And After the Fire (1 Kings 19:11-12, Romans 8:28)
First Congregational UCC, Vancouver WA
Jennifer Garrison Brownell
“The night after Alex died,” writes the great preacher William Sloan Coffin remembering his son who had recently been killed in a car crash, “I was sitting in the living room of my sister’s house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, ‘I just don’t understand the will of God.’ Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. ‘I’ll say you don’t, lady!’ I said. For some reason nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels.”
Neither, we at First Congregational UCC would add this week, does God go around with a gas can in one hand and a box of matches in the other. Walter John Boris shared these words with me this week, along with his own reminder, “The Great Mystery does not cause things to happen to punish us, or teach us a lesson, or make us stronger, or prepare us for a greater challenge. I don’t think the sacred works that way. Instead, the Holy Spirit helps us to make the best of any random tragic act or event.” Maybe that’s what Paul meant when he wrote to the Romans that “No matter what happens, God works for good.”
Wednesday was a hazy blur of tears and smoke and meetings with insurance agents and anger and talking to media and asking why and asking how and preparing for a prayer vigil and being interviewed by ATF agents and finding temporary office space and answering phone calls and writing text messages and more tears and smoke and more why and how. Then, in the late afternoon, a guy drove into the lot. He was the cool kind of pastor I’m automatically suspicious of – with hipster glasses and really fantastic shoes. Later, I found out that he is one of more than forty staff at a mega-church nearby, a church that had put considerable time and money into funding the other side of the marriage equality conversation.
And yet, in the blur that was Wednesday’s activity, he drove into this parking lot, and got out of his car and asked, “Can I pray with you?”. And then he put his arms around me and asked God to uphold this congregation, these brothers and sisters in Christ. In the wind and quake and fire of Wednesday, here was a still, small moment of peace and comfort – two formerly warring siblings in Christ, hugging and weeping and praying together.
The Great Mystery, said Walter John, does not cause things to happen to punish us, or teach us a lesson, or make us stronger, or prepare us for a greater challenge. The Sacred does not work that way. Instead, the Holy Spirit helps us to make the best of any random tragic act or event. Did God make a fire so I could pray with a so-called enemy in the parking lot? Absolutely not. But did God use the opportunity of the fire to create a little pocket of understanding and common ground where before there had been only mistrust? Oh, yes. God did that.
Wednesday was the wind and the quake and fire. We grieve what is lost. We grieve the decimated sanctuary. The space holds so many powerful and inspiring and memories – of memorials and weddings and baptisms and confirmations and wonderful music and calls to action and moments of perfect holy stillness and (as someone who had been a teenager at the church years ago told me) a certain corner that was perfect for meeting up with a boyfriend. All of this under the golden light of the skylight that so recently was carefully and painstakingly restored.
And, so, on this Memorial Day weekend, we grieve.
Memorial Day. Which began, as many of you know, as a day called Decoration Day. On this day, in decades and centuries past–beginning officially with the civil war, but probably going much further back than that–the graves of soldiers who’d perished in combat were covered in wreaths and flowers by their loved ones.
God did not steal the lives of those soldiers who perished in battle. But God placed within each of us, all of us, the desire to respond to loss with life and love. It is maybe the most remarkable aspect of our humanity that we have the ability to look tragedy in the face and say, “No. You, death, you loss, do not have the last word.” And so we decorate graves with blossoms. “Wind and quake and fire, we lived through you. And now we stand in the beauty of the still, small voice.
And so today we gather in the shadow of a burned building, and we say “You fire, you ashes, you loss – you do not have the last word. Our community has the last word. Our voices raised in song have the last word. Our prayers of gratitude have the last word.” We fight fire with fire: the fires of destruction meet the flame of the Holy Spirit burning within each heart and those fires of destruction are extinguished!
Dennis Alger is a colleague and friend. After joining us for a prayer vigil on Wednesday, he wrote the lovely mediation you will find on the back of your bulletin, which concludes with these words.
The spark of the Holy Spirit continues to burn:
The church is the people with, And guided by, audacious faith;
The building, the shelter, the Gathering place is transitory, as Vulnerable to destruction as the Rest of our imagined supremacy.
The destruction witnessed from the Cave of our perspective cannot Overwhelm the “still small voice” Of eternal promise and presence.
Though we, as persons of faith, are Changed, our mission is not. That Is to do the work of justice and Bring in the Peaceable Realm, with Forgiveness, generosity, and joy, all Requiring a combustible spirit.
The fire of the Holy Spirit is alight within this community. And by that light, we will be shown the way to tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that until we have journeyed together to the realm of God. Amen