Stuff Happens

stuff happens

State of the Presbytery, Monmouth  (part 2)

Billy JoelI realize that I’m supposed to be a Bruce Springsteen fan now that I am a Jersey Girl.  But having been raised on Long Island, I cannot reject my love of Billy Joel.

I started my report with a “state of the presbytery” musical report that was sung to the tune of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”  Billy Joel wrote the song on his fortieth birthday.  The collage of headlines were representative of the forty years of history … good and bad and neutral … from 1949 to his birthday in 1989.  It was a barrage of the stuff that happened.  And it was akin to the wisdom writer of Ecclesiastes saying:

“What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.”
Ecclesiastes 1:9

Last month a few of us met in the Café 360 in Freehold before our Mission Council meeting.  We were sharing supper while watching the TV screen above us showing reports of the Seaside Heights boardwalk burning.  It was so sad to see the boardwalk going up in flame just after the end of the summer tourist season and not even a year after the devastation of Superstorm Sandy.

On June 9, 1955, a fire broke out at a shop on the corner of Ocean Terrace and DuPont Avenue in Seaside Heights. Driven by 50 mile per hour winds, the fire spread south, until it was finally placed under control at Stockton Avenue in Seaside Park ... the fire destroyed three blocks of the boardwalk. -- David Chang, NBC

On June 9, 1955, a fire broke out at a shop on the corner of Ocean Terrace and DuPont Avenue in Seaside Heights. Driven by 50 mile per hour winds, the fire spread south, until it was finally placed under control at Stockton Avenue in Seaside Park … the fire destroyed three blocks of the boardwalk.
— David Chang, NBC

Did you know that the boardwalk burned in 1955?  Of course you did.  Stuff happens. And it happens over and over and over again.

Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.
— American Psychological Association

Our presbytery is experiencing trauma.  I know that we don’t like to acknowledge our emotional responses in the church of the frozen chosen, but it is a normal response to events like Sandy.  It’s normal that we would start out in shock, and that we would deny how vulnerable we’re feeling about now.  We may be experiencing a bunch of unpredictable emotions, even now, nearly a year after the event.  We may find ourselves having flashbacks.  After we, in Texas, went through Katrina and Rita and other hurricanes, one pastor told me she couldn’t hear the sound of hammers on a roof without flashing back the to devastation after the hurricane.  For others it’s smells or weather reports.   It wasn’t the hurricane itself that was traumatic for me in hurricane Rita; it was the traffic caused by the evacuation.  I was one of the hundreds of thousands caught in traffic for 22 hours.  We were moving at less than a mile per hour.  We were running out of gas.  And we had no place to use the bathroom.  Dwayne and I had one of the worst fights we’ve ever had over where to go and what to do that day.  And our daughters were scared.  To this day, my heart pounds, my pulse races, and my stomach tightens when I am on a highway in heavy traffic.  It’s a normal reaction in post-traumatic situations.

There is no doubt that Monmouth Presbytery has experienced severe trauma this year.  I know “trauma” is a difficult word.  In fact, I was advised by more than one person not to use it.   I believe, despite the harshness of the word, that it helps us name the depth of our woundedness.  It heals us as we realize it’s not our fault … Sometimes Stuff Happens; it just happens.

Stuff not only happens, it piles up one event on top of another which adds to the stress.  Remember how you felt during the snowstorm just after the hurricane?  Remember the additional flooding that happens every time there’s a hard rain or a tidal influence?  Remember how you felt watching the fire on the boardwalk last week?

When trauma’s pile up, the emotional impact is that much greater.  This summer there was a huge emotional response to the verdict in the Travon Martin murder.  Some say it was a week in which the African American community was dealing with stress after stress after stress.  First there was the Supreme Court ruling on the Voter’s Rights Act.  Then there was the brouhaha over Paula Deen‘s racial comments.  Finally, the community was dealing with the profiling and verdict of the Travon Martin case.  These are all stresses which reach back to the history of racism and slavery in our country.  Collectively, the African American community is reliving the trauma of slavery with every one of these stories.

I think about what Monmouth Presbytery was dealing with and experiencing at the June meeting.  Still reeling from Sandy and it’s aftermath, we were voting on the dismissal of Mt. Holly, and all of this was only a week after our moderator, Thelma Sessions, passed away.  Any one of these is traumatic for a presbytery, but we were facing all three.  It was good to gather and worship in a place as uplifting as Principe de Paz, but the wounds are there nonetheless.

I am so sorry I couldn’t be with you at the June meeting.  But as you know, I was celebrating my daughter’s wedding — talk about stress!  As we know not all stress on a system or a person comes from negative things … sometimes the good things also make us highly vulnerable, especially when they involve change and loss.  I found myself browsing through the wedding pictures and reliving the wedding, much like I would retell the story of a traumatic event.

Len Sweet wrote that we are in the perfect storm of change right now.  Most all of our institutions are becoming the old wineskins that are bursting at the seams.  Church, Government, Education, Health Care … all of the major organizations of our lives are shifting … not just incremental changes, but radically shifting to become something much different than what they’ve been.  He says that in a storm, the tendency is to hunker down and tie things down, but that allowing a boat, for instance, to ride the waves in a storm, may enable it to survive.  Hunkering down is definitely not going to be an advantage in a storm like this.

Our Church is suffering.  We, too, are experiencing the radical shift of culture.  We are experiencing crises in our budgets, in our buildings, and the number of bodies in our pews.  We are facing the challenge of irrelevancy by our culture … fighting to regain our place of influence.  But, our reality is different now.  We are facing so many crises, that the emotional reaction to trauma is real for us.

How do we feel when we see picture of a church abandoned in Detroit?  What goes on in our hearts, minds, guts when we see this?  For many of us it triggers the fears, the flashbacks, the grief over the hurt and woundedness we are experiencing.

What if dealing with Stuff … this trauma after trauma … is the new normal?  What if the pace of change, the pace of “stuff” happening, is not going to slow down?  It means we have to find a new way to be resilient.

“Resilience” is the title of the next part of this blog series which you can find here: State of the Presbytery, Monmouth (part 3)

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