Reverend David Melville
Francis Asbury United Methodist Church, Baton Rouge, LA
Sunday, August 13, 2017
It is said that hindsight is 20-20. It is said that hindsight is an advantage. But is it always? On this particular Sunday we can’t help but reflect and look back upon the year since flood waters swept through our community, our businesses, homes, and our church. And when we look back, what do we see? With the advantage of time and hindsight, do we have an advantage? Is what we see clear as a bell, 20-20, or is what we see still muddy because of the residue remaining from the rising waters?
Sometimes in the immediate aftermath of personal or community tragedy we can’t see the forest for the trees. It’s all too much. Did you feel that way on September 11, 2001? Didn’t you feel that way on August 14, 2016 … the first Sunday you did not sit in your pews to worship in a long, long time? And then you learned that you would never sit in those pews again.
But over time surely there is much we should have seen and learned and absorbed … maybe even changed … about ourselves following events which seem particularly devastating, particularly unfair, and particularly untimely, as if any storms by Mother Nature or storms in our personal lives could ever be timely or fair.
Singer-songwriter Mac Davis … not exactly a household name … has given us more songs than most realize: Memories, Don’t Cry Daddy, In the Ghetto, and A Little Less Conversation for Elvis, Watching Scotty Grow for Bobby Goldsboro, and an uplifting, forever hummable tune covered by many: I Believe in Music.
One of my favorite songs by Mac, and one which I have highlighted before talking about the sin of pride, is a little witty ditty called Oh, Lord, It’s Hard To Be Humble:
Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror ‘cause I get better looking each day. To know me is to love me, I must be a hell of a man. Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble, but I’m doing the best that I can. And after a rousing chorus, Mac proceeds even less humbly …
Another of Mac’s witty and yet poignant songs is Texas In My Rear View Mirror, which describes what countless individuals have experienced leaving their hometown, after feeling trapped and stifled in that home town.
Mac sang “I thought happiness was Lubbock, Texas, in my rear view mirror.” Buddy Holly had left his hometown of Lubbock, Texas, and made it, so why couldn’t Mac? As the song concludes, Mac recounts what he learned about himself and about Lubbock by looking in the rear view mirror. And based upon that self-knowledge, he wants, when it’s all over, to be buried back in Lubbock, Texas, in his jeans. And I bet he will be.
What do we see in our rear view mirror when it comes to looking back on the Great Flood of 2016? What have we learned about ourselves and about our community because of that tumultuous event? What have we still been able to see through our public and private tears?
The “I’s” have it this morning. Each of the lessons I believe we should have learned since last August 12 begins with the letter “I.”
If there’s anything we should have learned from looking into our rear view mirror is that we have our inadequacies. We can’t do everything, accomplish everything, fix everything, control everything by ourselves, even though often times we slip into a comfort zone concluding we can. When we wind up at the mercy of something greater than us, it surprises us. I think that is why some of these tragedies shake us so: they disrupt our priorities, they occur in spite of us; they upset our apple cart.
When we get to the point of controlling or thinking we’re completely controlling our lives, others’ lives and institutions, we can easily become prideful, selfish and blind to reality. When we convince ourselves that we are totally in control, we begin to convince ourselves that we are indispensable. But none of us are. You may have heard about the boss who notified her employee, “I don’t know how in the world we could get along without you, but beginning Monday we’re going to try.”
Controlling people assume they have all the answers. It’s O.K. to know and to admit when we don’t. I don’t know if you were a regular reader of “the answer lady,” Ann Landers, but if you were, you may remember this surprising column one day. Ann wrote: “How did it happen that something so good (my marriage) didn’t last forever? The lady with all the answers does not know the answer to this one.”
Have you ever done a little soul searching, and you couldn’t find your soul? It’s O.K. to lose control for a while, as long as we are still trusting the One with ultimate control. It’s O.K. to admit and then deal with our inadequacies. If there is anything the rising waters from a year ago should have taught us, it is that we are not in complete control of our destiny. Some of you had to leave home. Governor John Bel Edwards had to leave the Governor’s Mansion and wait months for repairs. One of the communication centers of a giant banking institution, Whitney Bank, just reopened. Wealthy, talented, creative John Schneider, “Bo” on the Dukes of Hazzard television show, who chose to construct a big media studio in the Hammond area, just re-opened a year later. None of these folks … a governor, bank C.E.O., superstar actor … with all their money and contacts … could wave a magic wand. So don’t take it personally!
