“Terror holds me in its grip,” the psalmist wrote, “trembling seizes me. If I had wings like a dove, I would fly far away and rest, fly away to the quiet of the wilderness to escape the raging storm” (Ps. 55:6-9 icel alt.). Am I the only one who ever thinks of running away from the storms of life? The shootings in Charleston last week reminded me that the little storms of my little life don’t amount to a hill of beans next to the storms that batter the world in which I live, in which we all live, and I know there’s no running away from that, no shelter from that gale. Maybe if I pay closer attention to it, the storm will teach me something.
I began by thinking about the chronic personal chaos of a task list overloaded with things clamoring for attention at home and at work: so much clutter to clear, so many books to read, so many household jobs and church projects to complete. There’s the disruption and chaos following Sheryl’s mother breaking her hip, and the concern over how much that will change her life and ours. There’s the concern about planning for retirement and the wondering what kind of chaos that change in weather will add to our lives. Once in a while Sheryl and I will look at each other, and one of us will say, mostly but not entirely in jest, “Can we run away yet?”
Then came Wednesday night and the offense once again of the seething, fragmenting, alienating storm of racism in this country that’s always only a breath away from violent eruption, and the white privilege that goes with it and that we so routinely deny. And the little chaos of my little life seemed so petty, like a passing summer shower next to the hurricane that threatens to overwhelm us. And sometimes in my darker moments I think it just might overwhelm and sink us eventually.
Jon Stewart said on his show Thursday night that he had nothing to offer “other than just sadness once again that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal yet we pretend doesn’t exist.” And he expressed his confidence – rightly, I think – that in a week or two, after the shock subsides, we will return to life as usual and do nothing about it.
And the church in which we seek shelter to ride out the storm is foundering, so say the headlines, at least many of its mainstream denominations and congregations in Europe and North America. Buffeted by the storm of change and of the surrounding depravity, we seem at risk of sinking, they say, and I sometimes partly believe it.
The headlines ought to catch anyone’s attention. Some are projecting that if the trend continues, the Anglican Church will disappear from Britain in barely more than fifteen years from now, and in fifty years the number of Christians of any kind there could be statistically insignificant.1
There has been plenty of news about the decline in the number of church members in the U.S. and the increase in the number of people who claim to have no religious affiliation, a trend that has continued since the 1950s. Now we find, according to a new Gallup survey, that “Americans have less confidence in organized religion than ever measured before – a sign that the church could be ‘losing its footing as a pillar of moral leadership in the nation’s culture.’”2 I’m not sure I have anything more than Jon Stewart to offer today.
What do I say in the face of such a storm as this? What do I say today to the candidates for ministry for whom I am a mentor? What do I say to confirmation classes? What do I say to church members who seek to ride out the storm in the safety of the church, myself included, only to have the timbers of that little boat shivered in the blow? What can I shout into the storm that won’t be lost in the roar of wind and waves? – “Wake up, Christ! Don’t you care that we’re perishing here? Won’t you get up and take control and calm the storm before we’re lost?”
Do you know: Jesus – God-with-us, God’s incarnation, God’s intimate, abiding, life-giving, transforming presence with us – was up, and out front, calling and training and sending disciples, and healing people, and giving birth to new life, and ushering in the perfect reign of God, and offering the perfect sacrifice for us, less than ten percent of his life, maybe only about three percent, depending on whose account you read.
For thirty years, for at least ninety percent of his life among us, Jesus was hidden from sight. He was hidden away in an obscure little village on the wrong side of the tracks, until he stepped out of the shadows and announced to the world that the life they dreamed about was already theirs, hidden in the ordinary, like he was, so that almost nobody could see it.
The story about Jesus being caught with his disciples in a foundering boat on a storm-tossed lake (Mark 4:35-41), someone said, is not a story about his ability to control the weather and calm the storm, something he appeared to do only grudgingly, annoyed that his disciples even asked him to do it. Rather, it’s a story
“about how little we believe God to be with us in the midst of an overwhelming storm. It’s about how, deep down, maybe we don’t really believe that a God-with-us is actually enough. It’s about how what we really want is a God who is in control. And it is an indictment of the disciples and of us. ¶ I don’t really think the miracle in this story is about Jesus calming the storm and taking control. The miracle in this story is that Jesus was with the disciples in the water-logged and weather-beaten boat, experiencing the same terrible storm, the same terrible waves, the same terrible danger. ¶ And that alone should have been enough.”3
My yearning to fly away from the storm to somewhere else, to a land of milk and honey, to a place of green pastures and still water, to the perfect life that will one day be, is a yearning to fly away from the very place where God has come to live, where God has chosen to be unfailingly present with us, where God has chosen to be immanent and self-revealing. The terrible thing of it is: To fly away from the storms of life would be to fly away from the only place where God is to be found.
notes — 1. Damian Thompson, “2067: the end of British Christianity,} The Spectator, 13 June 2015. ▪ 2. Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Americans’ confidence in religion hits a new low,” Religion News Service, 17 June 2015. ▪ 3. David R. Henson, “When God Sleeps through Storms,” 15 June 2015, textweek.com.