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Archive for the ‘Ministry Moments’ Category

Last week, a beloved member of my congregation died. He was a prominent businessman and philanthropist in the community, so his death prompted a front-page article in the community newspaper. The reporter called me, and I offered a few words of appreciation. The article that followed was lovely, but it referred to me as his “former pastor.” I suspect the reporter intended to indicate that since the man was “former,” then our relationship was “former” as well. I probably used the past tense in describing him, my regular practice to adjust to the reality of death. However, we were just entering into one of the deepest and most holy parts of the pastoral relationship.

Funeral (1)

It only looks like this in movies, never in real life.

As your pastor, I accompany you when you die. Unless your death is sudden, I will come and sit with you and invite you to talk about dying. What frightens you? What gives you peace, and what peace do you need to make? What have you left undone, unspoken, unacknowledged? Can I help you tend to those things, or let them go?  Together in prayer we will hold the grief and gratitude for your life, the fears you face and the confessions you make.

As you approach your last breath or immediately after it, your family will call me. I will come and sit with them and with your body. I might put a touch of scented oil on your forehead to bless your body one last time. We will touch you as you grow colder,  pray that God will deliver you to peace and that we might have strength to confront our grief at your absence. I will share with them, gently and without violating your confidence, what you told me about your own death. It helps your family to learn that we talked about these things.

After they meet with the funeral director to tend to the details, I will gather with your spouse or children or grandchildren or closest friends. They are exhausted from the things of death—caskets and cemeteries, death certificates and disposal of property, phone calls and insurance. Often we sit around your kitchen table, or in your living room. I think about times I visited with you during your life, and I ask them to do the same.  As the stories flow, it’s like you are there with us. We smile and laugh, and we all cry together, too. I take notes. They tell me secrets you probably wish they didn’t, and I promise not to repeat them. Sometimes, if I knew you well, I get to reveal stories about you, too. Together we put aside the things of death to pick up the things of life again–your sense of humor, your pet peeves, your passions, your work, your love. If you were not always a nice person, we talk about that too. Honesty is important.

We talk about how to place your life in the context of God’s wider story of love. How was God revealed in your life? What faith did you practice? We read scriptures and listen to music together until we find just the right verses to connect your spirit to God’s Spirit. Before I go, I pray with your family, and we call your name, giving thanks to God for you.

Over the next few days or hours, I think about you all the time—washing dishes, praying, driving around town, listening to music, looking in the bathroom mirror. I almost always dream about you, and sometimes I think you speak to me in dreams. I read through the notes and scriptures again, and contemplate how to talk about your life and God’s place in it. When you are alive, you are dynamic, changing, conflicted, plural. Suddenly, the story is closed, the ending known.  I take a scattered mix of memories and images and senses and feelings and string them together to make sense of your unique, complex self—and of the presence of God. I pray that I can give your family back the words they shared with me, to replace the things of death with the things of life again.

At the funeral, my body accompanies yours from beginning to end. I enter with you, leading the casket into the chapel or sanctuary. When the service concludes, I stand a few feet from you while everyone pauses to say their last good-byes. I try to stand slightly apart, so that people don’t feel like they need to shake my hand. I don’t eavesdrop on their private farewells, but I see them touch your hand, call your pet name, kiss you on the cheek. I always fight tears.

When everyone else has left, I stay. I pray with your body one last time, just the two of us, before watching the funeral director close your casket for the last time. I walk with you to the hearse, stand by while the pallbearers lift you inside, then climb in the front seat to ride with you to the cemetery. When we arrive, I lead you and the pallbearers to the graveside, offering final words and prayers before you are laid to rest. The family often comes forward to touch the casket, to take a rose, to say one more goodbye. They drive away, but I stay behind with the funeral director. I watch until you are lowered into the ground. Only then do I leave your side. Only then might I be considered your “former” pastor.

But the truth is that I will always carry you with me. The threshold between life and death is a thin place, and when we have stood there together, we are forever linked. The holiness of accompanying you through the rites of death leaves a mark on my soul, even if I never met you in life. I may speak in the past tense and say, “I was your pastor,” but as I accompanied you in death, you accompany me in life. I remember you on All Saints Day, on the next visit to the same funeral home, hospital room, cemetery. I remember you when I hear that hymn or read that scripture or drive by your old house. And I still think of myself as your pastor.

I haven’t written much in awhile, due to a flurry of other writing and speaking engagements that have demanded my attention. One of them occurred last week, when I was invited to present at Distilled Spirit, a conversation about God and life modeled after Theology on Tap. The event was sponsored by a neighboring UCC congregation and held at Epicenter’s Moonshine University, the nation’s only institution dedicated to teaching the art of distilling spirits.

