I’ve been away from you the past two Sundays. Last week, I was nursing my college boy after the removal of his wisdom teeth, and the Sunday before that, I was preaching at a little Presbyterian church near the Gulf Coast.
I call it little not because I’m quantifying the membership or the attendance but because the building itself is small and charming. It’s been beautifully renovated. The hardwood floors shine after a recent refinishing. The acoustics could not be better; no one has considered installing a sound system there. Brand new windows let the sun shine into the worship space. If you come in the back door, you may see the refurbished kitchen.
All this shiny newness, this refreshment of a little old church, came about because of disaster. Even though the church lies an hour by car from the Gulf Coast, it suffered sufficient damage in Hurricane Katrina that Presbyterian churches elsewhere stepped in to be sure the church and its life could not only continue but be better than ever before. Since the storm, the average worship attendance has increased 2-and-a-half-fold.
It’s a wonder. Four years ago, no one knew who would move away forever, or who would come back, or whether damage to roof and walls would be repaired.
No one knew.
Two weeks ago I stood in their church and talked, much as Kent did here, about the different ways the gospels tell the story of Jesus, especially about the beginning of his life. Matthew and Luke give you a baby, but Mark and John begin with a full-grown man whose baptism serves as both rebirth and birth. In the first chapter of John, Jesus begins to attract attention. People hear him teaching and tell their friends. He amazes people by knowing things he could not know about them. They wonder who he really is—is he the Messiah? He gathers a following.
And then they go to a wedding.
They go with his mother, who doesn’t get a name in John’s gospel. It’s hard to hear this story without imprinting Christmas Mary on it, pondering things in her heart, but here she seems more like the rest of us mothers. She identifies a problem, then asks Jesus to do something about it, then ignores him when he says it’s not his time! “Do whatever he tells you,” she informs the servants at this wedding, sure that he can work a wonder, and more than that, sure he will.
It’s a funny little story. The water is turned to wine, and not just any wine. It’s GOOD wine! The guests help us to understand when they express surprise at just how good it is. You see, the custom was to serve just enough good wine at the beginning of a celebration that by the end, no one would notice the cheaper wine being served. We like to see it as a metaphor for God’s love: it gets better rather than diminishing over time, that even when we don’t think we need it, God’s abundance pours over us.
But sometimes we wonder, don’t we, what God is about and whether God is really acting in this world.
I first went to the Gulf Coast the Christmas after Hurricane Katrina. I’d never been to Louisiana or Mississippi, but I wanted to go. I just didn’t have a sense that I would be able to do anything particularly useful on a disaster relief mission. In particular, I wanted to see a person who at that point was simply an online friend. I wanted to clap eyes on her and be sure she was really okay.
We belonged to a brand new online group together, a gathering of women pastors from all over the world, and the whole group waited anxiously to hear about our friend, who we knew only by her nickname, St. Casserole. Had she evacuated? Was her family okay? What about her pets? We felt we knew them all.
In those months after Katrina, we followed her story as she wrote first about the experience of being displaced and later about going home to a world that looked completely different, of the odd sensation of being in her house, which was damaged but not nearly as much so as others, of the loss of her husband’s law office nearer the water, which had literally blown away, of the struggles of churches and the dangers to abandoned animals and the depression and anger that impacted the home life of many, many people she encountered.
In October of 2005, she suggested preachers might come and provide respite for her colleagues, the ones whose homes had been washed away, or whose churches would not be usable for years to come. And *that* I thought I might be able to do.
About five minutes after sending her the email, I began to regret it, wondering why I thought I had anything to say to people in a storm-ravaged region, but I had offered, and she had accepted, and I went. I preached at a badly-damaged Methodist Church, where the roof work needed on the parish house did not compare to the heart work needed by the people. I drank coffee with the preacher group. I walked dogs at the Humane Society. I saw a half-cleaned up, otherwise empty landscape, where a house broken open might still have clothes hanging visibly in a second floor closet.
It felt like I didn’t do anything too impressive. I didn’t rebuild a house or wipe mold off a wall or lay a floor or rescue someone trapped on a roof.
Mostly, I listened.
