Sunday, July 24, 2016
This year at RISE our team had the pleasure, and the huge task of painting Betty Keagan’s two story farmhouse with a new fresh coat of white paint. Betty’s son Larry runs the farm & she lives in a farmhouse in a glen between a dried up creek & a beautiful field filled with bales of hay. Betty grew up on a farm and ironically when she was young she told her sister that she would never live on a farm ever again. Growing up on a farm is hard work.
One day when Betty came out to greet us she had a bright orange hat that someone had decorated with a sharpie. When we looked closer we saw that her hat read “Betty Fierce.” We all laughed and discussed how this was a perfect nickname for Betty. A previous RISE team had worked on her farmhouse and they made hats with nicknames for each member of their group and Betty’s nickname was “Betty Fierce.” This is the perfect nickname for her…
Betty is 96 and she moves around with relative ease. Betty’s husband died a few decades ago and she has lived in this farmhouse ever since, with support from her son Larry. One afternoon we moved our water cooler under a shady spot with low lying branches and we kept whacking our heads on the branches when we bent down to get water. Betty was visiting with us on such an occasion and we were laughing together at how we kept being so surprised by the low lying branches. Ten minutes later I peeked down from the scaffolding and I noticed “Betty Fierce” with her hat on, with clippers chopping down some of the low lying branches.
The next day Betty and I were sitting in comfortable silence under that same shade tree and Betty turned and asked me out of the blue, “Do you believe in miracles?” And I paused for a second, wondering what my definition of a miracle would be, and then I said with conviction, “Yes Betty, I do believe in miracles, why do you ask?” She shared that she believes in miracles because she has personally experienced one. One day when Betty was driving with a friend, their car was T-boned in a terrible accident. Betty was in the direct line of impact on the passenger side of the car. In the accident, Betty broke her collarbone, several ribs, both pelvis bones, and bones in her arms and legs. She spent 6 weeks in rehab, in excruciating pain finding the strength to learn to walk again. When she told me this story she looked me in the eye and said, “it was hard work.” And Betty to this day describes her health and her recovery as a miracle of God. God was with her in the fire, in the rushing wave. God sustained her and gave her the strength to reach a full recovery.
Now I need to pause here & acknowledge my own questions when I have conversations about miracles. When we talk about miracles, I always wonder about the ones who aren’t granted a full recovery? What about the ones who die in the car wreck, or from cancer or a heart attack? What about the ones who aren’t granted the privilege of living out a full long 96 years?
Chuck acknowledged this conundrum in his sermon last week. What about the suffering of the innocents? If God is good and God is active in our lives, then how can such suffering exist? We have been tossing around that question for centuries and millennia and perhaps, like Job, even after years of inquiry there still is no real good answer to satisfy our questions. How do some avoid such suffering and others must face it directly in unimaginable ways? Do miracles really happen? When Betty and I say that “we believe in miracles” are we saying the same thing?
Does she mean that it was a miracle that she survived? Does she mean that it was a miracle God gave her the perseverance to make such an amazing full recovery? What do I mean when I said that I believe in miracles? For me: I think a miracle is defined simply: When God is there, and when things happen that are beyond you. And this is why going on RISE and on trips like RISE, are so important for me. RISE reminds me that God is with me, and I am especially aware of God’s presence when I am dependent upon God to make it through my day.
According to this definition, it is certainly a miracle that we were even able to meet Betty – a rag tag sweaty pack of teens and adults covered in white paint from northern New Jersey. How had our paths crossed with each other and with Ms. Betty Keagan? And our paint job – let me tell you – it was most certainly a miracle that involved three levels of scaffolding, five 9am-5pm almost non-stop days, not to mention the tiny detail of being tasked to operate one $250,000 piece of heavy machinery with 16 year olds and two adults who have never touch such a machine in our lives? Does that qualify as a miracle? Our company, our laugh, our team reflections, do those qualify as a miracle? Does it count as a miracle that some on our team who hated country music on Monday ended up loving it on Friday?
What do you think qualifies as a miracle?
When you survive the thing that you thought you could never survive. When you conquer the fear that dominated your spirit – even if that fear was as simple as climbing a ladder. When you build a relationship that should have never been forged? When you face terror with peace & kindness?
