Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Serenity Prayer

Puzzling how two weeks of your life can fly by in such a crazy-quilt pattern of events. I have evacuated my home, taking only the barest of possessions, and awaited news of whether my entire community survived the onslaughts of a massive storm. I have returned to find life livable, home intact, and the community not harmed nearly as much as I had feared. I have received news of the death of two long time friends and officiated their memorial services.

I have preached good news to my congregation and sat in on meetings coordinating the relief efforts necessary for responding to a disaster of Ike’s scope. Volunteers from across the state (soon from around the country) spread their cots and air mattresses in our church chapel. They have come with trailers, mobile shower and laundry units, chainsaws and expertise in mud out work in flooded homes.

Our parking lot is home to a Red Cross POD handing out water, cleaning supplies, and food. Our playground is now Camp Ike as volunteers from UBC are providing a quickly organized day camp for more than a hundred kids a day who are still out of school while their parents are returning to work.

Tonight I visited with my college roommate, who is one of the BOI (Born on the Island) people from Galveston. He pastors a congregation in Jamaica Beach on the west end of the island. Their church building still stands, but the community around it is decimated. One home was destroyed when a barge hit it. His own home, not far from 61st Street, had more than six feet of water in it. He and his wife will go back to see it for the first time tomorrow. Then they’ll have to figure out what to do next.

I have helped unload Red Cross supplies off a truck in the parking lot of FBC, Seabrook, whose building flooded from the storm surge. I spoke to people driving through the POD line for food and water and heard them express their confidence that they would make it through all this. Afterwards I drove through the streets of the surrounding neighborhood where I saw every home emptied of its surge soaked possessions.

Meanwhile the world goes on. Our president and his advisors are trying to stave off an economic meltdown with $700 billion of our money. Wall Street swings back and forth like a traffic signal in a hurricane wind. Political candidates attempt to persuade us that our country would be better off if they were in leadership. I’m not persuaded.

The storm winds are not all physical. After the measurable gusts have past, others still blow through our lives. These are times when life really is a day at a time kind of thing. It unfolds. I suspect it will have this quality for some months to come.

The “Serenity Prayer” has long been a friend of mine. I like the longer, full version of it, that goes a bit beyond the one often quoted:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference

Living one day at a time
Enjoying one moment at a time
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace
Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it

Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to his will
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy in the next. AMEN

Friday, September 19, 2008

Ike Fatigue

This week has been at least 12 days long and I am really tired, like everyone else around me. Even a little grouchy. I have seen so much good being done by so many people, and so much need.

I don’t even know how to describe it all. Here are some twitters of what I have experienced. Trees filling my yard and the yards of those all around me. Large trees penetrating roofs. Power lines lying loose on the street like snakes. Long lines of cars making their way into the few gas stations open. Empty parking lots at nearly every shopping center around. Dark streets after dusk with black street lights. Sounds of chainsaws buzzing like giant cicadas. Piles of brush barricades lining every street in the city.

Eager volunteers with work gloves and tools heading out to take care of their neighbors and friends. People with cell phones glued to their ears. Unbelievable photographs and videos of catastrophic destruction on every screen. Long lines forming at every point of distribution.

Exhausted workers returning from a day of mucking out flooded homes. Frightened faces of homeless people wondering about their future. Relieved faces of those returning to find things still intact. Neighbors actually visiting, talking, telling their stories to each other.

I have sat in hours of meetings to organize hundreds of people to meet the needs of thousands. I have said good bye to two dear friends whose did not live to see the aftermath of the hurricane. I will officiate their funerals this week.

I have no idea what next week holds except more of the same. I know the time will come when the acute need of our community gives way to the chronic problems that will require many months to resolve. But for now the task is to stop the bleeding and stabilize the patient.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Ike vs. Houston

We left our home under a mandatory evacuation early on Thursday morning and drove to our farm in three vehicles and all that we held dear (which was not much) without incident.  Alan, Kat, and Madison joined us later that day. On Friday Kat's parents and brother showed up. We did what we could to follow the progress of the enormous storm approaching our city. We had an Internet connection and watched live video feed from Houston tv stations. And we waited. 

Weather authorities predicted a 20-25 foot storm surge that would have brought sea water into my neighborhood  and would have completely inundated the homes of many of my friends who live closer to the bay. As it turned out, the surge reached only 11 feet, which did plenty of damage on Galveston Island and along the upper Texas coast, but spared my neighborhood.

