I am feeling compelled to finally read The Origins of Totalitarianism, the 1951 work of Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt. In it she explores Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. She wants to come to some kind of understanding—should it be possible—of horrific evil, and of how totalitarian regimes can come to be in the first place.
In the words of an acquaintance, my strong desire to read Arendt feels both “ominous and important.” Am I reading it in preparation for the 2024 presidential election and all that may follow? I hope not—but I will anyway. Or am I reading it to (still) try to wrap my head around how so many folks in the U.S. voted in 2016 for a man who praises Vladimir Putin and himself had (has) dictatorial aspirations? Or do I feel it necessary to read this because of the ways in which anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and racism persist, decades after Nazi Germany?
All of the above.
Here are just a few quotations from The Origins of Totalitarianism:
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.
Practically speaking, the totalitarian ruler proceeds like a man who persistently insults another man until everybody knows that the latter is his enemy, so that he can, with some plausibility, go and kill him in self-defense.”
(This is exactly what Putin is doing in Ukraine—claiming self-defense as he launches unprovoked attacks—and also descriptive of Trump’s unprovoked verbal abuse toward others, whom he then labels enemies/rivals.)
And this sobering line:
The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.
Let me know in the comments if you’ve read Arendt or anything else on totalitarianism.
Tomorrow our church’s adult Sunday school class will discuss white privilege and Martin Luther King’s compelling “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I think I’ve marked up at least 50% of the words in his moving piece of writing. Here’s one section that stood out:
There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?
Reading and preaching through the Old Testament lectionary (prophets!) has been reminding me of the dual proclamation of the prophets: both God’s hope (which I prefer to think about and preach on) and God’s judgment on those who practice injustice and sin (not as easy to talk about; no less true). Rev. Dr. King was a prophet in the tradition of Joel, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all the rest. Of course the church today is not immune from God’s judgment for too easily capitulating to a non-Christlike status quo.
Also intriguing is the idea, as Joel has it in tomorrow’s reading, that all believers have not only the Holy Spirit, but also the charge of prophesying and proclaiming the truth of the God who judges with justice, in whom we can put our hope. All of God’s people are called to the prophetic office!
A forthcoming book from IVP combines one of my favorite lenses for theology (mestizaje) with one of my favorite theologians (Augustine). And the author is none other than Justo González. I believe Michael Scott calls that win-win-win.
Here’s the publisher’s description:
Few thinkers have been as influential as Augustine of Hippo. His writings, such as Confessions and City of God, have left an indelible mark on Western Christianity. He has become so synonymous with Christianity in the West that we easily forget he was a man of two cultures: African and Greco-Roman. The mixture of African Christianity and Greco-Roman rhetoric and philosophy gave his theology and ministry a unique potency in the cultural ferment of the late Roman empire.
Augustine experienced what Latino/a theology calls mestizaje, which means being of a mixed background. Cuban American historian and theologian Justo González looks at the life and legacy of Augustine from the perspective of his own Latino heritage and finds in the bishop of Hippo a remarkable resource for the church today. The mestizo Augustine can serve as a lens by which to see afresh not only the history of Christianity but also our own culturally diverse world.
Coming in November! If you go to the publisher’s page, you can see the Table of Contents. Amazon has it up for pre-order. I’ll do my best to review it here this fall.
This is the text of the sermon I preached the Sunday after Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers were shot to death.
Michael Brown’s homicide in Ferguson, Missouri was almost two years ago. His encounter with a police officer set off a wave of protests and brought a conversation about institutionalized racism once again into the public square.
This week Michael Brown’s mother expressed the numbness and wordlessness that often comes after unjust killing:
When their children are killed, mothers are expected to say something. To help keep the peace. To help make change. But what can I possibly say? I just know we need to do something. We are taught to be peaceful, but we aren’t at peace. I have to wake up and go to sleep with this pain everyday. Ain’t no peace. If we mothers can’t change where this is heading for these families — to public hearings, protests, un-asked-for martyrdom, or worse, to nothing at all — what can we do?
We can at least remember the names of the deceased as we are gathered in the presence of God.
37-year-old Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
32-year-old Philando Castile of Saint Paul, Minnesota.
And then five police officers killed while they were protecting the people’s right to protest police brutality: Patrick Zamarripa, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, and Brent Thompson.