I had a great time presenting about “How My Mind Has Changed about the Bible,” while people sipped bourbon and giant distilling equipment sparkled in the background. Talk about a cool venue! It’s not every pastor who can say that she spoke at Moonshine University. Like the geek I am, I pulled out my camera and took pictures of the whole experience. Explaining myself to the gathered audience, I said, “I have to have proof I did this. Nothing is real until it’s up on Facebook.”

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The distillery at Moonshine University in Louisville, Kentucky.

The words came lightly at the time, but I have been contemplating them ever since.  Where did that idea come from? Did I really mean to suggest that my experience didn’t count unless it had been shared on Facebook? What does that imply about reality and our relationships through social media?

I traced the root of my comment back to something I had heard (and believed) about the church’s presence in social media. I heard someone remark that the world of the next generation existed online, and if the church wasn’t there, it was as if we didn’t actually exist. Just as the physical building of the church makes its presence real in a neighborhood, its web and social media presence make it real in the online world.

I also remembered hearing an expert in the Millenial Generation, most well known for being digital natives, talk about the way the presence of smartphones in our lives had changed social reality. Through the device, one’s entire network of friends and family and schoolmates and extended acquaintances travels with you everywhere you go. You can share life’s experiences with them in real time, even if they are a continent away. You expect them to be present with you everywhere, and to share in everything.

That’s what I was feeling with my compulsion to share pictures from Distilled Spirit. Through Facebook, I have an extended network of family, friends, and clergy colleagues with whom I share my life. The once-in-a-lifetime experience of speaking at Moonshine University was incomplete until I was able to share it with them.

This is an essential part of the human experience, with a new technological twist. We have always sought new and creative experiences, and we have always turned those experiences into stories and memories to be shared with others. Whether it’s swapping hunting and fishing tales around a campfire, writing letters home, or posting on Facebook, our best experiences are incomplete until they have been transformed from experience into story and shared with others.

News–whether it’s good news, bad news, or Gospel–doesn’t become real until it is shared with others, no matter the means of communication. A soldier at war is alive until the telegram arrives at his or her parents’ home. A relationship is real when it becomes “Facebook official” and you change your online profile. A marriage appears intact until you announce to friends and family that you’re separating.  A pregnancy takes on new dimensions when you start to share the ultrasound pictures. A new job is finally certain when you’re allowed to tell your friends–and your current boss–that you start next week. Even the reality of a loved one’s death only begins to sink in when we have to tell others he or she is gone.

Social media just adds new dimensions to that same reality. You experience something in the world, and then you re-experience it when you share it with others. Just like we can’t wait to see the look on someone’s face when we tell them about a terrific experience, we can’t wait to read our friends comments and replies online.

That’s why I have begun encouraging my congregation to make use of their smartphones in worship. Rather than seeing their desire to take pictures, tweet my sermon or check Facebook during worship as a distraction, I see it as a way of making the experience real and memorable, owning it as a part of their life story. I see it as part of spreading the Gospel good news. Borrowing an idea from Michael Piazza at the Center for Progressive Renewal, I now invite the congregation to “check in on Facebook and then check in with God” as they listen to the opening prelude. Sharing the experience of worship at our church with their online community–even if it means looking down at their smartphone during my sermon–makes it more real, not less. It’s not a blanket call for people to be playing with their smartphones during church, but it is a recognition that reaching over to grab the iPhone might be a way to go deeper with the message, not to ignore it.

Even more, it can be a great opportunity for evangelism. If an experience is only memorable and meaningful when we tell the story to others, by all means, we should be using every means at our disposal to facilitate that telling about God. Let us cement the Gospel story in the story of our lives by placing the church’s events alongside the first day of school, lunch at a fancy restaurant, feet at the beach, family at the holidays and funny cat photos in our Instagram, Facebook or Twitter feed. While there are limits to be sure, perhaps we should encourage our gathered congregations to integrate their spiritual and social lives by “checking in” at church and tweeting lines from songs and sermons. Our online lives enhance and expand our real-life experiences because we can share them with friends.

So, look everybody! Here’s me talking about the Bible at Moonshine University. How cool is that? You never know where Jesus is going to send you.

Here's me at Moonshine University!

Here’s me at Moonshine University!

Oh, dear God, the Oklahoma tornadoes. Such heartbreak. Christ, have mercy.

