The Gift of Hope

Toppled tree and destroyed homes after Joplin, MO tornado in 2011

By Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation on December 4, 2016

When I arrived in St. Louis in May of 2011 to visit our Unitarian Universalist sister congregation Eliot Chapel, the city and other parts of Missouri were barely recovering from a severe storm. Just a few weeks earlier, a multiple-vortex tornado had ripped through the town of Joplin, which is located in the southwest corner of the state, before continuing eastward to St. Louis and then Illinois.

The tornado was ranked an EF-5, which the highest rating on the intensity scale. With EF-5 tornadoes, winds exceeded 200 miles an hour. Buildings are totally destroyed. And, cars, trucks and train cars can be thrown a mile away.   

The tornado that hit Joplin and Missouri in May of 2011 was the worst to strike the U.S. in over 60 years. It killed over 150 people, injured 1,110 more, and created damages totaling $2.8 billion. And, so, when I arrived to St. Louis to meet the Eliot congregation for the first time in preparation for my one year of ministry there, people were understandably still shaken by and still talking about that tornado . . . including the retired couple from Eliot Chapel, who greeted me at the airport.

As they loaded me and my luggage into the back of their minivan, they were full of stories about what had happened. They showed me where the airport’s metal roof had been ripped back like a flimsy piece of tin foil.  As we rode along, they told me about uprooted trees and smashed-in houses. They talked about their own toppled tree – a giant backyard oak – and how they were still waiting to speak with their insurance claims agent, whose calendar was booked solid for weeks.

As they retold the story of their great storm –  the torrential downpour of rain, the screaming winds, and the loss of power for several days – I quietly listened from the backseat, and I realized that my new ministry had just begun.  

Those stories of the Missouri tornado came to mind this past Wednesday when the tornado siren right here on Mt. Vernon Highway sounded with an eerie whine.

A Northwest member had sent me an e-mail earlier in the day with a weather report indicating a “tornado watch” for this area. I brushed it off as a precaution as I sat in Northwest my office and busily prepared for our weekly staff meeting. December’s a big month in the church business, and we had a Christmas pageant and Christmas Eve service to plan that day, not to mention lots of other items to discuss.

However, when that tornado siren went off and our office administrator Shirley yelled, “to the basement!” I knew I had better get my priorities in order. So, I closed up shop and dashed out into the rain and to the Chalice House next door, to join the rest of the staff on the lower level.

Some of you may know that a Spanish immersion school is using the Religious Education classrooms in our Chalice House while they wait on renovations to their regular school building. And, so when I scrambled down the stairwell and opened the door to the lower level, I was greeted by about 30 children, ages 3 through 5, a few toddlers, and their teachers, all sitting on the floor in a semi-dark hallway.

Shirley and Tom Godfrey were sitting on the floor with them, looking amused at this interesting turn of events.

After introducing myself to the school principal, I took my place on the floor too. I listened to the high-pitched voices chatter and watched the teachers try to maintain some sense of order. Suddenly, one of the adults broke out in a song – “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” – and the children, one by one joined in. Shirley, Tom, Dana and I joined in too, and by the song’s end, we were all quiet and in sync.

“The Alphabet Song” and “The Teensy, Weensy Spider” followed after that. It was so easy to recall the words to these kiddie hits, even though just that morning, I was trying for the umpteenth time to locate my misplaced car keys.

Reports of the storm on various iPhones among us placed the tornado closer to Northwest. And, so we moved from the hallway to the bathrooms for further protection. By this time, the children were pelting their teachers with questions like, “Why are we all in the bathroom? Is the tornado coming here? When will it be over?”

I leaned up against the wall in the tiny Men’s Room, which was now filled to the brim with tiny children. And, I found that I had a few questions, too . . . questions like, “Is the tornado really coming here? Will we be safe? What can I make of this moment?”

Asking hard questions, it seems, is entirely human and entirely common when we’re facing uncertain and difficult circumstances. And, I can imagine that as uncertain and difficult circumstances unfolded not just in the basement of our Chalice House, but in our country and around the world this week, there are many people asking many hard questions.

I can imagine, for instance, that the people of Columbia and Brazil, whose loved ones perished in the Andes Mountains, are asking hard questions. I can imagine the residents of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, who fled the raging wildfires that destroyed half their city, are asking hard questions.

The Native American people of Standing Rock, who are peacefully protesting on behalf of clean water and their holy lands . . . the war-weary and frightened men, women and children in Aleppo, Syria . . . the families right here at Northwest who are struggling . . . I can imagine all of them asking hard questions . . . questions like, “Why this?” and “Why us?”

