In months after fire, how the Rev. Stephen Philbrick spoke to his Cummington congregation about loss, belief

Last modified: Tuesday, December 04, 2012
CUMMINGTON — Around 5 on a cold January morning, flames designed to stay within a church furnace broke through a firebox and licked at the bones of the West Cummington Congregational Church.

Within hours the small church was gone and its minister, the Rev. Stephen Philbrick, was composing words to help his Hilltown congregation understand, and withstand, their loss. “I don’t cry when bad things happen,” was one of the first things he said. “I cry when people show up, when people are so kind. I cry when people surround me with love.”

He added that morning on Jan. 17, 2010, “One of my kids said, ‘You better stay hydrated.’ We all had.”

Within months of the fire, a design committee was discussing what to rebuild. Soon after, a building committee went to work. And on Sunday, the congregation walked into its new church on the south-facing hill that sheltered the old one for 170 years.

But week after week in 2010, Sunday upon Sunday, it was Philbrick alone, a committee of one, who stood up inside the church’s temporary place of worship on a street down below, his broad back to the ruin up the hill. His assignment: spiritual repair.

For months, news about the fire led off announcements during the weekly services. Talk of the fire has dominated Philbrick’s life for 35 months, as he’s worked in the midst of a broad community effort to erect the church that opened Sunday. The minister scouted for personal struggles among congregation members and counseled them in countless private conversations.

But this being a church, Philbrick also prepared himself each week to stand before them all and do something less and less common in an electronic age: Speak at length to dozens gathered before him, this voluntary community of diverse belief, these pilgrims in crisis in search of religious understanding.

From his home in the town next door, Philbrick composed the agenda for the services and sketched out his sermons. He shared with the Gazette a year’s worth of those notes and met several times to talk about his congregation’s path back from disaster.

“We all went through a trauma at the same time and it’s not usually like that in a congregation’s life,” he said in a talk at his home. “We all had the same stress and leaned on each other. People didn’t have a framework for their emotions.”

Today, as the church celebrates, this account looks back on the congregation’s days together after the fire, as members gathered for their minister’s guidance. Week by week, he erected a kind of spiritual scaffolding.

The aftermath

At first, Philbrick spoke often in sermons about the fire, about loss and about knowing how to feel or what to say. Later, he explored more broadly what it means to struggle with belief.

His first sermon was part news conference, part raw grief. This is a church that employs a minister but resists hierarchy. Members say the congregation hired Philbrick, a published poet and retired sheep breeder, because he is able to find the right words to illuminate the open, progressive and life- and doubt-affirming religious struggle that unites those who attend. He is also willing to explore his soul in public.

Philbrick shared with his congregation that when he arrived at the church at 5:50 a.m. Jan. 17, it looked like a tobacco barn with its slats open. Posts glowed orange as the siding fell away. His sermon notes cite the hoses and yellow firefighter coats. “Couldn’t tell where the snow began and the fire-retardant foam ended,” he said. “Couldn’t tell whether it was water or tears running down the hill.”

That month, memories of a church arson in Springfield were fresh. Though the cause of the fire was later traced to the faulty furnace, no one knew at first.

Standing before his congregation, Philbrick inventoried the loss materially — a tally that continued, in the weeks ahead, through the intangibles. But the objects mattered now. “Nothing is left,” he said. “The old beams and posts and clapboards; the old pulpit and pews, hymn books and bentwood chairs. The new cushions with the old straw and horsehair, the new paint and rugs and piano and homemade music supplements and the quilt.”

That healing quilt had been shared. It circulated among members and even once traveled to Oregon to help a member’s father. “We need the quilt,” Philbrick said. “Thank God we have had the quilt.”

And thanks be also, he said, to a paid-up insurance policy far better than an old barebones one in place at the time he was hired in the early 1990s, when a settlement would have only paid for rubble to be plowed under.

They’d come a long way, he said. “Today it can feel like we have a long way to go: That’s okay, we know the long way. We know how to go the hard way. That’s who we are. We know we don’t have to go alone.

“Look around you: that’s us. And you’re not alone. ... Look around you: wet eyes and dry. That’s us. And we are not alone.”

Two children had donated their allowance for a new church. “We will rebuild it, sort of the same and sort of new,” Philbrick said that Sunday. “Just as good and better, too.”

