Out of the Ashes

A Sermon by Barbara W. ten Hove
December 5, 2004

Call to Worship
Almost exactly a year ago, fire ripped through our religious education and office building, causing so much damage that the building became unusable. When we gathered as a congregation on the Sunday after that devastating event, we came together to grieve and to wonder: What are we going to do?

Today, a year later, we gather again. This time, we are not grieving but celebrating, for in a very short time we will again reclaim our beloved building and return to it with new vision. Today, like a year ago, it is still appropriate to wonder-to wonder at the many ways we cared for each other during those difficult days; to wonder at the commitment to this church that people showed during the rebuild process; and to wonder at the energy that has emerged from beneath the rubble.

It is still right that we ask ourselves again this question­What are we going to do? So much potential has sprung up from the ashes that anything is possible.

As we enter into worship this day, let us give thanks for the wonder-filled ways we come together as a church and a community. And let us celebrate the spirit of life that has come to birth from the ashes of our loss.

Advent Candle Lighting
Today we mark the coming of the holiday season. It is customary, in this church, to acknowledge advent by lighting each Sunday this earth candle, symbol of our connection to all of creation. Today, it is lit in honor of those Unitarian Universalists around the nation, who, when our fire engulfed us, reached out to us with prayers, love and money to help us move through this hard time knowing we were not alone. May the lighting of our advent candle, remind us we are held in the hearts of many, even those whose names we will never know.

Out of the Ashes - A Sermon by Barbara W. ten Hove
According to my Encyclopedia of Gods (by Michael Jordan), there are nearly thirty gods or goddesses of fire. You may be familiar with some of them. Vulcanas, the Roman god of fire and forge, and Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth, are two deities you might have discovered in high school. But did you know that the Shinto religion in Japan has at least five different fire Kamis (who are lesser Gods but still divine) and that in Siberia that are at least two Fire Gods? Fire, one of the four primary elements (alongside water, air and earth) is one powerful force. So it is not surprising that we humans have created images of God and other holy beings to try to give a face and a voice to the flame.

Fire has also been used in rituals probably since people first figured out how to make and keep a flame burning. Ancient ritual sites around the world often include a hearth for building a sacred fire. Even in monotheistic religions fire is used, if not to describe God, at least to communicate with God. For instance, in ancient Judaism, the burning of grain and meat offerings was understood to be pleasing to God and burnt sacrifices were made in Jerusalem at the temple until the time it was destroyed in the first century of this era.

Christianity moved away from the idea of a burnt offering, but continued to use fire in ritual. The lighting of candles is common practice in most Christian communities, particularly during the Christmas season. I believe candlelight services are popular because of the fire that lies at their heart. And, of course, Unitarian Universalists have created our own fire ritual, the lighting of the flaming chalice. Something in the human spirit seems to be attracted to flame. Fire is beautiful, hypnotic, and extremely dangerous.

A year ago, Worship Associate John Bartoli articulated this wonderfully when he dedicated our chalice lighting-five days after the fire-and said, Fire is our friend, it gives us light and warmth. Fire is our enemy; it destroys everything in its path. Fire is both friend and foe. It helps us by keeping us warm and creating light for us to see in the dark; it nourishes us by cooking our food.

But fire is also extremely dangerous. My great-grandmother died when her long skirts were licked by a fire. Millions of acres of trees are destroyed each year when lightening strikes a dry forest. The old Prince Georges County courthouse recently went up in flames, never to be used again. And, on a gray Tuesday a year ago, the beloved building that housed not only our Religious Education program and offices but also an entire Montessori school burned.

When I arrived on the scene some five hours after the fire started, it still smoldered and stank. Walking behind the building to see what had happened, I was shocked and stunned. It looked like a meteor had hit it. Crying and stumbling, I walked through what was left. What hadn't burned was covered with soot and water. Broken glass was all over the floors. Insulation from the roof hung down in tatters and everywhere I looked, I saw what we had lost. It seemed so huge, so awful. All I could do, at first, was cry and shake.

During that terrible day, I talked with many of you. Making calls to tell church leaders about the fire was a difficult task. But each call, as hard as it was, gave me snippets of hope. I heard so many comments of how lucky we were that no one was in the building when the fire broke out, and I remembered to be grateful. I heard you remind me how good it was that the fire did not spread to our neighbors or even onto our deck or this beautiful building, and I remembered that we had not lost everything.

I heard you speak of the strength of this congregation in a crisis, and I took from you courage and hope. When, on the Sunday after the fire, we came here together and made beautiful holiday music together, I was struck so powerfully with the realization that this fire, as destructive as it had been, did not destroy anything that could not be built once more. And so we went about the path of re-building. And today as we gather here, the move back into our refurbished building is so close we can taste it. It's an exciting time, no doubt about it.

This fire and its aftermath have given all of us, I think, an opportunity to reflect on how we, as individuals and as a community, rise up from the ashes of devastation. Fire, a powerful reality, is also an apt metaphor for the challenges that beset human lives. Each of us, I would posit, has likely encountered a time in our personal lives when it seemed as if everything familiar had burned to the ground. For some here, it may have been divorce or separation that singed your heart. For others, the loss of a job or a dream may be experienced as devastation. For some, you may have hit bottom in your own life, and wondered if you would ever emerge whole again. And for yet others, death and loss may be what burns.

