships had been nurtured from years and years of shared experiences together. I don’t have that backstory with these folks where I live now.
Then, add to the regret a pinch of guilt.
I got a phone call the other day from a friend who’d just weathered the storm. They have endured not only power outages, but also house damage and the death of a beloved pet, all while a parent faces terminal illness out of state. They’re hurting and shell-shocked, and all I can do is talk to them on the phone.
I feel like an absolute jerk for leaving, right before a major crisis when I might have been needed most…
As if there were some magical way I was supposed to see into the future.
And as if God didn’t have that ability to see the future and stop me from leaving if that was truly his will.
In Luke 6, several folks start giving Jesus excuses for not obeying and following him. But the Lord has little patience for their second thoughts:
“No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” – Luke 9:62
The truth is that most of us who know Jesus are trying our best to listen to him. Unless we’re in rebellion to him, we’re living our lives as well as we can. Sure, we’re making mistakes along the way, and sometimes even massively screwing up, but nothing he didn’t see coming. And unless we are completely ignoring what God is telling us, we can’t second guess our ability to hear him properly.
In fact, it’s not about how well we hear him, but how well he can speak to us. Right?
In the end, I have to trust that God was able to get it across to me what he wanted me to do. I have to trust that, since I was truly seeking his will, he wouldn’t let me screw up something this major by accident.
A good Father like him would do whatever it took to get his will across to his dim-witted little boy.
On my last trip to Naples, about a month ago, I spent time with an old friend whose mom had recently passed away. I listened as he talked of not only missing her, which was normal, but of nagging regrets.
“I should have called her more.”
“I should have traveled home to see her more frequently.”
“Did she know how much I loved her when she passed?”
These are the questions the devil puts in our heads in moments of weakness. Like a perfect bully, he delights in kicking us when we’re already down. So to our grief, he happily adds regret, enumerating the myriad of things we “shoulda, coulda, woulda” done if we’d only been superhuman and all-knowing.
Tonight, I am determined to listen to the same advice I gave my grieving friend whose mom passed away. I think I’m hearing God telling me:
You did your best.
Give yourself the right to be human and not superman.
Trust you are important enough to God, he wouldn’t let you innocently destroy something important by accident.
And wait. Because healing will come. New friends will come, not replacing the old, but adding to the memories and joy of your life.
Stop listening to the white noise of regret. It accomplishes nothing, and only cripples and delays healing.
Embrace today and trust God for tomorrow. And like the old preacher said, “Stop looking over your shoulder. You’re not going that way.”