Getting Over Our Own Hang-Ups

Peter was a good Jew.  A true child of his race he was distrustful even disdainful of non-Jews.  One of the ways the Jewish people had set themselves apart from others was through an elaborate set of laws governing diet – no pulled pork Bar-B-Q, no lobster, no shrimp, no oysters, no Philly Steak with cheese, no chicken fried steak with milk gravy, no gyros with yogurt sauce, no cheese burgers.  For fear of ritual contamination, good Jews were not supposed to have physical contact with non-Jews.   The early church had observed a strict rule, followers of Jesus had to be good Jews strict followers of the laws of Moses.  Well they had loosened up some of the law a little bit.  The evangelist Phillip had gone off and begun a mission to the Samaritans, but Samaritans practiced circumcision and kept most of same dietary rules.  And then the law had been relaxed enough to allow a tanner like Simon in Joppa to join the group.  Tanners were usually excluded by strict keepers of the law, because of their extensive contact with animal carcasses. 

But no one had even contemplated extending the gospel to the gentiles — gentiles of all people.   You know people like us, who go to Gibson’s Bar-B-Q, and eat butter on a roast beef sandwich, or who keep milk and lunch meat in the same refrigerator, and don’t keep separate sets of dishes for meat and cheese, you know unclean gentiles like us.  The early church wasn’t about to include people like us.  Think about that.  The first followers of Jesus weren’t about to include people like us.  We were considered too unclean to share the message of God’s love. 

And then God showed up.  God has a way of showing up when we least expect it.  But God wasn’t in a hurricane, or a tornado, or an earthquake, or some big natural event.  No Peter went up on the roof top of Simon the Tanner’s house to wait for supper.  It was probably a warm afternoon, and the sea breeze from the Mediterranean lulled him into a gentle sleep.  And Peter had a dream, we’ve already described in the scripture.  And the upshot of God’s message was:  “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.”

Three times Peter had this same dream in an afternoon nap.  It reminds me of some really good advice from a counselor in group therapy.  She said, “if one person tells you, that you are a horse, they’re crazy.  If two people tell you, that you are a horse, well maybe you’d better think about it.  And if three people tell you, that you are a horse, you’d better get the saddle and bridle. 

So Peter was trying to figure out the meaning of his dream, when emissaries from Cornelius showed up.  And here we can ask, was this coincidence or was it synchronous?  Coincidence is when two unrelated things happen at the same time.  Let me give you an example.  When my parents took my brother and I to Europe in 1960, we were in Selfridge’s Department Store in London.  We had been walking all morning and we saw some chairs, where we could sit down.  While we were sitting there some other Americans came and sat down.  You can usually recognize Americans, when you are traveling.  So we asked them where they were from in the States. 

            “Oh,” they said, “we’re from Nebraska.”

            “Really,” we replied, “we’re from Nebraska too.”

            “Well where are you from in Nebraska,” we asked?

            “We’re from Omaha,” the people replied.

            “Well we’re from Omaha too?”

            “Well where are you from in Omaha?”  And it turned out they lived around the block from us.  It was kind of a long block, but literally they lived 200 yards from us going through back yards, and here we were meeting in London.  That was a coincidence, a rather odd coincidence, but just two things happening at the same time.

Synchronicity is when two things happen at the same time, but there is a perceived deeper meaning in the meeting of events, where one occurrence is feeding the other – there are consequences either positive or negative that result from the concurrence of events.  Let me offer a minor example.  When I was a student at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, I wanted to study the church’s efforts to lobby congress for social change.  I called the Director of the Council for Christian Social Action of the United Church of Christ, Lew Maddox, located in New York City.  I made an appointment to travel to New York to interview him and access some historical archives for my research. 

