Out of Our Element

13th Sunday after Pentecost    August 10, 2008    Matthew 14:22-33

My friend, Mary Beth, has been visiting from Texas since Thursday, on her first visit to Maine. And even though we are all Americans, I think we can agree that there are regional differences of culture and climate and particularly of accent. For instance, when she talks about “bowled peanuts,” we don’t know she means “boiled!” And last night at the bean supper, she really enjoyed the blueberry “pah.”

I grew up in Virginia with a daddy whose mother’s family had lived in the same place for two centuries and whose father added the influence of a rich, North Carolina drawl. I used to say my daddy’s accent had his daddy’s tar in it. If you come from the South you know I’m referring to the North Carolina Tar Heels and the idea that tar, a huge export from that state early in our history, stuck to people’s heels.
You can see how context means everything to a joke, really to understanding what a person means whether kidding or serious. We have some context in common, all of us, simply because we are human, but sometimes understanding each other takes a leap.

My mother had Virginia roots, but as a Marine brat she lived all over the country and never developed a distinctive accent. But get her talking to certain people and you would hear it suddenly erupt. If, for instance, she made a phone call to her friend, Sugar Bacon—yes, the woman’s name really and truly was Sugar Bacon, a verifiable Southern belle—Mother would change the way she talked. “Hey, Shuuu-guh? This is Vuh-gin-yuh.”

As a person with a musical ear, I could hear how funny my Southern accent sounded here in Maine and I quietly tamed it over the years, until you would not hear it unless I was particularly tired, or visiting my people or talking to them on the phone. I knew it was really gone when my great-uncle called one Christmas Day and said in a grieved tone, “Why, Maw-thuh, you sound just lahk a Yankee!”*

While I might never use that word about myself, I came to identify Maine as home instead of Virginia, and I stopped feeling I would ever want to live in the South again. This became my right place.

We all have places that feel right to us, don’t we? We might identify as mountain people or ocean people, as lake people or woods people. My husband grew up on the shore but prefers the mountains now. I love the way the shore smells; it takes me back to my childhood and feels like part of me. I don’t go to the ocean often, but when I do, the sound of the waves and the salt in the air feel very right. I am in my element.

On the boat, Peter, a fisherman, was in his element. He worked on the water, and he knew what it could do. The storm in our gospel lesson takes place on a lake, not in the ocean, but it must have been fierce, for it frightened people who spent a fair amount of time on boats, who should have been familiar with way wind and water feel when they meet each other.

Peter knew the water and he did not fear it, really, or I cannot imagine he would have gotten out of the boat at all.

But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" (Matthew 14:30)

Sometimes we step out of our element before we realize what we have done.

Almost three years ago, I watched the news about Hurricane Katrina with a friend in mind. A Presbyterian minister living on the Gulf Coast, a blogger like me, a person I loved already though we had never met: I wondered how she would survive the storm.

All around the country, and even overseas, readers of a little blog called St. Casserole waited to hear about the author and her family, breathed a sigh of relief to think they had evacuated, rejoiced that their home still stood in its place with minor damage despite a major loss of trees around it. As weeks went on we worried about Mr. Casserole’s vanished office building, eventually determined to have been lost due to tornadic damage. We wondered how long St. Casserole would stay in another state with their daughter, who had enrolled in 8th grade as an evacuee. We read her descriptions of the damage to her town and to the people when she returned home in October.

And then I read this:

Churches around the US are pouring love, people, stuff and money into our area. I've gotten calls from several churches asking if they may adopt or partner with us as we rebuild. All of the distressed area churches have received calls offering help and money. Day after day, I get calls asking if we need help.

The answer is "yes".

Several of our churches won't get enough insurance money to repair their buildings. They'll be indebted for years unless they get help. Several of our pastors are traumatized to the point of being walking dead. Pastors are homeless. Furniture, books, electronics, household goods are gone along with their homes. Their families are split up so that children can go to school elsewhere. Their spouses may or may not have jobs.

