Questioning Advent: Day 19 – Cheese Grits

Copyright, Southern Living

Copyright, Southern Living

I really like cheese grits. I grew up south of the Mason-Dixon and went to college and seminary in Atlanta, where I solidified my passion for cheese grits. Cheddar grits are great. Cheddar grits with a little bit of jalapeño diced up in them are even better.

But now I live in New England, land of oatmeal. Occasionally there will be sightings of cheese grits at restaurants in the bigger cities, offered as a special by some exiled Southern chef, but those meals are few and far between. Once I took an extra order home for breakfast from a restaurant in Northampton. The waitress encouraged me to put maple syrup on them. Sacrilege.

The other day Heidi said that she wanted to make me pulled pork barbecue and cheese grits. She had never made them before, but she’s a good cook. I figured that if any Yankee could pull them off, it was her. Which is why I found myself searching through a Vermont grocery store this week, desperately seeking some sort of package of grits. It didn’t look promising, but finally, under boxes of oatmeal, and Cream of Wheat, and whatever else passes for acceptable substitutes for what I believe must surely be God’s favorite breakfast food, I found a sad little canister of quick grits made by a less-than-trusted brand.

Better subpar grits than no grits, right? My heart sank as I put them in the cart.

In Advent we prepare to remember something that the world did not expect. There may have been signs that something special was coming 2000 years ago, but no one knew how and no one expected the way it would come. When people went looking for a Messiah, wouldn’t they have looked for a strong and powerful man? One who was rich? One who was well-known to the religious powers-that-be? Would they really have ever looked for a baby born in a barn behind the inn, with an unwed woman as his mother?

But that’s how Jesus did come. And that’s how Christ still comes today.

Last night we had cheese grits with dinner. I can say without a doubt that they are the best grits I have ever eaten. They were perfectly cooked, wonderfully complemented with cheddar, and slightly spiced with the peppers. I turned to Heidi and joked, “well done, thy good and faithful Yankee.” I never thought the best grits of my life would be cooked by a upstate New York girl in a house in Vermont.

But really, I should expect the unexpected. I should expect that because I’m a follower of the one who came to be with us, to transform this world, not in power and might, but as a child. And, like I said, that’s how Christ still comes today: unexpected, lighting up the most lonely and desolate places, changing everything. Jesus still comes into this world in ways that are as surprising as outstanding grits coming out of a Vermont kitchen. And if we just open our hearts up to the possibilities, we will find him all around us, even in those unexpected places. Especially in those.

Question: What surprising places have you seen Jesus this Advent?

Prayer: Holy God, you send our son to bless us in the most unexpected places. As we approach Christmas, open our hearts up to Christ’s presence. Help us to see all the ways that Christ is breaking into our lives and into the world. And give us the joy that comes from finding Christ’s surprising gifts in surprising places. Amen.

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

Questioning Advent: Day Nine – Plowing the Road

photoIt snowed last night and this morning in Vermont. By the time I headed out of the house this morning to run errands the road was an icy, slushy mess. The normally speedy cars on the state road were slowed to well under the speed limit. The snow plows and salt trucks hadn’t been through yet either, and as I pulled in and out of the post office, the village market, the hardware store, and the coffee shop, I took my time and hit the brake more than usual. I’m not what anyone would call an overly cautious driver, but I’m a volunteer first responder, and I’ve seen what these same roads can do to cars full of people in the winter.

In this week’s Gospel reading John the Baptist tells us to, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight the paths!” I’ve often read that wondering why God needs us to do that. I mean, God could probably straighten out God’s own paths, and with a lot more accuracy than we can do it. Why does God have this guy out in the wilderness calling to us to be God’s divine road crew? Jesus came, and is coming, whether we were, and are, ready or not.

But John’s call to us is different than that. Indeed, Christ will transform the world, regardless of what we do, but John is offering us something incredible: a chance to participate in that transformation. In Advent we are called to prepare a special path for Christ to come into our hearts. While the Reformed part of me believes that God’s grace is irresistible, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have some say in what happens next when that grace comes in the form of Christ and wants to transform our lives.

On my six mile drive back from town, I was stuck behind a state snow plow. I didn’t particularly mind. The truck pushed the ice and snow off to the side of the road, making it safe to pass once again. “Prepare ye the way of the CRV,” I said to myself. (It was a lot funnier in the moment.)

In Advent we prepare the way of the Lord in our own lives. We make decisions about how we will respond with gratitude for the grace that surrounds us. We clear the paths to our hearts that are impassable, put down a foundation that lets grace take hold, and get them ready for a new season. We choose whether or not we are going to get ready for what comes next. We choose in Advent whether we will participate in Christmas. And sometimes that choice starts with something as simple as clearing a path for something incredible.

