On Our Way to A New Normal

By JF Lacaria

JF Lacaria shared this message at St Mark’s UMC for their Lenten Lunch Series about “Home”

On Thursday morning, June 23rd, 2016, I woke up at 4:15 to the sound of rain slamming onto the bedroom window.  I was sure of one thing, I had never heard rain hit the window that hard. I rolled over and went back to sleep.  Later that morning at my desk, I heard West Virginia Public Radio – the know-it-all radio station – try to educate its listeners on the meaning of a dam breach. They wanted their listeners to know that a dam fails when water flows through a designated overflow point so that the dam itself does not break, or breach, or fail.  It is a controlled failure, instead of a catastrophic failure. They were talking about the dam at Summit Lake that was threatening the town of Richwood.

Now, we know that this dam was never breached, neither did it fail, but rain fell like the deluge and southeastern West Virginia was flooding like never before. Friday afternoon, I drove to Clendenin to see things for myself. I walked from the Dollar General Store past the flooded fire hall to Clendenin United Methodist Church; river mud was everywhere. Along the way, I learned from some of the volunteer firemen that Scott Ferguson’s parsonage had gotten over 4 feet of water and mud into the first floor, and that Scott and his family were at the beach on vacation.

On Saturday I went back to Clendenin Church and took pictures of the church and the parsonage and sent them to Scott as he went through the last toll booth on the turnpike. I wanted to warn him about coming home. From the pictures I sent and reports he had received, he decided to drop his kids off with his parents who had come to Charleston to meet them, and only then did he and Beckie drive by their house. That same Saturday, a family from his church was heading out for their own vacation at the beach, and they told Scott and Becki to move into their house in Pinch while they were gone. Through luck, good fortune, and the miraculous appointive system of our church, Scott and Beckie eventually moved into Elizabeth Memorial’s parsonage, and work began on their home in Clendenin. They started their journey to a new normal.

The Old Testament lesson for this week comes from the prophet Isaiah, reading in the 43rd chapter beginning at verse 16. 

Isaiah 43:16-21

16Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, 17who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:18Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 20The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people,21the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

“Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing – I am about to take you to your new normal – now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

Pray with me for our time of reflection on Isaiah’s prophesy – Oh holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray, cast out our sin and enter, be born in us today. We’ve heard your gladsome angels, their great glad tidings tell, O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.  Amen.

I cannot recall the first time I heard the words “new normal,” but I know that I heard them a lot after the 2016 flood. This expression was woven into conversations by those who were professionals at responding to disasters, it popped up in training events, it was said to be a more accurate description than “back to normal.” Flood survivors were heading toward their “new normal.” Things would never get “back to normal.”

The Book of Isaiah is considered by many scholars to be three books and in it we are presented with three normals and three new normals: First Isaiah (chapters 1-39), where normal was life within the land of Judah regulated by life surrounding the Temple at Jerusalem and new normal was going to be life exile in Babylon; Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55) where normal was life in exile without Jerusalem or a Temple and new normal was going to be living back home in Judah; and Third Isaiah (chapters 55-66) where normal was a life filled with the joy of returning home and new normal was going to include the work of rebuilding the place while distancing themselves from the interlopers, war victims, and left behind Hebrews who never went to Babylon. The passage I read was from Second Isaiah, just before the people return back home.

There is an archetypal pattern in this movement from equilibrium to chaos to restored equilibrium, and it is constant in our lives, but, some events, like floods, intensify and universalize the experience.

Consider these parallels. At the beginning of Isaiah the Israelites were mildly comfortable in their state of subjugation under the rule of the Assyrians.  They paid huge tributes to their overlords, but for the most part they had found a way to manage. But when Assyria fell to the Babylonians, this new enemy swept through Judah twice, laying siege to Jerusalem, David’s city, both times, and in the end, destroying the Temple and the city walls. Jews who were members of the privileged class were carried off to Babylon, their poorer neighbors left behind, The rhythms of Temple life and sacrifice ceased; rituals became only as accurate as the people’s memories; priest-led sacrifice was replaced with rabbinic learning and memorization within the new gathering places called synagogues.

Now consider the flood. Let’s look at Clendenin, Richwood, Rainelle and White Sulphur Springs.  None of these towns were thriving, but they bustled along, managing with the fortunes bestowed upon them. Following flood waters that swept through like Babylon, churches and buildings were destroyed, sanctuary floors were buckled, warped Bibles with wet pages lay open to passages that were read the previous Sunday, a memorial piano sat in a sanctuary that hung suspended over the river with nothing holding it up, a communion chalice lay on its side caked in mud. In neighborhoods houses sat beside their foundations, and stairs went up to nothing, just space where there was once a home. People had wandered off, to relatives and friends, or to blue tarp tents surrounded by coolers and piles of clothing. Community services, like Dollar General, H&R Block, Bushido Kai Karate Association and the barber shop across from Pizza Hut were gone. At Elk Crossing, K Mart, La Quinta, and McDonalds were held siege and would not be liberated for another year.

Like the Israelites, flood survivors would never find a way back, there was only a path forward to something called the new normal.