Let us remember their names and their faces and their families. They were and are loved deeply by God. May the Lord receive them into his loving arms, into his eternal care.
In one sense it would be missing the point for white folks to dwell on our cluelessness in what to say after another spate of gun violence. Though the thought keeps crossing my mind, I would be selfish to complain about having to find words for this pulpit after yet another week of killing in the United States.
Because as much as we may struggle in figuring out what to think and how to pray, there is an entire segment of our population that is worrying about how—worrying about if—they can live under these conditions.
Ty Burr, a writer for the Boston Globe, expressed it this way:
I understand; it’s exhausting. Social change asks a lot of us, but most of all our attention. To process all that incoming outrage, we have to become stronger in heart and clearer of head, and we have to decide when it’s time to stop watching the slipstream and dive into it instead.
If you hadn’t already, a week like this one all but demands that we followers of Christ dive in.
But… “what can [we] possibly say?” And “what can we do?”
Well, I don’t know. But I sure have read Ephesians 4 in a different light. And, so help me, God, may I not be shaken in my faith that Scripture always—always—will have something to say to us, even in our darkest hours.
With that conviction, hear again the first three verses of Ephesians 4:
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 4:1 is the pivot point of the whole letter. Paul moves from the theologically rich prayers and beautiful expression of Christian identity—chapters 1 through 3—to what we should do about it—in chapters 4 through 6.
“Therefore,” he says, “I—a prisoner of the Lord!—urge you strongly to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called.”
Paul lays a nice guilt trip on his listeners: Look, I’m in chains here! I’m a prisoner! The least you could do is live up to your calling as a Christian, like your poor Paul is urging you to do.
If you’ve been thinking about memorizing part or all of Ephesians recently, you could at least memorize 4:1, since it summarizes the whole book. Paul’s told them what their calling is in the first half of the letter.
He’s said: you Christians have been chosen by God, God delights in you, and you are sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit. He’s encouraged the church by saying: we are a people called to hope. We are God’s riches. And God’s power for us who believe—even for those who feel powerless—God’s power for us is immense. Nothing compares to it, and we who believe have the power of God.
Paul has also written: we were dead in sin, but God was rich in mercy, and God intervened. He made as alive with Christ, he raised us with Christ, and he seated us with Christ in the heavenly realms.
When he says, “Therefore,” or “Live a life, then,”—he’s got all of that in mind, everything in the first three chapters.
From here on out he’s going to get specific about how to live a life worthy of that calling. You are this, this, and this… so here’s how you can live like it.
“Live a life”—or as Paul first put it in his letter: “walk” in a worthy way.
It was a Jewish metaphor to talk about life as a walk. A sort of ongoing journey: active, with movement. “Walk the walk,” your “Christian walk”—that didn’t come from your evangelical youth pastor, it came from the Hebrew Bible!
Paul starts in right away with some of the ways Christians should walk.
He says in verse 2, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”
Completely humble. Gentle. Patient.
As I studied the passage this week, I was surprised to learn that the particular word for humility in this verse was not really in Greek literature before the Bible. And then finally there was a Greek writer outside of the New Testament, Epictetus, who mentioned “humility” in the first century. He said it was the first character trait to avoid.
That could help explain why a humble and even humiliated Jesus was mocked on the cross. God had said, through Isaiah, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (66:2). But humility is a counter-cultural value; it always has been.
“Be completely humble,” Paul says, “and gentle.” Be gentle.
Jesus told Peter to put away his sword in the garden. Those who live by the sword, he said, will die by the sword. Or as I’ve heard it paraphrased, “When you fight fire with fire, the whole world burns down.”
Micah prophesies about a day when “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
There will be a day, when what happened this last week, and all the evils leading up to it (that still exist!)—will not happen anymore. Nations will not go to war with other nations. Nations will not even feel like they are engaging civil war within their own borders.
This is what it means to be gentle. Loretta Lynch said, “After the events of this week, Americans across our country are feeling a sense of helplessness, uncertainty and fear … but the answer must not be violence.” Paul would agree: the answer must not be violence, but the answer must be gentleness.
I know… I almost picked another passage and didn’t preach on this one today because after Alton and Philando and five officers died, a gentle response felt like a cop-out.
