Sunday, June 24, 2018

Phil Kniss: Give me little time to pray

“Where God is in the Storm”
Mark 4:35-41; Job 38:1-11

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About five years ago Cantore—
the men’s acappella group I sing with—
decided to go on tour to Mississippi and Louisiana,
specifically to coastal areas most impacted by Hurricane Katrina.

We sang among Mennonites in Gulfport, MS and a few other spots.
And we sang among African-American Baptists in New Orleans,
including in the Ninth Ward,
including with Park View’s sister congregation,
Christian Baptist Church.

One of the songs in our repertoire that year,
before we ever thought of going to sing to Katrina victims,
was the old African-American spiritual called,
“Been in the storm.”

The plaintive lyrics consist of a continuous, unadorned lament,
from beginning to end.
It does not resolve with a declaration of praise, like
“Thank you, God, because I know you’re going to
make it all work out good in the end.”

No, here are the exact words we sang to these brothers and sisters of ours,
many of whom had still not found the resources
to rebuild their own homes,
8 years after the storm did its deathly deeds.

We sang,
I been in the storm so long,
I been in the storm so long, children
I been in the storm so long,
O, give me little time to pray.

O let me tell you brother how I come along,
O give me little time to pray
With a bowed down head and an aching heart,
O give me little time to pray.

And it goes on and on and on like . . .
Let me tell you, sister . . .
Let me tell you, Christian, how I come along . . .
With a bowed down head and an aching heart,
O give me little time to pray.

I don’t quite know what was in the mind
of the first person or persons to sing those words.
They were handed down to us,
by enslaved persons going through another kind of deadly storm.

For a while, whenever Cantore sang that song,
I interpreted that line, “Give me little time to pray,”
as a statement about how little time the singers had.
They were so preoccupied fighting this constant storm,
that they just didn’t have time to take a break from it,
and pray to God for help.

But I’ve thought about that some more,
and I imagine there is another meaning there,
and it’s more profound and raises more theological questions.

I wonder whether the first singers of this spiritual,
burdened by long-term, multi-generational, oppressive suffering
in which there was no way out . . . were singing . . .
Brother, sister, let me tell you about my suffering,
Give me the time and space to just weep, and cry, and ache.
I wonder if, rather than saying they didn’t have enough time to pray,
they were saying, it’s too soon to pray.
It’s too soon.

Give me more time, before you ask me
to pray and worship the God who delivers his children.
I need a little time before I’m ready to steady my soul,
and pray the prayer of the righteous,
and live in a spirit of hope.

Right now, I need to cry,
I need you to accept my bowed down head and my aching heart,
I need you to give me little time,
before I’m ready to get all spiritual
and pray in a way that makes sense.

Does that kind of statement resonate?
Maybe even with us,
who are not victims of endless suffering or oppression,
but maybe have experienced some debilitating grief?
This kind of statement, in song, might ring true for us.

It’s a sentiment that could be directed toward others,
friends and family and church people who are anxious for me,
a suffering member,
to get back on my feet and be acceptably spiritual again,
so they know how to deal with me.

Or it could be directed toward God,
saying, “give me little time, God”
I haven’t given up on you entirely.
But right now I’m in a lot of pain, and kind of confused and angry.
I don’t really know how to ask you to help,
because I don’t really know where you are in this storm.
Did you cause it?
Are you purposely allowing it?
Do you even know about it?
I’ll get my sensible prayer together, someday.
I’ll pray, but right now, give me little time.

I’ll tell you.
I think God honors that kind of honest statement,
even welcomes it.
even considers it legitimate prayer in itself.
So even while you may be saying to God,
“Give me little time to pray,”
God is probably saying back to you,
“Of course I will. And you just did. And I heard you.
And I’ll wait. As long as it takes.”

When people are going through a storm, especially a long storm,
it raises lots of questions about God.
How does God figure in to human suffering?
Where is God positioned in the midst of a storm?
Is God passive, just watching the people suffer?
Is God active, and if so, how? where? to what end? what purpose?

Those are precisely the theological questions
being posed by the disciples of Jesus,
right in the middle of a raging storm on the sea of Galilee.
They probably didn’t know they were asking theological questions.
But they were.

The version of the story in chapter 4 of the Gospel of Mark,
is short and to the point.
Here’s how it went down.
The crowds were pressing in on Jesus,
and he decided to get away for a bit, to go across the lake.