I know in my own life I have had occasion to feel flames of loss that were extraordinarily painful. I remember the moment I heard from my sister that my father was dying. Alone, 3000 miles away from the hospital where the bad news was being shared among my family, I lay on the bed and sobbed.

And I remember when I first learned that I had a mysterious condition called Fibromyalgia. My kind doctor assured me I would not die from it, but that the chronic pain and fatigue I felt would not go away, at least not permanently. I knew that the world I had created for myself, built around an assumption that I would stay strong and healthy, was falling into ash around me.

I did not know then how I would emerge from such loss. And yet, both experiences have shaped me in ways that I can only say are positive and growth-filled. My father's death taught me to have less fear in the face of mortality, and his courage and strength in the face of death inspire me. My loss of robust health has also given me unexpected gifts as I have learned to worry less about perfection. I have also found a well of compassion in my heart for others as well as myself. The loss that burned so deep in my heart did not destroy me. It might have. Some people are never able to recover from devastating events. But for me, as for many of us, the flames of loss created a fertile field from which to grow. And for that, I find myself peculiarly grateful.

Nature understands this. Fire can destroy, yes. But it often paves the way for new life. There are pinecones in some forests that only release their seeds when enough heat is present. From ancient times, we hear of humans burning fields to make them ready for planting. Fire is essential for new life to occur.

Do not misunderstand me. I acknowledge and accept that fire is dangerous and at times all too hurtful. I know that fire leaves people homeless, causes enormous physical pain in those who get too close to it, and can spread devastation that is so great that recovery may seem impossible.

And yet I cannot help but look at fire-our own here and the metaphorical fires that plague us-as something if not good, at least essential to growth and change. Fires, real and metaphorical, force us to start again in our lives and sometimes that is exactly what is needed.

The fire that burned our building a year ago was an awful event. But out of the ashes of that loss, something wonderful truly has emerged. For not only will we soon return to a clean and shiny building with many new and great things about it, we also have discovered something even more important-a deeper sense of commitment to this church and its community.

Over the past year, Jaco and I have watched in wonder as leaders emerged from within this church to guide us through the maze of insurance companies, architects and contractors. We have marveled at the commitment our staff showed to maintaining a strong presence even in the midst of really, terrible inconvenience. We have been delighted at the depth to which people reached into their pockets to pay for improvements and upgrades. We have been blessed by the many ways you have reached out to us and to each other as we work together to rise with energy and vision from the ashes of our loss.

No one can say with truth that we wanted this fire to happen, just as none of us wish for the inevitable struggles and losses that come our way. Yet, loss and struggle will come. Fires will burn. But out of the ashes, new and even wonderful things can emerge.

It seems oddly appropriate that last year's fire, and this year's remembrance of it, come right at the beginning of the advent season. Advent-the four weeks preceding Christmas-has many meanings, but the two that strike me as particularly relevant are these. First, advent is understood to be a time of waiting. For Mary, the mother of Jesus, her advent season was a time of waiting for her child to be born. Christians view this season as a time to anticipate the birth of Christ.

But all of us can understand the concept of waiting. We are all waiting, and waiting, and waiting-to get back into our building! Waiting can be extremely frustrating, that's for sure. But it can also bring gifts. I always find the anticipation of something special can be almost as exciting as the event or thing itself. Yes, it's hard to have patience, especially now when we want so desperately to return to our home next door. But I challenge all of us to take a deep breath and find the patience we need.

For eventually, if we are patient enough, our time of expectation will end and a new beginning will arrive. For that is the second meaning of advent I remind us of today. The advent of something means the beginning of it. And soon, very soon, we will begin again in our new/old building. Just as Christmas will come, our building will be finished, even if it seems to take forever. It will emerge from the ashes as something new and different and maybe even wonderful.

And so it becomes appropriate to ask again the question we asked ourselves a year ago when even this building smelled of smoke and loss. What are we going to do? How will we use this refurbished building? Will we find new ways to teach our young people how to live out the values of tolerance and respect? Will we develop classes and groups for adults that enable folks to deepen their relationships to each other and learn more about our faith? Will we discover better ways to help our neighbors in need? Will we use this new beginning to re-commit ourselves to grow and become an even stronger religious community?

I truly believe we will. For I have faith that along with all the destruction and smoke and dirt and inconvenience this fire brought to us, it also brought us something pretty wonderful-a reminder that faith and community and caring for one another are what really matter.

And I am excited by the upcoming opportunity (provided by our former Master Planners, now called the "Imagine Paint Branch" Team) to imagine what our future in this new building and in this upcoming year and even beyond will be like. Plan to take part in it, beginning with an important afternoon together on Sat., Jan. 8. Together, we will rise up from the ashes of our loss and create anew this church home we love.

A few short weeks after our fire, Natalie led a children's chapel during which she asked the children what they felt. Many expressed anger and fear. But one youngster spoke the real truth. "Things don't matter," he said, "people do."

May this holiday season bring to us such wisdom. For out of the mouths of babes we are reminded what emerged out of the ashes. Hope and possibility. Just imagine. Amen.

Closing Words
Fire can be an enemy: it burns buildings as well as hearts.
Fire can be a friend: it clears the ground for new life and love.
As we enter this holiday season, may we be mindful of the power of new beginnings and be patient with each other as we walk new paths.
And may the spirit of life burn into our hearts a commitment to what really matters at this, and all times of year: compassion, justice, love and hope.

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