Church of the Ascension, Cranston, RI
I was away during the big storm two weeks ago. I heard and read reports about the preparations, the experience, and the damage. I was in touch with churchwide staff based in New York City and had a sense that while some had been displaced, and many were having commuting trouble, most were basically OK and the office building had no damage. I know that many, many people have lost their homes or had their lives massively disrupted. On Wednesday I finally returned to New York City. As I came back into the city I talked to the driver about his experience. His home hadn’t been affected, but he did talk about the driving challenges, including the tunnel closures. As we approached the Midtown Tunnel, he told me it had been closed for a while, and that pumping it dry took three days. By this time we were driving through it, and I said, “Well at least the walls are clean now!” He laughed and laughed, and acknowledged it was true – no more grime – the tile actually sparkles.
I’ve started to hear stories about what happened with some of our staff whose power was out for days – one said how much he appreciated spending whole days together with his family. And others talk about the response of utility workers, neighbors, and strangers, all pitching in to do whatever they can to help. Some cut up trees that had fallen on neighbors’ cars and homes. People who had electricity strung extension cords out to the curb so strangers could charge cell phones. Volunteers started climbing the stairs in big apartment buildings that didn’t have power or heat, to look for the elderly and disabled. Truly amazing things happened.
What do we expect when disaster strikes? That’s actually what Jesus and the four disciples are talking about. The disciples are oohing and aahing over the big and imposing temple building in Jerusalem – nothing could touch that, could it? Jesus says, ‘just wait.’ And they want to know, ‘how long?’ Well, he says, look around you – war and violence, earthquake and famines – and floods. All of that is pretty normal, but it’s not the end – yet! It’s the beginning of something new – it’s labor pains.
There are others around us who see disaster and assume that it’s God’s judgment on an unfaithful world. Jesus actually says something quite different. The chaos in our lives brings the possibility of new life, if we can see it and discover it. Jesus’ resurrection is God’s response to the evil and destruction of the world. Some of us see death and an end to things, but God says, no, I am doing a new thing even when the world looks darkest.
That doesn’t mean life is going to be all sweetness and light. Life will certainly be hard and painful at times, but consider what it takes to bring a new life into the world. That new child we expect is a sign of hope in the midst of fear – and it takes blood, sweat, and tears and a whole lot of hard work to bring it into the world. Some have said that mothers would never have a second child if they only remembered the pain involved. A new father told me last week that leaving his week-old son to go on a business trip was the hardest thing he’s ever done. Our ability to keep on living tells of our willingness to keep looking for new possibility even when others around us only see suffering or death. What keeps all of us hoping, and expecting, and searching for new life – and partnering with God to produce it?
The sheer level of human cooperation in the face of this storm has been phenomenal. The number of human beings who walked into dangerous places, endured sleepless nights, climbed up countless flights of stairs in search of lonely and frightened strangers – that doesn’t seem to me like a reason to give up hope. It sounds like an experience of God’s ability to create something new out of death and disaster. Yet the hardest part is the eternal question about why the death and disaster don’t just go away, why the pain doesn’t end. Jesus turns that question around and says, ‘do you see death and destruction? Well, stay tuned, pay attention, for new life is coming.’
That doesn’t take away the suffering, but it can change our experience of it. If we can remember, or someone can remind us, that God is with us in the middle of it, maybe we can discover something to hope for – like the new life that is always coming to birth. If we can remember, or our neighbors remind us, that God is already doing a new thing in the midst of death and darkness, maybe we can give a name to the new life to come, and begin to live as though it were already arriving. What is your first reaction to a crisis? What’s your second response? The work of communities like this one is to help us look for the light, to reach out for God, and the image of God in our neighbors, when the night is darkest.
I have two friends whose wives have died in the last year. One died very suddenly in her bed while her husband was away on a business trip. He was grief-stricken at the funeral – and he was clear about his own faith. Life was changed, yet he was clear that it hadn’t ended for either of them. His life has not been easy, but he has grieved and grown and reinvested in a new relationship. That new partner is now dying. What will he hope for?
My other friend’s wife had a cancer that took six months to kill her. It was a time of amazing grace, as she sought treatment, fought hard, and finally decided the treatments were keeping her from living fully in the time she had. Her love continued to flow out in phenomenal abundance to her family, friends, and neighbors, even as her physical strength ebbed. Her funeral was a testimony to resurrection, and her husband is finding his journey filled with hope. He knows who’s been walking with him through the valley of the shadow of death.
What do we expect when death and disaster come? The hope that helps us find new life is grounded in what we know of God’s overflowing graciousness, in the assurance that God is with us even in the darkest night, even on the cross of torture and suffering and injustice, even in the tomb, and that God will stand with us on the day of resurrection. Most of us learn that reality through seeing it happen in the lives of people around us, and those who have gone before us. And when we begin to discover that we ourselves are incapable of controlling every part of life, maybe we can begin to trust that even in the midst of the worst of the unexpected, God’s grace will continue to gush forth in a fountain of abundance, and we just might discover a resurrected life being brought into the light of day.
The next time disaster or crisis enters your life, who and what will help you discover labor pains rather than death? Sometimes the surest way is to be Christ to another, to be suffering servant in the face of death – like neighbors in the storm. And sometimes it is to be the neighbor befriended by the face of God in human flesh.
Turn and look at your neighbors. Can you see the face of God?
May God bless us with eyes filled with hope.