December is a month crammed-full of religious holidays and significant cultural traditions, many of which lift up a message of hope. And, hope, it seems, is that feeling that sometimes runs in short supply when we’re dealing with personal crises or considering the suffering that threads its way through our human existence . . . or when we seek answers to perhaps two of life’s most challenging questions: “Why this?” and “Why us?”

And, yet I wonder if hope is what writer Ranier Maria Rilke is really talking about in today’s reading. I wonder if it’s hope that makes it possible to live with the hard questions and trust that an answer will come.

Rilke says:

Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you wouldn’t be able to live them. And, the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps, then someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.1)Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, translated by Stephen Mitchell (Vintage Books, New York, NY: 1984), 34 – 35.

In thinking about these words, it seems to me that hope doesn’t release us completely from anxiety or grief during our darkest times. Rather, hope’s gift is the feeling that we can go on in spite of our suffering. The answers to our questions are complicated details – “like locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.”2)Ibid. They can and must wait for another day.

To be able to go on without clear-cut answers . . . to live on with trust and assurance . . . this is what hope offers to us.

Ranier Maria Rilke wrote these words a century ago – not to worried or grieving parents . . . not to someone who was stricken with cancer or other serious illness . . . and not to the person whose life was at the center of war and violence. Rilke wrote the letter that David read to Franz Xaver Kappus, a 19-year old officer cadet who was attending an old and prestigious military academy near Vienna.

Kappus was a great admirer of Rilke’s poetry and an aspiring poet himself. And, because at his young age, he was unsure of his interest in pursuing a military career, Kappus decided to write to Rilke for advice. As the story goes:

When Kappus wrote his first letter to Rilke he asked for Rilke to provide a critique of his poetry. Rilke provided the young Kappus very little in criticism or in suggestions for his improvement as a poet. Instead, Rilke advised him to trust his inner judgment. [He wrote], “Nobody can advise you and help you. Nobody. There is only one way – go into yourself.”

In ten letters written over a six-year period, Rilke provided advice “that inspired Kappus to [explore] issues of intimacy and the nature of beauty and art, as well as probe philosophical and existential questions.” The letters also address personal issues that Kappus had apparently revealed to Rilke, including his atheism, loneliness, and career choices.

For example, in one of his last letters to Kappus, Rilke addresses the cadet’s fear of sadness. He writes:

You mustn’t be frightened, dear Mr. Kappus, if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall.3)Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 93 – 94.

He continues:

Why do you persecute yourself with the question of where this is coming from and where it is going? In you, dear Mr. Kappus, so much is happening now. You must be patient like someone who is sick, and confident like someone who is recovering; for perhaps you are both.4)Ibid.

Patient like someone who is sick . . . confident like someone who is recovering.

Patience and confidence existing side by side in the wake of unanswered hard questions seems, to me, to be the gift of hope.

Instead of searching for answers to “Why this?” and “Why us?” (or “Why me?”), Rilke’s words invite us to engage fully in the moment. In the face of life’s most challenging questions, they invite us, perhaps, to simply and quietly say “I don’t know, but I’m still here” and know that it may be the best response to the light and cloud shadows that move over our hands and our lives and never stop.

Which leads me back to this past Wednesday . . .

****

As you can see, our buildings and trees are still standing and just fine after the tornado and storm. I know that other parts of Georgia and elsewhere weren’t so lucky. After waiting downstairs in the Chalice House for about an hour, it seems that the tornado made it as far north as Buckhead before swerving east.

Once we realized we were out of harm’s way, we all filed out of the bathrooms and into the hallway and headed back to our respective classrooms and offices. As up to my ears in deadlines as I had felt just before I heard the tornado siren, I was a little sad to see our hopeful group split up and go our separate ways. I’m not around young children very often, and I realized I had deeply enjoyed their company.

I liked singing songs with them from their childhood and mine. I got a kick out of watching the Spanish cartoon one of the teachers played on her iPhone to keep them entertained while we all huddled in the bathroom. I was reminded of how innocent and trusting they are . . . and how we seem to lose these sweet qualities on the journey to adulthood.

Ultimately, Wednesday’s tornado warning turned out to be nothing more than a brief change in plans . . . and nothing short of a fine and gentle moment.

****

As you and I continue on our way, I imagine that life’s hard questions such as “Why this?” and “Why us? – or Why me?” will pop up from time to time. Let’s not be dismayed if they do.

Instead, may we find the patience and the confidence to leave them be, like locked rooms and foreign language books. Instead, may we find ourselves saying, simply and quietly, “I don’t know, but I’m still here,” knowing that life holds us in its hand and will not let us fall.

May it be so, for you and for me. Amen.

References   [ + ]

1. Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, translated by Stephen Mitchell (Vintage Books, New York, NY: 1984), 34 – 35.
2, 4. Ibid.
3. Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 93 – 94.