Monday, September 25, 2017

Irma, Justice and Me

I was part of a meeting with regional and national denominational officials yesterday to discuss our response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.  Naturally, much of our conversation focused around our immediate area here in Southwest Florida and our own experiences of Hurricane Irma.  Stories were shared, statistics analyzed, offers of help made, preliminary plans discussed for actions to be taken, and so on. 

One of the issues that got raised was the connection between charity and justice.  How do we see the impact of underlying systemic issues on disaster situations?  I've been giving that some thought over the last twenty-four hours.  And as I drove to work this morning, and rode down the main drag (let's face it, the only drag) through the island, I couldn't help but be impressed by how much progress has been made in cleaning up the mounds and mounds of vegetative debris that lined the street just last week.  It's not all gone, but it is so much better!

But of course that's happened quickly.  This is an island of means.  We are fortunate to have the resources, both human and financial, to do such things quickly and well.  But there are other places, not so many miles from here, where such clean up will take months and months.  In part because of greater damage to begin with (for many homes in such places are made of substandard materials or are poorly constructed mobile homes), and in part because of a lack of resources.
And here's the irony:  most of the folks doing the actual clean-up work here on the island, live in those places that will still be buried in debris in the months ahead.

Hurricane Katrina brought up many of these issues over a decade ago.  But I am afraid we still haven't taken it all to heart.  As Harvey and Irma and most especially Maria, are showing us once again.

Monday, September 18, 2017

After Irma

"We dodged a bullet!"  So read the local daily paper's headline after the storm passed.
And so we did.  Irma certainly brought some real damage to our area, but nothing like what might have resulted had we endured the predicted storm surge of fifteen feet.  It will take a while to get things cleaned up and back in shape, but by-and-large, we made out well.  Here.  On Sanibel.  In Fort Myers where I live.  But not everywhere.

A friend of mine noted in one of her Facebook posts during the last week that she hesitates to say we were blessed by not being hit so hard.  She is on to something when she notes that it raises disturbing questions.  Does that mean places like Barbuda and St. Thomas and Key West and Marco Island were not blessed?  Does that mean they were cursed in some way?

There are those who thank God that the storm didn't do more harm here than it did.  And that is appropriate. We must be grateful for all the good things in our lives.  But God didn't steer the storm in another direction.  God didn't bless us and curse others by bending and twisting Irma's path.  We can, and should, thank God for the many blessings we have, but not if we think we are somehow blessed and therefore others must be counted as cursed.  That's a zero-sum approach.  Everything in the end must zero out.  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  It may be good physics (though there are those who would debate that point as well), but it makes for just plain bad theology.

We are all blessed, loved, accepted, by God.  That love, that acceptance, is unlimited and is not parceled out to some and not to others.  Period.

But there is also a lot of pain, a lot of destruction, a lot of damage in our world.  And it is our task to share that love in and through our responses to Irma, Harvey, the wildfires out west, and all the other ways people are hurting in our world.

Now that we've dodged a bullet, how will we live?  That's the real question. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Waiting for Irma

And so we wait.  We've made arrangements for shelter.  We've put the yard in order--brought in any projectiles, taken down statuary and locked doors and gates.  We've gotten mother's condo buttoned up.  We've filled a portable filebox with our insurance policies, passports and so forth.  We've stocked up on bottled water, flashligths and batteries.  Wonderful volunteers and staff members at church have gotten things ready there.  We've cancelled church services and activities this weekend.  We've done what we've needed to do to prepare for Hurricane Irma.  And now we just wait.  Wait and pray.

Not that God will suddenly stop the storm in its tracks.  I don't believe God works that way.  No, praying for patience, serenity, courage and wisdom so that I might face the time ahead.

Over the years I've discovered many powerful truths as I've worked with twelve-step spirituality.  And one twelve-step slogan seems especially appropriate today.  Zero expectations. Not denial.  It is important to acknowledge the realities we face in life.  But we should avoid both debilitating negativity and false hope.  There are all sorts of possibile outcomes over the next few days, but they are beyond our control.  Yes, we need to prepare.  But beyond that, we must wait it out, trusting that God will give us the strength to handle things as they come along.

I also have taken great comfort in the Serenity Prayer.  I am convinced it holds the key to how we can move through these challenging times.  God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change--like when and where the hurricane will hit, like how strong it will be when it passes over us, like what sort of damage will be incurred.  I cannot change those things, and I will be far more serene if I accept that reality. Courage to change the things I can--like the preparations we've already undertaken, like my willingness to work with others as part of a term, like my attitude and behavior.  Courage, after all, is fear that has said its prayers. Wisdom to know the difference--which requires a measure of patience and a willingness to listen to others.

When I was a seminarian my school's president once wrote in a letter of reference that I needed to learn patience.  In many ways, I am still taking that course almost forty years later.  But with the help of these simple twelve-step concepts, and the grace of God, I am learning every day a bit more about what it means to wait.

Might your waiting be blessed with patience, serenity, courage and wisdom.  Might it be blessed by God's grace.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

On Dealing with Fear

It was during the 1932 presidential campaign that Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."  In the midst of the Great Depression, as millions faced poverty, unemployment, displacement from their homes, and so on, it was a rather brash thing to say.  Yet he got elected, and in time, the economy did improve. Setting aside the fact that many historians believe what really pulled us out of the Depression was World War II,  the reality was people did go back to work, and a sense of purpose returned to the nation.

I suppose it could be argued that Roosevelt was able utter such a bromide because he was among the financially secure of his day.  He wasn't unemployed.  He wasn't impoverished.  He hadn't lost his home. But still, he was speaking a real truth that is important for us to hear on this particular day here in Florida, across the nation and around the world.  For there are some real threats out there: the increasing concern about the sabre rattling with North Korea and the possibility of nuclear war; the uncertainty faced by so many children and young people who may lose the protections they have received under DACA; the wild fires out west, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and the concerns about  Hurricane Irma.  It is all very frightening.

But that said, what next?  If we allow fear to overtake us, if we become paralyzed by our anxieties and concerns, then we are sunk.  Fear itself has done us in.  But if we acknowledge our fears, recognize that they are real, turn them over to God and ask for a greater ability to identify what we can do to help address them, then we are on our way to dealing with the matters at hand. 

Eleven years before Roosevelt was campaigning for President, a poem by Karle Wilson Baker was published in Poetry:  A Magazine of Verse.  It's a short little bit of poetry called "Courage".  It's final two lines are a powerful reminder for all of us in these anxious times as well:
Courage is Fear
That has said its prayers.
Might you be courageous in the days ahead.