Closely related to, in hindsight, seeing clearly our inadequacies is seeing how interrelated and interdependent we are. We’re all players on the team of humanity, and we’ve structured society so that none of us are self-sufficient. We no longer – if we ever did – lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps, nor do we trip on our own bootstraps. We may very well trip on the actions, inactions, or mistakes of others. We are all hurt by the worst that reveals itself in every emergency, and we are all helped by the best that reveals itself in every emergency.
There is a saying in the Orthodox church: “Those who go to hell, go to hell alone. Those who go to heaven, go together.” With whom are you going to heaven?
One image that always emerges from looking back at a tragedy is the inequalities within American communities before as well as after a storm. The inequalities were there all along, but not in full view, and often overlooked until they creep in like murky water. When we take time to look at ourselves in the mirror, a 20-20 vision shows that, for whatever the reasons, Americans are not equal in good times, as well as in bad times. And I believe the Jesus I see in the gospels would want us to be more equal.
We are not equal in terms of savings, resources, access to help, and family support. When one is resigned to weathering a storm literally alone, or by necessity being completely dependent upon institutional agencies and emergency relief – i.e., the government — our vulnerabilities and inequalities of independence are exposed for all to see. And so often these vulnerabilities and inequalities are passed down to the children born into inequality. And so the cycle continues.
I don’t have all the answers to the persistent problem of inequality of opportunity and independence in America. And if it takes tragedy to acknowledge and make adjustments, so be it. But surely the most abundant, most democratic and most Christian nation on earth should look ahead by looking carefully at what we see in our rear view mirror.
Some of you have met Keisha White and her son, Ezekiel, who also thought happiness was Lubbock, Texas, in their rear view mirror … like Mac Davis, and like Buddy Holly. I don’t want to be too presumptive or stereotypical, but I would wager anything that the Lubbock a young African American mother like Keisha was leaving was quite different than the Lubbock in the rear view mirror of two while males like Mac and Buddy. I’m just sayin’ …. I’m not blaming the citizens of Lubbock for this, nor am I blaming you all or myself for the inequalities that emerged from the waters last August in Baton Rouge. But I am suggesting that it is going to take all of us acknowledging the problem, not liking the problem, and then doing something about the problem, lest we keep on seeing the same inequalities in our rear view mirrors.
OUR INCORRECT ACTIONS
New Orleanians were rightfully disappointed and discouraged last weekend when excessive rains once again defeated storm drains and pumps which supposedly were in ship-shape condition and readiness. Untold millions of FEMA dollars went to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina for just such repairs and upgrades. But a week ago the system was not ready for a flash flood, let alone a hurricane. Some department heads rolled immediately, and it is now up to new eyes to plan for the future, but always with an eye on the past, looking through the rear view mirror to avoid the mistakes and incorrect actions of the past. Shame on us when bad history repeats itself, and people are hurt needlessly.
Many Americans are seeing us making the same mistakes and hearing the same wrong information coming from Afghanistan and Iraq, as we heard from Viet Nam. No, we haven’t lost anywhere near 60,000 American lives as we did in Viet Nam, but isn’t in God’s eyes each person precious? Sadly, it looks like we will always have to fight wars. But that doesn’t mean we have to fight them in the same way, and with the same incorrect actions, particularly when we can see those actions right there in our rear view mirror.
The final “I” word we should see reflected in our rear view mirror as we leave the Great Flood of August 2016, is an ever-present invitation that God first extended to the Israelites, then to the gentiles, and on down to you and me … an invitation to covenant with God the Father. As we drive away from bad times, if God becomes more and more distant until we are eventually driving without Him, we have forfeited our baptism, we have forfeited God’s covenant with Abraham, and we have forfeited the new covenant Jesus talked about at the Last Supper. As you drive away from bad times, always look for God. He’s there; He never left us. But it takes focus. Do everything you can to keep God in your rear view mirror.