Getting Traction in Sand(y)

I was in church this morning, preaching to a congregation who have seen high water where it never has been before, boats in the middle of golf courses, homes blowing up in the midst of hurricane winds, families rushing out of their houses as knee-deep water in the street became chest-deep in a matter of a few moments. In other words, I was talking with a group of people who have to be, in some measure, in a state of shock.

And with much less reason, they were hearing from a preacher in a similar state. The two weeks and more since Hurricane Sandy have felt like the dislocation of some vital bone somewhere in the leg, a dislocation quite real, but matched with a need just as real to keep on moving. There has been no time to stop, and no place to seek treatment if you did. To see the deep need of the residents of Far Rockaway and a single priest and volunteers trying to help was to be moved deeply. To sit in that priest’s office and watch the daylight quickly fading into pitch blackness and cold, while snow fell and covered the shapes of Sandy’s destruction was near overwhelming. To be in the midst, without power or effective communication, and try to garner a sense of what really was going on and what needed to happen, was almost surreal. To sit in a powerless home in darkness was to sink backwards into another time, but without even the tools that the people of that time used to survive and grow.

Each day throughout these weeks, while the offices of the Diocese of Long Island remained consistently without power in a scarred landscape of destroyed trees, the Bishop’s senior staff met every morning online and by phone to seek to respond across the expanse of need. Members of that group have been nothing less than heroic. This writer found in himself few skills to contribute to that effort, but a constant aching prayer for the healing of our common dislocation, beginning with the littlest, the loneliest, the coldest.

Behind the many crying needs that remain this evening, as darkness falls on a Long Island somewhat brighter and warmer than it has been, are four fundamentals in the background. These four can serve us well not only now but in the days to come, all of them.

Compassion. Hearts open in love transform a moment of horror into a moment of human bonding. The willingness to embrace one another, and to suffer with and for one another, is the willingness to be Christ for one another. Since baptism that is exactly what we have been called and enabled to be. Compassion in ways both monumental and simple is here in abundance. The willingness to give. The desire to volunteer. The homes with heat taking in those people without and housing them for weeks until they might be able to go and rebuild a place to call home. The Church of Saints Luke and Matthew in Brooklyn, its sanctuary filled pew to pew from front to back with goods bought and sent from all over the country, dispensed from there with efficiency and love. Area congregations sending things and people with willing hands and hearts to set that place and others humming. Compassion.

Creativity. In a scene at points of almost primeval chaos, as in Breezy Point in Queens, the human capacity to make things happen in a new way is unleashed, Churches work together across the practically-meaningless boundaries that separate them from ordinary Sunday to Sunday. A parish links to the energy and know-how of the Occupy movement, here under the name Occupy Sandy. A connection to Amazon.com allows anyone anywhere to send needed materials and goods directly into the hands of those who need them. Creativity.

Commitment. The Bishop of Long Island, in a pastoral letter read in the parishes of the diocese today, calls us to recognize that coming again to ‘wholeness’ is going to take time. The effort is not only to be in these first days and weeks. It is going to take a sustained decision to stay with one another, especially the most broken, to bring us toward healing. There’s still a time of hurting ahead. Commitment.

Community. This devastation unleashed from sky and ocean is, oddly enough, a revealer and birther of community. Thrown out of our ordinary lives forcibly, thrown together onto ruined coasts and standing by the treasure of lifetimes lying on the curbside waiting to be carted away, individuals and families have been reminded that they really do care for one another, that they belong to one another. And further, it becomes apparent that this true belonging extends beyond each church, beyond each town. It includes the unseen hearts ordering and sending love in the form of generators from computer screens a thousand miles away. It stretches across lines of ethnicity and race, a bracing call to simply be human with one another. And to know that that is meant to be something God-given and marvelous. Community.

Compassion. Creativity, Commitment. Community. These four gifts have come swirling to us out of the maelstrom that was Sandy. I have seen them taking root in the mess, They give us traction to move through and beyond.

Election Day Journal 2012 (I)

I woke this morning at 4:00 am. My first thought was, “this is Election Day.” It was with a sense of anticipation, lively anticipation, of the significance of this event. Here in New York, and certainly in New Jersey and other places as well, people are still in the fairly early stages of picking up the pieces and embracing the wounded following Hurricane Sandy. I walked up the hill here in East Norwich, New York to vote at the James Henry Vernon School. The school building has power, but it hasn’t operated as school since the waning days of October. But it was humming today with folks coming together to exercise their right to vote. I live in a bastion of Republicanism. Mitt Romney was here in Oyster Bay for a couple of fundraisers through the campaign. Teddy Roosevelt sits astride his beloved horse as route 106 enters the village.

I walked up that hill past innumerable downed trees and an electrical system strung together with skillful and obviously temporary repairs. Workers from all over are here doing that work. I walked into the school gym, and I couldn’t look and tell the members of one party from another. (Maybe they could tell me, as the scruffy winter beard is three days in!). But I saw people. People who live with one another, who care for one another, and who want the best for this place and, I hope, for this entire people from coast to coast. We have disagreements on how to get to the best and fulfill those hopes. Some of us – by a measure I am content to leave to God – are actually more right than others in how we hope to proceed to the future. But these are all good people.

The school is named for a local man who lived, loved, farmed and gave here all his life. A website on the school says this about James Henry Vernon:

James H. Vernon was born in East Norwich on August 31, 1873 in the home he would live in for his entire life. He died there in 1948 at the age of 75. Both Mr. Vernon’s father, Henry, and his grandfather, Jackson Vernon, were born in East Norwich. Mr. Vernon attended the local East Norwich school then located on North Hempstead Turnpike. He also attended Friends Academy for a short time traveling to Locust Valley on horseback.

Mr. Vernon was a farmer whose home was located across from the East Norwich Pond. He was always active in local community affairs like organizing the first volunteer fire department at East Norwich and served as its first foreman in 1912. Mr. Vernon was elected to the Board of Trustees of East Norwich Schools in 1916 and he remained active for 26 years in that organization. The first twenty years of Mr. Vernon’s service was as chairman of the Board of Trustees. At one time, Mr. Vernon was the President of the Board of Trustees. Mr. Vernon was known by the name “Governor” to his friends. Click here for more.

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