Katrina Victims Memorial Service
By Fr. Bill Wigmore
(This sermon was delivered to a group recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.)
I usually start out these sermons saying, “Welcome!” and asking, “How’s everyone doing tonight?”
And then from different parts of the room usually come some muffled voices saying, “I’m all right”! – (or maybe) “Good to be here!”
It’s kind of a feelings-check-in–round- just to see how we’re all doing. I won’t ask that question tonight because many of us here are not doing so well.
- Tonight, we’re not OK –
- Tonight, we’ve been shaken –
- And some are maybe asking themselves:
Is it really so good to be here on this earth?
Is it really good to be where thousands of lives can be snuffed out in a minute? – Where we look at out TV’s – and on every channel all we see is devastation & human suffering on a massive sacle?”
Last Monday morning, the people in New Orleans & along the Gulf Coast saw their world ripped apart.
The Big Easy turned very un-easy as a colossal wall of wind & water approached the city.
When it came ashore, the residents watched in horror & disbelief as their homes and the lives of loved ones were ripped out from under them.
We still don’t know the death toll, but the destruction left in this storm’s wake is on a scale our country has never witnessed before.
Our people are still reeling and in a state of shock.
Not so long ago, we saw a similar thing happen in India & Indonesia. – But that storm hit in a foreign land – and we didn’t know those thousands of people who died; so we felt sad for a while but then went right back to living our lives.
This time the pain’s much closer to home.
Scientists knew for years that New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen. With a city sitting below sea level, facing an ocean in front and backed up to a giant lake – they knew that just the right storm,with just the right power could breech those protecting levees and bring unstoppable floodwaters rushing in.
Katrina was that storm – and along with those broken levees, maybe our collective denial systemhas also been breeched.
For years, other hurricanes came near – but we skated by with only close calls & minor damage.
Our denial system worked pretty effectively.
And perhaps we saw that denial system at work again on Monday morning as the first reports came drifting in and things didn’t look so very bad.
The TV reporters said: “Seems New Orleans has done it again!” – “Close call – but she’s dodged the bullet!”
… As the day wore on the harsh reality proved otherwise.
As addicts, we know a thing or two about denial and we know a little about having our worlds collapse and ripped out from under us.
Pain is a great teacher; but her lessons come to us hard.
Last summer, I joined a men’s retreat up in the mountains of New Mexico. The retreat leader was a well-known Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr. We had about a hundred men attending from all over the country.
The idea behind the retreat was for us to experience five days of initiation rites designed especially for men.
Rohr believes that men – and especially men from our Western culture –aren’t initiated into life as they are in many other societies around the world.
In many tribal cultures, there comes a time when the boys are taken away from their mothers and the male elders of the tribe take them deep into the woods or high up into the mountains introducing them to another side of life.
That “other side” is spiritual – but it’s a spirituality that always involves elements of pain & ego-deflation.
The first thing they do is to withdraw some of the comforts of life.
They do this because our creature comforts keep us spiritually asleep and oblivious to the spirit world that surrounds us.
- Instead of rich & heavy food, they fast and the boys start to feel hunger –
- Instead of sleeping till noon, they’re up at the crack of dawn.
- Silence replaces talking on cell phones or watching TV.
Whatever the physical trials, initiations are followed by telling the boys wonderful stories about the tribe’s great heroes.
Stories of the ancient kings & warriors of their tribe… men who somehow woke-up from their sleep and got in touch with new powers and new realities – They woke from their old selves and now they’ve become the role models for the boys to wake up to and to follow – no longer as boys, but as men.
Most initiations also include practices where the elders cut or pierce the boy’s bodies – they draw blood leaving life-long scars to remind the boys of their pain in growing up.
Women, it seems, don’t have quite as much need for these initiation rites because nature better prepares them for some of life’s harsh lessons.
Around the same time as the boys are taken away, the girls begin their menstruation cycles.
They experience pain – and they see their own blood.
They’re personally reminded each month of the power nature holds over them and so they’re usually better grounded in their bodies.
Men can stay immature – and we can stay in denial about pain and about reality indefinitely – so tribal societies have always developed these rites of initiation to draw our blood and to remind us we’re not as powerful as we might think.
Many of us sitting here tonight – both men and women – had to go out and get ourselves pretty wellbloodied up before we were ready & willing to come join this tribe of anonymous drunks & druggies.
Now, I bring all this up tonight because it seems like maybe over this past week, we’re getting ourselvesinitiated as a nation.
It seems like we’re being initiated into some very hard truths that aren’t going to be easy for us to learn.
Some of these truths threaten our denial systems – especially our ideas about God and perhaps the special-ness of our own place within his creation.
When tragedy strikes and when it breaks through our denial – we humans have a secondary line of defense: we get angry.
When denial fails, we become good & angry and we quickly look around for someone to project our new-found problems on. God often winds up with a lot of our misdirected anger and rage.
“God, where were you when I needed you most?
Pain and tragedy are parts of life that we humans have a real hard time looking at – and maybe an even harder time accepting.
A lot of our religions these days do precious little to prepare us for the pains of life.
There’s a lot of “feel good religion” out there that sounds good coming from the pulpit or through the TV –
It’s pie in the sky religion – Religion that’s ultimately shallow and doesn’t help people grow up spiritually or come anywhere close to teaching us how to live life on life’s terms.
- If it’s old school religion it says: Do this and you’ll get your reward in heaven.
