Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Ruminations Sparked by a Fire

The recent news of a tragic fire that swept through the Guest House in Anderson, Missouri, has set me to reminiscing about the times I made my way through that little town with my family. Nestled snuggly in the southwest corner of the state, Anderson feeds old Highway 71 down to meet the winding Missouri/Arkansas #59 which snakes its way into the cliffs of Noel, finally emptying out onto the Ozark heights of northwestern Arkansas. When I was a kid, Anderson was one of the first spots in the road with much light as we made our way north from Arkansas headed towards my grandparents' home. Later, when I had my own family, they would groan not to take that winding road--despite the nostalgia I associated with it.

Unfortunately, the early word is that there is a possibility of arson associated with the blaze that claimed ten lives so far--nine residents of the home for the mentally ill and disabled and one brave worker who did his best to save some of his charges. Because the reading for today from one of my books is written by Henri Nouwen, I am reminded afresh and anew of all that these special children of God have to teach us. This morning, numerous families who had given family members over to the care of this institution are in mourning. Perhaps there is even a sharper grief in realizing that those who are so helpless were caught up in such a conflagration.

Because both my father and grandfather were small town pastors, they made regular rounds to this type of institution--oftentimes taking me along. I remember sometimes being scared by the aged or infirm, but I also remember the sense of being "special" in their midst. I fear we have done seniors and those who struggle with mental illness an injustice by denying them contact with the young. When I pastored in Toronto, I would oftentimes take my own young daughters with me, following the model that had been set for me. They, too, learned to open up and receive the hugs of those who were so hungry for human contact.

As we prepare to enter the Advent season, we will thrill to the promises of a faithful God--particularly to the "anawim," the pious poor, and especially to the marginalized. In our culture those who fight the stigmas of mental illness or physical disability are oftentimes confined to the margins of our society, warehoused away from those considered more "normal." Our embracing them as a significant part of our culture is not just about justice for them, it is also about our need to be changed. We, perhaps, need them as much, if not more, than they need us. We need them to teach us about the expansiveness of the love of God and the depth of our own need. Though the Anderson Guest House is no more, there are plenty of other places that could use the warmth of a visit by those of us who need to be reminded again of just what the Advent of our Lord is really all about.