Thursday, November 15, 2012

Signs of the End? (Reflections on Pentecost 25)

I made my first visit to New York City in 1985. My girlfriend at the time wanted to see the Statue of Liberty, but we didn't have time for the harbor ferry. We decided that the best place to see Lady Liberty would be from the observation deck on the top floor of the World Trade Center. I remember my ears popping in the elevator as we rose high above the Manhattan skyline. It was like being in an airplane. I never could imagine on that bright April day, looking out from what was at that time the second tallest building on the planet, the events of September 11, 2001.

Then Jesus asked, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." (Mark 13: 2)

The great temple of Jerusalem must have been the grandest thing these hick disciples from Galilee had ever seen. I'm sure they never could imagine such a magnificent structure--the symbol of their nation's relationship with Almighty God--lying in ruins. The very thought  made their blood run cold.

"Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" (Mark 13: 4)

But Jesus never gives them the straight skinny. In fact, he even admits that he doesn't know. (v. 32) He does, however, warn them that unpleasant things will be occurring. False rulers, earthquakes, war, and famine. And these are just for starters.

Shit happens.

In fact, it's been happening for a long time.

A needless war in Iraq and a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan.
2008--the whole US economy goes into the tank.
A nuclear meltdown in Japan.
Civil war in Syria. More war in Gaza. A potentially nuclear-armed Iran.
Earthquake in Haiti.
Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Irene. Hurricane Sandy. Climate change. Rising oceans.
People actually watching Jersey Shore and The Bachelor (Certain signs of the decay of civilization!)

So what do we do? Build a bomb shelter? Head for the hills with supplies and ammunition? Wait for the Rapture?

Here's what I'm thinking: If Jesus doesn't know, then I'm not going to worry about it. I'm going to decide that my life will not be about the things that happen, but rather about how I choose to embrace them. I believe in a Lord who was both crucified and resurrected. I will look to the God of creation who holds the entire cosmos in his hands, and I will not despair. I will not surrender to fear or selfishness. As Jesus could speak words of love, hope, and forgiveness even from the agony of the cross, I will try--to the best of my puny ability--to imitate him in my circumstances. Yes, troubles will come, but he promises that these are the beginnings of the birth pangs. That is, when the pain is over, something new will be here--and it will be wonderful.

Stones crumble. The Word of God endures forever.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

For All the Saints After Hurricane Sandy

"Jesus began to weep."
                                  (John 11:35)

"Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken."
                                (Isaiah 25:8)

The following is from my journal dated November 2, 2012, The Feast of All Souls:

"Back at the bakery this morning after the wrath of Hurricane Sandy. It's hard for me to wrap my mind around this catastrophe as my wife and I escaped the hurricane unscathed and virtually without even notice--even though the eye of the horrible thing passed almost directly over our home! Yet, as I sit here swinishly enjoying my hazelnut coffee and cinnamon roll, thousands--no, HUNDREDS of thousands--are without electrical power or heat. Homes and neighborhoods are turning into soggy, putrid composts of detritus, scatter, and filth. Piles of decaying crap awash in bacteria were once peoples' homes. This bitch has cost over 80 human lives and counting, flooded lower Manhattan, and put Long Beach Island under water. There is nothing left on parts of the Jersey shore but sand, destruction, and emotional pain.

"Granted, not being from this part of the world myself, I have no blissful memories of summer at the Jersey shore. Nevertheless, my heart still goes to those who will miss their favorite amusement pier, boardwalk, Doo-Wop motel, ice cream parlor, shore house, or bed and breakfast. I have officiated literally hundreds of funerals during my tenure as pastor in Northeast Philly, and just about every family has some memory of their departed loved one which is connected to 'down duh shore.' It feels as if a chunk of our collective soul has been ripped out.

"And yet, here I sit: high, dry, and well fed. How did I get so lucky as to be spared from the evil force of this tempest? To be honest, Marilyn and I weren't so sure how we'd fare. The storm began Sunday night, and we watched its dreadful progress on CNN and The Weather Channel. We'd stocked up on gasoline, withdrew cash, bought food and water, and I brought my portable battery in from the car, prepared for the loss of electric power. The governor declared a state of emergency and a ban on travel, effectively locking us indoors to secure us from the 80 mile-per-hour winds and gushing rain. By Monday night, the wind from the 1,000 mile wide monster was screaming against our east-facing windows.

"Now, I have lived through the Barneveld, WI tornado of '83, the L.A. riots of '92, and the Northridge earthquake of '94, so I can sleep through just about anything. Marilyn, on the other hand, lay awake and anxious most of the night.

"In the morning, our little part of New Jersey was still outside our window. No trees down. No flooding as we are near no bodies of water. The LED digital clock on the stove said the power was still on. A call from my secretary assured me that Faith Lutheran Church had come through the night like a breathless champion. Power stayed on. The pump pumped. The basement didn't flood. The steeple--newly reinforced after Hurricane Irene--was still standing at attention, announcing to the citizens of the Millbrook neighborhood the loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The dead tree did not topple. We had dodged the bullet.

"I finish my coffee, and prepare for my morning's chore--taking the dog to the groomers. How strange it seems that, within a few hours drive from where I am, lives are in wreckage."

+     +     +     +
How do we mourn? Collectively, I would hope. Remembering that even Jesus wept.
We put our arms around each other and share our grief, so that the isolating shame of our pain will somehow be expunged by our honest, heroic sharing, our mutual empathy, and our compassion. And somewhere, in the love that unites us through our pain, we remember the promises of God.
And so we hope.
God be with you, my friends. Please pray for all of the victims of Hurricane Sandy, and do what you can to come to their aid.