At the end of their long captivity in Babylon, God promised joy and blessings to the house of Israel and its descendants, descendants that include you and me (Isa. 66:10-14). But what if that house is built upon foundations that crumble? If the foundations are destroyed, what can the good do? The question is as old as a 3,000-year-old psalm (Psalm 11:3) and as contemporary as today’s Op Ed page. If all the perspectives and assumptions and beliefs upon which our life is based are destroyed, what can we do?
No one needs to tell you our foundations are badly shaken. From the shifting balance of power in the world, to our self-made global climate crisis, to the seismic stresses in our republic and our political systems at home, to the social changes remaking the way we live in community with each other, to the decline of the mainstream church’s public credibility and influence, to the uncertainty of how the church will continue to be the church tomorrow, anyone with eyes to see recognizes this is not the world we knew less than a generation ago.
Our situation is not the end of the story, of course. There’s more to come. But it may very well be, as the saying goes, the beginning of the end of the life we have known. Every moment has the potential of being that. No, it’s not the end of the story, but it is a dark passage, beyond which no one can see. Our experience is like the Exodus experience of Israel’s passage from slavery through the sea to freedom, which the psalmist described with images of deluge, lightning, thunder, whirlwind, and earthquake, like the wild chaos that existed before the foundations of creation were laid. So when those foundations are shaken and at risk of collapsing, what can the good do?
I don’t have a program of response to lay out for you, no specific steps that will buttress our foundation and put life back in order. I do have a trust that whatever we do cannot be as simple as returning to some old-time religion or to the social norms and political program of a previous generation. I do believe whatever we do needs to be inventive, imaginative, creative, and full of the best energy and commitment we can muster together.
And I believe these days call for a deep renewal of our faith – not some previous generation’s particular expression of faith but a deep, original trust in the God whose presence we may not see. We need the faith of the psalmist, who, following his people’s dark Exodus passage, wrote of God, “Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen” (Ps. 77:19). We need the faith that prompted William Bathurst to plead in an old hymn,
“O for a faith that will not shrink,
Though pressed by every foe,
That will not tremble on the brink
Of any earthly woe! . . .
“A faith that shines more bright and clear
When tempests rage without;
That when in danger knows no fear,
In darkness feels no doubt.”
We need the kind of faith E.B. White expressed fifty years ago when someone wrote to him lamenting that he had lost faith in humanity. White took it upon himself to boost the man’s sunken heart with a short but beautiful reply. His letter is a spectacular celebration of the human spirit and pretty good advice to us when we deal with our own dark times. Here’s part of what he wrote.
“As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.
“Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society – things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a [terrible] mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. [Our] curiosity, [our] relentlessness, [our] inventiveness, [our] ingenuity have led [us] into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable [us] to claw [our] way out.
“Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”
For me, it’s not winding the clock but driving the truck that describes the faith that gets me through hard times. When my previous marriage failed, I hardly knew what to do. All I knew was that the life I had known had ended, the location but not the details of where the next chapter would begin, and that I had to get myself from Buffalo to Vermont to pick up the story. So I loaded a rental truck with everything I owned, hitched up my car, and headed toward an unknown future. I had no idea what the future would hold or how I would manage to meet it. All I knew was that I had to drive the truck to get there.
Along the Thruway I drove, thinking about what I had lost and not able to imagine what might be next, mile after mile of just driving the truck. I detoured through the Adirondacks to pick up some things from a small camp I had sold near Saranac Lake, then on to Elizabethtown and east, surrounded by mountains and forest and dark, foreboding skies, almost never seeing more than the next mile ahead, all the time just driving the truck.
Then I crested the hill just west of Essex and looked across Lake Champlain to Vermont and the Green Mountains. The sky was as blue and clear as it comes, with a scattering of small, early-summer cumulus clouds over the valley, and I swear I felt like Moses must have felt standing atop Mount Nebo looking across to the promised land. My dark passage had ended, and I knew I had come home. At the beginning of my trip three hundred fifty miles and two days earlier, I could not have predicted what I would experience at Essex that day. All I knew was that my task was to drive the truck until the trip was over. Just keep driving the truck.
I don’t know how these tough times will end, and I don’t know how life will look on the other side. All I know is that it’s important to do the simple, everyday things with as much order and attention and care – and, yes, love – as we have to offer, things like winding the clock. And we need to just keep driving the truck until we crest that hill and see what new thing God spreads before us.