The summer months have been dreadful for our nation and our world. Fires in Montana have burned over 1 million acres. Unhealthy air has been the order of the day for weeks now. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma wreaked devastation on parts of Texas and Florida. Farther from home, in monsoon rains brought floods to India, killing hundreds. Mexico was struck by a massive earthquake and then by Hurricane Katia. So much has been lost. Lives, homes, possessions, animals, wildlife. Hurricane recovery has been talked about not in terms of weeks and months, but years.
The devastation has been overwhelming. Distressing. Even demoralizing. How does one even begin to put the pieces back together again, when they have been shattered so thoroughly?
While so much has been destroyed, the fires and hurricanes and earthquakes have not destroyed the human heart (images of looting notwithstanding) and the human capacity for resilience. We're wired for resilience and for healing, for recovery and for restoration. We've already seen it. Boat brigades providing rescue. Neighbors helping neighbors, and strangers helping strangers. We've heard stories of hope and stories release from seemingly impossible circumstances. Miracles, really.
I was reminded of the youth group from the church I served in Wyoming going to New Orleans to work with one of the recovery agencies a couple of years after Hurricane Katrina. They were transformed. They moved so quickly from blessing by comparison. They did not say for long that "We are blessed because we have so much and the hurricane didn't hit us." They saw the beauty in a life of simplicity. They saw the richness in not only doing, but being. They learned stewardship from watching the people of New Orleans care for their community. They discovered richness in a rhythm of work and rest. They discovered and devoured delicious Cajun food and gulf shrimp. Spending days unplugged and offline, they discovered that their ears would hear and eyes would see in new ways. Through stories of faith and deliverance, they learned that God is present and working in mysterious and profound ways. They moved quickly to seeing and believing, "The people, this place, are so blessed, because God is here."
"Surely God is in this place and I did not know it." Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham - son of God - uttered these words after having a dream and receiving a promise from God. Jacob was on a journey both physical and spiritual, and stopped for the night." With only a rock pillow and hard ground mattress, he fell asleep and dreamed and saw a ladder stretching from heaven to earth, with God's angels ascending and descending. God stood above that ladder and gave Jacob a promise of land, offspring, and blessing. God granted Jacob assurance - assurance that God would be with Jacob and would keep him where ever he would go. And finally, God promised that "I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."
It was not the first time that God had made that promise. It would not be the last. God would direct the prophet Isaiah to say to the people, "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you… fear not, for I am with you." (Isaiah 43:1-2, 5)
When Jacob awoke from his dream, he said, "Surely the LORD is in this place and I did not know it."
When we experience dreadful losses, or have scarce resources for even day to day life; when employment is a hope but not a reality, when it's days before the doctor's office will call with test results, when our spirit is anxious and our heart is worried and our mind cannot turn itself off in the wee hours of the morning as we lie awake looking at those same stars that Jacob looked at, the promise seems faint, and God seems distant if present at all.
Yet, as the youth discovered, and as surely will be experienced in Texas, Florida, Mexico, India, and throughout the world in the days and weeks to come; as we discover in the deserts and broken places in our lives, God is found in unexpected places and is present even in the unlikeliest of moments. In our places of desolation, times of desperation, and moments of hopelessness, God's promise remains steadfast and true. God is with us and will keep us wherever we go and wherever we are. God will not leave us.
During their time in New Orleans, one of the families they assisted promised the youth a meal on their last day. They had fresh gulf shrimp and they wanted to share of their bounty to show their gratitude.
On their last day in New Orleans, the youth enjoyed a traditional shrimp boil. In a place that had been devastated and yet had showed resilience and healing and had survived, they watched a meal being prepared, a table being set, and the food being blessed. These were all familiar acts, and the youth did not miss the similarities. They were transported to another time and to another table, where a holy meal, a Last Supper, was offered and shared in what would be the greatest act of love. That day, in New Orleans, in a place wrecked by natural disaster, poverty and scarcity, they shared in fellowship and stood on the promises. "Behold, I am with you and I will keep you wherever you go."
"Fear not, for I am with you." God declares and promises this, over and over again and for as many times as we need to be reminded. Thanks be to God.
Kim Pepper is chaplain at St. Peter's Hospital and St. Peter's Hospice.