Each member of the congregation felt the loss differently. Nan Clark lost the chair her late husband sat in when he served as pastor in the 1960s. “We stood on the porch out there and just watched it burn. There was nothing anyone could do. ... No matter what we build, none of that is going to come back to me. I felt a connection with my ancestors.”

Philbrick felt history’s long reach. To him, this was a church where every kind of truth had been told. Every sort of tear shed. “Where laughter has brightened the driest Yankee,” he told his congregation. “Where hands long gone have left their mark (look around you) and dreamers long dead have left their dreams (look within you).”

The coffee urns would soon be plugged in. Members would stand in a circle and embrace. Philbrick asked everyone that day to feel the fire’s loss and be strengthened by what remains. “I have literally left my blood, sweat and tears— and years of my life — in that building and I know you have, too. They didn’t burn! But I put something much more into the people: I put my faith and my love. And in trial and travail and celebration and sorrow and any old Sunday as well as this one, they have come back, more than I could ever imagine or understand.”

Recognizing the loss

A week later, Philbrick told his congregation he understood that a hallowed place that was part of everyone’s personal history was gone. “It breathed your breath. I am so sorry,” he said.

What was gone: a quiet place to deal with loss and to find solitude, the place “where we went to be alone and together.” Standing in the Parish House, the new home for services, he noted how everyone must find a way to make this busy space less prosaic and somehow holy, as in the church. Talk of rebuilding hadn’t gelled. A major meeting on that topic was still a week off.

“We must make, if we will, a new building,” he said in advance of that. “We have inherited the intangibles, some of them from our predecessors and some we inherit from ourselves. Yes, it will be different,

“This will be a different problem of differing degree for each of us. We will all get something we want; there will be delightful surprises. We won’t get all we want, either. ... After all, that’s where we start: not getting what we want. we don’t want to this to be true. It’s true.”

God’s role

Then, on this day, Jan. 24, Philbrick put a big question before everyone: “Some may ask: How could God let this happen? What did we do?”

The minister’s response was complicated, as complicated as his practice of sketching so many shades of belief into one portrait of a congregation. Resist simple answers to that, he seemed to tell his people, in a passage of a sermon that reads like talking points blended with cadences of the pastor’s poetry. He planned to deliver it this way:

Friends say: Suffering comes from God. God is just. Therefore we are guilty.

Job cries out: Suffering comes from God. I am innocent. Therefore God is unjust.

Try this: Suffering comes from God. God is just. We are innocent. No ‘therefore.’

All true and more than we can understand. But not more than we can trust.

The unanswered questions remain unanswered because:

Either we don’t like the answers ... Old building/ old furnace; it isn’t enough! It isn’t satisfying. It’s too real.


They are the wrong questions.

‘Why?’ may not be the right question. The answer won’t be spoken to us: it will be lived by us. The way we live our lives — that’s where we’ll learn the ‘why’?

Together, they read Psalm 127 and explored the idea of building houses, including God’s house.

“Yes, yes, we can build a new church,” Philbrick said. “But how? That’s the question that the psalm gets at. How will we see God always and the blueprint sometimes? ... God always and the budget sometimes? We must leave room in the process as well as in the building for each of us.”

Everyone in this West Cummington community is grieving, he said, whether they cry openly or not. Some meditate, some pray. And then, he said, there are “the ones who stand stock still at the sink, hands in the dishwater staring out the window at nothing.”

Differences like that could be felt pulling the congregation in different directions, he noted. “One grieves with tears and one with action — and so one chafes, because we can’t start to labor quite yet ... And so one feels crowded, because we can’t wait for ever to start.”

Here, Philbrick called on everyone to invest the rebuilding with all the qualities of their weekly services — notably experimental for this old denomination, and refined over time — with prayer and dreams, trust, the strength of one another, song and poetry, silence and time. “Be gentle with the other, with yourself with the process,” he said. “Be patient: with the other with yourself, with God. ...When you want to do something, ask, ‘Who is served?’ Just me or all of us? The past? The future? The present? ... Don’t be afraid to wait: Let God and let go. ... Don’t be afraid to leap: Let go! Let God.”

After a short service Jan. 31, the congregation met at the parish house for a pivotal session in which members agreed to rebuild on the same site. “It was clear the congregation was ready to take a few decisive steps,” he said in an interview later.

Earlier, Philbrick used a poem attributed to the Japanese Buddhist monk Kukai to set a theme. “A hand moves and the fire’s whirling takes different shapes. / All things change when we do. /The first word, ‘Ah,’ blossoms into all others./ Each of them is true.”