            The day before my appointment, Lew Maddox received a memo from the nominating committee of the United Church of Christ directed to all the boards and committees of the denomination to recommend the names of UCC young people under the age of 30, who could be nominated to serve on their Councils.  The next day, when I arrived for the interview, the Director asked me if I would be willing to have my name placed in nomination for the Council for Christian Social Action.  This synchronous event led to an internship in Washington, and my acceptance at Yale Divnity School.  One event built upon another opening doors of opportunity that can only be described as synergy.

So as Peter was trying to figure out the meaning of his dream, Cornelius’ emissaries were knocking on the door of Simon the Tanner’s house.  Peter concluded that this was synergy rather than mere coincidence, and he agreed to travel to Caesarea to meet with Cornelius and his friends and family.  And the rest is history.  Cornelius and his friends and family became the first gentile converts as followers of Jesus, and from there the early church began to open up to the inclusion of people like us.  It wasn’t easy.  There was a group Paul refers to in his Letter to the Galatians and his Letter to Titus as the circumcision party.   And they resisted and resisted and resisted the inclusion of gentiles.  In the end, however, God prevailed, and the circle of God’s grace in the church was drawn large enough to include all of us.

            Now what can we discover in our scripture this morning?  First, I think we can learn to be open to synergy.  We don’t want to go around attributing God’s providence to every coincidence in our lives.  Let me share with you an example I ran across as I was investigating “coincidence.”

In 1898, 14 years before the Titanic made her maiden voyage, Morgan Robertson wrote a book entitled, ‘Futility’ or ‘The Wreck of the Titan.’  This was the story of an “unsinkable” massive ocean liner, which like the Titanic, was on its maiden voyage from Britain to New York in the month of April, with 2,000 people on board.  While it was also attempting to cross the Atlantic in record time, it too struck an iceberg and sank.  Not only were the ships’ names very similar, but most on board also perished simply because there was of a lack of lifeboats.

Robertson’s book Futility was never published as a separate work.  Each time it was rejected by editors, who told him that the story was unbelievable.

Not every coincidence is the hand of God.  On the other hand we can be open to the possibility God can be found in the events of our lives.  Most of the time we will only be able to perceive God’s movement in hindsight, but that has always been true.  Most of the Bible was written in hindsight, people looking back and saying, “oh that’s what God was doing?”  If we are open to possibility and responsive to God’s grace, coincidence can become synergy, God working through us to bring the community of peace, love and justice into the present.

The second important truth we can discover in our scripture is God’s gracious and loving inclusiveness.  The good news of the love of Jesus Christ initially came to the Jews.  And many Jewish Christians wanted to keep it that way.  They were scandalized, when Peter returned to Jerusalem and reported that he had baptized gentiles of all people.  They wanted to keep the circle of salvation closed, limited to Jews only. 

And here let me point to the picture of the adulterous woman brought to Jesus for judgment.  The text in John says Jesus knelt down and drew something in the dust.  I think he drew a circle. 

There was a famous rabbi about twenty years before Jesus, named Honi the Circle Drawer.  He was given that name, because he performed many miracles through prayer.  And before Honi would pray he would draw a circle to consecrate a special space for the divine human encounter.  Jesus drew a circle of consecrated space to include the woman taken in adultery.  And then he said, whoever is without sin, cast the first stone. 

I believe when Peter baptized Cornelius and those other first gentiles, God was redrawing the circle of salvation to include the whole world.  God wanted to welcome all people into the church.  And so the circle of acceptance was redrawn to include people like you and me – unclean Gentiles – “what God has cleansed, you must not call common.”  And that is why we try to live out the slogan we advertise, “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here.”

The point is if God has redrawn the circle of salvation to make it big enough to include us, unclean gentiles that we are, who are we to try to narrow the circle of welcome to exclude other people?  Like God said to Peter, get over your hang-ups.  They’re your hang-ups not mine.  Welcome everyone.  God has created each one of us as a unique precious child of God.  God loves us.  Let us welcome one another regardless of our differences and embrace God’s truly amazing grace.

