If you will permit me, I am writing my Daily Cup entry with not so much Friday on my mind, but Saturday. The quote from Isaiah (Isaiah 43:19), which is the title of this Daily Cup entry, has been on my mind most of this week. I, along with many alumni from Virginia Theological Seminary, have had the events of October 22, 2010 on my mind. It was on that afternoon, at almost 4:00 p.m. that the smoke from the fire, which had been smoldering and growing for several hours, was first visible coming from the seminary chapel.
I was on my way home from a doctors appointment when my cell phone buzzed with a simple text message: “The chapel is on fire. Get here now.” At first I chuckled to myself because the person who sent it has a very good sense of humor and my first thought was that she was trying to see what reaction she might get out of me. But then a second text message came from another seminarian, “Fire at the chapel. Can you get here?” Uh-oh. I called the person who sent me the first text message, the blare of fire trucks and other voices were heard in the background, “It is all in flames, Matthew. It is a total loss. This is so hard to watch, my God this is so hard to watch.” The next 20 minutes were a frustration of lights, slow drivers and anxiety as I made my way to the seminary.
When I arrived on campus I was met by the following sight:
Over the course of the next two hours dozens of students, faculty members, staff, neighbors…the entire VTS community, and many neighbors from the surrounding area came and stood and watched as thousands of gallons of water were sprayed into the chapel. There were tears. There were hugs. There were open mouths. There were questions. There were prayers. There was silence.
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
I wrote those words on a piece of scrap paper that I had in my pocket that bright and clear afternoon as I stood with the small crowd of people. For some reason it was the only bit of Holy Scripture my mind could find and to which I could cling in the midst of such loss. I had to put my faith in the fact that even in the midst of this fire God was present; and God was doing a new thing.
The center of worship for the seminary since 1881 was being destroyed right in front of me and there was not a single thing I, or anyone else, could do about it. I had no idea what “new thing” God was creating. And, at that moment, and as I type this now, I am not completely clear what “new thing” will finally spring forth. So no, Isaiah; I do NOT perceive it…at least not yet.
As with many things in our lives it is only after the healing grace of time and conversation, prayer and reflection that we can discern the handiwork of God and the Holy Spirit in our lives. This is especially true at times of high emotion, at times of transition, and certainly at times of loss.
Often that “new thing” that God is about to do does not fully reveal itself for a good bit of time. In our on-demand world of instant information, having to wait and see is not something we are accustomed to doing. We want results–we want to move forward and fast–and we want those results now. But that is not how our minds and our feelings work. Our intellects and our emotions are not on-demand. Often they take hours, weeks, even years to come to grips with and to process complex moments of tragedy and loss.
Although it is not easy to walk past the ruin of the chapel and not feel some twinge of sadness there is also a feeling of anticipation of what is to come…of what is to spring forth. Indeed I know to be true that dozens and dozens of alumni have written, have visited, and have renewed their relationship with the seminary. Many, many more friends of the seminary, and people from the surrounding city of Alexandria have written to the seminary telling countless stories of the ways in which the seminary or the chapel has touched their lives. Indeed there are also dozens of people from across the country and around the world who have never been to Virginia Theological Seminary or who have no real tie or connection to VTS who have donated money or simply written to the seminary expressing their thoughts of grief and loss…but mostly of hope.
As I remember the events of October 22 I am reminded again that even now, only one year later as I look and see all that has transpired, that God is continually doing a new thing–not only in the midst of destruction and loss like the fire at the chapel, but in countless moments in each of our lives. The steady hand of God and the whirling of the Holy Spirit is at work. Sometimes it is only the gift of time itself that reveals that new creation, that rebuilding, that change of tack that takes us into new waters. God IS doing a “new thing” in our lives, it is up to us to not only perceive it but believe and trust it is happening. It is only through our faith that we are able to revel in those yet-unknown “new things”, even when it is difficult to do so.
Mathew: I really felt that your Daily Cup caught the essence of what I felt when I visited VTS two weeks ago, the first time I had been on the campus since the fire devoured our beloved chapel. I was there on a lovely day and the contrast with God’s gift of a fall day and the architectural cadaver that was the chapel led me to thoughts as well. I came away with the thought that God was offering us a learning experince: out of horror can come hope. I look forward to praying in the new chapel, but it will not be the same as the one I knew.
Peter Spalding, MTS class of 98
This is a lovely piece. It should be shared with the Cathedral community as, although it was not a fire, the earthquake caused so much damage to the Washington National Cathedral which is our diocesean home and can’t be “rebuilt” but needs to be totally “repaired”.