Questioning Advent: Day 13 – Breakfast

294090_808396564688_2465085_nMy wife and I have a routine. Every Friday morning, before we both get to work, we try to have a breakfast date together. Each week we rotate between our favorite breakfast spots around our valley. It’s not a big valley. We tend to go to same places again and again. But there’s one place I’ve never been able to take my wife. At least not until today.

In August of 2011, Tropical Storm Irene flooded our community. Heidi and I hadn’t been together long, and I hadn’t had a chance to take her yet to Dot’s, the iconic small town diner in Wilmington. We had been planning to go the week the storm hit, but we never made it. By the time the rain stopped, Dot’s had been ravaged by the river that flows below it. Later that day we walked the streets around Dot’s, stepping over the pavement the waters had literally ripped from the road.

For the last two years and four months Dot’s has sat closed. The whole building had to be salvaged, moved back from the river, and rebuilt. For a while it wasn’t clear whether or not it would ever reopen. It became a symbol of the flood’s devastation, and the town’s tenuous recovery.

The first Christmas after the flood was hard here in the Deerfield Valley. We are a seasonal economy, based in large part on skiing, and it was a bad year for snow. Add to that the number of people who were rebuilding homes, laid off from businesses, or dreading the next storm, and the holidays took on a melancholy tone. Recovery is a process, and hope is often the last thing to get rebuilt.

In Advent we look for the coming joy, but we don’t ignore the realities of life. We acknowledge that this is often a broken, unfair, and incomplete world. We proclaim that we are a people more in need of hope, peace, joy, and love. We tell the truth. Because, if we know the truth about this world, if we don’t acknowledge that it is so in need of change, why would the promise of a new and better life in Christ mean anything to anyone?

Yesterday morning, the doors of Dot’s opened again. The counter was full. The tables were spread with pancakes and Vermont maple syrup. This morning we drank our coffee, ate the bacon and waffles, and said “hello” to our neighbors. The diner looked a little different, but there it was, perched above that same river and filled with new life. Destruction and disaster did not have the final say.

In Advent we proclaim a message of potential. We tell the story of what is to come. We pray for change. We wait for, and participate in, the birth of something new. We refuse to let devastation have the last word. We rebuild, not in ignorance, but with faith in the potential of the one who came and who is coming to us still. And in our rebuilding, we say “we are ready”.

Question: In your life, what has been destroyed, and what have you rebuilt in faith?

Prayer: God, you will not let the waters destroy us, you will not let the fires consume us, you will not let hatred crush us, and you will not let destruction win. In these season of Advent, help us to build. Let us build up the places of love in our hearts, the places of peace in our relationships, the places of hope in our communities, and the places of joy in the world. And let us see the potential for new life in everything. Even pancakes. Amen.

If you’d like to read more about Dot’s, check out this article that came out in the New York Times the day after this devotional was published: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/14/us/in-vermont-a-town-that-would-not-let-its-diner-go.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Pastoring in the Wake of a Hurricane: 5 things I learned after Irene that I’m passing on to colleagues after Sandy

Dot's Restaurant in Wilmington, VT the day Hurricane Irene hit.

Dot’s Restaurant in Wilmington, VT the day Hurricane Irene hit.

1. Monetary donations are the most useful.

People will want to send all sorts of things in the wake of a hurricane. Food, water, and clothes. Especially clothes. Clothes are sometimes called “the disaster after the disaster” by natural disaster responders. But money is really the best thing for people to give. Some people gave to my pastor’s discretionary fund, and we used those funds to help people in town who needed immediate help with bills and rebuilding expenses. Meanwhile, within days we received generous checks from the United Church of Christ, who sent us disaster relief funds. They take donations at: https://secure3.convio.net/ucc/site/Donation2?df_id=1340&1340.donation=form1 Another great place is Church World Service:  https://secure2.convio.net/cws/site/SPageServer?pagename=hurricane_sandy&JServSessionIdr004=77wa8mtpp1.app244b They sent us lots of cleaning buckets that contained all the things we actually needed. They also sent hygiene kits for the shelter. They are pros at this stuff, and are supported by an ecumenical coalition of churches. They also do not evangelize. Which brings me to my next point…

2. Some religious groups will try to to use natural disasters as an opportunity for conversions.

It’s great that so many religious groups want to provide aid. It’s not so great when they exploit traumatized and vulnerable people while doing it. There were reports of volunteers who would go to people’s homes after Irene, but do little other than try to get the homeowner to pray with them. Here in my community a group of fundamentalist Christians presented themselves as Red Cross “trauma chaplains”. (Read more here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/wise-as-serpents-finding-_b_1692251.html ) Local clergy should be “wise as serpents, gentle as doves” when dealing with outside religious groups. It’s okay to be the gatekeepers for your community if it means protecting traumatized people.