On March 2, 2012, forecasters anticipated tornadoes in our area. My son’s school let out early, and when the sirens started up we all huddled in the unfinished basement. The air outside our windows was deadly still, but the internet broadcast from our local television station told us that a large tornado was on the ground just a few miles away. We waited underground in folding chairs, my husband reading a book and my young son playing a video game. I kept my eyes on the screen as reports began to come in about damage in small communities populated by beloved church members and friends.

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Henryville High School, destroyed by March 2, 2012 tornado

Then the image changed: a school collapsed, no knowledge of how many students might be trapped inside. My stomach lurched, and I thought I might vomit. I silently ticked off a list of all the young people I knew inside that school, their young lives and fears flashing before me. I grabbed the laptop and slammed it shut—presumably to protect my son from frightening news, but probably also because I could feel the panic overtaking me. Since the storm, I have relived that terrifying moment awake and in dreams. As soon as the sirens stopped, I began to call for news, and passed several anxious hours with families waiting to hear if all were safe and well. Miraculously, no lives were lost at Henryville school that day, although children and adults did die in their homes as a result of the storm.

Today in Moore, Oklahoma, the story has a more grim ending. I know how traumatic the tornado was here, but I can only imagine how that distress is multiplied tonight in Oklahoma. My heart breaks for parents who have lost children, children who have lost parents, and a community gripped by shock and grief.

The recovery ahead will be measured in months and years, not days and hours. I have spent the last fourteen months working nearly every day on recovery efforts here in my community, a disaster much smaller in scale than tonight’s news from Moore and the surrounding areas. I am currently the chair of March 2 Recovery, the long-term recovery organization working to rebuild homes, address unmet needs and tend to the spiritual and emotional needs of our community. I’m not an expert, but I have learned some things worth sharing.

Sign outside Henryville, IN. Photo by Kylene Lloyd, The Courier-Journal

Sign outside Henryville, IN. Photo by Kylene Lloyd, The Courier-Journal

All compassionate people want to respond, to help, to do something in response to tragedy. This impulse is good, because the people of Moore, Oklahoma will require outside aid, volunteers and resources to help them in their recovery. However, many well-meaning people and organizations give “help” that is far less than helpful, and may actually be harmful to the recovery process. I went looking tonight for a list of “do’s and don’t’s” for how to help after a disaster, but I didn’t find any lists that were more specific than “send cash, not stuff.” So I made my own.

As one who has worked closely with tornado recovery efforts in the last 14 months, I would like to offer these DO’s and DON’T’s, so that you can help in ways that are the most helpful, and avoid the ways that are not.

DO NOT

DO NOT send “stuff,” unless you specifically know it is wanted, needed and has a clear destination. The avalanche of used clothing, toiletries, canned goods, furniture and household supplies that pours in after a disaster can become a “secondary disaster” for a community, as organizations are forced to set aside the actual needs of survivors in order to attend to the mountains of stuff arriving at their doorstep. People who have lost their homes won’t need household goods and furniture for many months, and don’t have anywhere to cook your can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle.

DO NOT drive to the impacted area to help unless you are trained and credentialed by a recognized organization. Not only is the tornado debris field dangerous, the crowds of onlookers and unskilled volunteers get in the way of trained relief workers trying to do their work.

DO NOT say dumb things like “I know what you are going through,” because you don’t. Only if you’ve lost a child or lived through a disaster do you have some first-hand knowledge about what someone is feeling. Even then, be cautious. Not everyone will feel the same way you do. It’s doubly presumptuous to say you know what people are feeling if you’ve never even been in a similar situation.

DO NOT offer help in order to lessen your feelings of helplessness or make yourself feel better. Put aside your own needs and desires, and act only in the best interests of others. Don’t do what makes you feel better—do what best helps survivors.

DO NOT forget about this disaster as soon as another tragedy takes the headlines. Recovery will take a long time. Stick with it. The most helpful people are those who come long after the TV cameras are gone.

DO NOT try to theologize disaster away, or say that God did or didn’t do something. God didn’t need more angels, or have any kind of master plan that involved dead children. God didn’t save the children at one school only to harm the children at another one. That’s not how God works. Let God be God, and don’t assign your own motives to the Creator of heaven and earth.

DO

DO: Donate money. But not just today. While organizations like Red Cross and Salvation Army do amazing work feeding and sheltering people in the immediate aftermath, they do not rebuild homes or communities. Local leaders and faith-based organizations pick up the work of long-term recovery, and they will need major dollars for construction, case management, survivor support and more. Sure, send $10 via text message today, but wait to mail a check for $100 or $1,000, and send it to groups involved in long-term recovery efforts. Be careful to give to reputable, established organizations only. No matter what your faith or cause, there’s a group for you.