Question: Are there any pathways inside of you that are too blocked to allow grace to flow through? What would it look like to make straight those places in preparation for Christmas?

Prayer: Holy God, we know something big is coming, and we know you are calling us to get ready. Show us the paths you will take, and help us to prepare them for you, so that we may participate in what is coming next. Amen.

Getting Our Heads Out of the Clouds: A Sermon for Ascension Sunday, May 12, 2013

Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo, Ascension of Christ

Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo, Ascension of Christ

Churches, and their clergy, have sometimes been accused of being out of touch with the real world. Karl Marx called religion the “opiate of the people” because he believed it made us ignore the pains and injustices of the world and look to a pie-in-the-sky heaven when this life is over. And even today you hear plenty of people talking about how Christians are too focused on the next life, and not focused enough on this one.

They might even say we have our heads in the clouds.

Sometimes they’re right. I’ve talked before about how after seminary I did some coursework to get a PhD, and how I ultimately left that program because I felt like I was gazing into the heavens, doing nothing, while the real world, full of real needs, was all around me. And as much as studying theology at the next level had felt noble at the beginning, by the end it felt like I was really missing the point.

The problem didn’t start, or end, with me though. Because from the very beginning of the church, nearly 2,000 years ago, Christians have had to be reminded that they can’t spend too much time with their heads in the clouds.

The first disciples were doing literally just that. On the fortieth day after Easter, after weeks of Jesus appearing to them after the Resurrection and telling them how to be his disciples, he told them that he wouldn’t be physically with them anymore. Instead, he would always be with them, but in a different way. He was returning to the Creator, and speaking through the Holy Spirit.

And after he told them this, Scripture tells us that he was lifted up into heaven and “a cloud took him out of sight”.

In the church we call this the Ascension, which is a fancy way of saying that Jesus is preparing a new place for us now, and has gone before us. But, fancy theological terms aside, can you imagine what the disciples were thinking that day? My guess is that they were all standing there looking up and saying, “Where did he go?” Or, “did that really just happen?” Or, “what do we do now?”

And so, they were standing there, with their heads in the clouds, doing nothing…and that’s when they hear this voice. And there are two men dressed all in white, messengers, saying “Why are you guys looking in the clouds? He is going to come back to you again.”

Sometimes the church needs people like those two guys in white. We need them to call our attention back from gazing up at the clouds all the time and to the world we are in now. And we need them to remind us that we have a task here as disciples of Christ. Because with the Ascension the baton has been passed, we are left as witnesses to Christ’s life and work, and we are called to be the church.

And we won’t get very far in that work if all we do is keep our head in the clouds.

The Book of Acts, the book we read from today and the one that we will be reading from a lot in the lectionary cycle we are following now, is about what happens next. This is the very start of that book. And it’s what happens when the disciples become the first church. It’s about how they go from this small group of people who followed Jesus to a community that grows and spreads and endures to this day.

And it’s worth remembering that it starts with this: the disciples looking up in the clouds and getting their attention called back to the world they have been asked to serve.

It’s really fitting that this passage happened to come up in the lectionary today because today after coffee hour we are starting phase two of our visioning process. This is the part where we sit with each other for the next six weeks and we have discussions about what we believe God is asking us to do, and how God is asking our church to exist in our community.

Our church has had some good things happen to it in the last few years. We are bigger, and we are increasingly connected to both mission and the larger church, and we are looking ahead to a future that I believe will be very bright. But that also means that we are on new ground. And we are having to learn how to be the church together in new ways. And sometimes that can feel confusing and daunting, and we feel better looking up in the clouds and asking, “now where did that guy with all the answer go?”

Those first disciples knew what that was like. Because on that day they were standing there, looking up, and going, “What now?” “Where do we go from here?”

And the answer they got, was “don’t look up in the clouds. Look around you.”

And that’s what we get too. In this visioning process, instead of just looking to the clouds for answers, we get to ask the question, “What is clouding our vision?” We get to ask, what is happening here all around us, in our community and in our world? And then we get to ask, what is our role in it all?

Today’s discussion is about “purpose”, as in “what is our purpose here as a church?” And I’m not going to give you all the “right answers” here about how why our church exists in our community, or how our life together should unfold, because I don’t claim to have all the “right answers”.

But I will say this, our purpose has to do with something more than looking into the clouds and longing after Jesus. And it has to do with more than being a clubhouse for people who believe and act the way that we do. Instead it has to do with helping one another to live out the sort of life that Jesus asked of us, and serving our neighbors in love because Jesus first loved us. It’s a very down-to-earth purpose that we are called to gather around, and that means that it is also a very possible one.

