|Picture entitled "Ocean and Storm" shows turbulent waters under a gray but brilliantly lit sky.|
"Storm: What Am I to You?"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
September 8, 2019
Matthew 5:43-48; Job 28:20-27
That was quite an unusual storm last night for Seattle, wasn’t it? It was, in my experience, more like the Upper Midwest.
Growing up in the Dakotas, on the wide flat prairie where you could see the sunset shining under the railroad boxcars, late summer meant tornado watching season. The Upper Midwest is marked by a system of gravel roads at one-mile intervals. For hundreds of miles they rarely turn, just rolling slightly up and down. When the tornado siren blared, people were known to hop in their cars and go racing out into the countryside to drive parallel to the twisters, knowing that they’d have an exhilarating view from a mile or two away, and could usually make a turn within a minute or two to keep a safe distance. Sometimes tornadoes formed unexpectedly in the middle of the night, and families would rush to their basements to huddle in their sleeping bags, hoping the power would not go off. One summer, my brother and I were sleeping in our treehouse when such a storm came in the night. Mom and Dad came and dragged us inside. Before morning the storm had split that huge, hundred-year-old elm tree in half. A storm can be fun and exciting when kept at a distance – when there’s an escape route or place of refuge.
We can hardly imagine the devastation and despair – the grief and the loss – the ruin and death that has been experienced by Bahamians in Hurricane Dorian. Certainly, those islands have been in the path of tropical storms since long before they were inhabited by human beings. Bahamians know how to prepare and what to do. This time seems different. This time seems like there could not have been enough preparation, there could not have been enough supplies, there could not have been enough community spirit and neighborly cooperation, and once the storm was upon them, there was no escape route and no place of refuge. In a very immediate way, they had no hope. As we have been noting for many years now, the effects of climate change weigh most heavily on people who have limited resources and options – the common people. Though in a big enough storm, everyone can be swept away. The images of the Bahamas after the storm, where as much as 60% of the land surface area has been flooded, have been compared to the aftermath of war.
We wonder at the randomness of the destruction in the aftermath of the storm. Some buildings and trees are left standing. Some lives that were clearly innocent have been swept away, while some who we might wish were gone survive unscathed. Storms and other essentially “natural” phenomena invite the question of theodicy. We assert God’s unlimited goodness, power, presence, and knowledge. If all those are true, then why do these bad things happen? Especially, why do they happen to good people as well as bad people? Perhaps God is not “good” as we would define goodness. If God is all-powerful, ever-present, and all-knowing, then how can a good God allow these things to happen? The wisdom of God is beyond our understanding. And yet she – Wisdom is invariably presented as female in the Bible – is woven into the fabric of the universe. And we, human beings created in the image and likeness of God, are driven to understand. Our nature is curious – which leads me to believe that God also is curious – in addition to good, powerful, present, aware, and – most of all, fully self-giving and unconditionally loving!
The questions of theodicy – our efforts to explain evil within God’s beloved creation – have no certain answers. We must encounter and struggle with these mysteries according to our capacity and experience. This is one of those things on which we could all agree and still be wrong. But the struggle is infinitely more possible and satisfying when we struggle together than when we struggle alone. Perhaps this is part of the reason why God’s covenant people were named Israel – “struggles with God.” The ones who struggle are to be a light to the nations. We learn from their sufferings as well as their willingness to tackle the deep questions of human existence in community. Religion – from the same root as ligament – is the bound together struggle to understand, and perhaps to control, what is beyond understanding or control. In our capacity as a species made in the image and likeness of God, humanity has come to understand and control more and more about the universe. Perhaps this is why religion seems to be waning as a valued aspect of human endeavor.
Primal peoples understood that we need each other to survive. Storms, both meteorological and metaphorical, underscore our mutual need of community. They cast our relationships into high relief. They motivate us to work together and draw on our best nature. They cause us to question God’s role and our role as neighbors in suffering – whether attributable to “natural” or “human” causes – or both, like the increasing power of tropical storms exacerbated by human activity. We want to know why, and if we have been taught to believe in God, we are likely to raise an intercession to or shake a fist at God – both of which are legitimate, precedented activities of God’s people throughout history. Yes, we see the unmitigated power and beauty of God in the storm, and we sometimes say, “God, haven’t you taken it a little too far this time?” or “How could you let this happen?”