God is there even when we are overwhelmed when we experience an “anti miracle.” When we are in the exact wrong place at the exact wrong time, and perhaps we do not make a full recovery. And that is our task of faith, to believe, in that the miracle and even in the anti-miracle that God is still there. That we belong to God, and that we should not fear.
And this “God is with you” mantra may sound cliché’ and when you break it down it may feel like some sort of spiritual placebo. But when we work with populations who are in poverty, in New York State, in Nicaragua, or even around the corner right here in Summit, they teach me so much about what it means to be dependent on God and how dependence on God has a real transformative impact in their lives.
I remember this truth when I have a conversation with someone who is near death or facing unbearable suffering and they look at me with peace & hope against all hope. I remember the power of God’s sustenance when I see the powerful & prophetic spiritual witness of the Black Church in America – which traces its origins back to slavery – I think “wow they took on the religion of their slave holders, their oppressor – and this sacred tradition abused by so many – they made it their own and it has sustained them spiritually for all of these years.”
Sometimes I get a little removed from these stories of God’s movement in my life and I think that I have done all of this work by myself. I think that God & my community is helping but the main agent in my life is ME. And then I sit with Betty. And she reminds me that all of life is a miracle. She reminds me that my faith has sustained me, that God has sustained me when the waters have risen in my life. And that that sustenance – it was beyond me – beyond my calculations or my control. Betty helped remind me that the times in life when I cry out for God to be near, those are the times when I can more easily recognize that I am living in a miracle. What are the fires in your life, what are the waters that have threaten to sweep you away? Have you ever sensed God in the midst of great turmoil – have you ever heard God say in the midst of trial – “Do not fear, I am with you – I have called you by name – you are mine?”
Remember today beloved that there are miracles in each day – that God is always with you – Remember the times in your life when your reliance upon God, helped forge beauty and meaning in your time of trial. And remember, when the waters start rising, God is with us, God’s presence makes real & beautiful change in our world. And whenever you doubt that simple truth, just picture this sweaty pack of teenagers who brought a lot of beautiful, divinely inspired, good into our world & remember our homeowners who remind us what it means to truly depend upon God & God’s power in your life. Amen.
Every year I go to Rise I’m reminded how incredible people are. Some people trudge from tragedy to tragedy, challenge to challenge, but somehow always come through bent, but unbroken and with a smile on their face. These individuals are generous, resilient, hard-working, and overall inspiring. My group’s home owners this year were no exception. On our first day on the site, the home owners Bill and Phyllis opened up to us more than any home owner I had ever known. They were delighted to share stories about their life up on the mountain top and their passions for hunting and fishing and nature. One story, however, that was especially impactful on our group was not about themselves, but by their son Al.
Across the span of one’s junior year, it’s easy to become jaded and depressed. The heavy workload is absolutely killer, and by the end of each day, I found it was easy to pass out into a sleep deprived coma for whatever few hours I managed to get. Some days the fear bred by competition would get to me--I’d lash out at my friends and family, or more often, stew to myself, with a cartoonish black cloud of cynicism hanging over my head. So when it was all over and done with, the dregs of the school year dragged into the summer. Even though technically I was free, I was still stressed. That is, I was until I arrived at RISE.
Having flown in from Chicago just the night before, I started the week resenting being dragged out of my soft, warm bed into a sleeping bag on the hard, cold ground. I also think I spent those first few days in a coma. As my roommates could attest, I spent as long as humanly possible sleeping anywhere, anyhow, anytime. But not for long. The thing about RISE is that it is impossible to have a bad time. As long as your mind is open and you’re willing to accept the hard work, the 6 am wake-up pots-and-pans, and, yes, sometimes even the dorky hymns, you’ll find one of the most tightly knit, loving communities out there. You don’t want to sleep through it, because you don’t want it to end. As co-director Dave Meyer says, “The best kids come to RISE”. I really believe this to be true.
My team spent the week replacing a family’s water heater and shower, and redoing the skirting on their trailer. Since most of the job was technical work in a tight space, we spent a good deal of time talking to the homeowners-- Phyllis, her husband Bill, and their son Alan. Alan spent the first morning with us, and, gradually, we began to piece together his story.