3. Be cautious about bringing in outside volunteers.

In the aftermath a lot of well-meaning churches and organizations called the church asking how many people they could immediately send as volunteers. While we were grateful they wanted to serve, the roads in were literally falling into the river and the few resources left in town were already running out. Aside from very skilled contractors with specific rebuilding skills, or those with disaster sanitation experience, an influx of untrained volunteers will likely tax an affected community more than they will help. There will be plenty of volunteer opportunities for church groups and the like in the coming months.

4. Get involved as a community leader and use your resources

Hopefully you will have already laid the groundwork for this. Now is the time to reach out to emergency responders, the Chamber of Commerce, and other local organizations and to tell them what you can do. It’s also the time to be as visible as possible so that you can best serve those who need it. I spent a week solid after the flood wearing my clergy collar everyday. It helped people to be able to easily understand my role, and what I could do for them. We also opened the church, which was right down the street from one of the hardest hit areas, and provided a quiet prayer space. We kept bottles of water, energy bars, and fruit on hand too. To get to the work area, people had to pass by our church on foot. So we had volunteers sit on the front steps and hand them out to people going in and out. We also reached out to local 12 Step groups and opened our building up to the ones that had been displaced by the flood. Natural disasters can be particularly tough for those in early recovery, so we also worked with the existing groups and hosted emergency meetings every evening. We all have a lot of resources in our churches that we might not even know about, starting with ourselves. Take an inventory of what you can give, and then work with community leaders to give it.

5. Preach the good news of the Gospel.

For most of us this goes without saying, but natural disasters are so often breeding grounds for bad theology and judgement. In your public prayers, stress God’s love and care. Make God’s presence a theme during pastoral counseling encounters and practice a ministry of presence in all you do. And really think through what you want people to take away from your Sunday sermon this week. They are going to be listening for the good news of Christ’s love. Speak to your particular situation, and give comfort and hope. (This is what I preached the following Sunday: http://revemilycheath.com/2011/09/05/noahs-dover-and-the-olive-leaf-sermon-for-august-4-2011/ ) At all times remember that you are a representative of the Gospel, and of Christ’s love. In the wake of disaster, people need it more than ever.

Blessings to you and all your serve!

Hurricanes and Judgement: Thoughts on the One Year Anniversary of Irene

West Dover, Vermont

Tonight I’m watching Hurricane Isaac as it bears down on the Gulf Coast. Seven years after Katrina, Isaac has the potential to re-devastate an area that’s still recovering, and still will be for years.

I’m watching these developments as I read the results of a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service which shows that 44% of Americans see an uptick in natural disasters as “evidence of what the Bible calls the ‘end times’.” Narrow that polling body to white Christian evangelicals, and that number increases to 67%.

Right now I’m thinking about those two things as I sit in my living room in southern Vermont. One year ago tonight I sat here and called my congregational leaders and we reviewed the weather forecast and reluctantly decided to cancel church services the next day. By the middle of the next morning, Hurricane Irene had devastated the community where we live.

That night I stood with friends and neighbors and parishioners in a street filled with upended asphalt, twisted metal, and busted glass. I spent two years as a trauma chaplain in a pediatric hospital in Atlanta, but I had never seen devastation like I saw that night. It looked, quite literally, like a bomb had gone off.

The next Sunday I told my congregation that, contrary to what 44% of Americans think, God did not send the flood to our town as a punishment, a warning, or a judgement. I still believe that. Others do not. We’ve had our fair share of bad theology here in Vermont. Missionaries disguised as trauma counselors. Judgmental Christian “leaders” calling us to repent for the sins that caused the flood. Even the Westboro Baptist Church had us in their sights.

What’s sad is that some folks, the ones hardest hit and looking for answers, believe this Gospel of Wrath. Bad theology is often the second wave of trauma. And the Christian leaders who perpetuate these ideas move from natural disaster to natural disaster, tragedy to tragedy, spreading the same rhetoric of judgement. From Vermont to Aurora, Colorado to western wildfires, to Oak Creek, Wisconsin, to midwestern droughts, to every other place you can name where blood was shed or destruction widespread, those voices of warning have followed, jockeying for airtime. They have somehow become the predominant public voices of Christian faith.

