Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Coming to My Senses

In the last few weeks I’ve become consumed with a great many worries. Some of these worries we carry together…unrelenting war, the deepening of poverty in our country and world, a mortgage and credit crisis that is pinching many families, the costs of food and energy, a spiritual malaise that deprives us of the life and dignity that God intends for us all. I also carry the concern for how best to answer God’s claim on my life as I work to lead this community of faith forward in discerning God’s preferred future for our congregation. On top of all of this, Sally and I are preparing to send a daughter to college in an uncertain world where the costs of such an education continue to rise. I have been consumed. In the last couple of days, I’ve come to my senses and realized that I’ve been wandering in the wilderness in this worry.

It is so easy to get here. We start out with giving these worries, needs and concerns to God. We know that giving these things to God is something that God welcomes. We know that worrying about such things very often gets in our way with a deepening relationship with God. Pretty soon after we stop giving these worries, needs and concerns to God our focus turns inward and we lose sight of God. It’s very much like a trip to the store with young children. We make sure that the child knows that it is important that he/she pay attention to us and not get separated. How many times does the child get distracted by something of interest, look away and then realize that they’ve lost sight of you. How easy it is for us to get distracted by the many things that weigh on us and then lose sight of God’s movement in our life.

That moment of coming to our senses can be a difficult moment. It can be a moment of panic. It can be a moment of confusion. It can be a moment of paralysis as we don’t know where next to go or how to find our way back to God and back to the path. “Now what?” I think we can take a lesson from the National Park Service. When lost in the wilderness, the rangers will remind people to not go wandering. Searchers have a better chance of finding you if you stay put. Spiritually speaking this is what the Psalmist proclaims in the 40th Psalm when he writes: “I waited patiently for the Lord, in time God hear my cry. He lifted my feet upon the rock out of the miry bog.” When I came to my senses and realized where I was, I simply waited for and looked for God in the silence of my wilderness. As I began to relinquish the death grip on the things that worried and distracted me, I felt the refreshing and life giving movement of the Holy Spirit. God came to me to renew me, take me by the hand and raise my feet upon the rock.

In a world where there is a lot to worry about…In a world that is looking less and less like we’re used to seeing it, it is easy to be consumed by our own needs, worries and fears. Even when we grow in our discipleship, trust and relationship with God we will never completely outgrow our distractability. The grace and the good news is that even when we are so distracted, God is never absent from us. God will and does continue to sustain us even though we may not realize it at the time. When we come to our senses and engage the trust to wait for the Lord, to look for the Lord who is present, God will indeed always raise our feet upon the rock.

Our life, our world and our future is in God’s hands. This doesn’t mean there won’t be trials. This doesn’t mean that we won’t face adversity. The path to the life that God has in mind for us means that we continue to walk through an uncertain world. Because of what God has shown us in the cross and resurrection of Christ we can walk through this uncertain world in faith and trust. When we pledge our self to this path, God, by His grace, will always encourage and strengthen us to walk this path.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Pentecost Has New Meaning

The incredible blessings that I received yesterday yielded some unexpected results today. As we came to the house today there was a spirit of strength that washed over me. Experiencing with such depth and power the reason that we were all in Mississippi doing the work that we were doing brought with it a power that overcame a very slow morning. Let’s just say that the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. We’ve been working pretty hard and after a very rich meal last night (our team went to a local restaurant) I was really slow getting moving. When we got to the house all of that changed.

We had a larger crew this morning. Because of the amount of work and the urgency to get this house online, we brought in additional people from our larger crew. Dave, our team leader, did a stellar job moving us around the house to maximize our work. I finished framing a doorway in the upstairs hallway. This was a project that I had begun yesterday and ran out of material to finish. It didn’t take long to finish the job, and then I got to work with my colleague from the San Dieguito church on hanging drywall. We split up the work and went after it. Even though there was a pretty strong wind outside, the temperature was warming up and the southerly wind was pumping humidity into the region. The upstairs got warmer and warmer. As warm as it was, I was completely undeterred. I was extraordinarily energized to continue the work. I realized that each nail pounded, each piece of drywall hung got the house one step closer to occupy. Each piece of the project we completed in this house moved the Gulfside Assembly one step closer to being rebuilt that it might continue its vital ministry on the Gulf Coast.

