A Royal Priesthood

It’s odd. The trees are confused. They should be a mismatched collection of oranges and purples and reds and yellows and dying browns, but they’re not. The leaves are green. Bright green. Surprisingly, many of the leaves survived Sandy’s wind and still cling tenaciously to their branches. The less fortunate compatriots lie on the ground, covering sidewalks and front stoops.

8 days since Sandy rushed through the tri-state area, leaving mass destruction in her wake. Power was still out to thousands of people. Homes had been reduced to less than kindling, because the wood was so saturated it would never burn. My roommate trudged home through the leading edge of winter storm Athena and stomped the snow off her shoes.

“Why do they give storms pretty names? Athena was the goddess of something, wasn’t she?”

“Yes. The goddess of war.”

“Oh. Fitting, I guess.”

A short time later, I suited up to visit the grocery store, craving a slice of store-made bread for a grilled cheese sandwich, after having eaten loaves and loaves of homemade bread, which, although fabulous, had a denser texture than I wanted at that moment. My roommate questioned the wisdom of my trek and I responded,

“It’s a small blizzard. It’s not like the apocalypse is happening. Plus, I actually put on boots, instead of thongs.”

Outside, snow covered the stubborn, tree clinging leaves and mingled with the fallen green ones on the ground. It was a surreal picture of absolute whiteness against the brightness of almost-spring fresh leaves all mixed together and littering the walkways. The roads were deserted on the two block walk to the store and already, the storm sewers were blocked and puddles shin deep had collected in the crosswalks. The store, I discovered was out of bread. Apparently, bread is a hot commodity, even for Nor’Easter preparation. As I remarked on this to the cashier, she was excited to point out the freezer par-baked bread, the type you finish at home in your oven. I explained to her that I had been making loaves of bread at home for the past week and a half and I really just wanted a slice of Wonder Bread.

Wonder Bread. I was upset at the lack of Wonder Bread.

James 2:14-17
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

By the time I got home, I was cold and my nose was glowing red. I stripped off wet clothes and stood by the radiator,  carelessly remarking that I was freezing before I remembered that thousands of people were actually freezing. Those without homes, electricity, adequate blankets. Housebound patients. Senior citizens. Families with babies. Single adults. People who gathered around barbeques and candles for warmth and prayed that something anything would get them through the night.

Acts 20:35 
In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

 The news media is moving on, and so is the rest of the country. It’s natural. I do it. I follow the earthquake in Iran for a few days, then switch over to the latest financial crisis. The mine collapse in China captures my attention for a some gut wrenching moments but it soon passes into distant memory. With a world as connected as ours, disasters, tragedies, wars, disappointments, famines, genocides, mass murder – there is always a new one to catch our attention. We watch body counts go up as CNN issues breaking news alerts and some of us secretly pray that an ice storm will hit our town because it sounds like an adventure. We skip to the next story, because dwelling on the same-old same-old becomes tedious and emotionally exhausting and we want to stop giving, because there’s always another cause begging just around the corner.

Matthew 10:8 
Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay.

Even living in the middle of this disaster, I get tired of giving and I slip back into my regular and sometimes petty life. I wander into the kitchen declaring I am starving before remembering that less than two miles away, that is actually the truth for my neighbors. I bemoan the poor heating in apartment without being grateful I have it at all. I go to the cinema and order take out and go to bed under a thick, down quilt, carefully compartmentalizing the overflowing hospital, the desperate requests for donations, the urgent need for volunteers. Sometimes, I just don’t want to give. It’s tiring and hard work and not very glamorous. I’m not going to end up on the evening news and no one will ever make a feature film of the simple tasks I’m being asked to do. I make up excuses. I have bronchitis, and, as one friend puts it “Perhaps the patients would prefer you stay at home and not share your nasty cough with anyone else.” I’m busy planning a party to celebrate the engagement of two friends. My old roommate from Paris is in town and there is so much to chat about. Giving is just too much work.

Matthew 25:35-40
‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? ‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? ‘And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ “And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’

I’m not dedicated, like one friend who spent five days straight in a shelter, then returned every afternoon when work finished to assist wherever he was needed. I don’t have the drive of a medical school friend, who, on her only day off, helped canvas a neighborhood, discovered a couple without power or blankets and spent the rest of the afternoon tracking down sleeping bags and fleece coverings. I don’t have the perseverance to go back to the same flooded clinic day after day to try to provide medical care in the midst of impossibilities. I haven’t hauled myself out of bed at 4 in the morning to catch a ferry or a shuttle bus out to the worst hit areas. I haven’t given money or canned food or diapers or pet supplies or batteries or flashlights.

Romans 12:13
Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

I volunteered at the hospital and responded to calls for medical help from area hospitals, the Red Cross, the New York Medical Corp, but was never called into duty. I helped some evacuees get out of zone A. I opened my home to refugees whose buildings are uninhabitable and could remain that way for three months (my roommates may hate me for turning our flat into a hostel.) I watched a baby, walked a dog, fed the people crammed into my tiny apartment. I did easy stuff, just enough to allay some of my guilt at not doing more. The rest of the time, I spent in bed, hopped up on Dayquil and hacking up phlegm that was trying to choke me. That’s a good excuse, right? Surely bronchitis means I’m exempt from showing hospitality.

2 Corinthians 9:12 

For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.

Tragedies happen everywhere, all the time, whether it’s the destructive force of a hurricane, the ravaging heat of a wildfire, or the sad murder-suicide of a mother and her child. No human could carry the emotional burden of every negative event that occurs and so, in a proper defense mechanism, we mourn briefly and move on. It’s natural and it’s right, unless you want to spend the rest of your life depressed by the awfulness that occurs in the world. Even if you live in the middle of it, staring at destroyed buildings and wondering if Athena, following so closely on Sandy, will kill more people than the hurricane itself did, it’s easy to ‘get back to normal.’ My apartment is powered, gassed, heated, watered. I become complacent and ignore the needs around me, forgetting to give thanks to God for the many blessings he has given in just the past week.

Philippians 2:4 
Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

But this isn’t a news story for me. It didn’t happen half a world away or even on the other side of the state. It happened here. The hospitals that evacuated sent their patients to my hospital. There are people sleeping on my couch because the storm surge was 14 feet and destroyed important parts of their buildings. Friends are unable to get to work because tunnels are flooded, trains are down, airports are running at low capacity. People develop lung diseases from trying to shovel out mold infested drywall from destroyed homes. Children starve because infrastructure has collapsed and the canned goods ran out two days ago. This is not a time when I can be apathetic, have excuses, pat myself on the back for the little efforts I make and call myself a good person. This is a time where I need to be a part of the community, working together to protect each other when other organizations are limited and failing. This is when I need to look out for the interests of others.

As Christians, we are supposed to be set apart, of the world but not in it, salt for the earth, light in the darkness and a city on a hill. We should be on the front lines as Christ’s hands and feet, his ears and eyes. We have been given a special calling and it’s not an attitude of complacency. We are charged to be the difference in the world and my  little world, centered on three islands that make up a community of millions, my world needs the body of Christ right now.

1 Peter 2:9
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Notre Dame, Paris, 2010

From HKWF Photostream

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