Joe Neville

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5



A Time To Embrace


In times of danger, fear and anxiety the natural thing is to pull up the drawbridge and retreat into the fortress of the self. The temptation is to become a survivalist, to circle the wagons, to pull into our shell, to associate only with our own kind, and attempt to become self-sufficient.  It seems that now could be that time.  First came the warnings of Katrina, then came the reality of nature’s devastation; then came the unbelievable suffering that our brothers and sisters in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana are enduring.  Many of us for the first time saw the utter pain and brokenness of people up close and personal. Many of us never realized the extent of poverty in that region of our country; many of us never expected to see the initial level of apathy and neglect or the raw vulnerability of thousands of our brothers and sisters and friends in the Gulf States.  Many saw children literally dying in their mother’s arms, while they helplessly looked on with pleading eyes.   A day later, we saw babies and young children being taken from parents and transported to hospitals, while the parents were left behind, not knowing what would really happen for or to them.  We saw the complexity of crowd control take precedence over the saving of lives.  It was a scene of nature at its worst and a rescue effort, with telephoto lenses directed at it, pushed to unexplained and disappointing places.  It was not 9/11, but we saw and heard people dying, and pleading for help.  We saw babies and the elderly deprived of sustenance and basic shelter.  We now know that there are thousands of people dead and more unaccounted for or injured.  But, unlike 9/11, there is no enemy at which to direct our disdain.  Katrina killed, Katrina broke down the levees, and help to its citizens was non existent for four days in 2005 America.  It feels as if this should be a time to rend, a time of disbelief, a time to blame---a time to refrain from embracing.

But, this week-end, I realized that Strangers were talking to each other about their feelings, helping each other try to understand.  I was struck by the openness and the random acts of kindness between strangers in different parts of our country: some trying to organize relief efforts to house families, some in their very own homes.  Politicians, in that region, finally took the focus off of putting people on buses and got about the business of saving lives.  And some officials decided to take the economic hit by canceling booked events at the convention centers and agreed to be sued, if they must; but they were going to put people in those spaces!  People are writing checks, and sending them to approved organizations; they are buying water and taking it to armories, trucks of food are finally arriving, medicine, counseling, and finally a sense that people care is arriving.  The spirit of loving kindness; slow for thousands; deliberate--for some; is slowly, lifting the hearts of millions.

In that devastated region we are starting to hear that people are, at last, receiving food for the first time in five days.  We are hearing of people being rescued, and thank God, the great majority of people are steering away from the survival posture which has little or no compassion.  There is still much grief and sadness, shock and sorrow, fear desperation and utter dismay.  We are beginning to see the difference between destruction by fire and destruction by water.  This is why people are now saying that this is the worst tragedy to hit the United States in its history.  Thousands of homes and jobs washed away, lives obliterated or irreparably changed in an area the size of the state of Kansas.  

But there is an embracing spirit moving across our land as we see brothers and sisters and not strangers in the Gulf States.  Unfortunately, it seems that only a crisis can awaken our fundamental desire to be close, to embrace and be embraced in physical, spiritual, and intellectual ways.

It was similar with the English during WWII. The British are known by the rest of the world as a private, somewhat reserved people, but during the war, there was an outpouring of openness and loving kindness.  Many Brits with stiff upper lips observed: "The tough part wasn't when we were being bombed.  This brought us closer together. Houses were opened, tea was poured for strangers, reserve was lost, and people faced their fears together and responded with compassion and care.  The hard part was when the bombs stopped falling and we went back to our old isolated, self-sufficient ways."

Well, Katrina’s roar has diminished into gentle rain showers now.  I hope that we do not go back to our old isolated, self-sufficient ways.  During the aftermath of 9/11 we were all behaving as if we resided in New York!  Their pain and loss, was our pain and loss.  In the middle of our anxiety about the economy and our realization, yet again, of our vulnerability, I pray that we will remain open and embrace each other in new ways and perhaps count our blessings like never before.  As we see the families in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama reaching out to each other on the Television and observe the juxtaposition between the deep sorrow over loss and the unfettered joy of recovery, maybe we will find that our family relationships are more important, and our children central and precious as we attempt to protect them and prepare them for a different world.  Possibly, those, who are without family, will find themselves drawing closer to friends and finding family there.  Maybe our community, our worship, will take on a renewed meaning as we sing old hymns with new feeling, read familiar scripture as if for the first time, reach out to strangers as if they were old friends, and pray fervently for peace, compassion and economic justice.

Paradoxically, in times of trouble, when it seems prudent to attend only to our own safety, security and survival, it is the time—the kairos, the time out of time, a pregnant moment—for embracing, or in the words of the Gospel, to love our neighbors.

Christianity began with a proclamation that a new era, a new eon had begun with the life and death of Jesus.  Many of the disciples expected that the new era was to blossom into a full-blown apocalypse–the kingdom of God was coming before the twelve could even get the good news out to the cities of Judah.  Their sense of urgency was accompanied by a devaluation of everyday life, and an effort to forsake "the world".  The more Gnostic Christian sects, like the Essenes, preached "an end to ordinary history" and sought to withdraw from the world, to forsake marriage and families and involvement in the commerce of ordinary life.  They proclaimed the age to be under the dominion of the evil god, the dark forces, and retreated to the desert to await the New World order---to be ushered in by God.  Sound familiar?

In his Pastoral Letter to Timothy, Paul reminds him of the tradition that has been passed on to him through his mother and grandmother.  In difficult times, the reminder to be urgent in season and out of season and to be patient should not be lost on us.  The letter expresses a fear about the coming time when people will not be able to endure the sound teachings of the Gospel, but will be tempted to turn toward their own liking, turning away from truth and wandering into myths.

Is it time to despair and time to conclude that God has abandoned us and is punishing us for materialism, capitalism and liberal views?  Is it time to wander into self-protection and safety while ignoring the eye, not of the hurricane, but of the camera that has shown yet again, the vulnerability of the poor in our nation, and the hidden yet devastating effects of long term neglect of an infrastructure that long needed to be upgraded?  Is it time to refrain from embracing each other and those around us?

In the Christian understanding, the living Word of God addresses us from within the events of our time.  Dorothee Soelle found in the rise of Nazi Germany a kairos—special time in which Christians were called to witness to the ethic of love rather than conquest. She writes of the strength and courage that arises in the human spirit as a response to hardship, anxiety and uncertainty.  Strength will be given to us in our vulnerability.  This time, our time, this time of the devastation wrought by Katrina is the very time we must embrace our world, our problems, our crises and our future; rather than refrain from embracing and retreating in private spirituality.  These are the historical events in which we are addressed and challenged to grow as Christians and as people of faith.

There are so many words these days: commentator's, newspapers, TV, radio—full of feeling and attempts to manage crisis.  Is there a word from God?  In faith we affirm this autumn is a season for us to embrace each other and to remember in this embrace that God is embracing our groaning and growing world.

To everything there is a season and a time:

It is time for us to be global, to embrace The Other.

It is time for us to learn more about our economically deprived neighbors and engage where and when we can in bringing about equality for all.

It is time for us to trust that it is safer to love than to hate what we don’t understand.

It is time for us to share our opportunities and wealth more generously with the rest of the neighbors.

It is time to trust that the earth is the Lords' and the fullness thereof and all that dwell therein now and forever.

This is the very day and time God has given us.  Let us rejoice and be glad in this very day. Amen.