For the Israelites it began when Cyrus, king of Persia, defeated the Babylonian hoards, and gave permission for the dispersed populations to go back home. After 50 years they returned and discovered how great the destruction had been and how little had been restored. The people who lived there now were a combination of those left behind and whoever Babylon forced to settle there as they tossed conquered people around like salad. None of them knew how to behave in church. These people were no longer Hebrew people and therefore they were not allowed to take part in building the second Temple, and rebuilding the city wall. Those left out came to be known as the Samaritans and it was going to be a long time before they would ever be included in the family reunions.

Prior to the flood a new governor came to town and, like Cyrus he wanted to get the dispersed back home. He opened his business, activated his staff and tapped his wealthy friends for shelter, brain power and funds to start down the long road of recovery, the road to new normal. They were joined by many NGOs like us, United Methodists and UMCOR, Catholic Charities, VOAD and the Red Cross. The feds came too, with their FEMA VALs (voluntary agency liaisons) and the promise of truckloads of community development block grant money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Everyone was surprised at the extent of the damage.

High water had been capricious, it hit some homes hard, it skipped others, it tickled the floor joists in some churches, it removed the foundation in others, it scoured away pavement on the river side of the road, and tossed asphalt on the hillside ditch lines, in Richwood it carved a trench all the way down Oakford Avenue which drops like a ski ramp from the top of the town to Main St. Now, what this meant was that survivors shoveled mud and ordered dry wall while their neighbors mowed their lawns, and headed out for another day at the office. It would only get worse, someone here got brand new homes, over there they just got a some drywall, subfloor and new carpeting, and that house way out there – well it got very little. It seems the new normal is a bit capricious too.

Isaiah declared: 18Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

Well, yes, darn it, sometimes we do not perceive it.  Give us a hint:

I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert – wild animals will honor me, the people whom I formed for myself [will] declare my praise.

When God takes us to our new normal things will not appear as they do now. But you can count on a couple of things, God will be there, and there will be a place in new normal for you. This was true for the Hebrew people returning from Babylon, it is becoming true for flood survivors returning to their property, and it will be true for us, the people called United Methodist.

We are weathering a denominational storm that is threatening to tear us apart, we fear getting displaced and ending up like refugees in our own churches. We are not quite sure about what is coming and we are soul sick and full of dis-ease. But we are not alone in our struggle. God is present in leading the church to a new normal and there will be a place for everyone in God’s church.  Not everyone will move through their heartache and loss on the same pathway, but God invites everyone to move to their new normal.

At the risk of including one too many illustrations into let me share one other historic moment from our past. In 1999 I had an opportunity to travel with some newly ordained deacons to Cuba to visit our Methodist brothers and sisters and worship in their churches.  For me, Cuba lay in a cloud and the Methodist Church in Cuba was a mystery. As my grandfather would have said, I didn’t know there was such a thing until I sat down in it. 

On our trip we met with Bishop Ricardo Pereiro and he recounted how Methodist pastors were faced with a wrenching decision during the Cuban airlift, when tens of thousands of Cubans left their island home for Florida as Fidel Castro assumed power and Communism replaced Batista’s dictatorship. Did they flee the wrath they feared and fly north with their flocks who would need their ministerial leadership in their new land as emigrants, or do they remain in Cuba and face likely imprisonment and the loss of their pastoral vocations in order to go underground and keep the church alive. Each pastor made his own decision, some left, some remained. As the years of severe suppression were lifted and our US United Methodist churches interacted more frequently with those pastors who had remained it became clear that the Cuban Methodist Church would never get back to normal, but God would lead them to a new normal. Pastors who fled Cuba were forgiven by those who remained and suffered. Pastors who abandoned their flocks and stayed in Cuba were forgiven by those who stayed with their people.

According to a 2017 United Methodist News Service report, by its own count, the Methodist Church in Cuba has more than 43,000 active members and a community of more than 65,000. Eighty percent of the municipalities in Cuba have a Methodist church and 98 percent have preaching locations. Many members did not grow up in Christian homes, but are ex-Communists who have come to this faith-based new normal. Rev. Edgar Avitia, a Global Ministries executive, attributes the church’s survival in Cuba to its combination of Wesleyan theology and Cuban culture. “Its leadership and style of worship are unapologetically indigenous,” he says. “It sings and dances and serves others to celebrate God’s love.”

Rev. Lester Fernandez, pastor of the large downtown church shared that “In Havana, I have the experience every day of meeting people on the street that are from the church that I don’t know, especially the 350 people who sit downstairs (in the overflow room), ” he explains.

That’s why the pastor looks for people who seem sad or look concerned when he walks the church’s aisles with a microphone during worship, praying aloud for the congregation.

“It doesn’t matter what you went through (last week),” Fernandez tells the congregation, “it’s a new week now.”

God took the Cuban Methodist Church to a new normal and there was a place for everyone.

So, there you have it, we cling to our sense of equilibrium and normalcy, but life can bring enormous disruption that will close the door on getting back to normal. Christ beckons us to join him on his journey to a new normal, where you will find Christ’s church and a place prepared just for you.  Amen.