Sunday, September 10, 2017

Unaccidental coincidences

I was supposed to go on a retreat this past weekend with members of my church's praise team.

I was supposed to go to the Shocco Springs Conference Center in Talladega, Alabama, (a Baptist retreat center) and spend Friday evening, Saturday, and Sunday morning in quiet retreat, along with sessions with our worship minister and his guests, musicians that he's been acquainted with over the years.

I was supposed to learn about worship from our worship minister and from the guests he invited.

Well . . .

I did go on a retreat this past weekend with members of my church's praise team.

I did go to the Shocco Springs Conference Center in Talladega, Alabama.

I did spend time in quiet retreat.

I did spend time in sessions with our worship minister and his guests.

I did learn about worship.

It just did not go according to the plans we made.

Our best laid plans of mice and men started going "gang aft agley" when our worship minster told us on Saturday morning that a group of FEMA workers en route to Houston (to help with those affected by Hurricane Harvey) had been told to stop because it was likely they'd be needed in Florida (to help with Floridians affected by Hurricane Irma).  A man from FEMA heard us singing.  They found out that we were going to have a worship service that night.  Could the people from FEMA join us?

Of course!

I told our worship minister afterwards, "It is no accident that this happened."

Little did I know.

That evening -- after I'd spent the afternoon listening to practical tips about singing and vocalizing from the people acquainted with our worship minister, and after I'd spent some time walking around the retreat grounds, and after I'd spent an hour in fun singing with some of my praise team friends (after which I was later told I'd participated in a "vocal jam session") -- I went to dinner.  (Side note: They feed you well at retreat centers.)

And during dinner, a praise team member met a minister, Jose Lebron, who'd just led a six-car caravan out of Naples, Florida (which, as I write this, has just suffered the onslaught of Irma.)  He's a Lutheran who pastors the Emmanuel Community Church.  He and his congregants are Hispanic.

Jose told us that he'd gone looking for a place to evacuate to, and providence led him and other members to Shocco Springs.

So we invited them to worship with us that evening and the next morning.

What you saw in those two worship services was summed up by our worship minister as "a picture of heaven".

A group of Church of Christ members, together with members from a community church led by a Lutheran; most of whom spoke English, several of who spoke Spanish, a few who spoke both; kids ranging from months old to mid-teens, all singing together to the tune of a drum and three guitars.

We sang songs of comfort and of hope.  We reminded each other that God had not forgotten us.  We praised God because we knew He was there.  I gave my limited Spanish a workout and called on Google Translate during a couple of difficult moments.  I played peek-a-boo with a three-year-old girl:  "Donde esta?  Aqui!"

We took communion together.  And we prayed.

Saturday night, several praise team members made a run to Walmart, where they bought several hundred dollars' worth of gift cards and presented them to Jose on Sunday morning.  He accepted them with a visible tremor in his voice.

We sang "The Lord Bless You And Keep You" to them at the end.

And then we hugged good-bye and wished them "Dios te bendiga" (God bless you).

There's a saying that "A coincidence is a miracle in which God chooses to remain anonymous."  I don't believe it was a mere coincidence or an accident that we "just happened" to be there on the same weekend.  We planned the retreat.  We planned the location of the retreat.  We didn't plan Irma.  Nor did a group of refugees plan to arrive on the same weekend that we planned to.  Call it an accident, call it a coincidence.  I, for one, do not believe it was an accident -- an "unaccidental coincidence", perhaps you could say.

We in Christendom are divided.  We have legitimate concerns about doctrine and practice.  We also bicker and fight over trivial things.

But, for a night and a day, a group from a Church of Christ connected with a group from a Lutheran community church at a Baptist conference center; and for that moment, denominational concerns fell by the wayside.

We were simply a group that gathered together in worship and praise to a God we followed, a God we loved, and a God we worshipped.  We were simply a group that, for that period of time, chose to "love one another" because God first loved us.