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“Making Sense of A Song of Ascents” — by Marilyn Puett

On January 1, 1970, my father died quite suddenly from a massive coronary.  I was 18, had just finished my first quarter of college and was in the last few days of my holiday and quarter break.  I remember two things about his funeral:  my high school English teacher attended and the minister read Psalms 121 (the King James version — I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.).  The day after the funeral, I returned to college to begin a new quarter.  The college I attended, Western Carolina University, is located in the Smoky Mountains, and once I got back, I was able to look out my dorm window every day and lift up my eyes unto the hills.  I derived much comfort from staring at those mountains and discovered the beauty of them during every season.
In 1980, my husband, young son and I moved to Huntsville and to our delight, our home had a wonderful view of Monte Sano.  I was again able to lift my eyes unto the hills and feel at peace with God and the world.
In 2009, I suffered another loss – the loss of my marriage.  It was unexpected, just like my father’s death.  But it was not sudden.  It dragged on for over a year.  My husband had pulled us away from the church a number of years ago.   As my marriage was ending, I never asked God what I’d done to deserve it, because I’d done nothing wrong.  I did ask “Why me?” so many times I’m sure He got tired of hearing me.
Then in the early fall of 2009 I felt the need to return to church.  I knew I wanted a church where I’d never be judged for being divorced and planned to attend churches of various denominations until I found one where I felt at home.  Then I remembered the United Church of Christ my ex-husband and I had driven by so many times on our way to the church we attended on Airport Road.  A voice told me to return to my roots.  My father’s family is firmly entrenched in the German Reformed Church/Evangelical and Reformed Church/United Church of Christ.  The first Sunday I attended United Church of Huntsville, you were ill and Kathy Ressler read your sermon.  Something in it spoke to me, and I decided to attend the following Sunday.  Once again, I was tapped on the shoulder by something in the sermon or the music or the welcome I received or perhaps all of the above.  After three Sundays, I finally acknowledged those taps on my shoulder and said, “Okay, God.  I hear ya!”


Sharing Faith

Paul’s life had been on the line.  He had preached the gospel of Jesus Christ in Damascus, Cypress, Turkey, and Greece.  What enraged the Temple authorities in Jerusalem so much was that before Paul’s conversion experience on the Road to Damascus, he worked for the High Priests persecuting Christians.  People have a special animosity for people they perceive as having gone over to the other side.

Paul spent years away from Jerusalem traveling throughout Turkey and Greece, preaching, evangelizing, founding churches.  He returned to Jerusalem carrying an offering from the churches of Greece and Asia Minor, to relieve the hunger of the Jewish Christians, because Judea was suffering a famine.  He was able to convince the Jerusalem Church to accept his gentile converts as Christians without requiring them to undergo circumcision or keep the Jewish dietary laws.  But to prove himself as a good Jew, James and the circumcision party within the Jerusalem Church asked Paul to perform a ritual of purification in the Temple.

When Paul visited the Temple he was recognized by some Jews from Turkey, who denounced him for allegedly bringing a Gentile into the Temple, and whipped up a mob to try to kill him.  The mob dragged Paul out of the Temple into the street and began beating him to death, when a squad of Roman soldiers came along to investigate.  When Paul told the officer in charge that he was a Roman Citizen he was carried off in Roman custody.  Later when the Temple authorities were plotting to break Paul out of custody and stone him to death, the Roman Tribune sent him to Caesarea and the relative safety of the Roman Governor’s jail.

The Roman Governor Festus held Paul for two years, hoping that Paul or his friends would offer a bribe to win his freedom.  When Festus was replace by a new Governor Felix, the Jerusalem authorities tried to convince Felix to turn Paul over to them.  At a critical point in the hearing, Paul said, “I appeal to Caesar.”  As a Roman citizen he had the right to be tried in Rome, and not before some provincial kangaroo court.  So Felix began making preparations to send Paul to Rome, and in the meantime the Jewish King Agrippa II came to Caesarea to visit with the governor.  And that sets up the scene in our scripture today.