As Al recounted to us, he lived for the outdoors. Like his father he was an avid hunter and fisher, often spending long days outside to bring home the game he had caught for dinner. He described his avid passion for biking and how he would bike 50 miles almost every day. He spoke longingly of how he was training for an Iron Man race and was excited to watch the upcoming Tour de France. Basically, Al’s passion for the outdoors was one that ran deep throughout his entire life.
Like most pivotal moments, his life changed in a single day. As he depicted it, he arrived home from an afternoon motorcycle ride and proceeded to plop down on the couch to watch some television. No different from a typical day, Al fell asleep normally that night, but when he woke up, he was paralyzed from the neck down. After extensive doctor’s visits, they discovered that Al had a condition in his spine where he was lacking fluid between his spinals discs, causing his paralysis. Eventually, after surgery, various medications, and physical therapy, Al relearned how to walk, but never with the ease that he once had. Never again would he be able to do many of the activities he once lived for.
Before his accident, Al later told me, he had everything: a fast car, a fancy house, a dirt bike--all sorts of material possessions. Afterwards, he initially felt left barren. But then he said something which surprised me. After his paralysis, Alan took up wood carving. He started off with simple fishing lures and gradually built his way up to painted birds, fish and chipmunks. The carvings were astonishing-- it was clear that Alan had an innate gift. Yet he told us it only occurred to him to try it once he was bedridden. He believes fully that it was the hand of God that guided him to carve. Now, he lives a much simpler life, and yet he told us he is far happier now, even without fast cars and dirtbikes.
Devastation. That was the way Al described feeling after receiving his diagnosis. He said for a long period of time he felt utterly lost, unsure how he would ever be able to feel alive ever again. Nevertheless, on a whim Al recounted that he decided to attend a wood carving class at his local library just to keep himself preoccupied while recuperating. Turns out, he has an amazing natural ability for the craft. He showed us pictures of his work and collectively we were astounded. Every carving, whether it was a small fishing lure or life sized robin or butterfly, looked as if it had been professionally crafted. The wooden creatures were stunningly life like and painted perfectly. Al beamed as we praised his work and eagerly told us his inspiration behind each artfully completed piece.
Al told us that in his darkest hour when he wholeheartedly believed his life was over, he drew strength from God to keep going. He told himself, God has a plan for everyone and if this is the path I have to take, so be it. He embraced his challenges and as a result discovered an incredible talent he would have never found. He works diligently every day to improve his physical state and even though he can’t do everything to the extent he once did, he still hunts and fishes and cooks for town barbeques. He enjoys life so much and it warms my heart to see how curious he is about the world. He is always looking for a new trade to learn whether it is tanning leather or created homemade bows and arrows, and his dedication towards perfecting those skills is astonishing.
From Al this past week, my group learned some meaningful lessons about determination and resilience. Granted, we faced our own challenges during our project, and often were overwhelmed by the complex task set before us. Yet, Al showed us how there is always a solution even when the given circumstances are unfavorable. Like him, we chose to work through our challenges and bounce back from any of our mistakes and I hope that lesson is one we can continue using outside our week at Rise. We will stumble, fall, and fail countless times in our lives. It’s bound to happen, but what matters in the end is that we try to get back up on our feet and embrace our strife instead of spiting the world for it. Personally, I hope to be like Al and not let the world knock me down even when all seems hopeless. Who knows, maybe I too have a secret talent for woodcarving that I just haven’t had the chance to discover yet.
This is the spirit of RISE. Through service, we come to remember the best parts of life. Alan, upon learning what we were there for, was immediately interested in getting himself and his church involved. A nurse, passing by to check up on Bill, was moved and said she would tell her family about us. And on the last day, Chelsea, Mr. Semper and I stopped by a previous worksite and caught up with some old friends. Vick (our former homeowner), and Sandy (his neighbor now getting work done herself) both remembered us and expressed gratitude for what we had done. Love and gratitude spread like wildfire at RISE. It was here that I was finally able to burn off the dregs of a tough school year. Each day of RISE is church, in its own sense-- whether it’s communion in church, a day of work in the hot sun, a night out for ice cream, a picnic on a mountaintop, or any of the other ways we filled the week. God doesn’t live in a church. You can find God anywhere-- we found it sitting in a cool breeze on a hot day, in the cool sweetness of fresh Amish peaches, in beautiful views and picnic bonfires.