Posts Tagged ‘hope’
The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb, HarperCollins, 2008, 740 pp.
Oh, Wally Lamb! He knows how to plumb the depths of brokenness and healing, sin and forgiveness, estrangement and relationship. I have read both She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True, so I knew what to expect from his latest tome–a deep, searing, introspective novel with haunting sadness but always hope.
The Hour I First Believed maps the personal and psychological devastation of Caelum and Maureen Quirk, who were both teachers at Columbine High School in the 1999 mass shooting. While Caelum was away tending to his aunt after a stroke, Maureen experienced a trauma that broke her apart. Both of them unraveled, in their own ways, because of the shooting and its aftermath. They return to his aunt’s farm to recover, and Caelum gains access to his family’s long history and discovers information that discloses secrets that cause him to question his own identity. (I thought the long excursions into the past did not add much to the quality of the novel, and even detracted from its power. They could have been much shorter, or omitted altogether and the book would have felt stronger to me.)
I can’t say that I enjoy Wally Lamb’s work. I usually find it difficult and painful to read. However, that’s what makes it so valuable. Lamb’s characters are never perfect and they do not conform to expectations or neat categories. They do not behave like we want them to, and they frustrate and confuse. That’s what makes them so rich. What keeps me returning to Lamb’s work, even as agonizing as it can be, is that Lamb wrestles these complicated, broken characters into a place of hope and grace. It’s never easy, it’s never fully wrought or resolved, but he points the way to faith, every time.
Below are a few gems from the story, keys to unlocking the hope at the end of such sorrow.
Words from a pastor at a community meeting organized by local churches after the Columbine massacre:
We need to stare back, without blinking, at the depravity of these boys’ actions and realize that our love is more powerful than their hatred.” (203)
I said something very similar when facing the murder of a young girl in my congregation, with the shorthand “love wins.”
A little process theology tucked in, too, as Caelum quotes a chaos theorist he met on an airplane:
He said maybe God wasn’t Allah or Jesus Christ or any of the other deities that people are always using as an excuse to go to war over. That maybe all ‘God’ was was mutuation. Mutability. The thing that happens when the DNA we’re ‘carrying forward’ from our ancestors suddenly jumps the track. Gets altered in some unpredictable way, and, for better or worse, sets the first domino falling in a different direction. (451)
Caelum gets words about faith and doubt from an unlikely source, a retired chauffeur for a beer company.
Well, let me give you a piece of advice, Mr. I Have My Doubts. Next time you’re in a bad way and you’re asking this god you have your doubts about to help you, just remember that the question you gotta ask isn’t Why? or If? The question is How? You got that? Not why. Not if. How. (519)
When Caelum teaches a class on “The Quest in Literature” at the local community college, they explore the role and importance of myth in healing. The closing assignment is to examine Picasso’s Minotauromachia and discuss what they see in the picture and what it says about modern life. One student responds thus:
“This picture shows us what all the myths we studied told us,” he concluded. “Life is messy, violent, confusing and hopeful.” (685)
That is what any good story will do–an ancient myth, a biblical text, and a good novel. Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed is just such a story. It’s messy, violent, confusing and hopeful, and I recommend it to you.
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Atria Books, 2013, 307 pp.
The title drew me in from the “new books” section of the library. I’d never heard of William Kent Krueger before, but he is apparently best known as a mystery writer. Ordinary Grace is a bit of a mystery, but it is mostly a coming-of-age story about a young boy, son of a Methodist minister, as the reality of death touches his small community and his family. It is not the best book I’ve ever read, but it was a good story well told. I couldn’t put it down, and it made me weep more than once. It spoke to my heart in a powerful way in this season of my life, as the pastor parent of a young boy.
The story belongs to Frank Drum, who is thirteen in the summer of 1961 and the novel’s narrator. Frank and his younger brother Jake have the run of their Minnesota small town, while their older sister Ariel is busy preparing to attend Julliard in the fall. Their daily explorations unpack the town’s characters: the minister father who carries invisible scars from his bleak past at war; the mother who gave up her own musical dreams; the piano teacher Emil Brandt, blind from war wounds and resigned from a life of fame; his sister Lise, living with mental illness; their father’s war buddy Gus, who lives in the church’s basement. There are savory and unsavory characters, from their young friends to a Native American with a past to the rowdy teenagers to the town police officers. The story unfolds a series of tragic deaths that occur over the course of the summer. As Frank is exposed to these deaths, and to the events that led to them, he enters an adult world of violence, betrayal, adultery, prejudice and more.