In 53 A.D. there was no radio, no television, no DVD’s or internet.  So Paul, who was considered a strange religious fanatic was summoned before the Governor and the King to explain himself in order to provide his captors with some entertainment.

Undaunted Paul shared his faith.  He didn’t deliver a theological lecture.  He didn’t preach at Felix and Agrippa.  Instead, he shared his own story about how God had been present in his life.  The early church spread like a virus, because the followers of Jesus shared their faith.

The story of Paul’s conversion is dramatic.  He was literally knocked off of his horse and blinded by the light, when he had his come to Jesus moment.  And overnight he went from persecuting, even executing Christians to preaching the way of Jesus to anyone who would listen.  And unfortunately many people even whole traditions within the Christian faith have come to believe that Paul’s conversion should be the model for everyone.  And so many people mistakenly struggle to try to make themselves feel converted.

In one sense we all need to experience a conversion from a self-centered ego dominated life to God-centered life.  But how that process occurs is unique to each individual.  For some people conversion happens in a traumatic single moment like at 5:20 p.m. on April 27th 2011.  For most of the rest of us, the breaking of our egos and our journey toward a more God centered life happens more gently over years or even decades.  But we all have a story, a journey, a faith story, and if we can learn how to share our stories, we can touch the lives of others.  And we live in a, increasingly secular world that desperately needs our faith stories.

Back in April our Keeshond, Banner, desperately needed to be groomed.  Beth called Pet Smart to see about an appointment with the dog groomer, who told her that she could work Banner in on Thursday otherwise her next available appointment was Sunday morning at 9 a.m.  Many businesses now are open on Sundays, but what really surprised me was that this was going to be Easter Sunday morning at 9 a.m.  Many of us can remember when nothing was open on Sunday except maybe a gas station or a drug store.  Also when many of us were growing up, almost everyone we knew had some religious affiliation.  We had no perceived need to share our faith.  But we now live in a very different world with many, many people whose lives have not been touched by faith.

I am not asking anyone to go preach on street corners, or put a honk if you love Jesus bumper sticker on your car.  And that reminds me of a joke I saw:

I got a letter from Grandma the other day. She writes…

The other day I went up to a local Christian bookstore and saw a “Honk if you love Jesus” bumper sticker.

I was feeling really good that day because I had just come from a thrilling choir performance, followed by a thunderous prayer meeting, so I bought the sticker and put it on my bumper.

Boy, I’m glad I did! What an uplifting experience that followed!

I was stopped at a red light at a busy intersection, just lost in thought about the Lord and how good He is… and I didn’t notice that the light had changed.

It is a good thing someone else loves Jesus too, because if he hadn’t honked, I’d never have noticed!

I found that LOTS of people love Jesus! Why, while I was sitting there, the guy behind started honking like crazy, and then he leaned out of his window and screamed, “For the love of GOD! GO! GO! Jesus Christ, GO!”

What an exuberant cheerleader he was for Jesus! Everyone started honking!

I just leaned out of my window and started waving and smiling at all these loving people. I even honked my horn a few times to share in the love!

There must have been a man from Florida back there because I heard him yelling something about a “sunny beach”…

I saw another guy waving in a funny way with only his middle finger stuck up in the air.

Then I asked my teenage grandson in the back seat what that meant, he said that it was probably a Hawaiian good luck sign or something.  Well, I’ve never met anyone from Hawaii, so I leaned out the window and gave him the good luck sign back.

My grandson burst out laughing…why, even he was enjoying this religious experience!

A couple of the people were so caught up in the joy of the moment that they got out of their cars and started walking towards me. I bet they wanted to pray or ask what church I attended, but this is when I noticed the light had changed.

So, I waved to all my sisters and brothers, and drove on through the intersection. I noticed I was the only car that got through the intersection before the light changed again and I felt kind of sad that I had to leave them after all the love we had shared, so I slowed the car down, leaned out of the window and gave them all the Hawaiian good luck sign one last time as I drove away.

