For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘hope

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.

 –Psalm 46

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.

The Boston skyline, our church between those two tallest buildings.

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…

Painting entitled "Very Bad News" by Pol Lent, from fineartamerica.com

Hello. This is Pastor Jennifer. I’m calling because I have some news I need to share with you.

At least once a week I make a telephone call that starts out that way.

Jane is in the hospital…

Joe has moved to hospice care…

Ann took a bad fall…

Sometimes I get to call with good news.

Sarah had her baby last night…

The church just received a bequest…

John has been declared cancer-free…

Then there are the hardest calls of all.

He died last night. After such a long illness, there is peace. But I know you will miss your lifelong friend.

She was rushed to the hospital, but they could not revive her and she died. We’re all in shock. There are no words. I’m so sorry.

Painting entitled "The Arrival of Good News" by Fabio Napolean, from fineartsamerica.com. (Found this after writing the post. Perfect match.)

Bearing news, whether good or bad, is a weighty responsibility. I carry the news in my body, in my mind, until I am able to share it with all the people who need to carry it as well. Good news is a helium balloon. I have to hold tight so it doesn’t fly away too quickly. Bad news is a load of bricks.  The more painful it is, the heavier it feels to carry. Tragedy is measured in tons, not ounces. Sometimes I wish I did not have to burden others with it.  When people answer the telephone, innocent and unaware of the reason for my call, I know that what I am about to tell them will change the course of their day, sometimes their lives. I will never forget the times I have helped bear news to young children that a parent has died.

I did not realize, before I became a pastor, how often I would be a messenger bearing news for the community. And yet it is fitting. I entered the ministry because I wanted to bear news—Gospel (which mean good news), the message that God loves us and abides with us in all things. When I make a call bearing news of life and death in this world, I do not bear only that news. I hope I am also always carrying, and delivering, the good news of God, who loves us, heals us, forgives us, saves us and walks with us in the shadow of death. In all things, I hope to bear God’s good news that can overcome fear and drive away despair.

Maybe I should just pick up the phone and start calling people to share that news.

Hello. This is Pastor Jennifer. I’m calling because I have some news I need to share with you. God loves you…

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.”

 

Emotional Reunion of Rescued Miner (Photo from cnn.com)

 

I have been captivated by the story of the trapped Chilean miners. I cried when I read about the note reaching the surface 17 days after the collapse of the mine, announcing all 33 were alive and unhurt. I cried again when I read that rescue might not come until Christmas. I rejoiced when the drill broke through, and rescue came early. I am crying again today at the beautiful sight of each one emerging safe and whole into the arms of his family.

The courage, faith and endurance of these men witness to the power and triumph of the human spirit. It is the kind of story that should be told and retold for generations as a testimony to hope and survival. I believe that what it means to be human is to possess these kinds of stories and understand our life through them.

 

Capsule Cam capturing the view from the miner's perspective riding up in the rescue capsule.

 

However, I do want to raise a cautionary query. As I have watched this drama unfold, I have been attentive to staging. This story has been presented to the world as though it were not unfolding before us, but as though it were almost already packaged for television and movies. Just today, as I watch the rescue, we are treated to a camera in the mine to capture the send-off from the other trapped miners, a camera in the rescue capsule that shows exactly what the miner is seeing in transit, along with multiple surface cameras to capture the emotions of the waiting families, the work and determination and encouragement of rescue workers and (of course) the presence and involvement of the Chilean president. Each of these cameras has been positioned with a Hollywood director’s care. Someone is directing this show.

 

Trapped Miners

 

The same has been true of the daily briefings and reporting throughout the ordeal. The way that each of the miners has been given a character and identity (the pastor, the musician, the medic, the MacGyver-like mechanic) mimics Hollywood portrayals of disaster and war stories, where nameless and indistinguishable soldiers take on unique archetypal identities. Each day, we get small bits of news unique to each miner, which have obviously been carefully crafted to portray them as courageous, strong and hopeful. This reporting is thanks to the work of three miners, who have been given cameras and sound equipment. One is the official cameraman, the other two are sound engineers. Another miner has been officially named the group poet, writing daily verse about their ordeal and praising rescue workers. (Excellent article here about daily life in the mine.)

Someone is crafting this story, and has been since the very beginning. The narrative of the rescue workers has been meticulously edited to avoid news of major mistakes, and no one is even talking about what caused the collapse in the first place. Here in the U.S., we are always searching first and foremost for someone to blame. This story is all about the hope and courage and ingenuity of the Chilean people.

 

President Sebastian Pinera with the initial note from the miners, holding it up for the cameras.