What drew me in was the plainspoken style that Krueger gave to many of the adult characters, especially Rev. Drum, as they explained to the boys and to one another the realities of loss, hope and especially grace. I put nearly a dozen flags in the book, and copied out countless quotations to keep for later. Here are just a few.
These are Rev. Drum’s remarks at the funeral of a transient man whose identity is unknown. I would hope to speak so simply and truthfully.
We believe too often that on the roads we walk we walk alone. Which is never true. Even this man who is unknown to us was known to God and God was his constant companion. God never promised us an easy life. He never promised that we wouldn’t suffer, that we wouldn’t feel despair and loneliness and confusion and desperation. What he did promise was that in our suffering we would never be alone. And though we may sometimes make ourselves blind and deaf to his presence he is beside us and around us and within us always. We are never separated from his love. And he promised us something else, the most important promise of all. That there would be surcease. That there would be an end to our pain and our suffering and our loneliness, that we would be with him and know him, and this would be heaven. This man, who in life may have felt utterly alone, feels alone no more. This man, whose life may have been days and nights of endless waiting, is waiting no more. He is where God always knew he would be, in a place prepared. And for this we rejoice.” (71)
When the Drum family suffers a terrible loss, Rev. Drum questions whether his own sins in war might be to blame. His war buddy Gus responds with words that cut to my heart as a pastor who has known times of doubt.
Gus said, “You think God operates that way, Captain? Hell, that sure ain’t what you’ve been telling me all these years. And as for those sins of yours, I’m guessing you mean the war, and haven’t you always told me that you and me and the others we could be forgiven? You told me you believed it as surely as you believed the sun would rise every morning. And I’ve got to tell you, Captain, you seemed so certain that you got me believing too. … I can’t see any way that the God you’ve talked yourself blue to me and everyone else about would be responsible for what happened.Seems to me you’re reeling here, Captain. Like from a punch in the face. When you come around you’ll see that you’ve been right all along. I know I give you a hard time about your religion, but damned if I’m not grateful at heart that you believe it. Somebody’s got to. For all the rest of us, Captain, somebody’s got to.” (191-192)
I know what it feels like to carry the weight of faith because other people need you to believe it, even when you have your doubts. Krueger’s ability to name this subtle experience of ministry so plainly moved me.
I also learned from the Prologue a quotation from Aeschylus that I had not heard before.
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
In the end, it was the grace of Ordinary Grace that moved me–the way the characters in this small town extended grace and forgiveness to one another across terrible circumstances.
I usually post sermons as podcasts through my church’s website, but the recording did not work on this one, and I owe a debt of gratitude to my Facebook friends who helped me write it. So, I’m posting the manuscript here for them to see.
The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness. --Jeremiah 33:14-16
This is the first week of Advent, which means we get to talk about hope.
And this week, of all weeks, I couldn’t spend all this time thinking about hope without thinking about everybody who spent the week hoping they would win the Powerball jackpot. Millions and millions of people waiting and hoping that their number would be called, hoping that their lives would be changed, debts cancelled, woes about bills and expenses forever banished, mean bosses vanquished. All those fantasies about what you could do, what you would do with such a windfall.
Josh and I bought a ticket too, and indulged in some fun daydreaming together about how we would spend and distribute $580 million. It was lots of fun. We had a good time talking and anticipating and hoping. All the good we could do with that kind of money!
As a pastor, I was hoping too. Of course my first hope was that we would win, but my secondary hope was that one of you would win. Just like every other pastor in this country, I prayed that if it wasn’t me, it might be one of you. Even the pastors who rail against gambling still hope for the chance to call up a church member who just won $580 million and have a conversation about tithing.
Then, of course, came the disappointment. I didn’t win, and neither did any of you. Two families were the lucky ones, but the rest of us are just left with useless scraps of paper in our pockets.
Thankfully, my friend Mary Luti posted this: “A Prayer for All the Times You Do Not Win Powerball.”
If you, O Lord, are not bitterly disappointed
that, not having won, I will not be able to solve
the financial problems of my congregation
and build several houses for the poor in Honduras
with a generous donation from my winnings
(after I take care of my family and friends,
pay off the mortgage and the plastic and buy a Mercedes),
then I’ll be fine, I’ll get over it, even ‘though
the thought of all the good I could have done with that money
is painful, even ‘though you could have used me
to make a difference. Oh well.
There will be another day. I have my numbers picked
for when the jackpot gets big again. Bless them.