Praise the Lord for such wonderful folks!  Grandma.

So I am not talking about preaching on street corners, or bumper stickers, or love Jesus T shirts, if anything that turns people off to faith.  But I do want to encourage all of us to consider many different ways we can winsomely share our faith with others.  It might be simply sharing with someone, “when my husband died, I didn’t know how I would make it through, but when I needed it God was there.”  Sharing our faith might be showing up with chain saw to help someone get a tree off of their roof, or showing up with a can of gasoline, when someone is out of gas. Sharing our faith might be offering to pray with a friend in the hospital, or sending a card to a recent graduate letting them know they are in your prayers as they look for a job, or wait to hear from the school of their choice.  Sharing our faith can be showing up to prayer circle, and sending a card to a shut-in.  Sharing our faith can be simply recounting a story of when God touched your life to someone whose life is clouded in doubt.  Sharing our faith can be praying with someone in crisis, “I believe but help my unbelief.”  Sharing our faith can be praying for someone, who has no one else to pray with them or for them.  When we share our faith we touch the lives of others.  We touch their lives in ways we cannot predict and at levels more profound than we can understand.

There is another reason for sharing our faith.  This is a mystery.  When we share our faith with others, our own faith grows stronger.  Faith is like love.  The more we give faith or love away, the more we have.  I’m not talking about the kind of belief system that beats people over the head to try to make them embrace a set of belief statements whether they like it or not.  I am not talking about signing the commitment page of the evangelism pamphlet.  No I am suggesting that there is a quiet, peaceful faith that respects the individual conscience of others.  That reaches out in love to embrace others no matter what other barriers may seem to stand in the way.  A faith that practices hospitality and welcomes all people as precious children of God.  Think about sitting down with a trusted spiritual friend, and recounting the God moments in your personal story, when the divine has touched your life.  As we learn to verbalize our faith stories, our connection with God deepens.  God will uncover further mysteries and lure us ever deeper into the life of faith.  Our “Unbinding Your Heart” study closed with this thought:  “The path to loving community, to forgiveness, to peace, to rest, to healing, to resolution, to justice lies in a growing relationship with God.  Jesus is the answer.  This is the Good News.  Are you going to tell someone?”


What We All Need

Again and again Jesus reached out to people who were considered “unacceptable” by the conventions of polite society.  There were rigid boundaries drawn between the righteous and the unrighteous, the clean and the unclean, women and men, Jews and Gentiles.  Jesus was forever reaching out to the marginalized, the least, and the lost, the unclean proclaiming that God’s grace and compassion overrides the rules.

The woman at the well is perhaps the classic story.  Jesus was reaching across of chasm of centuries of conflict and animosity between Jews and Samaritans.  The Samaritans were the descendants of the ten Northern Tribes of Israel who had broken with the tribes of Judah and Benjamin 800 years before the birth of Jesus.  One second century rabbi claimed that to eat the bread of the Samaritans was the same as eating the flesh of swine.  The animosity of that conflict between Jews and Samaritans had persisted for more than a millennium and rivaled the intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians today.   

Early on Easter Sunday morning, a group of five Israelis were fired upon by a Palestinian Policeman as they drove to pray at the “Tomb of Joseph” in the West Bank.  One of the Israelis, Ben-Yosef Livnat, a Jerusalem resident in his mid-twenties, and the nephew of Limor Livnat, a prominent hardline Cabinet minister from the ruling Likud Party was killed.  Jewish worshippers regularly enter the city of Shechem, also known as Nablus, with a military escort to pray at the building traditionally identified as the grave site of the biblical Joseph, located inside Palestinian-ruled territory.  Those visits are coordinated with the Palestinian police forces.  Israeli and Palestinian officials said this visit was not cleared with either side.   A meeting between the two sides was immediately scheduled to discuss the shooting, the Israeli military reported.  Now please note that the City of Shechem, Nablus, is the site of the Biblical City of Sychar.  Jesus was trying to reach across three thousand years of animosity and hate.