DO: Volunteer. But not today, or even in the next month or two. Thousands of people pour in to help in the first few weeks, but the work of rebuilding will last for a year or two. Volunteers, especially those with construction skills, will be needed far more urgently 9-24 months from now to help people get home again.

DO: Listen to anyone who needs to tell their story, no matter how many times they need to tell it. Survivors, first responders, clergy and helpers of all types will relive this experience over and over again. It helps to tell and retell it to patient, non-judgmental listeners. Make room for whatever people are feeling—sadness, anger (at appropriate or inappropriate people or institutions), grief, fear, anxiety, even laughter.

An example of messages of encouragement: 1,000 paper cranes that travel to places healing from violence, currently at the Old South Church in Boston, the site of the marathon bombings. Click picture for full story.

An example of messages of encouragement: 1,000 paper cranes that travel to places healing from violence, currently at the Old South Church in Boston, the site of the marathon bombings. Click picture for full story.

DO: Remind others that God is present even in the midst of destruction. Speak of God’s love that overcomes all barriers, even death. Give people room to have their own relationships with God, even if they’re having a big family fight with God right now.

DO: Send messages of love and concern. Whether it’s e-mail, texts, Facebook posts, tweets, letters, cards, notes, banners or children’s drawings, your words can be a source of great encouragement. Send them to local churches through your denomination. Mail them to the fire station or hospital or police station to encourage the helpers who are working 24-7 to aid their community. Share messages with people in the affected area who share your profession, whether it be insurance agents, funeral directors, electricians, servers or retail workers. Indicate that you do not expect a response, but merely send your love and prayers. It will be appreciated.

DO: Pray. It seems like such a small thing, but it matters. We could feel the prayers from around the world bearing us up and giving us strength.

There you have it. That’s what I’ve learned in the last year about life after a disaster—how your help can be most helpful. I’m sure I’ve left things out, and will count on you to add them in the comments section.

This is my small way of helping, through communication about what’s actually helpful. My heartfelt prayers are with the people of Oklahoma, now and in the long months to come.

6:00 a.m. — Groan in response to alarm. Curse  decision to offer ashes at local coffee shop at 7:00 a.m. Check Facebook from phone in bed.

6:05 a.m. — Six year old comes to snuggle. Grumble again at early morning coffee shop idea. Leave warm bed and stumble to shower.

6:45 a.m. — Arrive at church. Gather ashes, prayer cards, bible. Try to read Joel 2 to center myself for the day. Apply ashes to my own forehead, mumbling under my breath about dust. Check mirror to make sure my ashes look right. Make handmade sign that says “Free Ashes.” Throw it away. Make a new sign that says “Ashes to Go.” I still don’t like it, but can’t think of anything better.

7:00 a.m. — Arrive at coffee shop. Introduce myself to barrista, who is expecting me. Order caffeine. More grumbling. Regret the decision to do this public ashing. Feel foolish. Convinced no one will come. Certain I will sit alone and awkward with a smudgy forehead all morning. Take a picture and post to Facebook reminding people to come.

Posted to Facebook: "Here at the coffee shop with ashes and prayers. Stop by, won't you?"

Posted to Facebook: “Here at the coffee shop with ashes and prayers. Stop by, won’t you?”

7:10 a.m. — Two people arrive separately, seeking ashes. They have awakened early and left home in the dark to make this time for holiness. When I offer them the prayer card and mark the ashy cross on their foreheads, we all well with tears. I decide that even if no one else comes, this was worth it.

8:00 a.m. — Wonder if those two folks will be the only ones I see all day. Regret and grumbling and foolish feelings creep back in. Decide ashes-to-go is a dumb fad I will never do again. Justify my doubts with Jesus’ instructions about fasting in private. Feel self-righteous thinking that sacramental moments belong in the context of worship, not in five-minute coffee shop encounters. Read Barbara Brown Taylor’s Speaking of Sin for my Lenten preparation.

8:30 a.m. — Two older men occupy the table next to me. One tries to start a conversation, and mishears me, thinking I said, “answers” instead of “ashes.” He tells me he doesn’t have any questions. I clarify, and he reminisces about receiving ashes as a Catholic school boy. I offer him the opportunity again, but he declines. Still, it restores my sense of purpose.