Philbrick also shared a statement written in response to the losses of Sept. 11, 2001. “Love is longer than death, memory deeper than anguish. You have been our strength and our past. We will be your future.”

Then, before the congregation, and working from those ideas, he implored God to “give us back ourselves. ... We can’t have our building back. Give us ourselves. We can’t have yesterday back. Restore to us the years we have lost ... by making them not only ours, but us.”

Remind us, he asked, that we are who we wait for ... who we lack. “We can’t have the angry word and the thoughtless act back. Let our separation from you be our lesson and our inspiration to be bigger, braver, humbler, kinder, more honest, next time. This time. To love ourselves this time — and our neighbor.”

Find peace, he told them, in small things, in all things. Then he invoked the intimacy of this gathering, where members of the congregation join despite so many daily divisions in their shared cause. “If I don’t hear God when I hear you,” he said, “then God is not in my ear. If I don’t touch God when I touch you, then God is not in my fingers. If I don’t speak to God when I speak to you, then truth and compassion are not in my voice.”

After a flood

The next week, Feb. 7, it was time for Job, that Biblical toiler. Remember that we’re all on the same team, Philbrick told his congregation. He spoke of the flood story. Like the flood, the sense of devastation after the fire is so complete and the violence, he said, “so unfathomably deep.”

Then he asked, “How did that much energy sleep quietly in those timbers those many years?”

He also spoke that day of Genesis and God’s purpose. “God has made these strange creatures which so resemble us and so perplex him! Yet made in his image. How well did God know God?”

He told the story of Jews in a death camp who put God on trial, found him guilty and sentenced him to death. And then, the presiding rabbi reminded all that it was time for evening prayers.

“That’s our growth in relationship to God,” Philbrick said, “becoming able to speak the truth — and that’s our nature.”

Then he turned again to the topic of the fire. “This is what I say to you after last week’s meeting: We must look now, in winter, for ripeness. We must look now after loss for ripeness. We must look now among the ashes for ripeness.”

Yes, with winter bearing in, it wasn’t the traditional season for ripeness, he admitted. “Not God’s this time, or kingdom come, but ours and here and coming. Now is time to do the work of ripening. For there is work: Who makes the plant grow? God with rain, sun, the dirt itself?

“Now is the time for the work of ripening,” he told his congregation. “We have all we need: We have need itself, we have resources, talent, each other. We have opportunity, space and time. Time itself is part of this. Also grief, for rain, and plans and hands and dreams to work the soil.”

Later, he drew a distinction between the grief that rises after something happens to a person with the different kind of grief, or remorse, that comes after someone’s own action. Action, he suggested, is a form of healing.

“The building is gone and now nothing will change until we do. That can include time, prayer, therapy, friendship, solitude. And cleaning up the cellar hole and the piles of charred debris.”

Perhaps actions are answers, he suggested. If so, what was the question? Seen one way, it was a question about tenacity.

“It is a test,” he said. “Not pass/fail. It is a stress and a strain. How big are you? How big is your heart? Your imagination? Reserves of courage? How deep your well of patience?” he asked.

“Don’t answer too quickly,” he cautioned. “The test is given once or once a year or at the end of the semester. This strain is daily, nightly for a while this season in our lives together and our lives alone. Are we big enough to hold such a loss? Big enough to let go such a loss? Big enough to hold still? Big enough to rebuild?” he asked.

And later still, he said, “The cellar hole still steams and smokes in some of our memories.”

Moral growth

In late February, while exploring Genesis and reflecting on moral growth and violence in Biblical and contemporary times, he asked: “Is destruction inevitable?”

As spring came on, Philbrick spoke of how “winter is vast for a while. And then it’s cramped.”

He recalled a message he’d imparted in November, before the fire. Prepare for longer nights, he’d said. “If you find the earth a little harder and the world a little colder, I will tell you it’s only winter and nothing wrong. ... God’s in his heaven; there are supposed to be some tears.”

It was painful prophecy.

He also said: “God’s in his heaven; there’s supposed to be some sun — and see, how it already turns the maple buds almost red on the distant hill. You know what is held in store for us, in the roots; and you know what will be rising in the spring.”

And here it was spring now, after tragedy.