A friend who rode the storm out at home checked our home and reported that we still had electric power. So we returned home on Sunday. I found my house intact. The debris in my yard was overwhelming, but no windows were broken and my new roof was still there. And the A/C was still on. Only a block away houses were still dark and hot. We were among the one percent of four million people who were enjoying power. As of today, twenty-five percent of our city have their power restored.

We spent the morning cleaning up our yard and those of our neighbors with the help of some hardworking friends. After lunch we drove to another neighborhood to work on five more yards. We saw boats in a marina tossed about like toys, stacked on top of each other. We saw huge trees penetrating roofs and blocking roads.

This afternoon power returned to our church building. Tonight I met with our pastors to think through ways of connecting resources and needs in our congregation. We will revise our plans daily.

I know again the experience of guilty gratitude. We faced once more the real possibility of having neither home nor community to return to when the storm passed. The aftermath was not nearly that bad, but for some hours I had to entertain that scenario. And I have to remind myself that the Gulf hurricane season continues for another six weeks.

Thanks for the prayers and concerns from friends around the country. Please remember the victims of this storm along the Texas coast and be generous in sharing in relief efforts.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Cone of Uncertainty

Other than "hunker down," I don't know of another term newscasters and meteorologist have used during the hurricane season that I appreciate more than "the cone of uncertainty." It sounds like some kind of sci-fi device with lots of wires and flashing lights that you would wear over your head while strapped to a chair with steel bands -- something designed by theological liberals to remove your fundamentalist thinking, perhaps. Basically, it is a term to describe the future. The further we attempt to look into the future, the less we are certain about. Duh. It means, "we don't really know, but we are venturing a guess."

It was just three years ago that I sat in a Lazyboy rocker at my grandmother’s farm as an evacuee, watching a San Antonio weather crew do their best to report on the approach of Hurricane Rita. I recall being both nervous and calm at the same time, if that is possible. The nervousness resulted from watching the approach of a Cat 5 storm, bearing down on I-45, heading for my neighborhood. Ironically, the calmness came from the realization that this was potentially so catastrophic that I could do absolutely nothing about it and that one way or another we would be ok.

I was born in downtown Houston and have spent all but four of my nearly fifty-six years here. Hurricane season comes around like the baseball, football, and ragweed seasons. In 1961, as a nine year old, I rode out Hurricane Carla with my parents, an aunt, and a cousin in our home six miles north of downtown. Carla made landfall on September 11 as a Category 4 storm and did $2 billion worth of damage (2005 dollars). School had just started and I was playing sandlot football down the street from my house on Friday afternoon. The discussion among my friends was about evacuation. Mike Schaeffer and his family were headed for Arkansas. I didn’t even know a storm was coming.

The family hunkered down for the blast. My dad spread some sleeping bags on the living room floor for him and me, so that my aunt and cousin could have a bed. Sam, our temperamental Siamese cat, choose my dad’s bag to use as a litter box. My dad was not a cat person. (That’s like saying Carla was a storm.) I recall Sam flying out the front door, wide-eyed, screaming, legs askew, into the elements and hearing my dad, who was not prone to profanity, say, “Damn, Sam.” Sam survived the storm, finding a better place to hunker.

In 1980 Hurricane Allen filled the Gulf, a Category 5 storm that at one time had winds of 190 mph. Galveston Island was evacuated. I drove down to the Exxon station to fill up our car in case we had to leave. Cars extended bumper-to-bumper on I-45 as far as I could see in either direction. We were living in the Heights, not far from where I had experienced Carla years before. As it turned out, Allen calmed down to a Category 3 before landfall and graciously chose to come ashore at a less populated area in south Texas.

Three years later, Hurricane Alicia, a low Category 3, visited us. We were still living in the Heights area and had two young sons. Melinda and I stayed up through the night monitoring the storm on television as long as we had power, and then on the radio. I watched through our front window as the huge pecan tree across the street bowed low and resurrected in the wind over and over, until one time it failed to rise to face the storm again. Damage was pretty severe in our neighborhood, fifty-five miles away from the coast. We rescued a baby squirrel the next morning, named him Squeaky, and sweated out a humid Houston August without power for a week following.

Now the season is here again. I watch the storms line up in the North Atlantic like Southwest Airline flights approaching Hobby and listen to Dr. Neil call the roll. We are now only twenty-nine miles from the Galveston coast and seven miles from Galveston Bay, so I pay attention during the season. We’re up to Ike, storm number nine.