Perhaps God does his best work in these unaccidental "coincidences".

Just my .04, adjusted for inflation.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Donating beets

Twenty-five years ago, I woke up to find the interior walls of my apartment shaking.

That was Hurricane Andrew's way of saying, "Hello!  I've arrived!"

I was lucky.  I lived in Miami Lakes, Florida, at the time, which is five minutes south of the Broward County line.  All we got was a lot of downed trees and some relatively minor property damage.  I didn't even lose power.  The worst inconvenience was that my AC didn't work for a week.

The people down in south Dade County?  They lived through what people in Houston are living through now; the aftermath of a severe hurricane.  There are differences between Dade County's experience and Houston's.  Andrew was known as a "dry storm".  It moved in and out of the Miami are very fast, and thus, the majority of damage was wind damage.  The Houston area is dealing with catastrophic flooding.  Much of their damage is water damage.

In both cases, Andrew and Harvey left behind a large population in desperate need of help.

I did have some canned goods in my apartment that I didn't need. So I donated those.  A few days later, I went with some friends over to the Opa-Locka Airport to help sort and pack supplies being ferried in from all over the country.

One well-meaning but misguided soul sent down several industrial-sized cans of beets.

Yes, beets.  A dark-red vegetable that is touted as being good for you but that probably few people would eat.  (No offense to those who are beet lovers.)

So, Tina, what's your problem with beets?

Well, first of all, they're beets.  Enough said there.

But my main problem was this:  You're sending down industrial-sized cans of food into an area with NO POWER.  If you open that industrial-sized can of beets, and you don't eat it all, what happens when you can't store your leftovers because you don't have power to run a refrigerator?
I have many memories of Andrew:  the people that were concerned about us, the pictures on TV, Bryan Norcross' laryngitis after being on the air for so many hours, a piece of plywood with "Welcome to Homelessstead" spray painted on it.  But it's the story of the beets that I keep coming back to, because for me, it just encapsulates in one example what people don't need after a disaster.

In the aftermath of Harvey, I'm heartened to see that one of the very first concerns of people has been, "How can I help?"  And I'm sure one of the first responses of people is to gather up stuff they don't need, pack it, and drop it at the nearest place collecting supplies for the people in Houston.

Well, before you start packing, read this article.

Kindly, but firmly, Amy Slenker-Smith states that Houston does not need your stuff.  What they need is money.  That money can go into the hands of people on the ground there, who know what to get and how to get it there.

This article gets much more specific about what NOT to donate.  Used clothing?  Don't bother? Stuffed animals?  Sounds fine . . . but, as a quote from the article says, a teddy bear can't pay for a funeral.

There are organizations you can contact who know what they are doing and how to do it.  They can tell you what they need and what they don't need.  My own church is in contact with several churches in the Houston area--people on the ground--who will give them ideas of how to help.  Next week we are taking up a special collection of funds specifically for Harvey relief.  We also, in the near future, plan to send people to aid in the recovery effort.  This is similar to what we did many years ago with Katrina--we partnered with a church on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and sent teams of volunteers in over a period of a year.  The people we send, and any items we will send, will only be sent in cooperation with people that are in the area--not a "willy-nilly" collection of items, and not just a group of people saying, "Hi, we're here; put us to work."  (We are planning to collect and send cleaning supplies in the next few weeks--buckets, mops, brooms, trash bags, etc.  Those will be needed.)

So how can you help people affected by Harvey?

Find an organization you trust and make a cash donation.  If they're a group like Churches of Christ Disaster Relief (that my own church has worked with) and they are asking for specific items, go donate.  These groups know how to get the stuff to where it needs to go.

If you pray, pray.   If you belong to a church, maybe they know a place where you can volunteer your services.

Just don't throw stuff into a box without thought and drop it off at a collection point.

And, for the love of all that is holy and reasonable, please do not send any industrial-sized cans of beets.

Just my .04, adjusted for inflation.