It’s really too bad they don’t stay around long in one place. Because if they did, they might actually catch a glimpse of God.

Those of us who stuck around past the news cameras and soundbites saw incredible testaments to the love and grace of God. We saw it as good people took seriously the idea that one should “love their neighbor as themselves” and got to work. Some were Christians. Some weren’t. But all behaved in a way much closer to the way Christ commanded us to live than anyone on TV talking about God’s judgment coming in the form of a hurricane.

The people here wasted little time before rebuilding. The next morning they donned masks and bandanas, picked up cleaning buckets and got to work. They cooked meals for the shelter in the high school cafeteria. They gave hours as volunteer firefighters and rescue personnel. They staffed the food pantry in town every day for weeks. And they gave and gave of every resource they had until it hurt.

They didn’t do it for a day. Or a week. Or a month or season. They kept doing it, day after day, no matter what was happening in their own lives. People I knew who had lost almost everything came asking who had it worse, and what they could do for them.

That’s where I saw God this past year. That’s where I saw grace. And that’s where I saw hope.

Tomorrow we will gather at that same place we did last year, at the same time, as the sun goes down here in southern Vermont. But this year the road is repaved, the glass is swept up, and the river has contained itself to its banks once more. We will light candles, and we will offer our memories. But more that that, we will offer our gratitude. Gratitude for strangers, gratitude for one another, gratitude for grace. And more than all of that, we will offer our hope.

I know God will be there tomorrow, because I know that wherever there is hope, there is God. And while the flood “was”, God “is”, and God will be.

God will be there on the Gulf Coast tomorrow too. And God will be there if that storm makes landfall. Not because God wills our destruction, but because God does not abandon us in the storm. And no matter what happens, God will be there in the aftermath.

My hope is that wherever the news cameras flock to next, whether it’s in the wake of the storm or, God forbid, the aftermath of another act of violence, that we will look for testaments to God’s love and grace, and not the destructive voices of those who would use Christ’s name to spread their own judgements.

You know that old song, “They will know we are Christians by our love?” It’s still true. More than ever, and especially in times of destruction or pain. And if you can’t hold the statements of a Christian talking head on TV up to that standard, then don’t allow them to be the only voice out there that is speaking for God. Lives, and hearts, depend on it.

The Dove and the Olive Leaf…a year later: Sermon for the one year anniversary of Hurricane Irene

Genesis 8:6-12

6 At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made 7 and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. 8 Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; 9 but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. 10 He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; 11 and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12 Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more.

A year ago this week, on Saturday night, I spoke with the leaders of both churches about the hurricane that had been predicted for the next day. We talked about the weather forecast, and about canceling church services, and we agreed that probably nothing out of the ordinary would really happen. But we canceled anyway, just to be safe.

You know what happened next. A year ago, on a Sunday like today, it felt like the whole world had come crashing in. The river crested, and then spilled its banks, and the destruction was beyond what we could have ever imagined.

I remember seeing many of you that day. You were opening the evacuation shelters. You were working with police and fire and rescue. You were here in Dover or up in Wardsboro. Or you were there when we all finally made it down to the middle of Wilmington and saw the way the river had cut through town.

Some of you took big losses. Your businesses. Your homes. Your sense of safety. In many cases you didn’t have electricity or plumbing for days. And that day I think we all wondered whether life would ever be the same again.

The Sunday afterwards, we gathered here at the church and we read this same passage from Genesis. I had already heard by that point people who said the flood was God’s judgement on us. I heard someone say this was just God reminding us what God can do. I told you then, and I’ll tell you again today, I don’t believe that’s true.

The text we read then, and read now, is about the aftermath of a flood too. And while the flood in the Bible is attributed to God, I don’t want anyone to think I’m saying that this one was too. But I like this text, because it reminds us of the promise God makes in the aftermath of a flood. A promise given so long ago, and a promise given to us.

I believe the flood “was”. But I believe even more that God “is”.

Noah sends a dove out after the flood looking for dry land. It searches, and searches, and finds nowhere. And it comes back to him. And for seven days it stays there with Noah. But seven days later he sends it out again. It the world is not yet back to normal, but there is enough of what used to be there that the dove plucks and olive leaf, and brings it back.

Last year we talked about that olive leaf. That first sign that there was life again. That sign that the world could be rebuilt, even if, like the dove, we could not yet put our feet on solid ground again.