- If it’s New Age religion, it says, “Do this – and you’ll find “abundance” waiting for you at your doorstep.”
They certainly don’t want to draw any blood from the congregation or stir any controversy – that might cut down on attendance or cut into the collection.
On the final day of that retreat in New Mexico, they sent each of us out alone – up into the mountains.
They sent us to face ourselves & face our fears – maybe to ponder our precarious place in God’s world.
Reminiscent of some of those tribes, just before we set off, the Elders blessed us and we were each handed an envelope with a single, typed page inside.
The instructions were to go off and walk for at least an hour –
- Go find a place way up in the mountains far away from everyone else –
- And there – maybe with branches or with some rocks
- Mark out a five-foot circle – that we were to step into and be alone in – preferably naked – although they said the dress code was optional.
- Being in AA, I figured half-measures would avail me nothing – so buck-naked, I built my circle and stepped into it – ready, I hoped, to face God, and life, and some of my fears straight on.
We had to stay inside our circles for at least 5 hours thinking and praying about the 5 truths we’d find inside our envelopes.
Now being from the city and not being a country boy – the first lesson I learned was that the shade that was covering me at 11 o’clock in the morning, had disappeared by noon! The sun went and moved –without even asking my permission!
Four more hours, naked & baking in the hot sun was part of my initiation that I’ll remember for quite some time.
When we opened our envelopes, we had before us some five truths to think & to pray about – Maybe they were truths to struggle with and wrestle with God over. They were truths my ego certainly wanted to deny.
Truth Number One said flatly: LIFE IS HARD. And Truth Number Two didn’t soften the blow any, but added insult to injury with this reminder: YOU ARE GOING TO DIE
The remaining three truths went on puncturing my ego and ripping away at some of the lies I love to tell myself.
Truth #3 said: YOU ARE NOT THAT IMPORTANT.
How that one hurt! I like to think I’m real important!
Then Truth 4 came rolling out: YOU ARE NOT IN CONTROL. That one was terrifying to this control freak!
And truth number 5 challenged the way I’ve always lived my whole life when it said: YOUR LIFE IS NOT ABOUT YOU.
If life’s not about me; then who is it about?
Five hours wasn’t gonna be anywhere near long enough for me!
About 20% of us on that retreat were in 12-Step programs and I think maybe we had just a little head start on some of the guys who were facing these truths for the first time.
- I don’t believe the 12 Steps aren’t meant to carry us up to the heights of heaven –
- I rather believe they’re meant to carry us down to rattle the gates of hell that are alive and well and living inside each one of us.
- I believe the Steps are more like a spiritual initiation that works toward destroying our old, … deluded, self-centered selves – so that God and our Elders can put the pieces of our lives back together in a whole new way – in a whole new self.
Jesus said to his disciples, “People will faint in terror when they see what’s coming over the civilized world.”
He says, “They’ll be dismayed in their confusion at the roar of the surging sea and its waves.”
Jesus says in effect, “Life is gonna get real hard before it gets any better.”
Now that’s not a popular message – that’s not a message that sells well in the marketplace of ideas or religion.”
But it’s true
Life does get god-awfully hard before it gets better – those of us in recovery can each attest to that.
And perhaps now, we as a nation are being asked to
- step out of our denial,
- and stop our blaming,
- and begin to take something from this tragic, and hard, and bitter lesson that life has handed us.
When we can accept the truths of life – really accept them at their deepest and most painful levels – then we walk through those truths and we come out their other side – changed.
We come to know that LIFE IS HARD – but we know still deeper that no matter how hard it is – God is here & he’s with us in our pain.
We come to know that WE ARE EACH GOING TO DIE – but we know even deeper that “though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death – now we have nothing to fear – because Jesus also walked through it – and God raised him up – and that truth changes everything.
And when we come to learn that WE ARE NOT IN CONTROL –
Then maybe we’re ready to hear Jesus say, “But I am with you – I am here to take control of your life & your will- if you’ll only let me – and I’ll be here with you – even to the end of time.”
And finally, when we’re told that OUR LIVES ARE NOT ABOUT US – maybe then we’ll begin to look beyond ourselves – maybe we’ll begin to wake up from our pride & self-centeredness – both individually as a country – and see all those people around us who are hurting.
Today, they’re not so easy to deny – today they number something like half a million outstretched and hurting hands. Some of us are still in shock or denial over last week’s terrible losses – we’ll need time to heal.
Some of us are angry with God – or angry at the government for not being better prepared – that’s human and natural & there’s plenty of blame to go around – we need to scream, and to wail; but then we need to sob deeply.
When all of that passes, we need to know that Life is Hard and life has handed us a terribly hard lesson here.
* It’s a lesson of how very vulnerable we all are – * A lesson of how much need we have for one another – *A lesson of how much suffering there is in our world and how foolish we are when we try to deny it, pretending it won’t happen to us until its so close we can’t deny it any more.
God didn’t do this thing – but we’ll find God in how we deal with this thing.
Let us pray tonight that those who are homeless find God in the strangers who take them in & care & comfort them.
That those who are hungry and without clothing or money find God in all the generous souls who share their material wealth with them.
That those who are grieving the loss of a life find God in the love & compassion we show them.
And finally, that those who have died find God in the peace that comes only from resting in his arms:
The peace that Jesus promised us – The peace this world can never give – The peace that passes all our understanding and overcomes all our fears.
Copyright 2008, Bill Wigmore. Used by permission.