There’s so much I want to do.
For you, of course. Amen.
The hope of which we speak on this first Sunday of Advent is a very different kind of hope from the hopes we place in a Powerball ticket.
Ours is the hope of the prophets.
Prophets are not fortune tellers, predictors of the future like Nostradamus or something.
To prophesy in the Bible is to tell of the promises of God—promises of peace and not destruction, promises of grace and salvation and home and justice.
It’s like what we read today from the prophet Jeremiah: “The time is coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise.”
What is that promise? A leader who will do what is just and right in the land. Salvation and safety for the people of Israel and Judah, and for Jerusalem.
And our hope is that God will fulfill that promise.
You can see how different that is than the Powerball kind of hope. Early in the week, when I was thinking about this distinction, I put it out on my Facebook page, and quite a few of my friends weighed in with their thoughts, which are integrated with my own.
First and foremost, the difference between the Powerball hope and the Gospel hope is the difference between luck and trust.
The Powerball is all about luck—and your chances are one in 176 million, which is not very good odds.
The Gospel is all about trust—confidence that God will come through, not just for one in 6 billion of us, but for the whole world.
Our own Eden Kuhlenschmidt said, “difference between the false hope of this world and the true hope of God’s promises.”
That’s the other difference—hope for one vs. hope for all
With Powerball, one lucky family, or maybe two, experiences salvation, freedom from debt and a change of their lives.
But Gospel hope is not just for one person or one family, although it’s personal for each of us. The Gospel Hope is for the whole world, for the salvation of everyone, so that we experience a change in the way the whole planet runs, into ways of justice and righteousness and peace and salvation for all.
Everyone’s a winner. It’s a sure bet.
Another difference is in time
Powerball hope seeks immediate gratification. By 11:30 on Wednesday night, you knew if you were a winner or a loser, if your hopes were fulfilled or not.
Gospel hope doesn’t happen so quick like that, although the Gospel warns us to be ready for it to happen “in the blink of an eye.” After 2000 years of hoping for Christ’s return, we’ve realized we’re dealing more with a long-range confidence.
Gospel hope proclaims that, no matter what comes, God will be in charge at the end. God will see you through. Peace will prevail, no matter how long it takes.
In the famous words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
What it is we are hoping for is different too.
A friend I grew up with, who no longer considers herself a Christian, wrote this:
“The lottery is the hope for freedom from poverty and obscurity in this life. The Gospel is the hope that the 80 or so years we spend on this planet aren’t pointless because there’s something else afterwards. It’s too depressing to believe that the struggle against poverty and obscurity is a waste of time in the end.” (Melissa)
My cousin wrote: The gospel actually leaves you with a better life 10 years later instead of the strife and drama lottery winnings come with. (Carrie)
Jim Jensen, St. Luke’s insurance agent, mused: “Unfortunately we don’t celebrate God’s new winners like we do the lottery winners.”
One of the first things that people were quick to point out is that, unlike the Powerball, the Gospel is free. You don’t have to pay to play, that God’s grace is a free gift for all.
I don’t think it’s free at all. No, you don’t have to spend $2 to play, you don’t have to have money at all, but it will cost you—everything. God doesn’t demand anything from you in order to receive grace—but in response to that grace, you are compelled to give everything you have, your life, your time, your love, your resources, to God’s purposes.
But the math is all different. People play Powerball trying to spend a little and get a lot. Turn $2 into $580 million. Did you know that your odds don’t actually increase the more you play? It’s a myth, because the lottery doesn’t work like chances in a raffle. No matter how many tickets you have, your chances are still just one in 176 million.
As my friend Jodi put it, “God gives us way better odds than the lottery does. God might talk about a narrow path, but it is nowhere near as narrow as the lottery path.”
With God’s promises, the more you invest in hope, the bigger the hope grows and the bigger the payout. Give it all, get it all and more. Whatever you put in comes back to you in full measure and more. The more you put in, the stronger the hope grows.
The Gospel hope doesn’t cost you a thing, because it is God’s gracious gift. But it will cost you everything to follow it. And it will be worth every penny, every hour, every sacrifice.
In my initial Facebook posting, I made a note that told my friends not to mock anyone who played the lottery, because it is fun to hope and imagine what you would do with all those winnings. One friend, an Episcopal priest, responded this way: “It’s fun to hope and imagine what you’d do with the Gospel, too.”
