When God Showed UpPosted: May 6, 2011
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 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.
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.