Another Sunday, March 14, he returned to Genesis and set out before listeners that God is not what we may think, or what we want. Still, we make God in our image, he wrote in his sermon notes, “rather than looking at ourselves and wondering which parts, which behavior is in God’s image ... or, wondering if, just maybe, all of it is ... What we call divine and what we can’t accept. God is more than we think. God is more than our thoughts.”

“We keep to the comfortable attitude and keep looking at life and blaming God for the way it is ... You know the thing: If God is all-powerful, all knowing and merciful, how could he (he?) let (let?) the flood, the fire, the accident, the illness happen.”

When Palm Sunday came, Philbrick gathered thoughts about the beginnings of Christianity as a faith of the marginalized. One piece of his message came back to suffering in a way that applied to what his congregation had been through in three months.

“After earthquake, war, fire, any violent loss, many Christians hear the story not of Jesus at the well, or Jesus the healer, Jesus the teacher among the multitudes, but of Jesus alone on the cross. When we suffer, when we lose. ... How can God know what we’re going through? Know how alone we feel?”

And later he observed, “God has entered our lives, not through our triumphs, but our disasters, our defeats. ... God has entered the world, through our real lives and in our real lives. We don’t have to earn it, we have to know it, accept it, receive it. Yes!”

Easter is wonderful, he soon told his congregation, and yet the season and holiday make him “queasy.” Philbrick reflected on how people are moved by belief to come to church, or by doubt to stay away. “I am certain of two things,” he said. “That faith comes from the direct experience of the divine ... a moment when it all fits, when you knew all the way to the bottom of your soul and the tips of your toes that all will be well ... all matter of things shall be well. ... I am just as certain that faith is rooted in despair and disillusion and disbelief and being alone in the universe and afraid in your heart and, if there is a God, being mad as hell at that God. ... All that has roots in Easter week.”

On April 11, Philbrick spoke of the urges of wood frogs and the ways of the natural world. “God enters our lives where we have the most room: the gaps, the wounds, absence and exile and those we’re not speaking to. Look around, The world is beautiful beyond need. The world is harsher than our tears can soften; God made the world, then God made the places where we feel.”

In late April, Philbrick’s sermon addressed fear and power, including political power. He made a note in his papers to speak next week of how when something bad happens, “it can make your heart constrict and harden or it grow into places you never knew. And it is largely a matter of choice.”

On June 27, not long after the church formed a design committee for the building project, Philbrick introduced a moment of silence this way: He asked everyone to listen to “the sounds of old church, the new church, the village ticking away outside, listen to the age of your body and the youth of your heart, to all that is passing — and to all that is coming to pass. And near at hand, nearer than breath: find the glad, loud beating of your heart. At any gathering, there are many meetings, past to present to future, bitter joins hands with sweet, hopes dance with dreams and memory watches from the side.”

On the first day of August, he turned in his sermon to berry-picking and his effort when at that chore in his Windsor garden to have no internal conversations. “I notice each bush which is bearing early, which late. My fingers became knowing and began to make decisions, instead of my mind: they touched the berries gently, pulled slightly and if the berry slides off the white cone, why then it is a ripe berry and willing. If the berry hesitates, I stop. ... We are such ostriches! ... When my monologue stopped blotting out the landscape, the world was huge — and there was room in me for it. And there was room in the berry patch for me, room in the way it is for me. I was at home”

In late October, during a story about Moses and the burning bush, Philbrick explored notions of when the real is unreal. Then he took listeners to their familiar loss. “Say you come each week to this important place for important work. Maybe it is a therapist’s or a doctor’s office, homely but comforting, or a church or synagogue or stupa. And here it is, waiting for me. Didn’t have to make it. Didn’t have to invent the mysteries there. ... And it hit me: Then one Sunday in January, it isn’t there. And we do have to make it.

“Like Moses we may not be exactly sure who is with us here,” he said. “But it is real. It is more real than what we think, or believe. ... So now, what do we do? What did Moses have to do? Go to Egypt and do the impossible. Moses asks how, because he doesn’t feel qualified. All Moses has to do is go. God will see to it. God will provide.

“Now we feel called to rebuild a church. We aren’t qualified. Right now we don’t have all the money, the plans drawn or the materials heaped up. We’ve never done it before. God will make it happen. All we have to do is go.”

With a speck of anger, he wrote in his sermon notes: “Don’t tell us about the bush that burns but is never consumed.” We are weary, he wrote, but not consumed. And not used up.

“What do you think that old church was built of?” he asked. “It’s not consumed. It warms us still. And lights our way back.”