That’s what Advent is for. For hoping and imagining the Gospel promises being fulfilled in our lifetime, or even in us. Imagine the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Imagine a world of peace and justice. Imagine the world living together in harmony with God’s design. Imagine right relationships, security, trust, fulfillment. And know that those are not wild fantasies and lottery dreams—they are the hope of the prophets, the sure bet, the free grace, the covenant of peace and justice and righteousness and safety and salvation from the God who was and is and is to come. For the time is coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise. Thanks be to God. Amen.
On March 2, deadly tornadoes ripped through our community. In the immediate aftermath, experts and volunteers and resources poured in from across the country. Now, two months later, we have established a long term recovery team with eight active committees in charge of everything from construction and volunteer management to spiritual and emotional care. Local leaders, including me, have come forward to lead the organization for the next 18-24 months. The outside experts and leaders are on their way out. FEMA left town on Friday. In the last few weeks I have heard these disaster responders, both from the government and religious organizations, repeatedly use the phrase “own your own disaster.” It’s time, they say, for the community to own its own disaster, and take charge of their own recovery.
Owning our own disaster is not an easy process. In the first few days, it was all about having survived, and helping neighbors survive. As the days turned into weeks, it was all about getting help. Everyone was eagerly awaiting aid from others—from insurance, from FEMA, from the Red Cross, from family or churches or other organizations. People seemed to believe that these groups would save them from their distress, that money and resources would pour in, and that these aid groups would restore them to wholeness.
However, insurance has deductibles. FEMA only gives away money to those without insurance; others must take out low-interest loans, which must be paid back. Even voluntary organizations reserve their dollars and donations for those with no other resources of their own. The realization that no one was going to fix it was met with anger, frustration and grief, as we realized that the much of the burden and cost of the disaster would still rest with those who had already lost so much.
As the weeks have passed, the emotions have tempered and the community has come together to move forward. It is our community, after all. We should be the ones in charge of rebuilding it. The recovery will take many months, and those outside volunteers and experts need to return to their lives and their homes. They cannot bear the cost of rebuilding our community for us. The disaster represents much hardship, but also much opportunity—the chance to remake things better than they were before. As we learn to own our own disaster, we take responsibility for the future of our own community.
I can’t help but reflect that I have seen this pattern before, many times, as I have walked with families through their own personal disasters. A tragedy, a diagnosis, an accident, a life-changing mistake—there is always an initial rush of aid, followed by the disappointing realization that no one can fix this for you, that only you and God can put your own life back together again. The grief, the anger, the frustration are all too familiar. Like the survivors of the tornado, sometimes it’s hard to realize that even though the disaster occurred through no fault of your own, the responsibility for healing and rebuilding still lies with you, because it’s your life. Sometimes, when we find ourselves in disasters of our own making, we still want someone else to step in and rescue us.
Yet in order to heal and be restored to wholeness, we all have to learn to own our own disasters. It may not be fair, but little in life is. We can’t heal unless we take responsibility for our own healing, and that requires for taking responsibility for our own disaster, even if it came about through no fault of our own.
Exactly ten days ago, deadly tornadoes rolled through our region. Since noon that Friday, when my son’s school announced an early closing, every plan, task and to-do list has been tossed aside. Our town is just a few miles from Henryville, Indiana, which took a direct hit from an EF4 tornado. Our congregation has families that live in Henryville, Pekin, Borden and New Washington. One family has lost their entire home, another family has sustained major damage. Two of our church’s youth attend Henryville High School, and they have lost their school building and the accompanying social events that give shape to their lives. Almost everyone has suffered emotional and spiritual trauma, as they feared for their own lives and worried over friends and loved ones in the hours after the storm.
Last Sunday, less than 36 hours after the storm, our community gathered for the first time. For most of us, it was the first chance we had to talk about our experiences. I groped for something to say to my congregation in the wake of such devastation. In prayer, I realized we needed to do three things in that hour of worship: to acknowledge our feelings, to find our hope in God, and to organize our service.
We began the sermon by simply inviting people to share words that described what they had been feeling. Scared. Fear. Anger. Sadness. Helplessness. Anxiety. Grief. Questioning. Gratitude. Relief. Questioning “why?”. While one occasion of worship was not enough to process all these feelings, there was a palpable sense of connection in the room as we realized that we were all feeling the same way. We could acknowledge that we were not alone in our struggles, and giving voice to our shared experiences gave us encouragement.