 

The lead hero of the story is Chilean president Sebastian Pinera. He has been at the forefront of every briefing, and taken the privilege of announcing every breakthrough. Today, as the miners are rescued one by one in that tiny capsule, he stands at the side of the families, second in line to embrace each one—right before the cameras. Having watched him throughout this media moment, I believe he or one of his closest advisors is responsible for the attention to media direction. He or someone close to him foresaw the captivating nature of the story (and, I add, without cynicism,) the political opportunity for Pinera to become a hero by connecting to the miners.

Here’s my ultimate question, however: is this a problem? Does it matter? We could have been exposed to every bit of the mass information and daily doldrums of this 68-day ordeal, or we could have been exposed to very little—just a pool camera at the rescue site. We could have received this information via a raw feed, or carefully orchestrated for dramatic effect. What difference would that make, ethically? Is there a requirement that we receive raw information? What amount of crafting and spin on a story like this one renders it inauthentic or unjust?

 

Picture-Perfect Moment

 

As a professional storyteller (aka preacher), I spend my time every week reading the Bible and trying to figure out how to craft and spin and retell it for dramatic effect, so that it moves the hearts of the listeners and opens them to the Holy Spirit. The Chilean president and his advisors have done the same thing here, except they are attempting to provoke national pride and honor instead of spiritual awakening. We both know that there is a difference between a great story and a great story told by a great storyteller. Is the story any less true because it has been carefully manipulated and told for maximum impact? Or is it an even better story that way?

Stories like that of the Chilean miners captivate us because they are great human stories, in the same way that great human stories of courage and hope have captivated us throughout human history. I praise God today for their rescue, and pray for their healing and peaceful reintegration into their families. And I also ponder these questions about their story and how it is being told. How much has my relationship and emotional response to this story been crafted and directed by storytellers? And how much does that matter? What do you think?

This is my favorite passage in all of American literature—and probably world literature, excluding scripture:

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing, until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams locked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. They then act and do things accordingly.

These are the opening lines of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

If you’ve never read this book, please do. It’s my favorite novel of all time, and one of the few books I read over and over again. I was reminded of it again last night after enjoying the American Masters episode about Zora Neale Hurston on PBS.

What I love about this passage is the proclamation that “the dream is the truth.” What a holy pronouncement! My images of the dream come mostly from scripture:

  • “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2)
  • “you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58)
  • “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away” (Luke 1, Mary’s Magnificat)
  • “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a flowing stream” (Amos 5)
  • “Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Revelation 21)

But I also think of images from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning if its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal.”

Whatever image we set out as the dream, that is the truth, says Zora. Now act and do accordingly. It reminds me of the old saying among radicals, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If the dream is justice, live justice. If the dream is equality, live with all as equal brothers and sisters. If the dream is peace, live peace. If the dream is an end to poverty, live your life against poverty. Because that is the Truth.

In Christianity, we use the term “Word,” capital “W”, to refer to God, with the understanding that God’s word, God’s speech, is so powerful that it is Word, an entity unto itself with a force that can call worlds into being and bring flesh to life and animate the world. I think we could contemplate Word as synonymous with Truth, as Zora Neale Hurston uses it. The dream is the Truth–the promise of God is the Word of God. It is a force that can and will make things happen. The dream is not some fuzzy notion, hardly visible at the edge of sleep. Nor is it a hastily-scribbled IOU for the future. The dream is the truth—hard and fast, secure and tangible, as real as mud.

We who know this act and do things accordingly.

Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott, Riverhead Books, 2007.

I love you, Anne Lamott. You open yourself and your life to us, wringing beauty and grace out of the confused and pathetic pile of feelings and mistakes and heartache that is this life. You make me want to be a more careful writer, a more mindful observer, a more generous friend, and a better person. Thank you for opening up your own brokenness so the rest of us don’t feel so alone and ashamed, and rendering beautiful the mess of it all.

The parts of this book about grace were a gift to me. I don’t know how you make yourself so vulnerable. It takes great courage to expose your inward panic and problems–but that vulnerability in life makes God’s grace possible, and the corresponding vulnerability on the page makes you and your writing a means of grace for me, your reader.

I was especially struck this time, this book, by the parts about motherhood. You capture the desperate floundering about that I feel in my own parenting, as well as the absolute joy and delight in my son’s life and discoveries. You give voice to my feelings of helplessness and worry over his well-being and my own, and your words were a beacon of grace to me. You made me feel like I’m not crazy. Or, better, that I am probably crazy, but at least I’m not the only one.

Thank you for the grace that flows through this book.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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  • Graham: Thank you for writing about Susan Howatch. I like it that she is described as a mesmerising story-teller on front of book, and I do agree. I had long
  • revjmk: Tammy, I'm not sure the "he" you are referring to here (Willimon, Hauerwas or me--who goes by the pronoun "she"). I'm also not sure why you think th
  • Tammy Sanders: Has no one noticed he has the 10 commandments wrong. 1. You shall have no other Gods before me. 2. You shall make no images. 3. Don’t take th

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