I might as well have been reading, “Be tepid. Let it go. Don’t do anything about it. Just watch.”
Turns out, that’s not what Paul is saying. Harold Hoehner, who taught at Dallas Seminary for many years, says, “The word [gentleness] never connotes the idea of weakness. Rather, it implies the conscious exercise of self-control, exhibiting a conscious choice of gentleness as opposed to the use of power for the purpose of retaliation.” Self-control, not retaliation.
Aristotle talks about gentleness as coming between two extremes: “never being angry with anything” on the one hand and “excessive anger against everyone and on all occasions” on the other. Gentleness is somewhere in the middle. As another interpreter put it, if you’re gentle as Paul urges, you are “always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.”
Our model again is Jesus, the one who said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus was “always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.”
When Jesus saw oppression, hatred, and racial injustice—he got angry. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t gentle.
“Be completely humble,” Paul says, “and gentle.” That gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit, a piece of evidence that we Christians are living lives worthy of the calling we have received.
Then to humility and gentleness, Paul adds this one more: patience.
The Old Testament talks about patience as long-suffering. Being patient doesn’t mean letting injustice go unprotested, but it does mean persistence… holding out hope… slowing down to wait and listen to the voice of another.
Those of us who have not been racially profiled and probably never will be, would do well to slow down and listen to our brothers and sisters who have. We need to exercise patience to hear the stories and pain of others… even to let it transform our own view of the world.
And now Paul gets into church territory—he says one mark of patience is “bearing with one another in love.”
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”
“Put up with each other,” he’s saying! This is the same word Jesus uses when he is exasperated by his faithless disciples: “How long shall I put up with you?”
Well… how long did Jesus put up with his disciples? He’s still doing it, right? He is still, even right now, interceding for us while we worship.
Patience—putting up with each other’s differences and even annoying habits—is required if the church is going to be a bastion of unity… a witness of one love to a divided world.
Eager to Keep Peace
Paul says, then, ”Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” He tells them to be eager to keep the peace.
But here’s a nice twist—he’s calling on them to be peacekeepers. The peace has already been made. Paul had said earlier, Jesus himself is peace. Jesus is the one who made peace—it’s the work he did when he broke down the dividing wall between so-called races—Jew and Gentile in the first century, a work that extends to black and white America in the 21st century.
“Keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
Paul calls for Christians to be humble, gentle, patience, and eager to keep the peace that Christ himself established. Even as Jesus made peace, others try to snuff it out. But we’ve got to guard and protect the peace of unity—and for Paul that starts in the church and then emanates outward.
Paul reminds the church that the reason we can be practice a peaceful witness of unity is that God is not divided. God is one. And God is everywhere. God is, Paul says, “Over all and through all and in all.”
In other words, he’s still on this throne, though evil powers try unsuccessfully to unseat him. He’s still working through his church and his followers. And he’s still making his home with us. He walks alongside us, even as Paul calls us to walk faithfully in the world. It’s because of the strength of the God who is over all, through all, and in all that we can be faithful to our calling. God is with us. He walks with us to enable us to walk strong in our call.
God Speaks in Falcon Heights
I heard an echo of this promise in the horrific video of the Falcon Heights shooting.
A four-year-old girl saw what no child should ever have to see. Afterwards she says to her grieving mother, “It’s okay, Mommy. It’s okay. I’m right here with you.” That little girl had to have been full of the power of the Holy Spirit to be able to say that.
She was the mouthpiece of God: “It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”
There’s a scene in Hoosiers, the greatest basketball movie, greatest sports movie, and—yea, verily—greatest movie in human history. The assistant coach, Shooter, stumbles out onto the court in the middle of a game, totally inebriated.
One of the players is Shooter’s son, who’s utterly embarrassed by his dad.
Coach Norman Dale pulls his player aside and says, “Hey, you keep your head in the game. I need you out there.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, friends: we’ve got to keep our heads in the game. God chooses to need us. God calls us to witness with humility to a world filled with the arrogant who are still getting their way. God urges us to witness with gentleness to a world where violence continues to make headlines. God needs us to show patience with each other, to work together as one body to witness to a hurting world.
So let’s keep our head in the game. As a classic lament Psalm says, “none of us knows how long this will be.” But as best as I can tell, God encourages us to wait it out anyway, to walk out our call every day.