The scripture that I had originally planned for that day was from the Lenten lectionary, Jesus’ admonition to “take up your cross and follow me.” I had planned to talk about Jesus’ confrontation with the evils of empire, and in my weekly video I had even asked people to ponder the question, “What would you be willing to die for?” After the storms, we all knew in a deeper way that we were not willing to die for our stuff. But many of our community also knew in a way that they never understood before how much they were willing to risk their own lives to protect family, friends and neighbors.
It is in that spirit of generosity, courage and self-sacrifice that God is made known in these storms. It is not in the suffering, injury and death. We find our hope in God in the love and compassion we see from those around us, and we offer to one another. From my sermon:
People may try to tell you that suffering is good for you, or that God sent these terrible tornadoes as a cross for us to bear, that this is some kind of a test or blessing or way of making our faith stronger, but I’ll tell you right now—that’s just bad theology. I don’t believe it for a second, and neither should you. God doesn’t work like that—choosing to preserve a woodpile or a mailbox while destroying a home, saving one family when their neighbors across the street lose everything. God doesn’t use the winds to rip apart homes and lives and frighten us into submission. God doesn’t pick husbands over wives, grandparents over grandchildren, cats over dogs, non-Christians over Christians. God doesn’t send little children flying through the air to teach us a lesson. Any God who could be so cruel and fickle is not worthy of our worship.
The God of Jesus Christ is the God of the cross, the one who is willing to suffer and even die right alongside us, so that we know that we are never alone in our most painful moments.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who refuses to flee in the face of the storm, who huddles under mattresses and climbs into bathtubs, holding us tight in our most terrifying moments.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who hears our most fervent and frightened prayers and whispers calm and peace into our ears.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who searches every house and every ruin until the lost are found.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who shows up in food trucks and water bottles and chainsaws and offers of “whatever you need, we’re here for you.”
The God of Jesus Christ and our God picks up a hammer, a bucket, and work gloves and starts cleaning up and rebuilding—and sticks around until every last family, every last person is restored to wholeness again.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God uses Facebook and phone calls, e-mail and text messages to rally the family of Christians across the country to pray for this church and our two afflicted families by name this Sunday morning.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God sends the resources of the One Great Hour of Sharing and UCC Disaster Response Ministries to our aid, and extends offers of support and supplies from every corner as we help our community start again.
The God of Jesus Christ and our God does not delight in how much we suffer, but in our willingness, like God’s own Son, to go to the places of suffering in this world to shine the light, and hope, and love for all people.
So that’s what we are to do: we who follow God, we take up our cross by following God into these places of suffering and grief, so that our friends and neighbors are not alone and they know God’s love is with them even in these terrible circumstances.
For us as Christians, we don’t merely take care of our own—we will reach out to all those in need. This storm will be an even more devastating loss on those who were already living on the edge, and they will need our compassion and aid.
We aren’t just acting from heart-felt compassion. We are people of faith, and service is a discipline for us, not just something we do because it makes us feel good. That means we’re making a long-term commitment, until every last person is restored to wholeness. That process will take many months, after the fear and the emotion and the passion have died down. The work will get tedious and much patience will be required—but you and I, this church, we have an opportunity in this moment to be for our community the light and the hope of God, and I know we will.
I know we will. That felt like such a statement of faith that morning, but I knew it to be true—that our congregation would rally and work and give and serve in ways far beyond our imagined capacity. And we have, already.
Since the winds died down, everyone in our community has been working non-stop to clean up and care for one another. Crews from our church organized to remove debris for two families in our congregation, but then reached out to help other neighbors. A Volunteer Reception Center opened just a few blocks from our church to handle the hundreds of volunteers arriving in the region (nearly 3,000 already registered). Over 20 members of our congregation have already signed up to work at the Volunteer Center itself. This is not the “glamorous” work in storm-ravaged areas—this is filing papers, answering phones, handing out work gloves. Our folks have signed up for multiple shifts over the next four weeks already. A dozen more have also been deployed to the affected areas with chainsaws and pick-up trucks and debris removal equipment. Our youth group has organized a spaghetti supper this Thursday night as a fundraiser for long-term recovery. When the Volunteer Center needed chaplains, I simply stated the need at a local clergy meeting, and every afternoon was covered for the next month. As one of the volunteers said to me, “We are God’s people. This is what we do—we help people.”
So much has changed in ten short days. Sabbatical seems like such a long time ago. My calendar has been filled with shifts at the Volunteer Center, clean-up days with church work groups, and pastoral care for our church families who are most affected. My e-mail inbox and Facebook news feed are full of storm-related communications coordinating needs and responses, including inquiries from church groups about summer mission trips. I find myself a part of a coalition for long-term recovery, and I anticipate dedicating many hours in the months ahead to organizing spiritual care for those who have suffered so much trauma.