It has to start with pulling our heads out of the clouds, and looking around. We live in what has been called the “least religious state” in the country. We live in a small community that has fewer and fewer year-round jobs and that means a lot less young families. We live in a place where many, if not most, people have to work on Sunday morning in order to provide for their family. And we live in an era where compulsory church attendance has vanished. We live in a challenging time to be the church.

But it’s not the first challenge. The Scripture passage today proves that. But even if you want to get a little closer to home, in both time and place, there are other examples too.

Last fall I was given an excerpt from a letter written by a “George Mann” to his friend “Rice”. The date was August 6, 1858, 155 years ago. And the place was West Dover, Vermont. That summer, the church, this building we are sitting in now, was being built.

And I don’t know much about Mr. Mann, but he didn’t have a whole lot of faith in either the future of this church or of Dover in general. He wrote to his friend,

“The meeting house advances towards completion slowly – the steeple is on it looks majestic – they have money enough subscribed to purchase a bell I think – os you see we shall soon be cheered weekly by the tones of “Sweet Sabbath Bell” – but I fear it will not have the power to bring out to church all the wicked, hardened “non church going” sinners of this wicked place”. He underlined that last part for emphasis.

Mr. Mann, whoever he was, was wrong. Because 155 years later you and I are sitting in this sanctuary. And the community outside our doors is not full of “wicked, hardened” people, and it is not a “wicked place”. It’s a good place, filled with good people, church-goers or not. Everything else has changed, except that, and except the fact that our church bell still tolls every week, not just welcoming our neighbors, but reminding us to serve them.

As much as those two men reminded the disciples to take their heads out of the clouds, that bell reminds us to stop looking up, and start looking out. To keep serving our neighbors, and to keep spreading God’s love to our community. We’ve been doing it for 155 years. But we’re just kids, in the big scheme of things. The church has been doing it for nearly 2000 now. And somehow, by the grace of God, it’s still going. I think that means that God has a purpose for us yet. Amen.

Journey Through Lent: Day 18

Today is Town Meeting Day in Vermont. That means that throughout the state residents are trudging through the snow to their town halls in order to sit through an hours-long meeting about the place they live. Perhaps surprisingly, they remain popular here, and in other places throughout New England.

This is a regional phenomenon that was unfamiliar to me when I moved here. Democracy is exercised not just in the confines of a voting booth, but in community. It’s complicated, and time consuming, and messy. But it’s also pretty effective. And in the end, the community is enriched by the chance to actually sit down and participate in governance.

It’s not lost on me that the town meeting system here is modeled on the governance of early New England Puritan meeting houses. My own church is descended from that tradition and our meetings look very similar to town meetings.

Sometimes this means that church gets messy. The pastor does not have absolute authority. There is no bishop who steps down from on high and mandates things. And decisions are made by whomever shows up, not by the whims of one person.

It also means we spend a lot of time in meetings. Time that some complain could be used for better things.

I’ll admit that sometimes I’m among them. But then I remember that the act of coming together and discerning God’s will for our congregation is indeed holy work. And as we pray to God for the wisdom of the Spirit as we meet, we accept an invitation to seek God in the place where we are gathered.

So, I’ll keep going to the meetings. Both the ones at town hall, and the ones in the church basement. And I’ll keep talking and voting and praying. Because I believe God is most present when community is gathered, and that even in messy disagreement, wisdom can arise.

20130305-090410.jpg

Town Hall in Dover, VT. (Copyright, Town of Dover)

