Monday, November 12, 2012

Of Storms and Saints

 Revelation 21:1-6a

            It ought never to be true of the Church that we live in a bubble, unfazed by what is going on in the world around us.  I cannot imagine that there is anyone here today that has not in some way been touched by the effects of Superstorm Sandy.  And yet I can well imagine that we could put all that aside and concentrate on All Saints, our glorious litany, our marvelous sacraments of baptism and eucharist with not so much as a word about Sandy.

            Tragically, the Church sometimes goes to the other extreme.  We are so overcome with the scale of human tragedy in such experiences as 9/11, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and various catastrophes (wars come to mind), that frequently we stop everything to address the concerns that arise out of those crises.  Because we often fail to connect what is happening in the outer world and what we are focusing on and celebrating in church, people rightly get the idea that what gets us worked up in church is really not terribly relevant to life’s real concerns.

            There really is a connection between the devastation of a storm like Sandy and what we are celebrating on the Feast of All Saints.  In fact there is more than one connection—indeed a whole string of connections. 


            Most obviously, there is a connection called suffering.  The much misunderstood and misappropriated Book of Revelation assumes that the Christian community will continue to undergo great suffering.  Most scholars believe that Revelation indeed was written during one of the waves of persecution when the Early Church was threatened to the point of possible annihilation in some places.  Surely it is clearly written to encourage perseverance during times of great duress.  

            Most of the time, in my experience, we miss this element of All Saints.  If we are paying attention, we might hear the phrase, “these are they who have come out of the great tribulation.  They have made their robes white in the blood of the Lamb.”  That passage is not even read today, though it sometimes makes it into the All Saints celebration.  It refers, of course, to the host of martyrs that have given their lives because they clung steadfastly to their faith in Christ Jesus.  Some of them we remember[ed[] in the Litany [that we frequently use to begin][that began] the Liturgy [on All Saints] [this morning].   Names like Jawani Luwum, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero bring not only themselves to mind but scores of others who have similarly died for their faith.    

            Not all suffering, of course, is martyrdom, and not all suffering arises from persecution.  Indeed not all people of faith suffer for their faith, and not all who suffer are people of faith.  Yet the deep bond between suffering and faith abides because few things help us to get through suffering, to endure it, and possibly even to transform it more than faith.  You know this.  And you particularly know it if you have hung around the Christian community for very long.  Prayers and hymns remind us of it continually.  Collects in the Book of Common Prayer resound with phrases like, “suffer patiently for the truth’s sake,” “…those who, following the example of their Savior, laid down their lives for their friends…,” “proclaim Christ in suffering and joy alike,” “who, in a time of plague and pestilence, were steadfast in their care for the sick and dying, and loved not their own lives, even unto death….”  Who has not dwelt on the words of Negro spirituals, songs of exhortation that have kept people hoping and living during impossibly difficult times?  A host of hymns and spiritual songs attest to the strength of faith to pull us through with words like, “…who trusts in God’s unchanging love builds on a rock that naught can move,” and  “why should I feel discouraged,…when Jesus is my portion?” 

            An event like Hurricane Sandy exposes our weaknesses.  Suddenly people realize they should never have built houses on barrier islands.  We quickly learn that the things we are so dependent on—electricity and all that it makes possible, like cell phone service, internet communication, transportation, food distribution, potable water supplies—may disappear within minutes.  Nature wallops us.  Rain and wind can completely tear up the most stable infrastructure in a couple of hours.  Life is wrecked.  Life is lost.  We have seen it time and again in the last year or so.  Haiti, New Zealand, Japan, and just last week the Philippines have endured major earthquakes.  Many people seem to have the idea that suffering is something that should not happen in the world.  Inadequate and primitive theology tries to assign blame, on the theory that God directly wills such disasters (though one would imagine that God would have better aim than is apparently the case).  Blame, shmame.  We are quite lucky if we don’t get clobbered by one thing or another.  And suffer we shall.

            We have to be careful when talking about suffering.  It is easy to lump all suffering together and speak of it as if it is all of one kind.  It is not.  Some things are clearly worse than others.  But what is true for all the saints and martyrs, as well as for the shopkeeper with rotting food in New York City last week, is that suffering is the only thing capable of cracking our persistent fantasy of being self-sufficient.  Suffering, even a little bit of it, takes us down a buttonhole or two.  Intense suffering makes us realize just how vulnerable we are.  Prolonged suffering will either make us find our inner strength or drive us to despair.


