My phone rings and it is John Robinson, the director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, calling me from the PDA annual meeting going on in San Francisco. John asks, “How are things there and are you going to need help?”
“It’s getting pretty bad, John,” I reply, and quickly add, “Can you tell me how long a cubit is?” Little did we know how much worse it would get.
By the time I was off of the phone with John we had a brief lull in the storm and I asked my wife for our binoculars. What I saw was Mother Nature in a very bad mood. The small tributary of the Harpeth River than runs through our Franklin, Tenn., neighborhood had flooded the end of our street and I was looking at muddy water rising at an amazing rate. Six feet turned into about twenty over the next twenty-four hours, but even with houses sitting in three feet of water inside and people being evacuated by the local firefighters, most of our neighborhood and that behind us was spared severe damage. There are so many thousands of others who are not so lucky.
Take for example the Harpeth Presbyterian Church, one of those in the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee that sits directly on the banks of the Harpeth River. As the executive presbyter here for the last twelve years, I knew what to expect. The church building would be badly damaged. I also know the congregation well, however, and their pastors, David Jones and Alan Bancroft. With David at the helm I knew that church would go forward once the mucking out was mostly over. As I sat there in worship last Sunday, I heard him say in a variety of ways that their church was never about its historic building, but about who they are as a people of God. He reminded us that in some ways the flood may even become a blessing. As he pointed to the cross behind him more than once he declared what the ultimate blessing from God is all about. I believe he had been scripting this sermon on his feet all week as he not only walked among the debris of his own facilities, but also as he and Alan sent out teams of volunteers to help individuals in affected neighborhoods.
This is what real church is all about. Harpeth is a model of supportive, missional community.
By Monday the sun was out and the waters were slowly receding, but all around Nashville the heavens opened in a very different way. The sunshine only illuminated the levels of human compassion as neighbors from all around the area whose damages were none, or no more than a leaky basement, hit the streets in masses. Contrary to the aftermath of some places after a disaster, there was little looting, little bad behavior.
By the next Monday morning three PDA volunteers, two from Michigan, had gone home from the national conference, washed their clothes, hugged their families and were on the ground in a make-shift command center next to my office. Westminster Church in west Nashville had stepped forward with a fervent plea to become a host site for long term volunteer repairs and support. My phone won’t stop ringing as people from as far away as Pennsylvania, south Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and from congregations within our own bounds asking me “when can we come,” and saying, “here’s how we can help.”
Sister and brother Presbyterians, I need to tell you this is the PC(USA) at its finest. This is what our connectionalism is all about. This is how we manifest our mission and exercise “ … the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” (Book of Order, “The Great Ends of the Church,” G-1.1.0200, paragraph 2).
Last week The Presbyterian Outlook printed a wise warning, which we had already given our GA Commissioners, to be alert that we will be accused once again of anti-Semitism, talking about nothing but sex, and spending all of our time and energy around the concerns of polity. We’re great at the latter. We can spend more time and energy on rules and restructure than anybody I know. The “restructure” on my mind right now has little to do with polity, but everything to do with helping people get back into their homes and churches. Party lines and denominational affiliation do not matter here right now. Maybe we’ll learn in the days ahead how little they matter at all.
Here’s what I sent out to our churches and pastors in an e-mail right after the flood:
ROCKING on a stormy sea
that covered all that once was land
Noah … musing … pondering why
God chose his clan to carry on
the legacy of humankind
for righteousness he did not feel
among the cargo … two by two …
brought aboard his fragile ark.
Water, water everywhere
a seasick feeling did pervade
waking, sleeping, waiting days
for just a sight of firmament
poking from a troubled sea …
a sign of earth
beneath the clouds
of dark and threatening, restless skies.
Watching from the rocking bow
for terra firma … a place called home
where seeds would sprout and crops
would grow … and life would roam
on plains … in jungles …
valleys … hills …
beneath the rippling, endless deep.
Watching for a rainbow sign …
an olive branch within the beak
of doves sent forth to search for land.
A mountaintop and then dry land
and rock beneath the wooden keel …
his family’s feet on solid ground.
So Noah went out …
out from the ark
with every living, breathing thing
that walks or crawls, creeps or runs,
and built an altar to the Lord,
and heard God’s promise for all time:
this covenant I shall make …
a rainbow sign forevermore
that never shall there be again
a flood that shall destroy earth,
or all my creatures there within.
So when a rainbow’s in the clouds
this covenant of God’s love
reminds us of his constancy
for this earth
an ark in space …
a place called
PHIL LEFTWICH is executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee. The poem is from Leftwich’s book, Watermarks.