Friday, September 09, 2005

Celebrating in the Midst of the Sorrow

Fetid, filthy water soaks into the streets, the shops, the libraries, the banks, and the homes in New Orleans. Long slats of vinyl siding, roof shingles, unmoored bathroom appliances, and countless plywood boards litter the streets of devastated towns and villages along the Gulf Coast. Unfortunately sorrow is not limited to the Gulf Coast these days. A tornado destroyed parts of Iowa and of Spain in the past 24 hours. Drought continues to scorch parts of the western half of this nation. Family members and friends of those whose lives were lost nearly four years ago on September 11, 2001 are preparing to live through yet another grim anniversary. Fresh tears will flow. Photos will be clutched, stories of heroism told, and memorial services will be held in honor of the lost. Famine, war, poverty, disease, depression, crime, and loneliness are headlines that never seem to stop scrolling across our television screens, computer monitors, or our hearts and minds.

But in the midst of the suffering, there are reasons to celebrate. Two weeks ago, thousands of people fled their homes and towns before Hurricane Katrina arrived. Despite the slow and uncoordinated plan that took effect late last week, thousands of people were kept alive in those dank, dark, and hot shelters. Families have been reunited and reestablished elsewhere in the States. Some children have started school in new communities. Some adults have found new jobs and will begin them soon. Millions of dollars have been raised. Food and clothes have been donated, and lives are being restored. Not only is the water receding in New Orleans, but so also is some of the deluge of grief, heartache, and misery that has washed over us in unstoppable waves for the past eleven days.

On a more personal note, a Connecticut friend’s husband celebrates his birthday on September 11th. Another will welcome her husband home tonight when he returns from a week of work-related travel. My dear Pamela will spend her second weekend in Rome with her son; she will spend the next six months doing research, writing, and taking in all the glories of The Eternal City. Katie is beginning her second year of leading the Wednesday Worship series at First Presbyterian Church in uptown Charlotte. We were overjoyed to receive communion from her this past Wednesday and inaugurate another year of seeking God along with the faithful members of her congregation. Our precious puppy, Maya, is doing phenomenally well. She wags her tail furiously when we enter her line of sight, and then she chases us and jumps onto our laps whenever we wander out of her presence. She eats well, sleeps deeply, and has found a friend in Midnight, the enormous black Lab across the street.

In a few short hours, we will join several dozen friends to celebrate my mother’s 70th birthday. My mother has lived here in Charlotte for just over a year, and in that short time she has made enough friends to merit a birthday party with “real” invitations, over 75 invited guests, and enough willing volunteers that I don’t need to do anything but show up. I hope and pray she has a wonderful time. I know it will be hard for her though, because anytime there is a gathering of close friends, she wishes that my Dad could be at her side. After 45 years of marriage, four years of widowhood have not been sufficient to ease her sorrow or to stop missing from her best friend.

I asked my mother to tell me the greatest changes she has seen in the world in her 70 years. Although I hoped she’d give me an answer right away, she said she’d think about it and get back to me. As I wait, I think I will speculate on what her list may include. Certainly there have been a plethora of “conveniences” invented in her lifetime. Easily accessible and widely affordable automobiles and airline travel, telephones and televisions, personal computers and laptops come most quickly to mind. The fact that water fountains, public transportation, and hotel facilities are open to people of all races and creeds, and she lives in south Charlotte in a condo complex where whites and blacks own adjacent units all reflect a much-changed North Carolina than the one she grew up in. If, during her childhood, someone had told her that during her lifetime cities in her home state would look like Charlotte does, she would have responded that they were “as crazy as a sprayed roach.” But tonight she will be feted among friends and family from North and South America, black and white, interracially married, and no one will be worried about a cross burning on the front lawn.

This afternoon as I prepare myself and the children for the party, I have thought a lot about the many thousands, the many millions who do not have reason to celebrate today. They have lost their homes, their livelihoods, and people they love. They have lost faith in institutions and in people that they thought would come to their aid. They look around them and see cause only for despair. To them, to the sick, the jobless, the homeless, the desperate, I can offer only words of encouragement that are not my own. Please allow me to plagiarize and share a few tidbits from The Book I refer to daily for wisdom and guidance. I find that in times of sorrow there is much to provide comfort.

Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why are you so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God.

Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from Him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; He is my fortress, I will not be shaken. My salvation and my honor depend on God; He is my mighty rock, my refuge.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid, not be dismayed for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Sorrow may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

Tonight, at least, there will be joy at Mom’s party. The sorrow will probably return when the morning news reels roll, but in the midst of it, let us all take time, make time to eat with friends, to raise toasts, and to celebrate.

Happy 70th Birthday, Mom!

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