            That brings us to a second connection.  There is an answer to suffering, but it is not an answer to the question of why we suffer.  The answer is to place suffering in the larger context of the relationship of God and the world, and specifically the relationship of God and human beings.  The name I give to the nature of God in relationship with the world and us is “Providence.”  God provides.  God is a present reality in every situation, from the least to the most significant, in which we find ourselves.  That is vastly different from saying that God plans or wills the stuff that happens to us.  But there is no place we can go where God is not, and nothing that can happen to us that can seal us off from God’s caring presence.  That is a basic truth that you can rely on.  And how do you know it is true?  Because the divine reality—God—lives in you whoever you are and wherever you go.  It is not that God must come to you to help or save you.  God is already in, with, under, over, beside, in front of and behind you, nearer than the air you breathe.  The provident, caring God is in it with you.  If anything makes a saint, it is knowing that truth and wearing it daily, like an old, comfortable pair of shoes.  Knowing it and living it, day after day, until it becomes like an old wristwatch, if you are still familiar with such a thing:  something that you keep noticing and depending on throughout the day, unconscious or dimly conscious of just how much it is a part of you, and something that you miss the moment you take it off, never having guessed how much attention you really paid to it.  That is the way it is with God’s Providence.

            I’ll never forget the night I was in the shower in my college dorm and heard the awful sound of crunching, dragging metal, a collision, as it turned out, of a train barreling down the RF&P tracks through Ashland, Virginia, with the automobile of two first-year students.  The college chapel was packed for the funeral of the one who was killed.  I don’t know who the homilist was that day, but I’ll never forget his message. The death of Henry, he said, was tragic, senseless, and totally unnecessary.  But even in the midst of tragic, senseless, and unnecessary events, the holy God is walking, stirring, bringing about forgiveness and redemption and healing, giving birth and nurturing us.  Such is the provident God. 


            And so we come to hope, a third connection.  This week a plethora of stories has come in the wake of Sandy attesting to selflessness, sharing, sacrifice, deliverance.  People wonder aloud why it takes a disaster to bring us together.  Wonder we may, but that is what disasters do—always have, always will.  In her recent book A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit writes

Disaster requires an ability to embrace contradiction in both the minds of those undergoing it and those trying to understand it from afar.  In each disaster, there is suffering, there are psychic scars that will be felt most when the emergency is over.  There are deaths and losses.  Satisfactions, newborn social bonds, and liberations are often also profound.  Of course one factor in the gap between the usual accounts of disaster and the actual experience is that those accounts focus on the small percentage of people who are wounded, killed, orphaned, and otherwise devastated, often in the epicenter of the disaster, along with the officials involved.  Surrounding them, often in the same city and neighborhood, is a periphery of many  more who are largely undamaged but profoundly disrupted, and it is the disruptive power of disaster that matters here, the ability of disasters to topple old orders and open new possibilities.  This broader effect is what disaster does to society. In the moment of disaster, the old order no longer exists, and people improvise rescues, shelters, and communities.  Thereafter, a struggle takes place over whether the old order with all its shortcomings and injustices will be reimposed, or a new one, perhaps more oppressive and perhaps more just and free, like the disaster utopia, will arise.[1]

            I don’t know that it can be said of all the saints that they consciously held the hope of a new heaven and a new earth; but I do know that the Christian hope is profoundly anchored in the belief that we are on our way with Christ to a more just society.  Some have always imagined that to be another world after this one.  Others have imagined it as a possibility in this world.  The verdict is still out on that one.  Perhaps it is both.  But the saints in the Book of Revelation hold palm branches in their hands because they are victorious.  They know that their victory is not something that was planned and executed by smart generals in culture wars, but rather a victory that came when the Lamb of God moved heaven and earth to bring humanity into community with God.  There is no more mourning or crying or pain any more, nor death, because the one seated on the throne is making all things new.  That is the hope that sustains the saints.  Ironically it is also the hope that something will arise from each new disaster, pushing us towards a new heaven and a new earth, not least a combination of both right here in this life. 

            The home of God is with mortals.  God is dwelling with us.  The Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  Though they may lose everything, the saints will dwell secure; for all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. [2]

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012

[1] Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell:  The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (New York:  Penguin Books, 2010), 15-16. 
[2] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (Amazon:  Kindle ed.), Chapter xxvii.92.

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