Journey Through Lent: Day 16

photoThis time of year in Vermont the weather is unpredictable. Some days the snow falls deeply, leaving inches piled on the front walk. Others it’s warm enough to open the doors for a little while, and the snow on the ground starts to melt. Then temperature drops way below freezing, with biting winds, and the water freezes into ice.
That’s what has happened on our front walk. The snow fell, I shoveled it, and then it melted and froze again. By the time our friend came over for dinner last night, it was a virtual ice slide. So, this morning I went to the hardware store and bought a 25 pound bag of salt. I’m letting it set on the ice now, slowly breaking down the frozenness, and softening the surface. And I’ll go out again in a while and break it all up.
Salt is an interesting thing. It has the power to warm what is ice cold and transform it. It makes me think about all the times that Jesus called his followers the “salt of the earth”. Table salt is relatively cheap now, but in Jesus’ day it wasn’t. It was used for everything from food to preparing bodies for burial, and it was quite valuable. Jesus pointed this out when he reminded his disciples that if salt looses its saltiness, it is worthless. But if it keeps it, it can be used in incredible ways.
For those of us who attempt to follow Christ, we want to be the salt of the earth. But we sometimes don’t realize that being the salt of the earth is worthless if we don’t use it. It’s not enough just to be salt. You have to act as salt.
Denominations like my own, the mainline Protestant ones, have often been called the homes of the “frozen chosen”. There’s a stereotype that we come to church on Sunday, sing our hymns, hear the sermon, and then go out the doors no more alive with the love of Christ than we were when we walked in an hour before. That’s sometimes accurate. But it doesn’t have to be.
What if instead of being the salt that sat in the pews, we put some of our saltiness to good use? What if instead of holding onto the salt we have, we spread it out on the world and let it do its work? What if we took a little of that salt and dethawed our selves?
In Lent, we can choose to move from being the “frozen chosen” to the ones who have been chosen to warm the world. Or, we can just stay put. Salt without any good use. And, eventually, we will lose our saltiness. And the faith we follow will appear to all the world to be worthless. The choice is ours. Do we choose to be the salt? Or do we choose to act as salt?
As I watch the salt on my front walk cut through what has been frozen into place, transforming the landscape, I’m reminded of its power. And I’m reminded of the power of the Gospel in the hands of Christ’s followers as well. As the salt of the earth, we can warm the frozen places. We can unstick the things that are stuck in place. We can make what is hard turn soft, and what is dangerous turn welcoming. And we can change the lay of the land, and ease the way for others.

Journey Through Lent: Day Thirteen

734901_10100241701604888_144840975_nWhen we woke up today, the snow was already heavy. It coated the window, and was coming down hard. A few online checks told us that the schools were closing (a rarity for Vermont) and that roads were messy. And with that, my wife decided to abandon her drive to Boston and declared it a snow day.

I like snow days. I grew up mostly in Florida, so they weren’t a part of my lexicon. But Heidi grew up in the snow belt of upstate New York. On the rare occasions that school was canceled for snow, she was excited. It was a “bonus day off” when she could read or be with friends or go out and play in it.

I like snow days because I like the idea of having to slow down unexpectedly. It’s like an unexpected sabbath; a break in the calendar that opens us up to spontaneity. Stress seems to dissipate, at least for a little while.

I’ve come to view days like this as a gift from God, and as a reminder that we don’t always set the agenda. Our best laid plans are sometimes rendered useless by forces beyond our control. And in the gap that is created for us, we have the opportunity to create something new. Something that matters more. A memory. A meal. A time for recharging.

In Lent, we can participate in the spiritual equivalent of a snow day. We can slow down our lives just enough that we make room for what really matters. We discard the busy agendas we have set for ourselves, and replace them instead with room for the holy. At first, it may seem like an inconvenience, or one more thing that will distract from our limited time. But, in the end, we will be grateful for giving ourselves permission to enjoy the space. And, if we are really lucky, the change in priorities might just stick. Sort of like the snow falling here in Vermont today.

Journey through Lent: Day Three

Road sign in Dover, Vermont.

Road sign in Dover, Vermont.

The first time I met with the pastoral search committee of the church I now serve was in the middle of a Vermont winter. I drove across the border of a state I’d never been to before and followed my GPS as it led me past ice fishing shacks, up mountains, and into a snow-covered valley. After the interview I turned the GPS back on, and it took me a slightly different way. I drove through unpaved roads right outside the Green Mountain National Forest, following turn by turn, until I came to a sign posted on the road:

“Your GPS is wrong! Road closed in winter months.”
I turned around, with the automated voice of my GPS guy yelling angrily at me to turn back the other way, and I eventually made my way back home. But that sign stuck with me for some time. Without it, I would have gone down the road and, with my Southerner’s driving skills, probably would have gotten stuck in the snow. I know now that I live here that the road becomes impassible in winter, and that the sign has been put up to keep others from getting into dangerous situations. I love that I live in the kind of town where neighbors do that for strangers.
But I also like that sign because it reminds me that the journey doesn’t always turn out the way we think it will. We might put our trust in the “sure things”, like a good GPS, but in the end life throws up its share of curves in the road. Sometimes the wisest thing we can do is to ignore the directions we have been given, and apply what we learn from others on our journey.
I think Lent is a lot like that. Most of us prefer lives of safety and assurance. But one of the great truths of life is that, despite our best laid plans, we don’t always get them. Lent is a season that teaches us to spiritually rely on something greater than ourselves, and to tap into that strength to become adaptive disciples, capable of continuing the journey even when we reach a seeming dead end.
To me, that’s the story of the Resurrection, the event we are preparing ourselves spiritually to celebrate. What happened for Christ on Easter morning can happen for us too in everyday ways. Resurrection happens to all of us. Lent is about preparing our hearts for it, and trusting in it, even when the GPS of the world tell us we are heading in the wrong direction.

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.