This energizing had only one source. I know that it was the work of the Holy Spirit in me and through me that moved me and motivated me. The way I felt this morning when I woke up, the Spirit’s power is the only thing that could motivate me. Through the course of the afternoon as I began the journey home, I began to experience the realization that I have experienced a new and deeper lesson of Pentecost. I came to Mississippi looking for Jesus. I was totally open to experiencing the power and presence of Christ in a new way in my life. I had no idea what this new experience would look like, but that didn’t deter me. I sought to be open, aware and prayerful. I sought to be faithful to the mission that I was called to do in Mississippi. In this, Christ revealed himself to me in the work, through my teammates and through the people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The Pentecost experience and the power of the Holy Spirit are about God’s work of claiming and empowering ordinary people who seek to be faithful to their calling in Christ to do extraordinary things in the world. The Spirit can, and does work independently of us, but like on the day of Pentecost when Peter and the others, through faith and trust in Christ opened themselves up to the Spirit’s movement, the world was never again the same. I experienced that power in Mississippi this week and I look forward to sharing that experiencing and looking for that experience in Murrieta.

Come Holy Spirit, Come!!!

From the skies over northern Alabama, May 8, 2008, 10:35 pm.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

What it’s All About

Today was an extraordinary blessing. It was unexpected, as so many blessings are. I began my day back at Robert’s house and spent some time sanding and looking over the drywall mudding we did yesterday. Our crew had heard that a move was coming. There was another house that needed some immediate work. Mid-morning our crew leader came back, loaded us and took us to a home that was being rebuilt from sticks. It was part of a neighborhood that had been inundated with water and silt from a the storm surge and a nearby flooded river. This job would consist of a large drywall job and some other carpentry projects to move it forward to get it habitable. We arrived at the house and dove right in. There we met Tony who was on-site as something of a foreman.

We didn’t get a chance to talk with Tony at any great length in the morning because we had to get on the job. However, he joined us for lunch and shared his story. He talked about his life before and after Katrina. He talked about the devastation and explained more of what we were seeing around us. Some of the pictures that I have show trees that are little more than sticks, waiting for the next storm to blow them over. Tony explained that the force of the wind picked up saltwater from the Gulf and not only stripped the vegetation clean, but also sandblasted the trunks. Tony shared stories of how the insurance companies wanted to raise rates 400% immediately after the storm. The state stepped in and limited their increase to 99%.

The most beautiful thing that he shared with us from his story occurred after the storm. A few days after the storm he and his wife were driving back from Birmingham and stopped at a gas station to fill up (how they came to that station is another story altogether). While at the gas station they were talking with a woman whom they just met. This woman and her family had two homes, one in town, and one out in the country. This woman offered Tony and his wife, whom she’d just met, the use of her country home for as long as they needed it. A complete stranger offers shelter to this family in need…as I type this story I can hear the words of Jesus echo throughout my spirit – whenever you do this to the least of these members of my family you do it unto me. The Spirit of Christ is indeed moving powerfully in this world.

What made this day extraordinarily special was what came at the end of the day. We ended our day a little early because we had a celebration to go to. One of UMCOR’s clients was able to move back into his home. I’ve been to many housing blessings in my ministry and this is always a great privilege. Today as I stood with all the people working out of Gulfside this week, placing my hand on that home and asking God’s blessings I could feel the Spirit moving in our midst. This is what it’s all about: One family at a time getting people back into their homes. Over 100 volunteers worked on that home taking it from sticks to what it is today. The owner was so grateful and he knew and bore witness to the fact that it was the Spirit of Christ that made it all possible. This experience makes this week all worthwhile. Through the course of the day, I had three different people say to me that they didn’t know how they’d get by and reclaim their homes without the church’s help and the work of the volunteers. That is why I am in Mississippi this spring. That is why we will take a large contingent from Murrieta UMC and return to continue to serve.