We came that day to claim an olive leaf. And we did. We found our signs of hope, and we went out and we did what needed to be done. And now, a year later, we have stories  of all the olive leaves we have found to share.

There are three things I’ve been thinking about this week: remembrance, gratitude, and hope.

First, we remember. We remember what that day was like. We remember how we felt when the full extent of what was happening became clear. We remember all the destruction and all the shock and all the high water marks. We remember the young woman who was killed on Route 100. And we remember all of those whose lives were changed in such unforgettable ways.

But that’s not all we remember. And this is where our memory turns us to gratitude. Because we also remember what happened next.

People tell me that they have never seen a community bounce back the way this one did. In fact, people say Vermont’s recovery as a whole has been spectacular. The day after the flood, bright and early, neighbors started helping neighbors to rebuild. They pumped water out of stores. They hammered things into place. They moved trees and rocks and earth. And they staffed the food pantry everyday. They kept the shelter open at the high school. They brought water to people who didn’t have it.

Our church, our churches at that point, did what they could too. We kept the doors of the churches open for those who needed to pray or rest. We opened our doors to 12 step groups who had been displaced. We gave out water and energy bars. We helped to organize a diaper drive. We drove in health buckets and school kits from Church World Service. We opened the doors of the Wilmington Church to St. Mary’s who had lost their building. And the basement of the Wilmington church even became storage for the food pantry.

The fact so many came out to help their neighbors, and that we got to have some part in that, is a cause for gratitude.

And it doesn’t stop there. Strangers came to help too. They came from all over and they brought water and food and tools. They joined with us and they gave their time and talents over the next weeks to help us rebuild. Likewise, our national denomination, the United Church of Christ, remembered us too. Within days of the flood they had sent grants to both of the churches to help us to help respond to the needs that arose in our area. Over the past year we have used those funds to help out local families and non-profits, and we will continue using them as we begin new ministries here.

And through the year the blessings kept coming. These are just some of the stories I know. But I know you know a hundred more. I know that none of us has been unmoved by what happened here. And I know that God has been good to us. Things may not yet be completely “back to normal”, but we have come so far from those first days. And we have come that far because of the grace that has been given to us. Our gratitude for our neighbors, and for strangers, and for the grace of God can never be buried.

And so now, a year later, we meet in worship again. And we read the same passage. The passage about the dove who brings Noah the olive leaf. And this year we read a little more of it. We read not just about that dove coming back after severn days, but we read about that dove going out again.

This time Noah sends the dove out, but it does not return. The dove goes out and sees that the world is safe again. It is returning to normal. And it finds places where it can land and live and thrive. It doesn’t have to go back to its emergency quarters on the ship. It’s free.

The dove symbolizes peace in the Christian tradition. More importantly, we equate it with the Holy Spirit. And for us, the Holy Spirit means hope. If you think about the dove that way, think about what this story means. First the dove brings back a tangible sign of hope to us, just as we began to receive last year. And then, the dove goes out into the world, unbound by the flood any more, spreading that hope to everyone.

We can do two things now. We can stay in the boat, or we can follow that dove, that symbol of the Holy Spirit, out into the world and in this second year of recovery we can continue to help to bring hope to our community and beyond.

We have done so much in this past year. And it has been good. But there is still so much that needs to be done in our community. And God is equipping us to do it.

Where will the Holy Spirit lead us this year? And are we willing to follow it? I believe we are. And I believe we will. And I believe that a year from now our community will continue to emerge stronger and with more hope than ever.

I’ll close with this. Last summer I baptized the infant daughter of one the families in our community in the Deerfield River. They live on the river, and wanted to baptism to be done with the water that they love. So we waded in, took water from the river, and poured it on her head and welcomed her to the family of faith. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful place.

It was not long after that day that the same river flooded, and changed life as we knew it.

But yesterday I stood in that same river again, this time with their infant son. And again, we baptized him with that water. Baptism is the ultimate sign of new life. And now that river that caused so much destruction can again be a symbol of God’s hope for us. God’s new life. It was a reminder for me that God can turn everything into good again, and God can give us hope in the most unexpected places.

And it was also a reminder that God has more for us to do. This year, what will God transform in our community? What will God transform in you? And what will God find to use to give us all hope. If we keep our eyes, and our hearts, and our hands, open, we won’t miss it when the Holy Spirit decides to use us again.

If we keep our eyes open for those olive leaves that God has offered up for us, if we follow that dove out into the world to the places God is leading us, we will never go wrong. God’s hope is here for the claiming, last year, this year, and for all the years to come. Amen.