8:45 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. — Eight more people come, in ones and twos, seeking prayer and ashes. Some are from my church or our Disciples partner, some people I know from the community. All are nervous, just like me, but I act cool. Every time, our eyes fill with tears as I impose the ashes on their forehead with these words: “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return. Return to God with all your heart, for God is merciful and compassionate, full of forgiveness.” When the moment ends, they seem overwhelmed by the experience, and scurry away quickly. I conclude that the ashes are so powerful they do not need a full hour of worship to support them. A few moments in the coffee shop does just fine.

9:30 a.m. — My Disciples clergy colleague arrives to start her shift. I am disappointed that she is 30 minutes early, because I do not want to share, much less leave. I offer her ashes as well, and we visit awhile. We change the sign to “Ashes for Anyone.”

10:15 a.m. — Play Transformers on the coffee shop floor with a four-year-old, while his mother claims a moment of silent prayer with my colleague.

10:20 a.m. — Prepare to leave, when a couple arrives that I am due to marry on Saturday. At our final premarital conversation the night before, I urged them to find ways to pray together. I stay to place the ashes on their foreheads, thinking of the promises they will make, to love one another until they are dust.

10:30 a.m. — Return to the office.  The Altar Guild is busily transforming from Epiphany white to Lenten purple. Set up for the evening service–copying liturgy, writing a welcome, digging out bowls for ashes, setting out communion ware.

Setting up for evening worship.

Setting up for evening worship.

11:30 a.m. — Do work unrelated to Ash Wednesday. Feel like I’m missing out. Grateful for texts from the coffee shop reporting on visitors.

12:30 p.m. — Return to the coffee shop, 30 minutes early, for lunch. Enjoy a relaxed, unhurried, joyful conversation about church and ministry with two colleagues. No one else comes seeking ashes, but we linger for over an hour.

2:12 p.m. — Return to the office again. Check Facebook and return a few calls. Notice that my ashes look as fresh as they did this morning. Make a lame attempt to accomplish things on my to-do list. Decide to finish Barbara Brown Taylor instead.

4:15 p.m. — Go to three stores to find a loaf of bread for evening communion. A sketchy guy is selling Blow Pops to raise money for “the kids at church.” He sees my forehead and calls out, “You may have given up sweets for Lent, but you didn’t give up giving, did you?” Contemplate what wearing my faith on my forehead demands as a response–not just to him, but to everyone who sees me today.

4:55 p.m. — Pick up my son at after school care, and find out he needs to bring Valentine cookies for a party tomorrow. Go home and fix him PB&J for dinner.

5:05 p.m. — My best friend since childhood, also a pastor, calls to share a holy moment from her Ash Wednesday visits in the hospital. We exchange stories about the power of the ashes, and lose our chance for dinner before evening services. No regrets.

6:03 p.m. —  Arrive back at church. Manage the hustle and bustle of a joint worship service with merged choirs, unfamiliar rituals, sound checks, elder questions and all the other quirky details. Wonder, as always, if we will manage to pull things off smoothly.

6:59 p.m. — Realize we have no ushers. Grab a church member and ask them to organize some people to collect the offering.

7:00 p.m. — Service begins,  on time. It’s a miracle.

7:18 p.m. — As the people come to receive the ashes, the exhaustion catches up to me, and I am overcome with emotion.  I can barely contain the tears as I make the blackened crosses on their foreheads. I choke on “to dust you shall return,” for the older woman who might not be here next year, the soldier about to be deployed, the three-month-old sister of my Transformer playmate. I can barely get out the words of repentance and mercy to the man in a world full of trouble, the rebellious teen, the saint of the church.

7:46 p.m. — Look out over the congregation and choir during the sermon, and think how ridiculous we look with our heads smeared with ashes. Reminds me of some crazy underground cult. Is this really the face to show the world in the local coffeehouse? Apparently it is.

7:56 p.m. — Worry the service is going too long. Realize there is nothing I can do.

8:03 p.m. — Break the bread at the table. Taste the sweetness, and no longer feel hungry.

8:21 p.m. — Recruit sound guy/elder to count offering money.

8:34 p.m. — Sound guy/elder/money counter realizes he never got his ashes because he was in the back room. Fetch the bowl from my office, the same bowl I poured before sunrise. We stand alone in the office. I mark the ashes upon his forehead, and my eyes fill with tears. So do his.

8:36 p.m. — Everyone is ready to go, but the guest preacher’s keys are missing. Search commences.

9:01 p.m. –Lost keys finally found, we all depart. Nearby grocery is now closed, but I still need Valentine’s cookies for my son’s party.

The quest for something like this.

The quest for something like this.