Blogger James R. Cowles writes, “One of the reasons apocalyptic literature was so popular during times of political and cultural upheaval, for example, the late first century CE, was because the oppressed people, for instance, Christians during that time, were expecting God to intervene in human history to bring about the downfall of the oppressors like the Romans and, bypassing “normal” history, thereby to effect radical change. Sometimes the oppressors were the Egyptians; sometimes the Ptolemaic dynasty; other times, the Romans…. Each such period generates its own apocalyptic literature, like the Book of Revelation, … and each such period is a reaction against the apparent passivity and inaction of God – even the failure of God – to act on behalf of justice for the oppressed.”[i] Today our apocalypses are portrayed as zombies piling up at security walls or great mysterious powerful substances collected inexorably into malevolent hands. And when God – in her Wisdom – does not act, we take matters into our own hands or place them in the hands of a strong man, whose rhetoric and motivation may be suspect, but who claims to protect our privilege at all cost.
We can never know Divine Wisdom – though this passage from Job gives us a hint of hope. Listen again:
Then where does one find wisdom?
Where is the place of understanding?
It is hidden from the eyes of the living;
it is hidden from the birds of the air.
Ruin and Death say,
“Only a rumor of it has reached our ears.”
only God knows how to get there;
for God is where it is.
For the Most High looks to the ends of the earth,
and sees everything under heaven all at once.
Simply because we can never know Divine Wisdom does not mean we should abandon the search for its human counterpart. In fact, human wisdom may be infinitely more valuable than human understanding and human control. Human wisdom, as the poet of Job tells us, comes from the experience of ruin and death. In other words, through grief and loss, we might hear a whisper of wisdom through the storm. Wisdom is not the storm itself, but can be heard in the silence that is always underlying the earthquakes and winds. Suffering is the midwife of compassion. Jesus tells us that God is with us and we are together in both the sunshine and the rain – both the flourishing and the misery of human existence. “Looking honestly at a broken world and resolving to live in hope anyway requires experience.”[ii] writes Alaina Kleinbeck, director of the Thriving in Ministry Program at Duke Divinity. Increasingly we look to young people for hope in our world – for the promise of some future in which the Apocalypse of John says “The Most High will wipe away every tear from their eyes. And death, mourning, crying, and pain will be no more, for the old order has fallen.” Kleinbeck also notes that many young people have given up on hope, “have become uninterested in talking about joy and hope. [They say] there is too much despair and brokenness; it is just too hard to try to hope. For some, hope in the face of oppression and evil seems like foolhardy denial that is profoundly useless.”[iii]
Those of you that have lived longer, harder lives know better. You know that hope is not the same as baseless optimism. Hope is not a denial or dismissal of injustice, oppression, and suffering. Hope is the trust that though we have a role in these evils, we also have a role in overcoming them, reversing them, and persevering through them – a hope that is grounded in the new life that is promised by the grace of God. Kleinbeck continues, “Hope is choosing to live the resurrection in the face of death. This kind of living feels like an incarnate algebraic equation in which the complicated variables are always in flux, growing and shrinking and vanishing and reappearing. Those of us who resolve to hope must regularly recalibrate our hopefulness to the reality around us and inside us. Hope demands honest confrontation of injustice, pain, and suffering. It does not wallow but rather works to change the story. In contrast, fear and despair reinforce stories of anxiety, scarcity, and the immutability of the present circumstances.
“This resolve to sing anyway, to live the resurrection in the face of death – to hope – does not come easily. And keeping this resolve – to hope and not to fear – requires life experience. So, whatever my former assumptions, I now realize it’s profoundly unfair to rely upon young people for examples of hope. They are only just beginning to see why “hope” is not a euphemism for “denial.” We need our elders to tell us their stories of hope. They can talk about overcoming incredible adversity – the miraculous escape from a warring land, provision in a time of shortage and scarcity, faithfulness in the face of betrayal, escape from abuse, neighborly kindness in a time of need, open doors and shared resources, peace where there was violence.”[iv]
Beloved, when the storm rages, when it begs the question, “What are you, mortal, to me?” we are called to engage in the human facsimile of Divine Wisdom to say, “I do not deny the storms of injustice, oppression, and suffering. I have weathered them. With God’s help, they have passed through me and over me and around me. In my own suffering and survival, as I have encountered ruin and death, I have learned of the suffering and survival of others, and have given birth to compassion.”
Beloved, find someone younger in your life and love them into hope, feed them on the wisdom of compassion, shelter them in the trust of God’s strength and presence and power. Find one young person and shower them with sunshine and rain. And weather the storm together.
[i] Cowles, James R. “Jazz as My Cure for Monotheism” Beguine Again, September 6, 2019 [https://beguineagain.com/jazz-as-my-cure-for-monotheism/].
[ii] Kleinbeck, Alaina. “Hope Takes Hard Work” Faith and Leadership, Leadership Education at Duke University, September 6, 2019 [https://faithandleadership.com/alaina-kleinbeck-hope-takes-hard-work?utm_source=albanweekly&utm_medium=content&utm_campaign=faithleadership].