We also should not discount the taboos of contact between the sexes in the Middle East.  I have told the story before of the orthodox Jewish man, who would not get into an airport limousine in Jerusalem, if he was going to have to sit next to Beth, who was a woman and a stranger.  Beth and I had to trade places before the man would get into the van.  I will be interested to hear Madison Paul’s stories, when she returns from Amman Jordan this summer.   Contact between men and women in the Middle East even today is very circumscribed.  And in our story Jesus was speaking to a woman, a stranger, a Samaritan – by every definition an enemy.

In this encounter Jesus was also reaching across another social boundary.  The woman was coming to the well at mid-day in the heat of the day, rather than in the cool of the early in the morning, or the evening, because she was also an outcaste from her own people.  She was a woman who had been used and abused.  Not a prostitute, but a woman who possibly through no fault of her own had been divorced, and who then had attached herself to one man after another in hopes of forming a stable relationship that would provide for her economically.  Divorce in the ancient Near East was very easy for men.  All a man had to do was say three times:  I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you, hand the woman a written bill of divorce, and he was done with her.

In a world where women had few options for earning a living, a suddenly unattached woman labored under a terrible disadvantage.  Often women who were divorced made their way down the food chain of available men, until they scraped the bottom of the barrel.  Her economic prospects were poor, she was likely to suffer abuse, and a caste off woman was looked down upon by the rest of her village.  Certainly Jesus had no business talking to such a woman.

But Jesus was in need.  He was thirsty.  The woman had a jar with a rope to haul up water from the well.  Jesus embraced his need and asked for a drink.  And here let me point out that part of reaching across the chasm of ethnic hate, the separation of the sexes, the social wall between clean and unclean, was Jesus honestly embracing his need.  So often we miss the moment of encounter because we are afraid to be human.

Back on April 10th in the sermon on Servant Leadership I lifted up a quotation from Henri Nouwen’s famous book The Wounded Healer:   “The one who leads forth in strength binds people up.  The  one who leads forth in weakness sets people free.”   And that reminds me of the statement of faith by Pippa Abston that that was supposed to appear in the Huntsville Times on the Friday after the tornado.

Pippa is a wounded healer, and she was courageous enough to embrace her own neediness in her faith statement:

How has faith changed you?  Well, it certainly hasn’t seemed to make me more saintly.  People who spend time with me and see some of the unkind things I do might fairly say “What a fraud! She doesn’t act like a Christian at all.”

I’m still plagued with the same sticky demons I have always fought – mine are impatience, judgmentalism, selfishness, and inflexibility.  Likely there are others I don’t know about yet.

The hilarious thing is that I am most critical of other people who behave judgmentally, or people who seem lazy – and inflexibility is probably a type of laziness, so I’m just as guilty!

We all have our particular faults.  I doubt one is really worse than another.   I can only hope the hurtful things I’ve said or done have at least caused others to take heed and avoid those mistakes themselves.

I’ve tried to remember compassion more as I’ve gotten older, and perhaps over the years, with persistence, my acts of Love will eventually outweigh the rest.

Mainly I’ve learned about suffering from loving those stricken by illness, physical and mental.  I could see how hard life was for the families of my seriously ill patients, but I had never imagined the depth of sorrow I could experience and survive until these things happened in my own family. The pain of witnessing has brought me to my knees.  In comparison, childbirth’s no more than a twinge.

Too often I can do nothing to heal the suffering of my loved ones, other than try to give my unflinching presence.

But no sorrow is really individual.  All joys and all sufferings belong to everyone in the world, because of our inescapable connection to one another.  It is useless to keep a tally!  I have not found that Love lessens the intensity of hurt.  Instead, Love embraces and permeates us in our suffering.  In Love, we are always, always whole.

