Counting blessings in a storm-ravaged community.
Most Sundays my wife, Nancy, and I listen to a church sermon via the Internet. Typically we tune in to a local church's webcast, but on Sundays when for whatever reason the feed doesn't work, we jump to the podcast provided by the Christian Church in Washington, Ill.
Why tune in to a message provided by a church some three hours drive from here? It's the church that my oldest son, Caleb, attends. Plus, on the Sundays when we've joined Caleb in worship there we've found the congregation to be full of friendly people and have heard a message that was Bible-based and soul-feeding.
Last Sunday, after firing up our computer Nancy found the Washington Christian Church's website. The message had just started when I walked over to the computer monitor to check when the message we were listening to was delivered. The date was Nov. 17, 2013.
If you're like me, you can hardly remember what you did a few days earlier, let alone a few weeks ago. But the third Sunday of November in 2013 won't soon be forgotten by the people in that northern Illinois community, located just east of Peoria. That was the Sunday when an EF-4 tornado dropped out of the sky in that city, which is only a bit smaller in population than Hannibal. Before dissipating, the approximately one-half mile wide twister had left a roughly five-mile long path of destruction.
The reason I was curious about the sermon's date was because there was no mention of the storm. As it turned out, the message was delivered during the church's early service, less than two hours before the storm struck. The topic of the pre-Thanksgiving message heard that Sunday by the congregation had to do with blessings.
Did the focus of that day's message by Pastor Jeff Browning stem from divine guidance? Was it God's intent to encourage members of the church, some of whom would soon be looking into the face of devastation, to be aware that His blessings extended beyond possessions? Or was it simply a cruel twist of irony that people about to lose so much would be asked to take stock of their blessings? I'll leave that to you to mull over.
During his message, Pastor Browning spoke about the blessings that God's people have received, are receiving and will receive during the time they have remaining in this world and in the after-life.
Pastor Browning also spoke about the importance for God's people to not just accept His blessings, but to be a blessing to others. With the Christmas season approaching, he challenged those in attendance to cut into what they will be spending on family and friends, and use it to be a true blessing.
Pastor Browning noted some of the opportunities that exist to be a blessing to people far away. However, he also encouraged members of the congregation to be on the lookout for ways to help families just down the block. It was a timely call to service in a community which would soon have so many people with needs.
Before concluding his message, Pastor Browning asked for song books to be opened to an old hymn – "Count Your Blessings." Published by Johnson Oatman Jr. in 1897, the song offers words of encouragement to those facing life's storms, both EF-4 tornadoes and personal "storms" which seem every bit as powerful.
"When upon life's billows you are tempest-tossed,
"When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
"Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
"And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done."
"So, amid the conflict whether great or small,
"Do not be discouraged, God is over all;
"Count your many blessings, angels will attend,
"Help and comfort give you to your journey's end."