And we don’t walk alone. Our generous God gives us each other, and even himself. He’s like that precious little girl telling us, “It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”
The one who calls us is faithful—he will freely give us his power so we can live out the humility, gentleness, and patience that seem at first blush too weak to us. But those virtues are, in fact, our strong and powerful witness. Humility, gentleness, patience, and peacekeeping—they’re all an expression of the calling we’ve received.
And we need to live it out now more than ever before.
I read through the United Church of Christ’s 2015 Annual Report this afternoon and was delighted to learn about a forthcoming curriculum to help congregations think through white privilege.
It’s slated for a September 1 release: good timing since I’m eager to once again explore and offer resources to my congregation that will aid in racial identity development and help us bolster anti-racism efforts.
“As an extension of our ongoing commitment to Sacred Conversations on race, it is time that this still largely white denomination wrestle with its investment in whiteness, and learn all it can about the manifestations and impact of White Privilege,” said the Rev. John Dorhauer, UCC general minister and president. “This Curriculum, written by five gifted authors with decades of experience teaching about race and privilege, is presented to enable such dialogue to take place at every level of the Church.”
Due to traveling, I missed the related Webinars in June, but more information is available about them here. (I plan to watch recordings.) I already love the title of one session: Spiritual Autobiography through the Lens of Race. Brilliant.
If you, dear reader, are aware of any other resources (specifically already structured as group curriculum) for congregational racial identity development (especially for predominantly white churches), I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Or you can contact me here.
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It’s getting way past old: Senseless murder. Institutionalized bias and racism. Sheer evil in action. Too-easy-to-access AR-15s used to kill in times of peace.
There’s more to say than any single blog post could. I simply want to suggest here a resource for worship service planning for this Sunday. After looking through a host of lament prayers, both ancient and modern, I’ve come to Psalm 74.
It doesn’t take much imagination to update its striking imagery of “men wielding axes” and ones who “smashed all the carved paneling with their axes and hatchets” to the context of this last week in the United States. Verse 9 offers the poignant observation, “None of us knows how long this will be.”
Here’s Psalm 74 in its entirety, which our congregation will use as our Call to Worship on Sunday, mindful of and mourning for this week’s tragic loss of life.
O God, why have you rejected us forever? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture? 2 Remember the nation you purchased long ago, the people of your inheritance, whom you redeemed— Mount Zion, where you dwelt. 3 Turn your steps toward these everlasting ruins, all this destruction the enemy has brought on the sanctuary.
4 Your foes roared in the place where you met with us; they set up their standards as signs. 5 They behaved like men wielding axes to cut through a thicket of trees. 6 They smashed all the carved paneling with their axes and hatchets. 7 They burned your sanctuary to the ground; they defiled the dwelling place of your Name. 8 They said in their hearts, “We will crush them completely!” They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land.
9 We are given no signs from God; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be. 10 How long will the enemy mock you, God? Will the foe revile your name forever? 11 Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!
12 But God is my King from long ago; he brings salvation on the earth.
13 It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. 14 It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert. 15 It was you who opened up springs and streams; you dried up the ever-flowing rivers. 16 The day is yours, and yours also the night; you established the sun and moon. 17 It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth; you made both summer and winter.
18 Remember how the enemy has mocked you, Lord, how foolish people have reviled your name. 19 Do not hand over the life of your dove to wild beasts; do not forget the lives of your afflicted people forever. 20 Have regard for your covenant, because haunts of violence fill the dark places of the land. 21 Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace; may the poor and needy praise your name. 22 Rise up, O God, and defend your cause; remember how fools mock you all day long. 23 Do not ignore the clamor of your adversaries, the uproar of your enemies, which rises continually.
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There is a compelling book about Jesus that I’ve been working my way through again recently: Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise, by Virgilio Elizondo. Elizondo’s context is that of one who, as an ethnic minority in the United States, has experienced oppression and racism, which he connects to Jesus’ own experience of being ostracized as a Galilean with a non-mainstream identity.
Jesus can have compassion on the weak and erring because he himself has lived through the same situation. Without ceasing to be God, he entered the world of the voiceless, the sick, the hungry, the oppressed, the public sinners, the emarginated, the suffering. He did not come just to do certain things for them: he came to become one of them, so as to enable them to find new life in him and thus be able to do things for themselves.