And yet, so much remains the same. For our congregation, this response to disaster is no different than what we do every day. When someone dies, when accidents happen, when lives fall apart, we are there for each other and provide for one another. When people in our community are hungry or homeless or lost, we provide food and shelter and care. When trauma and spiritual crisis arise, we offer space for seekers, room for questions, and reassurances of God’s grace and love. The intensity and the need have multiplied around us, but we have been committed to these faith practices for a long time already. We will sustain and increase that effort in the days, months and even years to come, as our community recovers, because we know God is with us, beckoning us into the suffering places to be light, and hope, and love.
B and I made our own Advent wreath this year, to sit on the kitchen table. The kitchen table is regularly the dumping ground for junk mail, school artwork, receipts, stray gloves and not-yet-put-away purchases. Its proximity to the back door makes it everyone’s first stop and first view upon entering the house. Since the wreath has taken central place, though, it has seemed easier and more important to keep the table clear of unnecessary junk. It’s amazingly refreshing to my spirit to enter the house and see the Advent wreath, rather than a pile of mess that needs to be put away.
Last week, we lit the first candle and I talked with B about hope. Tonight, we lit the second candle and talked about peace. Even as we talked about the meaning of peace—ending war, getting along with friends, making sure everyone has enough—we could see our hope candle struggling to stay lit. Smoke was pouring from it, but the flame was barely an ember on the wick. Watching the light struggle to survive, I contemplated how hard it often is for hope itself to stay strong against the darkness.
I reached for my camera to capture a picture. Before I could get the lens cap off, the candle suddenly exploded into a full flame of light, bigger and brighter than the peace candle next to it. Wax was pouring down the side of the candle, spilling over the holder. The flame had been dampened by all the old wax around the wick, unable to catch enough air to fully shine. Letting go of the junk released the light of hope again.
It was just like my kitchen table. Removing the junk to focus on the Advent wreath set me free to focus on the hope and peace of the season.
Even more, it is just like my soul. Hope gets stifled by all sorts of junk—old hurts, built-up anxieties, piled-on worries, and overwhelming circumstances that make us feel like we just can’t get any air. Yet the tiniest flame of hope, even the one that looks like it’s too small to survive, can be enough to throw off all that mess and explode into light.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
On September 11, 2001, I had been serving my first church for exactly five months. I was the second associate pastor at a big, downtown church in the heart of Boston’s Copley Square. The church was a tourist attraction with a giant tower, the sanctuary open all day every day for passersby. That morning, I had been at an 8:00 a.m. meeting at the homeless shelter downtown. I left the shelter with a couple of colleagues, and we overheard the guys gathered out front talking about planes going into buildings. They were miming the crash and making the sound of explosions, but we dismissed it as the talk of the mentally ill. As we walked the five blocks along Boston Common and back to Copley Square, we began to notice to the cell phone conversations of well-dressed business people we passed, and heard the story repeated—planes crashing into buildings. People were pouring out of buildings and subway tunnels. No one was going back in.
When I got to church, the receptionist told me it was true. She had the radio on, and it told of the World Trade Center, two planes, and terrorism. I went upstairs to my office and colleagues, and found them huddled around the only TV in the building, adjusting the antennas to try and get a picture. Through the snowy black and white screen, we saw two giant rectangles with smoke pouring out. That was the only image I saw of the tragedy until late that night. I had only been there about five minutes when the receptionist called—people were downstairs, coming into the sanctuary, and someone should tend to them. I stopped by my office to grab a box of tissues, and headed downstairs.
And that’s where I stayed, for the rest of the day. For me, the details of what had happened came not from the television, but from the strangers who entered seeking solace. Brokers in Boston had been on the phone with traders in New York when the screaming started, the line went dead. Co-workers had traveled to New York for a meeting at the World Trade Center that morning, no one knew where they were. Colleagues had traveled from the World Trade Center for a meeting in Boston, and knew that they would have died if they had been in their home office that morning. Sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters worked on the 18th floor, the 38th floor, the 102nd floor, the Pentagon. The planes came from Boston, and loved ones had left this morning on a flight from Logan. Fighter jets had been scrambled to shoot down potential threats, and we heard them fly overhead. The Red Cross needed blood. Could we post a sign, direct people down the street to the emergency blood drive? Of course, we said, and people responded to their grief by opening up their veins.