The final blessing of the day came when I discovered who would be living in the house we were moved to today. When I met Wilma at the end of the day, I assumed she would be living there. Later I found out that the home was being prepared for the new Director of Gulfside Assembly, the camp where we are staying and staging from. This Camp, with this incredible history, which was so utterly devastated and chose first to serve rather than be served, is about to be rebuilt so that it may continue its camping and retreat ministry. The new Director is tasked with making that happen. I feel incredibly blessed and privileged to care for and support the life and ministry of this person.

From Waveland, MS, May 7, 2008, 9:26 pm.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Do Crawfish Really Migrate?

The week is settling into a pretty busy routine. Today was a full and hard day of work. The house I moved to yesterday afternoon was the site of today’s work…a day full of drywall, mudding and taping. I actually learned something useful. The owner of the home constantly amazes me at his drive to reclaim his life and his home. I feel a little convicted about how easy it is for me to do things other than invest time and effort in my home.

The question posed in the title of this blog is a little frivolous but it is born out of the unique character of this part of the world. As we were driving home from our sight yesterday we noticed several houses that had these curious mud mounds in their yards. No one in the van knew what they were so we had several speculations. Some thought they might be some sort of bird that nested in the ground. Some thought that they might be wasp nests in the ground. Still others thought that they might be anthills…after all, this is fire ant country. There were no conclusions. Today as we were wrapping up our day we were talking with our homeowner and he informed us that those mud volcanoes are mad by crawfish. They live underground in this part of the world and when it rains they push the mud up through the ground to allow oxygen to get down to their homes. Then Robert informed us that the crawfish will migrate the rivers, streams, lakes and drainage canals that crisscross the region. These migrations will even take them to the freeway (I-10) where they will cross the freeway and people have been know to pull over with coolers and start throwing the crawfish into them…et-tufe anyone?

Since I’ve gotten through the initial shock of the stripped trees, abandon driveways, stilted houses and all that the aftermath of Katrina has held I am able to engage in a sense of wonder at the truly unique place and culture that I find here. I must admit that until this afternoon I never considered or even cared, for that matter, whether or not crawfish migrate. This serves as a simple reminder of how easy it is to miss the wonders of the world we live in. This has been a day blessed with a strong sense of possibility. With each piece of drywall, every nail hammered, every pass with the drywall mud Robert and his family moved one step closer to occupying their new home. With each new family that moves into their new home, the region is one step closer to recovering and reclaim what Katrina had taken away. Each step closer to recovery is one step closer to healing. It was indeed a good day.

From Waveland, MS, May 6, 2008, 10:30 pm.

Monday, May 05, 2008

What Would It Take?

This is a thought that runs through my mind as I walk the gulf shore neighborhood neat Camp Gulfside. There is a lot of rebuilding going on in the Waveland area. In fact, today I met two different homeowners on whose homes I worked. Each of these homeowners is receiving grant assistance to rebuild and they are investing a good deal of sweat equity in the project. These two families are working hard to reclaim what was taken by the Gulf.

The house that I worked on in the morning is about 3 miles inland from the Gulf. When the storm surge came through this neighborhood it was at least 20 feet deep…3 miles inland. For this family rebuilding seemed to be very matter of fact…likewise for the house that I hung sheetrock in this afternoon. This family took extraordinary measures to build their home to be as hurricane resistant as possible. They are less than two miles inland. This young family was going to do everything they could do to weather the next storm.

There is plenty of evidence of like minded families in this region of the Gulf Coast. There are a number of homes that have been rebuilt of brick. Others have been built on stilts, some even as tall as 25 feet off the ground. I have to admit there is a certain ‘three little pigs’ quality to what I’m seeing. Every one who is rebuilding is trying to be prepared for the next big hurricane. There is a resilience that is pretty amazing given the stories that I’ve heard.

There is however, another side that is painfully visible. Within a short walk from the camp, there are a number of driveways that come up from Beach Blvd. and go nowhere. To walk about these driveways, many overgrown from what would seem to be years of neglect and abandonment, there is a sadness that washes over you when you realize that there is no home. With some of these lots there is no foundation left. There is no way to know for sure if the slabs were washed away by the storm or simply demolished after the storm. The driveways seem sadly out of place and forlorn. Where the slab is gone there is no way to know for sure the size of the house, but it seems apparent that some of them were fairly good size homes. Many of these homes were such that you could walk out the driveway across the road and out onto a dock that went some distance over the water. Now, the pilings are the only remnants.