I could go on about how rich the book is (and it’s barely 130 pages). But I especially wanted to share these lines, where he describes what he calls the resurrection principle:
Only love can triumph over evil, and no human power can prevail against the power of unlimited love. The more that the sinful world tries to crush and destroy the ways of unstinted love, the greater will be love’s triumph. A Spanish dicho can be applied here: no hay mal que por bien no venga (“there is no evil from which good cannot come”).
One place I like to go, from time to time, to rouse my spirits and draw me closer to the heart of God is Wendell Berry’s Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.
I’ve been chewing on one line in particular the last part of this week: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
Berry’s words are good for us to hear right now, because “all the facts” include the reality of living in a country with a deeply ingrained racism habit that we just can’t seem to kick. The Deacons and I were praying Wednesday night in the back of our sanctuary, right about the same time another group of believers was praying in a Charleston, South Carolina church…. People of color in this country continue to suffer at the hands of racist persons and racist systems that perpetuate their mistreatment.
But, Berry says, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
If Wendell Berry were narrating Jesus’ state of mind in Mark 4:35-41, he would have said, “Jesus relaxed and took a nap, though he had considered all the facts.”
The disciples are thinking, “Oooh, nice—we’re going to go out in a boat with Jesus into this serene lake:”
Whereas Jesus probably knows that this was in the offing:
Here’s Rembrandt’s rendition of it:
And yet Jesus “lies down and sleeps in peace,” as the Psalm says.
A Furious Squall…
Mark 4:35 says, “That day when evening came, [Jesus] said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’” From what I can tell, evening can be a good time to catch fish, but to traverse a lake…? When you’re out camping and sunset comes, you try to set up camp, not embark on a new leg of your expedition.
But God’s ways are not our ways, and Jesus’ ways are not the disciples’ ways, so off they go. Verse 36 says, “Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him.”
“Just as he was”—it’s like when you’ve made a spontaneous decision to pick up a friend and go out for coffee, and you are in a hurry and you say, “Just come like that, just come how you are. Atomic Cafe doesn’t care if you wear your pajama pants and fleece-lined Crocs. Get in the car.”
Jesus and the disciples just went.
Next verse, verse 37: “A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.”
I love this genius storytelling of Mark. If you’re reading or listening to this story, you don’t know yet where Jesus is. “A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.” And then, you expect, verse 38 will say, “And Jesus, with power and authority, stood up and made the waves stand still.”
But, no, verse 38 says, “Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.” He needed his introvert time. He found a pillow, or a big sandbag, and put his head on it.
The disciples take this as apathy, some kind of a cruel joke.
If the boat is nearly swamped, and Jesus is still sleeping, he must not be wet yet. It’s possible the stern was raised. The boat could have looked something like this:
Which probably makes the disciples all the more upset. You wonder… if Jesus knew this storm was coming, is that why he was at the stern, elevated above the rest of the boat? And if so, the reader of this text wonders, why didn’t he quell the storm before it started? Or give the disciples a heads-up? Mark doesn’t tell us.
But his students ask, “Teacher, don’t you care if we down?”
The specific wording Mark uses in the text suggests that the boat was filled “to the extent of its capacity” (HT).
And doesn’t this imagery of a flooding boat go against the axiom that “God won’t give you more than you can handle?” Maybe it’s more like, “Sometimes we get more than we can handle, and God’s not necessarily the one who gave it to us, but he’ll be right by our side anyway.”
…And an Omnipotent God
If Mark’s given us the full humanity of Jesus—he was sleeping on a cushion—now we see his full divinity. Verse 39 says, “He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.”
“Who is this?” the disciples ask. “Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
The text says it goes from a “great” windstorm to a “great” calm.
Jesus talks directly to the wind and the waves. Can you think of another person in biblical history who talked to the waves and the sea, and told them to do something?
Jesus, they are starting to see, is more than just an amazing teacher. Listen to how God questioned Job:
Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt’?
I don’t know if the disciples, in that moment of fear, would have had Job in mind, but the kind of thing Jesus is doing in this passage is the kind of thing that only the LORD God Almighty does.
Here he is. God himself, in the boat with the disciples.
Psalm 107 says, “He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.”