9:07 p.m. — Stop at Walgreens for cookies. Store is packed with people shopping for last-minute Valentine gifts. There are no Valentine’s cookies. Grumble. Settle for Oreos. Decide it’s lame, but I’m too tired to drive across town to Kroger.

9:28 p.m. — Realize Dollar General is open and on the way, and decide to try again. There are Valentine’s cookies just inside the door. Waiting in line to pay, the clerk asks, “What’s with the smudgy cross? I’ve been seeing people with it all day.” I tell her it’s Ash Wednesday, and she knows what that means. The other clerk asks, “Do you have to go to church to get those?” I respond by telling him that I was giving them out at the coffeehouse this morning, for people just like them who had to work. I regret that I do not have ashes in my car to offer them.

9:34 p.m. — Arrive home. Kick off shoes, change clothes. Head to the bathroom to wash my face. Stare in the mirror at the ashes one more time, and repeat to myself, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Return to the Lord with all your heart, for the Lord is merciful and compassionate, full of forgiveness.” Wash my face in warm water, cleaning off the ashes, the day’s grime, layers of makeup. Remember the cleansing waters of baptism, and make an invisible cross with water on my forehead, where the ashes used to be. Smile, and watch my eyes fill with tears again.

9:53 p.m. — Fix dinner, eat, watch TV.  Exhausted, but unwilling to let go of the day.

10:59 p.m. —  Decide to write this diary. I want to remind myself why it’s worth it to wake up before sunrise again next year. I want to tell myself to go sit in the coffee shop again. I want to remember to carry ashes in my car all day, to offer to sketchy guys selling Blow Pops and late night store clerks. I want to remember I am foolish dust, and God loves me.

communion-table1He was one of the great saints of the church, and he was dying.

I had been visiting him and his wife in their home for several years, because his health had been too poor to come to church. Every time, they prepared an elaborate meal, setting out the best silver and china, special candles and napkins for Holy Communion at the dining room table. I told them over and over that they did not need to go to such trouble, but they insisted. Because of the fancy meal, my visits would often last four hours or more, yet still he protested that we didn’t have enough time.

I could tell that the elaborate preparations had become a burden. As he grew weaker, I urged him to put aside the extravagant meal and just let me pay a pastoral call. He refused to let me come unless he could meet his own high standards of hospitality. If he was unable to cook, he would not let me visit. We talked on the phone, but I did not see him for several months.

When he called me from the doctor’s office, it was late Epiphany, February-cold. He never used a cell phone, so I was startled to hear his voice. There were no more treatments left. He would be starting hospice care. They were preparing to tell their children. A man of deep faith, he was not afraid of dying, but he was shocked that his life, even after nearly 90 years, was coming to an end. He protested that he just didn’t have enough time.

The next day, I reached his wife on the phone. She immediately acquiesced to my request to visit, with only the holy bread and cup for our meal. When I arrived, we embraced, but he grew agitated that he was not able to provide his regular hospitality. “I just wish we could sit down at the table. I don’t have anything set. This is not how it should be.” I tried to reassure him that I was there to minister to him, as he had ministered to so many others before. My words seemed a formality, but his distress was real, as if an admission of his deteriorating condition.

Then his wife spoke: “After Easter,” she said. “After Easter. We’ll talk about it after Easter.”

It wasn’t even Ash Wednesday. We doubted he would live through Lent, much less regain enough strength to host a meal again. Yet her words comforted him, and me. After Easter. He calmed, and we spoke at length of life and death, of love and faith. The reminder of resurrection freed us to face the reality of his condition. Easter was more than a date on the calendar, it was the promise of eternity.

I returned every week after, twice a week towards the end. At every visit, he would speak of the meal we would share. “After Easter,” his wife and I replied. “After Easter,” he echoed.

He died a month later, kneeling beside his hospital bed in a posture of prayer. We buried him on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

I always miss him this time of year. We never did have enough time. Whenever I miss him, his hospitality, his faithful example, the meals we shared, I think to myself, “After Easter.” We shall sit together at the resurrection table, where Christ himself is host, with all the time in eternity to share. After Easter.

On March 2, deadly tornadoes ripped through our community. In the immediate aftermath, experts and volunteers and resources poured in from across the country. Now, two months later, we have established a long term recovery team with eight active committees in charge of everything from construction and volunteer management to spiritual and emotional care. Local leaders, including me, have come forward to lead the organization for the next 18-24 months. The outside experts and leaders are on their way out. FEMA left town on Friday. In the last few weeks I have heard these disaster responders, both from the government and religious organizations, repeatedly use the phrase “own your own disaster.” It’s time, they say, for the community to own its own disaster, and take charge of their own recovery.