One particular lot captured my attention. This is a corner lot of some good size. There was what appeared to be a fairly new swimming pool. The trees were large, mature and though cut back now seemed once to be majestic. From one tree there was the rusted chain which no doubt held a swing. A second tree had hanging from it a now frayed rope. A beautiful Gulf Coast home with a pool, a swing, and large shady trees to climb would have been an idyllic place to grow up. The whole scene seemed to exude memories, now in the form of ghosts of what had been. The lot was overgrown and nailed to a tree was a plaintive sign, almost a plea, “For Sale”. This was not a slick realtor sign. It was simple and handwritten with a number to call.

What is the difference between these families? What could possibly account for the different response? What could have happened in the heart and head of a family who seemed to be giving up so much for them to turn from their memories and leave? I have no answers. I’m not sure there are answers. I’m not sure there needs to be answers. The response is simple…either one steps forward to rebuild, to reclaim what had been taken from them, or one doesn’t.

In our life of faith we have the same choices when battered by the storm. Either we, by God’s grace and with God’s help, reclaim our life or we don’t. Either we recognize that God raises us up from the pit and sets our feet on a rock or we remain bogged down in the mire. The choice is ours to make. The path to follow is always before us.

From Waveland Mississippi, May 5, 2008 5:40 pm.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Greetings from Waveland, Mississippi

After much anticipation I’ve arrived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived, but I was still shocked at the extent to which the devastation is still evident. I had the good fortune of getting a small tour as we travelled west from the Gulfport/Biloxi Airport to Waveland. We passed through the communities of Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis and Waveland on our way to United Methodist Camp Gulfside located right on the Gulf of Mexico. My guide was a relief worker assigned to supervisor one of the other UM relief sites. He has been here long enough to get the lay of the land and to know some of the stories. As we drove along the coast the 25 miles from the airport to our final destination I was blown away by the stories of wind and water.

Three years later the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina is still a study of contrasts. Brand new houses and signs of life are interspersed with broken and deformed trees, empty foundations, driveways that go nowhere and orphaned stilts that were designed to raise a house high enough to avoid the storm surge of a hurricane. Old plantation homes, small cottages, modest family homes, houses of worship, businesses, municipal buildings, bridges, rail lines, sewers, water, gas and electricity, none were strong enough to withstand the force of the wind and water that came ashore with the eye of the storm right at the place where I write this post from. Nearly three years post-Katrina this area is coming back to life with the help of countless volunteers and yet there are still tens of thousands of homes in this region that are not even touched. The difference between new homes and empty slabs is the common story in our world…the folks with means or insurance are clawing their way back. The ones without are living in FEMA trailers and “Katrina Cottages” navigating the maze of governmental and parochial assistance to re-establish their homes.

Another contrast is this place…Camp Gulfside. This 65 acre parcel has been owned and operated as a Gulf-front camp and retreat center for 80 some years. On this parcel, pre-Katrina, there were 14 buildings that serviced the camp. Post-Katrina, after 25 feet of wind driven water, that number dropped to ZERO. I write to you from a building donated by the military. The contrast is fueled by the history of this place. For forty years of this camp’s existence it was the only place in this part of the Gulf Coast that residents of African descent could freely come and enjoy the soft white sand and warm gulf waters. From its inception in the 1920’s through the civil rights era this camp was an oasis, it was a way-station that guarded the dignity of persons in Christ’s name.

Again, even in its devastated condition, Camp Gulfside is an oasis. It is a place where thousands of volunteers have passed through and rested in the work of bringing a tangible example of Christ’s love to a broken and battered community. We were reminded of why we are here as we sat at orientation this evening. The question was asked “what is the difference between our mission and our task?” The true distinction, given by one of my fellow volunteers is this…Our task is the work on the houses. Our mission is to live out and embody the love of God that we have known in Christ…a love that brings healing and hope in the midst of death and devastation. And so it begins for us.

Come Lord Jesus, Come.

From Camp Gulfside, Mississippi, May 4, 2008, 10:49 pm.