But They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships…
I wonder if Jesus had this Psalm in mind as he went out into the Sea of Galilee with his disciples. Maybe he thought, “Alright—it’s Psalm 107 time. Let me show these young ‘uns what I can do.”
Listen to part of Psalm 107 in the King James Version:
They that go down to the sea in ships,
that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.
For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind,
which lifteth up the waves thereof.
They mount up to the heaven,
they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted
because of trouble.
They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man,
and are at their wits’ end.
Then they cry unto the LORD in their trouble,
and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.
Did part of that ring a bell? You might recognize this guy:
Here’s a close-up of the Fisherman Memorial overlooking the Harbor:
“They that go down to the sea in ships,” the inscription reads, 1623-1923.
They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.
…These See the Works of the LORD
What about those who go unrescued?
And the Psalm goes on to describe the wind and the waves. Those at sea “reel to and fro… and are at their wits’ end.” Surely this describes the lives of those lost at sea from 1623 to 1923, and before and since.
Then they cry unto the LORD in their trouble,
and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
He maketh the storm a calm,
so that the waves thereof are still.
That very much sums up the experience of the disciples in Mark 4. They’re living out that Psalm with Jesus
But herein lies a theological difficulty. I don’t know how many fishermen cried “unto the LORD in their trouble” in stormy seas, but the memorial in Gloucester stands there to honor those who were not brought out of their distress… or at least, not brought out of a storm. There are some storms–literal and metaphorical–that God just does not make calm. Unlike the ones the Psalm 107 goes on to describe, these men and women that the man at the wheel stands for were not rescued.
“Teacher, don’t you care if [they] drown? …Why didn’t you save them?”
It’s one of the perplexing questions that confronts us—why a God who can and does intervene so often… just lets some things go… lets some evils move ahead. Allows men and women to get lost at sea.
That existential question has come up again this week in Charleston:
You can’t kill love
The 9 members of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church barely had time to “cry to the LORD in their trouble.” And though Jesus was in attendance at that Bible study and prayer time—“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them”—he didn’t stop the hateful actions of a deeply racist young man.
Surely those 9 didn’t have to die. I don’t know how many more of these things it will take for our nation and lawmakers to finally move ahead in a serious conversation about gun control. I don’t know how many more unarmed black people will have to die before our country wakes up to the pervasive racism in our midst.
They didn’t have to die. But, you know what? In the lexicon of the Kingdom of God, dead isn’t really dead.
Because you can kill a person, but you can’t kill love. You can try to cut somebody down, but “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” From even horrible death can come new and powerful expressions of life.
Rev. Clementa Pinckney was the Pastor of Mother Emanuel, one of those who died. There’s a short YouTube video you can easily find: a couple years ago he welcomed a group of folks who were on tour in historic Charleston. Here’s what he said:
The African American Church… really has seen it as its responsibility and its ministry and its calling to be fully integrated and caring about the lives of its constituents and the general community. We… don’t see ourselves as just a place we come to worship, but as a beacon, and as a bearer of the culture and a bearer of what makes us a people.
But I like to say this is not unique to us. It’s really what America is about. Could we not argue that America is about freedom? Whether we live it out or not… but America’s about freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness. And that’s what church is all about. Freedom to worship and freedom from sin, freedom to be fully what God intends us to be… and have equality in the sight of God. And sometimes you gotta make noise to do that. Sometimes you maybe have to die… to do that.
We saw this week how the family members of the victims responded. They called on Dylann Roof to repent of his sins and believe in Jesus. As Rev. Pinckney suggested, they called him to a life of “freedom from sin, freedom to be fully what God intends [him] to be.” They said things like, “Though every fiber of my being is hurting, I forgive you.” And the nation watched, amazed at the witness of the families in that church.
And so God, working through the amazing mercy of the families, calms the storm, after all. The winds of hatred and the breaking waves of destruction die down as Christ works in the hearts of his disciples in Charleston who choose faith over fear.
When God’s children find themselves in choppy waters, our Lord, Jesus, is right there with us in the boat.
And because they know Jesus is in the boat with them, the families of Mother Emanuel have chosen to be joyful, “though [they] have considered all the facts,” though their loved ones have been lost at sea, as it were.
Not a sudden storm, not even a tragic shipwreck can keep Christ’s disciples from making it to the other side. There they see the works of the LORD, and their witness lives on.