All day long, people kept pouring in. Our church was located right between the two tallest buildings in the city, and our high tower suddenly seeming conspicuous and vulnerable. Everything around us had closed, even the other churches and the public library across the street. We wondered if we were unsafe, foolish even, to stay open, those two buildings looming over us, our tower defiantly pointed toward the sky. But it felt like an act of faith, to be present in the midst of such fear and doubt. We kept our doors open, and the people kept coming to seek shelter for their bodies and comfort for their souls. I couldn’t offer much, but together we sat, prayed, shook, wept, held hands, shared our fears, wondered if our world had changed forever.
Upstairs, my colleagues made their own preparations—one calling all our members to check on them and their families, the other preparing a service of prayer and mourning for that evening.
It was at that service, in that place of fear and uncertainty and terror, that I first understood the power of that Psalm. People entered with tears and fears, wondering if it was wise to be together in such a public and unsecure place, in the shadow of such tall towers, in spite of our need to gather and pray. And yet our shoulders relaxed, our eyes turned heavenward, and our fears began to abate when we were reminded of these words:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth…
Everything was in crisis. It was not just a national crisis, but a personal crisis for most of the people in the sanctuary that day—they had lost co-workers, friends, family members. Everything had changed—their job, family, security, schedule, everything. The Psalm reminded us of what had not changed—God’s love and power was still in charge of this world. God’s hand was still guiding us, a refuge and strength that no earthly actions could dissuade. God’s is an unchanging love and an undying pursuit of peace.
Ten years later, I am filled with dread at the flag-draped, red-white-and-blue commemorations planned for this weekend. When I stop to remember my experiences that day, I weep at the intimacy of loss and destruction. When I hear politicians, pundits and fellow preachers invoke “9/11” as a call to patriotism and heroism and war, I am angry and repulsed that someone would try to spin the heartache of that day for political or pecuniary purposes. When I think about the thousands upon thousands of additional lives lost and displaced by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I feel sick to my stomach that we have inflicted the same grief on so many other families, in our nation and other nations. When I contemplate all that has changed in our nation since that day, I am overwhelmed with the economic crises, rollback of civil rights and liberties, scapegoating of the poor and immigrants, relentless natural disasters, political vitriol, dysfunctional government, corporate greed and all the hurting souls resulting from it.
On this anniversary, the only commemoration I want is a reading of that same Psalm 46, surrounded by silence. I need to be reminded of God’s unchanging love and undying pursuit of peace. Tell me again that everything in the whole world can change—nations and safety and security, kingdoms and powers and cities crumble around us—but the love of God does not change. Keep open the doors of my heart, in defiant faith and love. Anchor me against the quakes and floods, moving mountains and foaming waters. Insist that I should fear not, for God is here and God will help. Convince me that the weapons of war will not triumph, that peace will prevail. Speak to me of rivers, of gladness, of dawn. Give me refuge from the clamor of despair. On this day above all other days, urge me to be still and know that God is still God, always.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble, therefore we will not fear…
This has been a difficult week for my congregation. We have experienced the death of two beloved church members this week, as well as three unrelated deaths of family members (a mother, a father, a sister) of church leaders within the last two weeks. I have been responsible for officiating at four of the five funerals, including three in five days.
As a pastor, these difficult, exhausting times are just part of the job sometimes. It comes with the pastoral life. The middle of the night phone calls and trips to the hospital, the painful hours spent sitting with grieving families, the processing of lifetimes in writing homilies and prayers—this is the work of ministry. When the crises pile on, we get tired, but we keep putting one foot in front of the other and do the work that God has called us to do.
In my church, I am giving thanks this difficult week that I do not do this work alone. I am beyond exhausted by the sadness and heartbreak of it all, not to mention the scramble to prepare services and interrupted, sleepless nights. I have my own grief to manage as I say goodbye to people I have come to love dearly. But I am not the only one carrying this burden, or doing the work of caring for these families.
I am surrounded by so many faithful Christians who are also participating in the work of ministy to these grieving members of our community. The Women’s Fellowship has coordinated a funeral meal for four of the services. Several were very large families and groups, and they reached out to the rest of the congregation for help. I know that even as I am up late in the night writing another homily and formatting another bulletin, the church family is up late in their kitchens preparing casseroles and vegetable trays and chocolate cakes. When I arrive early to print out programs in my office, they appear just a few minutes later to start preparing the coffee and the lemonade.
