"I understand why people are upset with Joel Osteen--although, if you read his books or watch his show, he is walking his particular Prosperity Gospel walk, which does not include caring for the poor. But lately I've seen a bit of grumbling about other Houston churches and their perceived hypocrisy--tax exempt status, so whey aren't they doing more? Having helped restore a church after a less damaging hurricane, it's not hypocrisy when you decide not to open your church as a shelter. It's not good hospitality to say, "Go sleep on that sodden, ruined carpet, and in the morning, we'll all eat spoiled food together." That's not walking the walk, talking the talk either."
That post, along with pictures posted by Bishop Mike Rinehart of the ELCA churches in his Synod beginning the hurricane clean up, took me back to the time after Hurricane Wilma. The church to which we belonged sustained massive damage. I spent much of the next 6 weeks cleaning up that church. It was a church of older people, and there weren't many hands to do that work.
One day, about a week into the recovery time, I had spent the day hauling wet carpet to the curb after ripping it out of the floor, and I was wet, dirty, and bloody. The Bishop of our Synod appeared, dressed in casual clothes, an assistant by his side. I said, "Are you the carpet guys?" Oops. The men bristled a bit.
Like I said, I'm fairly sure they were dressed in casual clothes. If the bishop had come wearing his purple shirt and his impressive cross, I'd have known he wasn't the carpet guy.
Later it occurred to me to wonder why I should be expected to know what the Bishop looked like, to recognize him by sight. He had never graced the church with his presence before. And unlike the South Carolina synod conventions, which don't cost much to attend, our Florida synod conventions are astonishingly expensive. Even though I was church council president of that church, I never went because I knew the state of the church's books. We could barely afford to send the pastor.
The Bishop looked at our damage, took notes, and left us with a case of bottled water and some tarps.
At the time, I remember wishing for a bit more help with the physical labor, as I went back to ripping up carpet and hauling it to the curb.
But later, I got a great poem out of it. That poem was published by North American Review.
It's part of a series of poems that imagines what would happen if Jesus came back in our current world and moved amongst us today. Long ago, a Sunday School teacher asked us what we thought would happen if Jesus came back today (today being 1975). Little did she know that I'd still be playing with that question decades later:
Jesus showed up at our church to help
with hurricane clean up.
“The Bishop was so busy,” he explained.
“But I had some time on my hands,
so I loaded the truck with tarps and water,
and came on down. What can I do?”
“Our roof needs a miracle,” I said.
“Do you know a good roofer?”
“I used to be a carpenter.
Of course, that’s getting to be a long time ago.
Let me see what I can do.”
I set to work ripping up the soaked
carpet in the sanctuary.
As I added a piece of dripping padding
to the pile, I noticed Christ across the street,
at the house with the fallen
tree that took out both cars and the porch.
He walked right up to the door to see
how the household was doing. I dragged
sopping carpet, trip after trip, while Jesus sat
on the porch and listened to the old woman’s sad
saga. The rough edges made my hands bleed.
Good smells made me wander down the dark
church hall to our scarcely used
kitchen, where I found Christ cooking.
“I found these odds and ends and decided
to make some lunch. Luckily, you’ve got a gas stove.”
I shrugged. “Why not? Otherwise, it’s just going to rot.”
How he made the delicious fish stew and homemade
bread out of the scraps he found
in our kitchen, I couldn’t explain.
We went out together to invite
the neighborhood in for a hot
meal, even though they weren’t church members.
We all spoke different languages,
but a hot lunch served by candlelight translates
I dragged drywall, black with mold, to our dumpster,
and noticed Christ walking by the cars in line
for the gas station on the corner.
When I got closer, I noticed he handed
out fresh-baked cookies and bottled water.
“Have some sweetness.
Life is hard when you can’t get necessities.”
Some drivers stared at him, like he was one of those predatory
scammers they’d been warned against.
“What’s the catch?” they growled.
“No catch,” he said with that convincing smile.
“Just a gift of grace, freely given. You’re free
to accept or refuse.” A strange communion.
Jesus left while there was still
much work to do: new carpet to be installed,
drywall to be hung, fencing to be constructed
around church grounds. I watch him drive
his empty truck, followed
by some of the neighbors, away from the church.
The next time it rained, I noticed
that the long, leaking roof had healed.