Wherever we went, people wanted to talk about what had happened to them, where they had been, what happened to their homes and their families. And I heard wonder at the willingness of people to come from all over the country to give their time to do all kinds of work to make things right again, no matter how long it might take, people with skills, yes, but mostly people with a heart to be there.
On a practical level, those places will never be the same. The area along Highway 90 in Mississippi, where houses and businesses looked right out onto the Gulf of Mexico, remains relatively barren in January, 2010. Condos built in hopes of a quick profit sit empty because of the decline in the economy. A house or an office here and there show that some people want to rebuild, but many others have moved farther out, away from the water, to a place they feel is safer. They will probably have a hurricane again someday. Really, they can expect it.
But people didn’t expect an earthquake in Haiti. An earthquake comes without warning, and in a country like Haiti, it comes with no preparation, either. A government more concerned about the government than the people doesn’t worry about building codes. People too poor to build a proper house add on when their families get too large for a small space, however they can manage to do it. Concrete buildings constructed without rebar simply pancake or crumble.
We’re seeing the destruction now, every time we turn on the television.
They need a lot of help in Haiti. They already did, before this most recent disaster. People wonder why we live in a world where such a terrible thing happens to people already so poor and disadvantaged. We can take responsibility for some things, especially for the way we treat each other and the care we take for creation, or don’t take, but this doesn’t save us from the harder question.
Why did God make the world this way?
Global Ministries missionaries, Patrick and Kim Bentrott, had just returned to their home in Port-au-Prince Tuesday afternoon when the earthquake started. Their 3rd-floor apartment descended as the first floor of the building collapsed. As the air filled with dust and the ground trembled with aftershocks, their nanny thought the world was coming to an end.
So many have asked "what can we do?" To this I say, keep praying. Write your congressman, your senators advocating for emergency visas and refugee status for Haitians fleeing this crisis. Give money to relief organization or to Global Ministries for the crisis has only begun. The sea-ports were badly damaged and thus all the supplies shipped are having a hard time docking, the airport is struggling to receive planes because the island has no fuel. Food stores are quickly diminishing, clean water is getting harder to find, hospitals and medical services are overwhelmed with their own tumbled walls and overwhelmed staff…
People helping people, loving people. It is this that will deliver Haiti from ruins. It is this that gives us the calm, the strength, the will to keep going.
Suzi and John Parker run the guest house at the hospital in Leogane, a small town outside Port-au-Prince and nearer to the epicenter of the earthquake. In an email composed on a damaged computer with a darkened screen, Suzi writes:
At night we sleep in the yard behind the hospital where the
bandstand was. It has fallen, as has theEpiscopal
school. Thee are 2-300 people who sleep
in that field at night. Thy sing ymns
until almost midnight, andn we wake up to a church service, with hymns, a
morning prayer, and the apostle’s creed.
The evening sky is glorious. In
the field there is a real sense of community.
Of course, we are the only blancs there.
A group from FondWa arrived in Leogane today and will sleep there
tonight. Janine the head cook brought John
and me spaghetti from her home in Darbonne 8 miles away. We shared with the group from FondWa. They have some money so they went out and
bought rice, etc, and we will eat tonight.
People have shared with us and we are getting a chance to feel how the
Haitians really live.
Recently-baptized Jesus, making water into wine because his mother pressured him, may seem like a weak link in the divine chain of being. It’s such a minor miracle, hardly more than a sleight of hand trick to a magician. But I wonder if there isn’t a connection between those jugs filled up with water in Cana and the teams replacing church roofs in Mississippi and the people who slept together in a yard in Haiti last night. In all these times and places, someone is recognizing a need and telling us what we can do to help. In all of these times and places, the response draws people into community.
And maybe that’s the real wonder, when we stop seeing the differences of culture or color and understand ourselves to be one with all God’s people. That’s the message Jesus came to share with us, to show to us with his life and in his death. That message *is* God's action in this world. Special ritual jugs can hold wine for a party. He declares all boundaries immaterial and all differences nothing, all status unimportant and all social rules made to be broken.
I believe he’s waiting for us to take down the walls instead of waiting for them to fall, and to share where people need it most. God provides abundantly. Will we give as generously?
I believe we can do it. And together, in Christ’s love, we can work wonders. Amen.
(Thanks to RevGalBlogPals friend Nutella who shared the email from her mom in Haiti.)