Hope Morgan Ward: Advent after the storms, and the boundary between darkness and light

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As Advent begins, we stand once again amid the destruction left by devastating storms. In the darkness, we yearn for light, a UMC bishop writes.

God has described a circle on the face of the waters, at the boundary between light and darkness.
-- Job 26:10 (NRSV)

A little more than a year ago, on Oct. 8, 2016, darkness and floodwaters overwhelmed 5,000 households in Robeson Country, North Carolina, and many thousands more across the southeastern United States. After inflicting catastrophic damage in Haiti as a strong Category 4 storm, Hurricane Matthew fell upon us, wreaking havoc, shattering order, breaking hearts, creating chaos.

That is what disasters do.

When overshadowed by disaster, we pray, we engage, we give, we work together to restore.

That is what we do. And as we do these things, we embody the petition in Psalm 80:7, the appointed lesson for the first Sunday in Advent:

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Gary Locklear of Pembroke, North Carolina, remembers Oct. 8 in his beloved community. He remained in the damp darkness for three days. Then resolution welled up: it was time to go out into the ravaged community around his home. A church and community worker and a home missioner for the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, he has been a consistent, leading voice in recovery efforts from that moment. In his life and leadership, we see the psalm prayed, lived, fulfilled.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

In this season of Advent, as in so many others, we stand once again amid the destruction left by devastating storms. It has been an especially hard year for millions of people in Houston and Florida and throughout the Caribbean. Memories abound of disaster and aftermath following hurricanes Harvey and Irma and Maria.

As Advent begins, the persistent darkness in Puerto Rico -- and the painful longing for light -- is a beckoning image. In Scripture, darkness and light are held in realistic proximity. Seemingly oppositional, darkness and light abide very near one another.

The book of Job demonstrates this reality. The book opens with a short story, only two chapters long. Job is victimized by disaster. He loses his property, his children, his health. The reader of the story shares the queries of those who observe Job’s misery. His situation confounds us, and our perplexity is met in a surprising way.

At the point of despair, the narrative breaks into extended poetry, 40 chapters of verse. In the midst of the poetry, an image is offered in Job 26:10:

He [God] has described a circle on the face of the waters, at the boundary between light and darkness.

Theodicy gives way to verse, and we see that the great mysteries are better approached in poetic than prosaic forms. The book returns to prose only in the last chapter, as Job dies, “old and full of days,” restored with the surrounding comfort and sympathy of friends and family as well as multiplied fortune.

As we sing our way through Advent toward Christmas, we embody the artistry of God, who is with us in lament and supplication, who always comes toward us, who abides in our midst and who enlivens our spirits. In the darkness, we yearn for light.

Every lit candle in our homes and churches is a brave, artful and resistant witness to our painful realization of the persistent darkness in this world. Every lit candle pleads for the light that shatters darkness in Puerto Rico and in Robeson Country, in Houston and in Sutherland Springs, in Florida and in New York, in Sierra Leone and in Las Vegas. Every lit candle is a sign of faith in God, who is present when and where violence erupts, people suffer and hearts ache.

God is proximate to pain, as the Rev. Dr. Michael Waters, the pastor of Joy Tabernacle AME Church in Dallas, has observed. In darkness and trouble, we pray for light and experience God in serendipitous and amazing ways. Neighbors connect, helping one another. Assistance is given and received. Gratitude swells for the simple necessities of life: light, water, food, shelter, transportation. Faith is revived as prayers swirl in a beautiful pattern of lament and hope. People embrace often and express openly love for one another. Creativity blossoms in the midst of trouble.

In September, as the first anniversary of Hurricane Matthew approached, the congregation of West Robeson United Methodist Church -- 30 faithful souls -- remembered the storm and all they had been through together. When Hurricane Irma -- a massive Category 5 storm -- threatened Florida, they had an idea. They knew that thousands of people would be evacuating quickly, with few provisions, heading north on I-95. With 100 hot dogs and a few cases of bottled water, they went to the North Carolina Welcome Center at the South Carolina state line. They made and posted a simple sign announcing “Free food and water for evacuees.” Cars began to stop, filled with evacuees and others, some to receive gratefully and some to offer $20 bills in support of the effort.

As word spread through social media, an amazing chaos of giving and receiving continued throughout the day. Hundreds took part, giving and receiving, receiving and giving -- all prompted by the generosity of one small church that remembered its own passage through the storm a year earlier.

The evening news on television featured the delightful story. The next Sunday, as the evacuees began heading home, the folks from West Robeson set up at the welcome center on the southbound side. Again, generosity flowed and many were encouraged. Within weeks, 90 souls gathered for worship at West Robeson, a threefold increase in presence, energy and missional delight.

Disasters, despite their grief, weariness, filth and chaos, are a canvas upon which God continues to paint. I know this because I have seen it happen, time and again.

One of the most vivid instances was in 2005 when I was bishop of the Mississippi Annual Conference. On a Sunday morning, six days after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, my husband, Mike, and I entered First United Methodist Church in Gulfport with Pastor Guss Shelly and a handful of people who had stayed and survived. Gathering at the altar of the devastated church and community, we embraced and wept together. Overwhelmed, we were in the circle on the face of the waters between darkness and light.

Looking back, Mike and I wish that Mississippi and Louisiana had been spared the devastation and heartbreak of Hurricane Katrina. We confess, however, that if it had to happen, we are eternally grateful for the unparalleled experience of lament and praise, fatigue and energy, inappropriate and appropriate helpfulness, scarcity and provision, disappointment and delight.

Thanksgiving arises from humility, not heroics. The storm was simply, as one volunteer described Biloxi, “God’s workshop.”

Advent comes. God is present in every circle on the waters where darkness meets light.