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Rev. Emily C. Heath Headshot

What I'll Say on Sunday: Hurricanes and Theology From a Preacher in Vermont

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WHAT DOES GOD MEAN
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Last Saturday night I phoned the leaders of the two churches I pastor here in southern Vermont. I grew up in central Florida, and it felt bizarre to be considering calling off worship services for the first time in my pastorate for a hurricane. Who expects a hurricane in Vermont? We reluctantly decided to cancel, not out of any serious expectation of damage, but just in case.

Sunday night I walked down Main Street in Wilmington, VT. Around the time church would have been letting out, the Deerfield River spilled over its banks and flooded our downtown, taking out homes and businesses with equal disregard. The waters stopped just shy of the church. As I walked through the most badly damaged area, I barely comprehended the destruction. Entire buildings had been washed away. Concrete has been picked up and deposited elsewhere. One woman lost her life. Many others lost the lives they knew.

A week later, I'm sitting here trying to figure out what to say on Sunday morning. Ministers are in this unique position where, even in the midst of a natural disaster, we have fifteen uninterrupted minutes to talk on Sundays. No one gets fifteen minutes in a crisis. This is not lost on me.

Sunday night I stood in my clergy collar in the middle of the devastation and talked to some people who had been on vacation. We shook our heads in disbelief and one said, "This is God showing us what he can do."

I've never understood that line of thought. My first call out of seminary was as a chaplain at a pediatric hospital in Atlanta. I served in the emergency room and unfortunately saw many children brought in with devastating injuries. As I would sit with the parents, I would hear the comments from well-meaning friends and staff who didn't know what else to say:

"God meant this for a reason. God doesn't give you more than you can handle. God has a plan."

It wasn't the time or place, but I always wanted to challenge them:

"God willed someone who had a few drinks too many to get behind the wheel? God told someone to beat this child? God made this kid find his father's gun that hadn't been locked up?"

In the wake of the floods, I hear the same sort of quick theological judgements. It's not a huge surprise. People want to make sense out of something so horrific that it takes our breath away. And so, oddly, we attribute what happened not to our own acts (such as contributing to the climate crisis) but to an otherwise benevolent God.

But I remind myself that God does not cause natural disasters to punish us any more than God wills a child to be hit by a drunk driver. God does not flood river banks to show us God's strength. God does not wreak devastation because "God has a plan" or "God doesn't give us more than we can handle." God doesn't kill people to teach us a lesson.

But I also believe this. No matter what happens, God can work through it to create something good.

I don't say that in a "glass half full" way. I'm a realist, and I think the recovery here will take longer than anyone is really admitting. Aside from the physical devastation, we will have economic pain for some time. Leaf season, a time many local businesses depend on to survive, starts in a month. Ski season starts not much later. And then there's the psychological toll. We can contain the trauma for a while, but eventually it begins to spill out into the rest of our lives.

And yet, this week I have seen the grace of God at work in profound ways. Within hours, checks were on the way to the church from people across the country, including those who claim no faith at all. As the high school turned into an evacuation center, the uneasy tensions between "old Vermont" and "new" began to disappear, and lines of religion, class and sexual orientation were crossed in the interest of working together. And time and again, someone who had lost so much came to me and asked who had it worse, and how they could help them.

Last week I drank coffee with a parishioner at the iconic diner in town. This week the same building is torn apart. It laid badly broken at the bottom of the hill on Sunday night, the first building I saw when I walked into town. It took my breath away.

Today news came that it may be salvageable. When I heard that, it seemed to sum up what I was feeling about everything I've seen in the past week, and everything I believe God can do. Even in the midst of devastation, there is hope and there is the possibility of repair. What's true of buildings, is true so much more for us all.

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