Pastors are trying to figure out how to do ministry with congregations traumatized, exhausted and broke. Many churches have lost 20% or more of their people. Church records are destroyed. Buildings aren't useable.

Whatever we planned for Fall of 2005 is shelved because there aren't enough church school teachers, youth programs are messed up and no one has energy for much of anything.

I'm doing ok. Our church can re-roof and make the necessary repairs. None of our members are bolting from the area. All of my people survived the storm.

I'm doing ok but my colleagues are suffering. In pain. Exhausted. Stressed trying to meet the needs of their people.

If you want to do exciting ministry, come on down. Give one of our pastors a break by offering to preach for a Sunday or two. Come down and start congregational redevelopment in one of our congregations where members left for new lives elsewhere. Come hold our hands, listen and offer the Hope you have.

I'm trying to do this, I really am.

We need more help. We aren't giving up. We are thinking of new ways to do ministry. We are praying for guidance as we use the gifts we've received so that we strengthen congregations for future mission. We are doing what we can with what we have.

I don’t know if I thought about it for five minutes or an hour, but I wrote to her:

Do you really want preachers? My gifts as a carpenter are limited to knowing the difference between a plain screwdriver and a Phillips head. I think my church would let me come, if there were something pastoral I could do to be of help.

Soon I had a ticket to go to Mississippi after Christmas, a plan to spend two Sundays filling in for a Methodist pastor whose house had been flooded with 5 and a half feet of water, and to do other volunteering of a vague and unspecified nature.

When I am doing pastoral work, I am in my element, and so I put my foot over the edge of the boat, and I took a step onto the water.

And then I read the texts for the Sunday after Christmas and the Sunday after that one. And they said things like:

Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command! (Psalm 148:7-8)

The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters. (Psalm 29:3)
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as kin
g forever. (Psalm 29:10)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. (Mark 1:9-10)

Peter knew the water,

But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" (Matthew 14:30)

Sometimes we step out of our element before we realize what we have done.

Sometimes we find out it’s not just the water; it’s the wind.

And so I wondered, what will I say to people who have been through such a terrible experience? What can I possibly have to say to them?

I worried about it until I realized that the impulse I felt to go had come not from somewhere inside but from somewhere outside. The Spirit of God impelled me to go, and I had to trust that somehow I would find a word to say to God’s people in that unfamiliar land, even if I did feel out of my element.

And I was, I was out of my element, leading a Methodist Communion service, speaking in a funny combination of my newly developed Yankee accent and my remembered Southern vowel sounds, something a dear old gentleman called my “unusual patois.”

Somehow, it worked, even though the sound system was bad, and the congregation was not only grieved and traumatized by the hurricane but cranky in the extreme before the storm even hit.
It worked because when the wind hit me and frightened me, I called out for help. “Lord, save me!” Don’t save me by making it all go away, but save me by being with me through it. That was my prayer. Please go with me, and I will find a way to be faithful.

It’s what we need to pray whenever we reach a time of change, as individuals or as a church. We can’t close our eyes to where we are and pray it will all go away or revert to an earlier time. All we can do is take a willing step out of the boat, even if we’re still nervous and calling out to Jesus. All we can do is take a willing step out of our element. Amen.

*There was no way to do this with my blog name!

(Many thanks to St. Casserole for allowing the long quote from her blog.)

7 thoughts on “Out of Our Element”

  1. “save me by being with me through it”
    i needed to hear that. thanks, songbird.

  2. Tee-rific sermon. It wasw wonderful seeing you yesterday. Have a great day and have fun at Auntie Knickers B-day party.

  3. It preached so well…a gift to have that voice & style in my mind for future SB sermon readings.
    My husband wishes me to point out that my “bowled” peanut “patois” is not really Texas, but something I picked up from a lifetime of North Florida summers.
    I like being a speech mutt.

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