During the meal, I watch them make their way to the grieving family members. I see the women who’ve lost husbands in recent years spending time with the newest widow, reassuring her that she will survive this heartbreak. I see caregivers who’ve supported each other in holding on now supporting one another in letting go. When my feet are aching and I just want to go home, I am not there alone—they are packing up the leftovers, washing the dishes, wiping the tables. We arrive together, we leave together. We grieve together, we serve together.
I am so blessed to serve in this community, where we are the church to one another. Each one of us is doing our part. I carry the pastoral load of emergency calls and funeral rites. They carry the load of food and friendship. My hours might be longer on weeks like this one, but I feel their ministry carrying mine when I am about to fall exhausted. I am so grateful.
Highlighted passage: Romans 15:4-13
This week is all about hope, a word that has endured a lot of attention in recent years. When the Obama campaign used “Hope” as its campaign theme in 2008, those who supported the campaign rallied around hope as our solution and salvation—even when the campaign never clearly defined what we were hoping for. Of course, as is natural in a political struggle, opponents of the Obama campaign attacked not only the candidate, but the campaign theme. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and others began to mock the concept of hope as a way of mocking the Obama campaign. Hope, they said, was “an excuse for not trying,” a flimsy, lazy concept that replaces the real work of improving the world.
Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, as Christians, the concept of hope remains critical to our faith. We are a people of hope. Especially in this Advent season, we talk about hope in God’s coming into our midst with love and new life and salvation in the form of a tiny baby in Bethlehem.
The kind of hope we Christians practice does not resemble the hope of politics, whether from the right or the left. It is not some vague sentiment that things will get better, that everyone will be happier, that life will be easier. The passage from Romans tells us what we are hoping for: “grant you to live in harmony with one another … that together you may with one voice glorify God.” We are hoping for unity among human beings, so that all creation might praise God with one voice.
Neither is hope an excuse for inaction or laziness, believing that things will get better without your help or involvement. It is not a wish that we toss half-heartedly into a fountain with little faith in its eventual fruition. Again from Romans: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” Hope is instructive, it shapes us and encourages us to undertake the challenging work of living in unity for the praise of God.
One of my favorite articulations of Christian hope is from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He delivered those words on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol to a foot-weary crowd at the end of a five-day march to Montgomery. They had endured great suffering and made great sacrifices for the cause of civil rights. His speech was entitled, “Our God is Marching On!” King was inspiring hope in answer to the rhetorical question, “how long?” How long must we wait for justice? Not long, he said, because God is in charge, and God will not let hate rule forever. That’s what Christian hope is.
Christian hope is the quiet, determined confidence that God’s promises will prevail, that God is in charge of the universe and God’s love will not end in failure. Christian hope is what inspires and sustains real action to help build God’s kingdom here on earth. Like praying for peace, praying with hope moves the one praying into deeper commitment to a life of love.
Ours is not an unfounded hope. It rests on a firm foundation—the legacy of God’s saving action and fulfilled promises throughout history. We hope in God for the future because we have known God’s faithfulness in the past. In Romans, Paul points to “the promises to the patriarchs.” God promised Noah that the earth would never again be destroyed, and God delivered on that promise. God promised Abraham offspring and land, and God delivered on that promise. God promised the Hebrew people deliverance from Egypt, and God delivered on that promise. God promised sustenance in the wilderness, and God delivered on that promise. God promised that Jesus would be raised from the dead, and God delivered on that promise.
We can look to the past and see God’s faithfulness because God’s promises come true over and over again. Our hope is founded in a God who acts to save us time and time again, and we therefore believe God will act to save us again now and in the future. That’s what hope is–determined confidence that the same God that answered the prayers of our ancestors will answer our prayers as well. God promised that we will have new life, and God will deliver. God promised that the end of this world will be with God, and God will deliver. God promised that peace and justice will reign, and God will deliver.
Daniel Burnham, the late 19th century architect responsible for the design of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that inspired the City Beautiful movement, said the following:
Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.
Advent reminds us of God’s biggest promises: that peace and justice will prevail, that human beings will live in unity, that new and eternal life are possible, that we will be saved from sin and destruction. It is a season for robust hope, and for letting that hope inspire big plans that provoke and inspire action now and in the future, for the future. After all, our hope rests in a great God, who fulfills promises and leads us in the path of unity, peace and justice. We worship an all-powerful, all-loving God. We need to make plans and dream dreams and set hopes that are worthy of God’s greatness. Any less than abundant hope is not worthy of the greatness of our God.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”