Our opening words this morning are “gratitude, sorrow, relief, and determination.” As we think of the ways the flooding disaster could have been worse, we are grateful that it was not worse. I am grateful for our church building; for all of you here, and for our members and friends who, though not physically present with us today, are with us in spirit. And I am grateful for all of our good neighbors in Columbia, South Carolina, and beyond, who have sent us their support, empathy, and encouragement. We are deeply sorrowful when we think of the losses this flood has wrought, some of which even time will not fix, some of which, though less severe by comparison, still leave us and our neighbors grieving. We are relieved that the flood is behind us now. In this calm after the storm, we are determined to regroup, rebuild, and rebound. Let us pause in a moment of silence now, and let ourselves feel, through the presence of this hospitable congregation, building, and city, and through that Greater Love, comfort, reassurance, and solace.”
Reading, from, The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy L. Sayers [pp. 393-395]
[This reading describes a church in England that becomes a refuge for its surrounding community in the midst of a major flood. The time period is called, “Between the Wars;” England in the 1930s.]
[The waters were rising…] “For fourteen days and nights the Wale River ran backward in its bed and the floods stood in the land. [The floods] lay all about Fenchurch St. Stephen, a foot above the railway embankment, so that the trains came through snorting and slowly, sending up a wall of water right and left. St. Peter suffered most, its houses being covered to the sills of the upper windows, and its cottages to the eaves. At St. Paul, everything was flooded eight feet deep, except the mound where the church and rectory stood. The Rector’s organization worked brilliantly. Supplies were ample for three days, after which an improvised service of boats and ferries brought in fresh food regularly from the neighboring towns. A curious kind of desert-island life was carried on in and about the church, which, in course of time, assumed a rhythm of its own. Each morning was ushered in by a short and cheerful flourish of bells, which rang the milkers out to the cowsheds in the graveyard. Hot water for washing was brought in wheeled water-butts from the Rectory copper. Bedding was shaken and rolled under the pews for the day; the tarpaulins dividing the men’s side from the women’s side of the church were drawn back and a brief service of hymns and prayer was held, to the accompaniment of culinary clinkings and odors from the Lady-chapel. Breakfast, prepared under Bunter’s directions, was distributed along the pews by members of the Women’s Institute, and when this was over, the duties of the day were put in hand. Daily school was carried on in the south aisle; games and drill were organized in the Rectory garden by Lord Peter Wimsey; farmers attended to their cattle; owners of poultry brought the eggs to a communal basket; Mrs. Venables presided over sewing parties in the Rectory. Two portable wireless sets were available, one in the Rectory, the other in the church; these tirelessly poured out entertainment and instruction, the batteries being kept re-charged by an ingenious device from the engine of Wimsey’s Daimler… Three evenings a week were devoted to concerts and lectures, arranged by Mrs. Venables, Miss Snoot, and the combined choirs of St. Stephen and St. Paul, with Miss Hilary Thorpe and Mr. Bunter [comedian] assisting. On Sundays, the routine was varied by an Early [communion service] followed by an undenominational service conducted by the two Church of England priests and the two non-conformist ministers. A wedding, which happened to fall due in the middle of the fortnight, was made a gala occasion, and a baby, which also happened to fall due, was baptized “Paul” [for the church] “Christopher” [because St. Christopher had to do with rivers and ferries], the Rector strenuously resisted the parents’ desire to call [the baby] “Van Leyden Flood.” On the fourteenth day, [Lord Peter] Wimsey, passing early through the churchyard for a morning swim down the village street, noticed that the level of the water had shrunk by an inch, and [he] returned, waving a handful of laurels from somebody’s front garden, as the nearest substitute for an olive branch. That day they rang a merry peal of [bells], and across the sundering flood [they] heard the bells of St. Stephen peal merrily back.”
the Morning Sermon: “Why We keep Doing Church”
I have loved that reading by Dorothy L. Sayers since I first read it many years ago– I love it for the way it illustrates the many ways a church provides for its members and its wider community. The church in Ms. Sayers’ story does so especially in the crisis of a natural disaster, providing food, shelter, and connection to a caring community. And it also provides worship services for people of differing beliefs, educational programs for children and adults, concerts, lectures, opportunities for conversations about current events, laughter and camaraderie, a choir, a sewing circle, games and other entertainment, and a place to honor marriages, the blessing and naming of children, and other rite-of-passage ceremonies.