Pippa, I want to thank you for the courage to share your woundedness and humanness with the rest of us.  Your example may help to set some of the rest of us free to embrace our own neediness and so be able to reach across the barriers that wall us off from one another.

Let me pause a minute and share with you a video of a dramatic monologue of the woman at the well: https://hurstrobert.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/woman-at-the-well.mp4

“To be known is to be loved and to love is to be known otherwise what is point of doing either one in the first place?”  I think that is the real challenge for those of us who try to be the community of faith following Jesus.  Can we courageously share with one another our real hopes and dreams, the demons that distract us, our real prayer needs, so that other people can pray with us and for us?  Can we be that open and honest with one another?  If we can do that, miracles can happen.  For “to be known is to be loved and to love is to be known and we all need this too.  We all need it for our own.”


When God Showed Up

When God Showed Up

I know this is Mother’s Day, and this will not be a traditional Mother’s Day sermon. But I felt that it was important to go ahead and address these issues, while the experience of disaster is fresh in our minds.

Last Sunday when we gathered here in a church without electricity, but in the words of Joe Parker, a sanctuary full of power and light, I asked the question:

“What have you learned?” I want to acknowledge how moved I was by Bill Viall’s sharing about his caregiver finding an infant, dead, and then the mother, dead, and another child, dead. And Bill’s comment, Bill the 83 year old hard bitten engineer, with tears in his eyes saying: “life is fragile, life is precious.”

Since last Sunday I have heard from some other people about what they have learned, and I would like to share some of those insights with you. First, let me share with you some reflections from Rabbi Jonathan Miller, a member of the Birmingham 8, about what he has learned.

These days after the storm are surreal. I went to the dentist early this morning.  The receptionist lives in a mobile home that was on the path of the tornadoes.  Her home survived the storm.  Five lots away, homes are destroyed.  She comes home to her home, without power, and she sees the destruction her neighbors endured on the same street.  She doesn’t know where the neighbors are either.  My dental hygienist has a niece on the Tuscaloosa Police force who was sent to Holt, a neighboring community.  She walked the streets there and found dead children in the debris.  All she could do was cover them up.  One by one, the coroner has to identify the bodies.  The fatalities are not yet counted.  All you can do is cry.

My people in Alabama need God today.  They need God to get them through this devastation.  They need God to give them meaning when they suffer.  They need God to help them get through one lousy day after the next.  They need God to keep them sober and focused and good and generous.  They need God for all that stuff that makes life so damned difficult to get through.  I can talk to them about all the different God options that we have studied and discussed, and you know what they will say to me, “Rabbi, pray with me, pray for me, speak to God, let God know.”

I don’t have it all figured out.  Not by a long shot.  But when the rubber hits the road, friends, lesser people like me and the people in my pews need a message of comfort and purpose and meaning.  And that is what I aim to give them.

I sent an email to my congregation this morning.  I asked them to do lots of things to help our community.  I invited them to a special service for Saturday morning.  I ended it with a religious message:

Finally, on a personal note.  As your rabbi, I cannot promise you that prayer will keep tornados away.  But I can promise you that prayer will help you endure the uncertainty with the knowledge that no one is alone, not now and not ever.  That people suffer in life is a given.  This seems to be our turn.  That our lives are filled with the prayers of others and with a caring God; this is an axiom of faith that gives us meaning and comfort.  Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us.  And we are with each other.

I found that Jonathan Miller’s message after the tornado had an uncanny parallel in what he wrote after our bus accident when our Birmingham 8 Group was traveling in India last summer.

I have never before been involved in an accident of this type. I don’t want to do it again. It was horrible. After we assessed our cuts and bruises, I sat in the back of the minibus and cried and prayed. I had been delivered from injury and death. I was overwhelmed with emotion and the presence of God. It was not as though God protected me or that God had caused the accident. It was that God was with me, and that I was not alone.

