It is common to speak of life as a journey. Children climb aboard school buses for the first time. Parents taken their children to college. Men and women cross borders in search of work or safety. An older person enters a retirement community. Life is a journey.
In this life's journey we know that we age, we learn new things, we move around, from place to place. People come into our lives, they change us. Maybe we marry or become parents. People also leave us, and there are voids. Some relationships fill us with joy, others leave us diminished. Some are the cause of praise, others lamentation. We sometimes ask why bad things happen to good people. And we sometimes wonder why good things happen to bad people!
Life is a journey. It's also common for Christians to speak of life as a spiritual journey. Many of us assume that if we trust God, if we make the decision to follow Jesus, it will be easy, but often it is just the opposite. We do remember the language in the gospels about taking up the cross and carrying it, or dying to self, but we have rationalized that we were intelligent enough or shielded enough or sophisticated enough to avoid all of that. We thought we were in control.
In Luke's remembrance of Paul's missionary work, he describes the experience of sailing from one destination to another. They set sail, and soon discover that they are driven by the winds. To express it another way, they come to understand that they are not in control. The sailing is difficult and at times slow (read Acts 27). Then it gets worse. The winds begin to blow, and the ship is battered by the storm.
Five years ago next weekend our nation was battered by storms on the gulf coast, from Texas to Alabama. Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans and a number of displaced persons were transported all over the United States.
I remember meeting some of the Katrina refugees. As the waters rose they had gone from their homes to the Superdome to a bridge to an airplane and had been flown to some unknown destination which turned out to be Charlotte. They ended up at the Coliseum, which has since been demolished. On the day the coliseum was taken down, to make way for a new National Basketball Association arena---and here another editorial, about our misplaced priorities must await another day--- my own sadness was not that I had seen the Hornets play there, which I had; it was the day I spent in the presence of the men and women who had made their way through the storm and had survived.
I remember listening to some of the men and women trying to make sense of what had happened. Some blamed God. Some said God had cleansed the area and needed to. Some were speechless. I remember the nine families whom our church helped during the following months, all of them different. I remember that our church hall was filled with furniture and clothing. I remember the meal we shared with them on Thanksgiving Day. The church, instinctively in that moment, became a shelter in the storm.
The church has always taken in those battered by the storm. If it is a holy place it is a safe place, a sanctuary. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic, expressed it this way:
"I saw a river over which every soul must pass to reach the kingdom of heaven and the name of that river was 'suffering'...And then I saw a boat which carries souls across the river and the name of that boat was 'love.'"
One of the earliest images for the church in the first centuries was a ship, an ark, taking us back to the story of Noah. The church was God's instrument of salvation, the means by which we pass safely through the storms to the shore, the shore being eternal life and heaven. At its best, the church is a community of salvation, a safe place. The tragic reality is that church is not always a safe place-we think most visibly of children abused in church settings, sometimes by religious leaders. And yet the church at its best provides a shelter from the storm. In this way it can fulfill a critical need for those who are most distressed.
Two years ago this fall one of our adult classes had planned a retreat at the beach. It happened that the stock market dropped 777 points in one day earlier in that week. We live in a banking community where financial institutions were changed forever. Retirement funds and employment plans were threatened. About eighty people had signed up for the retreat, and about eighty showed up. It had been a disorienting week. A friend e-mailed me a picture of graph of the stock market with a line going lower and lower, and the image was one of sinking. As we gathered, it felt very much like a group of people who had been battered by the storm.
How did we make it through? It helped to be together, it was God's grace that we had planned to be together and not alone, and that has always been one of the great gifts of the church: we do not make this journey as solitary individuals, we follow the signs of those who have gone before us, we draw strength from those who travel with us, we set out on the adventure because it is something of a calling.
In a difficult time, we need each other and we need God. I think of the Irish Fisherman's Prayer: "Dear Lord, be good to me. The sea is so wide, and my boat is so small."
I remembered, in the midst of these experiences, a devotional given in some context; I cannot recall where or by whom. The simple thought was this: storms are always relevant to us in one of three ways:
- We are coming out of a storm.
- We are in one.
- We are going into one.
In this life's journey, some of us are putting out to sea. There is some apprehension, some uncertainty, some risk, and also some excitement. Some of us are sailing, but it is not going according to plan. We are out of control, or lost, or wondering if we are going to make it. Some of us have no control over the external environment in which we live, but we have heard the calming voice, assuring us that all will be well, and we have tasted, again and again, the daily bread for which we pray every week. We know that God provides. Some of us have passed through the storm, "grace has brought us safe thus far and grace will lead us home." And it has been grace, the grace of being in the boat, the grace of finding community or church, the grace of friendship or a guide, or, simply, the grace of the Lord Jesus, who calms the storms, who is the peace that surpasses understanding, the hope of all who seek and the help of all who find. Or simply the grace of surviving.
And some of us can watch and wait and work on behalf of those still passing through these storms---natural and economic, spiritual and psychological. The good news is that there is shelter from the storm. God is with us.