Thursday, September 07, 2006

These are good words....

The following was written by Bruce Colville. Bruce sold his home in NYC to come and live at our disaster relief center and aid in the recovery efforts. He is a good friend, and as you can see from this, a great writer. He describes far better than I could the gathering in our outdoor chapel on Aug 27th to remember the anniversary of "the storm". The original had pictures from the service and from around the destroyed area. If you wish to hear the sermon he references, click here.

Only the oaks remain.

Upright and dark their vertical survival is all that prevented a complete washing clean:

Banda Aceh or Phuket.

I am not kidding.

The first things you see are the oaks. From wide immovable trunks, thick encompassing arms reach broadly over the swept lots, slabs and pieces of foundation that is Beach Boulevard in Long Beach. Since last fall you see that leaves (non-deciduous) have filled the smaller branches, even faint traces of the once ubiquitous Spanish Moss have begun to appear.

You are about a dozen feet above sea level on the former site of this small Episcopal Church. It is Sunday morning, August 27th, the first mass to be celebrated here since the last one was benediction-ed, with some haste in the face of evacuation, one year ago.

You sit under a small tent where once the outdoor chapel stood. You look about. Actually, you notice green everywhere, tangled and waist-high, covering completely the footprint of a sanctuary, farther over an office and the Sunday school. Overgrowth might be the technical term. Weeds, scrub, high grasses and delinquent shrubs are what they are, really. You are saddened, as if ruination were not enough, but this: vanquished by weeds seems the final insult.

You should’ve known, seen the irony. This is grim evidence of new life. The Celtic Christians would tell you (you later are told) that all growth is evidence of life renewed and this is, after all, St. Patrick’s Church.

Another beloved disciple lived his final years on the island Patmos surrounded by an unruly and maddening sea. From that ravaged beach he was caught up in the revelation of a new heaven and earth. And the one who was seated on the throne said to him, to us, for all time: “See!”

See?” See what? How do you see when all around nothing is left? You ask that question this very morning. You have asked it in your own life as well. Again the words come from his aged half-crazed lips. “…the one who is seated on the throne said: ‘See, I am making all things new.’ ”

* * * * * * * * *

The first thing you hear is the quiet. You hear that a lot in our communities. You hear the hollow stillness of what is no more and the aimless rustling of that which will never be the same again. Then there is some hammering too, the din of repair and restoration, even on a Sunday morning: perhaps especially so.

You hear the high whistle of Slane, the Irish ballad and the opening phrase Be Thou My Vision. It is the music of what is surely to come.

* * * * * * * * *

Words are read, another ancient prophet, again with the oaks (the planting of the Lord) and something about the rebuilding of ruins. When you read together the psalm appointed your mind starts to wander. You look around. Behind you, the annoying child, up there the big oak is blocking the sun nicely; with the soft breeze it is enough to keep the heat away. You wish it were the same for the gnats.

Stand for the gospel. Then sit. He still stands… the one up front at the altar wearing the cassock and stole. Have you ever heard a pin drop on sand?

“What can I say?”

It’s not much of a sermon starter. You hear this year-worn priest’s voice aching all around the thin edges like dark filmy ice stretched across a pool of freezing water you dare not plunge into.

Then he says it again entirely unsure of where to place the italics:

“What can I say?”

In one of those unique moments in the long storied tradition of Christian homiletics, he doesn’t. He doesn’t go on and try to say something. He just lets it be.

This was proclaimed a service of remembrance and hope. Nevertheless it is grief and loss, anguish, dust and ashes. Most came. Some simply would not. It is a mass. It is formal ceremony. It is like a funeral and a part of the process is just getting through the steps you have to take. This is the way the human heart works.

There’s not a lot of eye contact, you notice…you can notice; you remain an outsider after all. It is more the sitting very still variety, more looking straight ahead. It is an hour at the end of a year of hours of just trying to hold it together…. Well, what is there to look at anyway?

Then something changes. Reality, the helplessness of past and present, is incontrovertibly altered. God intervenes. The Greco-Romans called it deus ex machina — the appearance of a god to redeem and restore the tragedy of our woeful drama. The Christian church calls it a sacrament. No matter how many they choose to number, sacraments are symbols and enactments of the greatest intervention of all: the one that began against the bare wood of a manger and is called the incarnation.

A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.


This morning you will celebrate two sacraments: baptism and communion. The first is so logical, so perfect and obvious that it almost strikes you as a complete surprise. Of course there will be a baptism! In baptism we are buried in water but rather than drowning we are raised up and out of the water. That raising up initiates and is a visible sign of new life. The past goes under those waters. So do loss, pain and brokenness. So does death and Death itself.

But we rise up out of the waters of baptism to a life that we didn’t think we would get. It is a gift. Redeemed as can only be affected by a god and restored wholly to life: it is an image of eternity.

The second sacrament follows. Communion or the Eucharist, as the Anglicans say, is something we do at almost every church service. Because we have and because we do it makes perfect sense this morning.

No matter the variety of Christian theologies on the Eucharist, they all seem to agree that the sacrament is a way that the Church is invited to experience Jesus’ presence in a tangible and uncommon way.

Interestingly for a moment like this, in baptism and communion you enact something that Jesus did and something that he told his followers to do. If you look at the Last Supper and the few other New Testament references to communion, you see moments in time that are marked by uncertainty for the future, gripped by suffering, death and a loss of all hope. When you add in the admonition to do this often and in remembrance of Me, this morning is blessed with a clarity and the sense of God incarnate who desires to fully join us in all of life.

If we can experience Jesus in these moments, then the Jesus we experience is the same resurrected Jesus that his early followers encountered. The body is physical and is touched. Yes, it is preternatural but it is also real. This body still bears its scars, the wound in the side and the imprint of nails. The Jesus encountered has suffered and the body we meet at this table is meant to be handled.

This is very good news on the slabs of Long Beach.

* * * * * * * * *

The wood that began the incarnation has mostly disappeared, save the occasional crèche in December. The wood that was its climax still stands, in your lives and mine, amidst every act of drama and loss that is shaking this world. It is present on this day. It is there in the endless quagmires, that broad swath of death and war that arcs across continents a half a globe away: the disasters of our own making. Add to that, the muck that was once New Orleans.

Here in the sands and bayous of coastal Mississippi it still stands, towering o’er the wrecks of time.

The mass concludes with an a cappella singing of the Irish Blessing, a long-standing tradition for special services.

May the road rise with you.

May the wind be always at your back.

It is too familiar. It catches you by surprise undermining the final ramparts of feeling that defend the heart.

May the sun shine warm upon your face.

It is the fourth line that is the problem and suddenly everyone knows it:

May the rain fall soft upon your fields.

I think I managed a word or two. Around me, I only heard air coming out in metered time and that wet whistling sound when suddenly puffed cheeks exhale.

And until we meet again,

May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.

Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up and things which had grown old are being made new.

- Anglican Collect (BCP)

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