As I type, my former hometown of Houston is in extreme flooding situations as a result of Hurricane Harvey. And everyone says things are about to get much worse. As is generally the case, people in pain reach out for a face to put on their dartboard of blame. For many, the "winner" is Joel Osteen, pastor of the Lakewood Church. As of 10:45 a.m. on August 29, 2017, the official position is that "his church" cannot be used as a shelter because of flood conditions. (Comments on the proper use of the word “church” and an explanation as to whom the “church” truly pertains will have to wait.) Twitter is full (I almost said "swimming," but good taste prevailed) of people who are not satisfied with Osteen's explanation.
As is usually the case in controversial matters that are none of my business, the truth is difficult to gauge. At the time of this writing, traffic websites show the streets around Lakewood Church to be open and relatively water-free; the same goes for the nearby freeways that most of Houston would use to reach the facility. One vlogger broadcast the relatively normal conditions outside Lakewood, claiming to have walked three miles through the rain to do so. No word on the state of the underground parking garage. No definitive word as to whether posted photos of a flooded Lakewood are legitimate -- or if they are, whether conditions have improved.
The building currently known as Lakewood Church has special meaning for me. It is where I watched my first (and, probably, only) professional basketball game. It is where I first saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform live. I can personally testify to some of the logistics. Specifically, it's big. Really big. Supposedly it seats 43,500 congregants every Sunday, and I believe it. If you are following the crisis, you know providing refuge for 43,500 evacuees will not fix the problem. But clearly it would help. A lot. And it seems, Osteen will refrain.
The easy thing -- especially for those who think Osteen to be a false prophet and charlatan, only interested in fame and fortune -- is to tag him as a hypocrite and start collecting the tar and feathers. But would opening up Lakewood Church really be the right move? Think of it from Osteen's perspective.
What if he remembered Hurricane Katrina back in 2005, and the horde of evacuees who were given shelter in the Astrodome for months on end. What if he didn’t want to be forced into the role of semi-permanent caretaker for all of the gulf coast of Texas? What if his insurance coverage was not good enough to handle the enormous risks that would entail?
Or what if he read about even more rain projected for later in the week and envisioned the evacuees being literally trapped in the building for several weeks with no access to food, water or hygiene? His efforts to help could easily make things much, much worse.
If Joel Osteen does not want to extend a blanket invitation to all of humanity to come in out of the rain, both of the scenarios described above would be more than adequate justification. But then, he has sold a great many books over the years focusing on the idea that God is involved in the lives of His people, that He will not allow them to suffer if they put their trust in Him -- that, in his own words, “If you develop an image of victory, success, health, abundance, joy, peace, and happiness, nothing on earth will be able to hold those things from you.”
It would seem that this is an ideal circumstance for "Pastor Osteen" to put his faith where his pen is. Do it, Joel! Welcome in the wet, desperate hordes, and promise them quick restitution and life improvement. Then praise God as you watch every single one of them sees the showers of rain replaced by showers of blessings. Don't worry about the logistics. Don't worry about vandalism. Surely God will work all those things out.
And Joel, if your claims are true and it is legitimately unsafe to go to Lakewood at the moment, go anyway! Sail your yacht in there if you have to. Get in front of the nearest camera. (I know you're shy about that sort of thing, Joel, but I have confidence in you.) Tell everyone that safety can be found at Lakewood, that God will bless everyone who puts their confidence in you -- er, Him. And if people drown in your parking garage and their families sue you, well, God will provide for you too, Joel.
And yet that is not what he is doing. Hmm.
Might it be that passages such as Matthew 6:33, Matthew 7:7-11, and Isaiah 55:2 were never meant to assure us of physical prosperity -- that the headstrong pursuit of "true riches" runs contrary to the pursuit of wealth (Luke 16:10-13)? Might it be that heavenly focus necessarily requires a lack of earthly focus (Colossians 3:1-2)? Might it be that suffering is a necessary thing (2 Timothy 3:12) and even a blessing (James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 4:16)?
And might it be that Joel Osteen, deep down, knows that?
It’s easy enough to tell people to do the right thing and trust that God will provide. It is quite another to … you know, do it. But then, Paul said we "walk by faith" (2 Corinthians 5:7). If he had meant to write "talk a good game and claim to have faith," I suppose he would have.
I don't condemn Joel for keeping the doors closed. God will judge his works, not me (Romans 2:16). I am far more concerned with my own faith. Will I be willing to seek out God and cling to Him when the flood waters rise? Will the house of faith I have constructed be able to withstand the storms of life (Matthew 7:24)?
Only time will tell. Pray for me. Pray for Texas. Pray for us all.