Our congregation provides all those things, too, right here, all year round. So I love Ms. Sayers’ reading for our church this morning because it describes the many ways our church is a friend to us when we are in need. The terrible flooding we have experienced this past week has shaken us up, disrupting our lives, our households, our routines, and our streets and bridges. But the flood has also caused us to see anew why it is so important that we keep “doing church.” Our congregation makes possible our relationships with each other, with our neighbors, with other congregations and service organizations in Columbia, and with Unitarian Universalists in the Carolinas, and up and down the coast, and throughout the United States. The weather disaster we have just lived through has given so many of those individuals and groups the opportunity to rise to the occasion and extend themselves in support and encouragement to us. The flooding, frightening and destructive as it was, has shown us that we are surrounded by caring friends.
To me, real friendship is not an ordinary thing; it is a sacred thing. Real friendship, when we are so privileged to know it, is something to be exalted, and cherished. La Rochefoucauld wrote, “A true friend is the most precious of all possessions and the one we take the least thought about acquiring.” And I have always loved the quote by Emerson, “A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud.” Emerson also said, “A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.” Dag Hammarskjold wrote, “Every deed and every relationship is surrounded by an atmosphere of silence. Friendship needs no words- it is solitude delivered from the anguish of loneliness.”
Friendship has, in fact, been exalted by wise religious teachers since the Celtic civilization before the fifth century AD. The Celts called it anamcara, which means soul-friend. John O’Donohue writes, in his book, Anamcara – Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World [pp. 35-37]: “In the early Celtic Church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. Anam cara was originally someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara, you could share your innermost self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the ‘friend of your soul.’ The Celtic understanding did not set limitations of space or time on the soul… In everyone’s life, there is great need for an anam cara, a soul friend. In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of acquaintance fall away… The anam cara experience illuminates the mystery and kindness of the divine. The anam cara is God’s gift. Friendship is the nature of God… [O’Donohue writes]. Consequently, love is anything but sentimental. In fact, it is the most real and creative form of human presence. Love is the threshold where divine and human presence ebb and flow into each other.” Also, “The Buddhist tradition has a lovely concept of friendship. This is the notion of the ‘Kalyana-mitra,’ the ‘noble friend.’ Your ‘Kalyana-mitra,’ your noble friend, will not accept pretension, but will gently and very firmly confront you with your own blindness. No one can see their life totally. As there is a blind spot in the retina of the human eye, there is also in the soul a blind side where you are not able to see. Therefore, you must depend on the one you love to see for you, where you cannot see for yourself. Your Kalyana-mitra complements your vision in a kind and critical way. Such friendship is creative and critical; it is willing to negotiate awkward and uneven territories of contradiction and woundedness.” [pp. 48-49]
When I told one colleague that I was going to preach about how friendship is a spiritual thing, she said, “You should mention dogs– and cats– not nature in general so much as the animal kingdom; you should mention St. Francis of Assisi, and pets.” The Quakers called each other “friend” and are also known as the Society of Friends. They have relied on each other for kind companionship, support, advice, accountability, and assistance with discernment. No matter how wise, strong, and good anyone is, they always need counsel and correction from advisors. And I want you all to know that, during this weather disaster we have just lived through, I stayed in good contact with, and received help and advice from, wise friends, colleagues, neighbors, and family members. And I will continue to do so as we work through the aftermath of this flood.
A friend is someone you know, like, and trust, with whom you feel a sense of peacefulness. The opposite of a friendship is an enemy relationship of antagonism, hostility, and war. To be friends is to be on the same side, to want the same things, to want what’s best for the other. In a true spiritual friendship, neither party is used or abused, and neither will the descendants or inheritors of that relationship be used or abused. A spiritual friendship is friendship at its highest and fullest possible form. It has integrity, honesty, and acknowledges the harsh realities of life as well as the blessings. It is open to the new, and ongoingly creative and evolving. Friends see in one another, vulnerability, but also possibility and potential. This is what it means to be a mature person and to be a partner in a mature relationship. A friend is not expected to take away my troubles in one fell swoop, nor to solve my problems for me, but to help me figure out creative ways to transform my own life. A clergyperson should cultivate spiritual friendships between members and friends of the church, between congregants and the church, and between the congregation and its wider community, and should cultivate spiritual friendships between people and that which is divine– A clergyperson should cultivate them, not try to control or codify them. I feel the greatest compliment I have ever received was when a colleague said that I notice people who are somehow out of step [and isn’t every person somehow out of step in his or her own way?], and that I walk along side them, befriend them, and receive their wisdom.