We came to India to study religion and learn how people experience God. Today God was with us. We are not alone. We came to find God. But God found us. God does not leave us, even in our moments of terror. No matter where are, with God there is no exile. God does not leave us. Sometimes we learn blessed things the hard way.

When disaster comes close God is near. We connect with the divine in ways that don’t seem available, when we are pursuing our busy everyday humdrum lives. God has to pick us up by the scruff of the neck and give us a good shake, sort of like the scene in Forrest Gump, when the hurricane strikes . . .

Lieutentant Dan: “Where the hell is this God of yours.”

Forrest: “It’s funny Lieutenant Dan said that, because just then, God showed up.”

In that film the experience of the storm moved Lieutenant Dan to express gratitude to Forrest for saving his life in Vietnam. And Forrest then says, to himself, “I reckon Lieutenant Dan made his peace with God.” We connect with the divine, when our experience of adversity moves us to reconnect with gratitude for life.

Someone else who has shared with me something important she learned from the storm is Pippa Abston. Allow me to share some of what she wrote in her blog.

The storms passed.  Online, between images of the twisters and the damage, I began to see photos of people coming forward to help– rescuing the injured, comforting the newly homeless, bringing food and water.  Even in surrounding areas with no damage, strangers seemed kinder.  The hotel desk clerk hugged me.  Drivers slowed to let me merge, instead of rushing forward at the sight of my turn signal.  In the grocery store lines, many let others go ahead of them.  We quit watering our lawns and washing our cars to save precious water for the thirsty.  I expected this– we always seem to locate our better selves after disaster.  After awhile of course, we forget.  We get back to “normal.” Still, every time, I am grateful to find our ability to care for one another remains intact, despite being so often underused.

Here’s what I didn’t hear, not even once:  I didn’t hear anyone say a victim of the tornado was undeserving of help.  I didn’t hear anyone asked if they had heeded the warning sirens, before being pulled from the wreckage.  I didn’t see anyone turned away from the food lines because they had chosen to live in a trailer or because they could have stockpiled food and didn’t.  I didn’t hear anyone ask why these devastated people had lived in Alabama anyway, knowing tornadoes were possible.  And I didn’t notice volunteers checking citizenship papers before offering help.

I heard only “how can I help?” and “it doesn’t matter that I lost my house/stuff/car when others lost their lives.’”  I heard “it could have been me.”

Can you imagine what would happen if we treated each other with the same compassion when it comes to healthcare?  More than 300 people died this week in the storms– more than 45,000 die every year because they can’t afford to go to the doctor.  Sure, some of them could have gotten insurance and didn’t, just the way some of us keep making dinner upstairs when the sirens go off.   We could choose to let that go, knowing we are human and thus prone to error. 

What if we just quit asking or telling sick people what they had done to cause their own trouble?  Let other people into the line ahead of us sometimes?  Counted our blessings?  Didn’t complain about sharing some of our stuff, to save others’ lives?  Conserved our resources out of concern for others?  What if we only said “how can I help?”  What if we really understood that “it could have been me?”

Kristie McShane shared with me a remarkable video, that was made by a University of Alabama student, who was in a house in Tuscaloosa, when the F5 Tornado came roaring down 15th street. Here were four or five college boys huddling together in the dark as the Tornado was shaking the house, where they were sheltering. You hear numerous exclamations like “Holy Shit”, that actually seems like an accurate description of what was going on around them and what they were going through. But more important than the expletives you can hear in the video is: “I love you man.” When the chips were down, these guys were able to overcome their college macho images and express their love for each other.

I love you man. It could have been me. God walks with us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Life is fragile. Life is precious. Even when we didn’t have electricity, we did have spiritual power and light, because we were with one another, and we were praying with and for each other.

God is always with us. We aren’t always with God. We are too busy, too distracted, too full ourselves to connect with the God who is always with us. And occasionally God shows up, and we stop and pray, and once again we know that God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.