Owning our own disaster is not an easy process. In the first few days, it was all about having survived, and helping neighbors survive. As the days turned into weeks, it was all about getting help. Everyone was eagerly awaiting aid from others—from insurance, from FEMA, from the Red Cross, from family or churches or other organizations. People seemed to believe that these groups would save them from their distress, that money and resources would pour in, and that these aid groups would restore them to wholeness.

However, insurance has deductibles. FEMA only gives away money to those without insurance; others must take out low-interest loans, which must be paid back. Even voluntary organizations reserve their dollars and donations for those with no other resources of their own. The realization that no one was going to fix it was met with anger, frustration and grief, as we realized that the much of the burden and cost of the disaster would still rest with those who had already lost so much.

As the weeks have passed, the emotions have tempered and the community has come together to move forward. It is our community, after all. We should be the ones in charge of rebuilding it. The recovery will take many months, and those outside volunteers and experts need to return to their lives and their homes. They cannot bear the cost of rebuilding our community for us. The disaster represents much hardship, but also much opportunity—the chance to remake things better than they were before. As we learn to own our own disaster, we take responsibility for the future of our own community.

I can’t help but reflect that I have seen this pattern before, many times, as I have walked with families through their own personal disasters. A tragedy, a diagnosis, an accident, a life-changing mistake—there is always an initial rush of aid, followed by the disappointing realization that no one can fix this for you, that only you and God can put your own life back together again. The grief, the anger, the frustration are all too familiar. Like the survivors of the tornado, sometimes it’s hard to realize that even though the disaster occurred through no fault of your own, the responsibility for healing and rebuilding still lies with you, because it’s your life. Sometimes, when we find ourselves in disasters of our own making, we still want someone else to step in and rescue us.

Yet in order to heal and be restored to wholeness, we all have to learn to own our own disasters. It may not be fair, but little in life is. We can’t heal unless we take responsibility for our own healing, and that requires for taking responsibility for our own disaster, even if it came about through no fault of our own.

Photo of tornado that hit Henryville, from crabbyhousewife.com.

Exactly ten days ago, deadly tornadoes rolled through our region. Since noon that Friday, when my son’s school announced an early closing, every plan, task and to-do list has been tossed aside. Our town is just a few miles from Henryville, Indiana, which took a direct hit from an EF4 tornado. Our congregation has families that live in Henryville, Pekin, Borden and New Washington. One family has lost their entire home, another family has sustained major damage. Two of our church’s youth attend Henryville High School, and they have lost their school building and the accompanying social events that give shape to their lives. Almost everyone has suffered emotional and spiritual trauma, as they feared for their own lives and worried over friends and loved ones in the hours after the storm.

Henryville High School, devastated by the tornado.

Last Sunday, less than 36 hours after the storm, our community gathered for the first time. For most of us, it was the first chance we had to talk about our experiences. I groped for something to say to my congregation in the wake of such devastation. In prayer, I realized we needed to do three things in that hour of worship: to acknowledge our feelings, to find our hope in God, and to organize our service.

We began the sermon by simply inviting people to share words that described what they had been feeling. Scared. Fear. Anger. Sadness. Helplessness. Anxiety. Grief. Questioning. Gratitude. Relief. Questioning “why?”. While one occasion of worship was not enough to process all these feelings, there was a palpable sense of connection in the room as we realized that we were all feeling the same way. We could acknowledge that we were not alone in our struggles, and giving voice to our shared experiences gave us encouragement.

The scripture that I had originally planned for that day was from the Lenten lectionary, Jesus’ admonition to “take up your cross and follow me.” I had planned to talk about Jesus’ confrontation with the evils of empire, and in my weekly video I had even asked people to ponder the question, “What would you be willing to die for?” After the storms, we all knew in a deeper way that we were not willing to die for our stuff. But many of our community also knew in a way that they never understood before how much they were willing to risk their own lives to protect family, friends and neighbors.

It is in that spirit of generosity, courage and self-sacrifice that God is made known in these storms. It is not in the suffering, injury and death. We find our hope in God in the love and compassion we see from those around us, and we offer to one another. From my sermon:

People may try to tell you that suffering is good for you, or that God sent these terrible tornadoes as a cross for us to bear, that this is some kind of a test or blessing or way of making our faith stronger, but I’ll tell you right now—that’s just bad theology. I don’t believe it for a second, and neither should you. God doesn’t work like that—choosing to preserve a woodpile or a mailbox while destroying a home, saving one family when their neighbors across the street lose everything. God doesn’t use the winds to rip apart homes and lives and frighten us into submission. God doesn’t pick husbands over wives, grandparents over grandchildren, cats over dogs, non-Christians over Christians. God doesn’t send little children flying through the air to teach us a lesson. Any God who could be so cruel and fickle is not worthy of our worship.