Who knows where he will go? But today the center of the cone of uncertainty is pretty close to Galveston, Texas. He’s expected to be another Category 3 (Alicia or better). He’ll be in the Gulf of Mexico by 2:00 PM on Wednesday and off our coast by 2:00 PM on Friday. Unless he decides to go elsewhere. Hence the cone of uncertainty.

Monday, September 01, 2008


The sin of sloth is essentially the sin of neglect. I don’t think of sloth as primarily about laziness, as much as skewed priorities. Sloth shows up when I give myself to the less important things and allow the more important ones to slide. God designed the universe in such a way that the consequences of neglecting important things are graciously delayed. I think that is so that we have a chance to catch up and make it right.

The consequences of neglect are guaranteed nevertheless. The Law of Entropy kicks in whenever we leave the important things to themselves. Any system left to itself begins to deteriorate. Left untended our bodies, our minds, our marriages, our bank accounts, and our garages will eventually fall apart. Clutter will expand to fill the space available. Activities (valuable or not) will expand to fill our calendars. The garden will fill with weeds.

The book of Proverbs calls attention to the behavior of a character called “the sluggard,” who is sloth personified. The sluggard has his priorities so inverted that comfort and pleasure always trump discipline, work, or effort. One of the proverbial descriptions of the sluggard practically defines sloth for me:

I went past the field of the sluggard, past the vineyard of the man who lacks judgment; thorns had come up everywhere, the ground was covered with weeds, and the stone wall was in ruins. I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw: A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest--and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man. (Proverbs 24:30-34)

I was reminded of this passage when I visited the farm last weekend. September 2007- May 2008 had been the driest six-month period on record in Wilson County – a mere half dozen inches of rain in half a year. The drought occurred during the very period when we had our first wheat crop in the ground. When I was there in June I mowed the three acres or so around the house with the old Murray lawn tractor, but there was not much growth to mow.

I returned in July, and attempted to mow again, but the Murray belched a cloud of white smoke and gave up the ghost. I decided against renting a mower and doing the job, consoling myself that the drought would keep the growth down for another month.

More than three inches of rain mercifully fell around Floresville over the next six weeks. And the powerful fecundity woven into the DNA of an army of weeds, grasses, and wildflowers responded in obedience to an ancient commandment. When we arrived last weekend, we stood and stared at the attempted insurrection all of nature had orchestrated in a little more than a month. I had forgotten just how wild the place really is. The area we’d worked so hard to clear last year was on the verge of a complete reoccupation by opposition forces. Renting a lawn mower to deal with this would have been futile. Grasses, ragweed, and paper leaf mulberry were growing as high as my chest.

We drove into San Antonio, pausing at the Texas Pride BBQ in Adkins for lunch. (We learned about this place on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives program.) I rented an Outback Billy Goat, a walk-behind brush cutter, to attempt to stem the tide of the revolution. I spent three hours on Friday and another three on Saturday walking through enemy territory with this weapon of grass destruction. The Billy Goat can cut through small trees of 3” diameter and leave them lying on the ground. It leaves a pretty rough cut on the grass, but it did the job. Melinda set about restoring a flowerbed area around the oak tree and the house in the back yard, which she had attempted to establish in July as well. After two days of labor, we could sit in the swing out back and enjoy the view.

On Saturday afternoon I loaded the broken lawn tractor into Willie and hauled it back to Houston for repair. As soon as Murray is feeling better, he and Willie and I will return to tend the property again.

(We stopped at my son’s house to pick up their two dogs for a few days while he and his family were out of town. The Creeches drove through Houston on Saturday night looking like the Clampitts, with three people and two dogs in the pickup, hauling a big lawn tractor in the bed.)

I thought about sloth as I walked behind the Billy Goat for hours. Neglect of important things, even when not the product of laziness, nevertheless has its consequences. Being too busy, not too lazy, is not a better reason. Lawns and fields and children and spouses and bodies and minds and spirit do not care what the cause of the neglect is. They respond the same way. They grow the stuff you do not want. But grace remains. Permanent effects are usually not immediate. It may take extra effort, but the opportunity remains open for a while to make things right. Left untended, however, the weeds will eventually win. That’s why the sin of sloth is considered one of the seven deadly ones, I suppose.