This past week so many people reached out to our congregation with kindness, strength, and encouragement. I am happy to report to you that your leadership and I feel we will be able to meet the needs of UUCC’s members and friends, and also help our wider community in many ways. Your board, staff, Caring Committee, and I have been assessing, triaging, and meeting the most immediate needs. And plans are underway to meet the needs that are in our wider community, and the needs that are more long term. My biggest relief is that our church building is fine! I had been so worried that it would be damaged by water, and that we would have to meet in a temporary space for awhile. The harm to our congregants has been to homes and property, rather than to people. We are very grateful for that! Yet we feel deep sorrow about how many people in Columbia have suffered a severe blow to their homes, belongings, and vehicles. And at least seventeen people have died in South Carolina due to this flood. We are solemnly holding in our hearts the losses which even time cannot fix. And there are a myriad of other losses that people are deservedly grieving– Whether those are the loss of income, or time with family and friends, or recreation time, or belongings that had sentimental value, that grief is real, and understandable, and I empathize as everyone here grapples with what has happened to Columbia, and its creeks and dams, bridges and roads, water mains, homes, businesses, and campuses.
Yet we can take heart that so many people outside our church walls and outside of Columbia are holding us and our concerns in sympathy and companionship. This Sunday, and in the coming weeks, candles are being lit for us and our city, in Unitarian Universalist congregations through the United States. I have heard from UU ministers and congregational members all over South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, Washington State, and Utah. For every one of those candles, we are thankful, humbled, and heartened. The image of those lights can strengthen us in our efforts to regroup, rebuild, and rebound.
We have also begun receiving offers of monetary assistance. So the board and staff have set up a special fund account for providing assistance to members and friends, and to the wider community.
And one unique and timely expression of support keeps bringing a smile to my face. As you know I am a College Football fan. Our South Carolina Gamecocks, were scheduled to play a home game yesterday. But the university is badly flooded. So the Louisiana State University Tigers hosted our team in Baton Rouge, instead. And the LSU Tigers and the city of Baton Rouge went above and beyond to welcome our Gamecocks team and fans. They provided transportation for the team, LSU’s marching band played our alma mater and fight song, proceeds from the ticket sales will go to our Athletic Department, the Red Cross will collect donations, there are huge billboards that welcomed the Gamecocks, and there was a moment of silence before the game, for our state and its flood victims. The people of Louisiana know as much if not more than anyone what it feels like to live through a disastrous flood. They have risen to this occasion with graciousness, generosity, empathy, solidarity, and even good humor. Columbia is known as, “The Capital of Southern Hospitality.” We are a city that extends a welcoming hand to neighbors and visitors. It is humbling to be on the receiving end of such kind and generous support from so many people– those dear to us, and people whose names we do not even know. All of that help is helping us, in tangible and intangible ways. Those acts of kindness will illuminate the journey ahead of us in infinite ways.
And so I give thanks anew for this congregation, for our church home, and for the companionable relationships UUCC engender and sustains. Please do not ever doubt how vitally important it is that we keep “doing church,” in our UU way, in this bruised but resilient city we call home. I’ll close with this excerpt from Sarah Vowell’s book, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, from the end of its title essay:
“Once, while headed uptown on the 9 train, I noticed a sign posted by the Manhattan Transit Authority advising subway riders who might become ill in the train. The sign asked that the suddenly infirm inform another passenger or get out at the next stop and approach the stationmaster. Do not, repeat, do not pull the emergency brake, the sign said, as this will only delay aid. [This] was all very logical, but for the following proclamation at the bottom of the sign, something along the lines of, “If you are sick, you will not be left alone.” This strikes me [Ms. Vowell says] as not only kind, not only comforting, but the very epitome of civilization, [of] good government, i.e., the crux of the societal impulse. Banding together, pooling our taxes, not just making trains, not just making trains that move underground, not just making trains that move underground with surprising efficiency, at a fair price– but posting on said trains a notification of such surprising compassion and thoughtfulness. I found myself [Ms. Vowell says] scanning the faces of my fellow passengers, hoping for [signs of] fainting, obvious fevers, at the very least a sneeze so that I might offer a tissue.”
Why we keep doing church. Let it be and, Amen.
**Hymn #18 What Wondrous Love is This
“Let us not let the weather get the best of us. May the weather bring out the best in us. As a wise matriarch once said, “An easy life is not necessarily a good life.”