The God of Jesus Christ is the God of the cross, the one who is willing to suffer and even die right alongside us, so that we know that we are never alone in our most painful moments.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who refuses to flee in the face of the storm, who huddles under mattresses and climbs into bathtubs, holding us tight in our most terrifying moments.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who hears our most fervent and frightened prayers and whispers calm and peace into our ears.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who searches every house and every ruin until the lost are found.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who shows up in food trucks and water bottles and chainsaws and offers of “whatever you need, we’re here for you.”

The God of Jesus Christ and our God picks up a hammer, a bucket, and work gloves and starts cleaning up and rebuilding—and sticks around until every last family, every last person is restored to wholeness again.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God uses Facebook and phone calls, e-mail and text messages to rally the family of Christians across the country to pray for this church and our two afflicted families by name this Sunday morning.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God sends the resources of the One Great Hour of Sharing and UCC Disaster Response Ministries to our aid, and extends offers of support and supplies from every corner as we help our community start again.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God does not delight in how much we suffer, but in our willingness, like God’s own Son, to go to the places of suffering in this world to shine the light, and hope, and love for all people.

So that’s what we are to do: we who follow God, we take up our cross by following God into these places of suffering and grief, so that our friends and neighbors are not alone and they know God’s love is with them even in these terrible circumstances.

For us as Christians, we don’t merely take care of our own—we will reach out to all those in need. This storm will be an even more devastating loss on those who were already living on the edge, and they will need our compassion and aid.

We aren’t just acting from heart-felt compassion. We are people of faith, and service is a discipline for us, not just something we do because it makes us feel good.  That means we’re making a long-term commitment, until every last person is restored to wholeness. That process will take many months, after the fear and the emotion and the passion have died down. The work will get tedious and much patience will be required—but you and I, this church, we have an opportunity in this moment to be for our community the light and the hope of God, and I know we will.

I know we will. That felt like such a statement of faith that morning, but I knew it to be true—that our congregation would rally and work and give and serve in ways far beyond our imagined capacity. And we have, already.

Volunteers in Henryville (AP photo by Michael Conroy)

Since the winds died down, everyone in our community has been working non-stop to clean up and care for one another. Crews from our church organized to remove debris for two families in our congregation, but then reached out to help other neighbors. A Volunteer Reception Center opened just a few blocks from our church to handle the hundreds of volunteers arriving in the region (nearly 3,000 already registered). Over 20 members of our congregation have already signed up to work at the Volunteer Center itself. This is not the “glamorous” work in storm-ravaged areas—this is filing papers, answering phones, handing out work gloves. Our folks have signed up for multiple shifts over the next four weeks already.  A dozen more have also been deployed to the affected areas with chainsaws and pick-up trucks and debris removal equipment. Our youth group has organized a spaghetti supper this Thursday night as a fundraiser for long-term recovery. When the Volunteer Center needed chaplains, I simply stated the need at a local clergy meeting, and every afternoon was covered for the next month. As one of the volunteers said to me, “We are God’s people. This is what we do—we help people.”

So much has changed in ten short days. Sabbatical seems like such a long time ago. My calendar has been filled with shifts at the Volunteer Center, clean-up days with church work groups, and pastoral care for our church families who are most affected. My e-mail inbox and Facebook news feed are full of storm-related communications coordinating needs and responses, including inquiries from church groups about summer mission trips. I find myself a part of a coalition for long-term recovery, and I anticipate dedicating many hours in the months ahead to organizing spiritual care for those who have suffered so much trauma.

And yet, so much remains the same. For our congregation, this response to disaster is no different than what we do every day. When someone dies, when accidents happen, when lives fall apart, we are there for each other and provide for one another. When people in our community are hungry or homeless or lost, we provide food and shelter and care. When trauma and spiritual crisis arise, we offer space for seekers, room for questions, and reassurances of God’s grace and love. The intensity and the need have multiplied around us, but we have been committed to these faith practices for a long time already. We will sustain and increase that effort in the days, months and even years to come, as our community recovers, because we know God is with us, beckoning us into the suffering places to be light, and hope, and love.

Photo by Kylene Lloyd, The Courier-Journal


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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