In the previous chapter, in Mark 3:10, it reads,
“He had healed many,
so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him.”
The disciples, of course, had witnessed these healings,
had seen Jesus move to calm and restore the demon-possessed,
were very aware of Jesus’ power to change the unchangeable.

Now, they were in the middle of
a terrible storm on a deep sea in a small wooden boat.
Mark was detailed enough in his description to note, in v. 38
that Jesus was laying in the back of the boat, sleeping, on a cushion.
The disciples were fighting the big waves and wind,
straining on their oars, and Jesus was on a cushion.
Is that a poignant metaphor, or not?!

And here was their question. Note how it was phrased.
At least how this question was remembered
by the post-resurrection community of disciples
from which the Gospel of Mark emerged.
This is how they remembered and distilled the question.
The disciples asked Jesus, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

Isn’t that the very question
people of faith still ask God in the middle of a storm?

They, and we, perceive God to be asleep on a cushion,
and our question is, “Don’t you care if we drown?”
It’s really less a question than it is an accusation:
You don’t care that we are about to drown!
And there you are, on your blankety-blank cushion!

It was a question Jesus did not exactly answer.
He just got up from his cushion, rebuked the wind,
and the seas became calm.
Then he asked a couple questions of his own.
“Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

That elicited another question from the disciples,
which they asked each other, under their breath, “Who is this?”
Who is this who holds such power?
And I can hear their words between the lines.
“Who holds such power, and still can sleep through our terror?”

We ask these theological questions all the time.
How can God have so much power,
yet there be so much suffering?

It’s the question that the long-suffering Job,
and his well-meaning friends were asking.
Throughout the book of Job, we have these long speeches,
after the devil made a deal with God,
and took away everything from Job—
all his children, all his livestock, all his possessions,
and finally his own health.

Job’s friends immediately explained his suffering as punishment for sin.
Job argues back that he has done nothing wrong,
Makes an extended argument that he is righteous,
and God was not justified in sending all this suffering his way.

Finally, God speaks.
And although God sides with Job, against his friends,
God still has some direct words for all of them.

And in the end, God tears apart the argument
that suffering is the result of one’s sin,
and blessing is the result of one’s righteousness.

God is sovereign, and God is compassionate.
Both are equally true, and at the same time.
God is even portrayed as one who would bend down
to the level of human beings
in order to be with them, and be understood by them.
God bares his soul, as it were, to the human being Job,
revealing the cosmic responsibilities of being God.
We heard it this morning, Job 38:8-10
“Who shut up the sea behind doors
    when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
    and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
    and set its doors and bars in place?”

And God also makes plain his respect for human independence.
If anyone is to serve God in obedience,
it must be out of love and free will,
not because of any rewards it may bring,
or punishment it may avert.

As I think about the storms swirling in and around my life,
both personal and social—
uncertain futures, political dysfunction, and more—
I come back to this question:
Where IS God in the storm?

In the back of the boat, on the cushion.
With us . . . and at rest.
God is the ultimate non-anxious presence.
That’s not a bad thing to have going for us.

To know that what I am going through,
what the church is going through,
what our culture is going through,
is not keeping God awake at night (so to speak),
that is a source of hope.

I am reminded that God has the big picture in view.
God’s agenda is, and always will be,
salvation and reconciliation and shalom.
The storm is right now.
And it can be scary. I get that.
But knowing that God’s unshakeable promise
is to be with us in the middle of the storm,
and to continue the unstoppable mission of making things right,
and that God is not panicking, not straining at the oars,
but is at rest,
tells me that God’s ultimate purposes are not at risk.

My response, then, can also be one born of peace and hope.
My response can be engaged, active, determined, and hopeful.
It need not be born out of fear or reactivity or anxiety
that God does not care the world is spinning out of control.
It was fear that triggered the disciples’ accusation/question:
“Don’t you care that we are about to drown?”

Would to God that it might be faith, rather than fear,
shaping the kinds of questions we ask Jesus!

It seems to me that in this Gospel story,
is a practical way forward for engaging not only our own storms,
but the storms of our sisters and brothers,
and the storms of those most vulnerable in our world.

I think of the many storms raging, even now,
at or near the US-Mexican border,
and in families all around our country,
and all throughout Latin America,
being forcefully thrown by waves of trauma and grief,
because authorities in our country
treated them as less than human.

Yes, thankfully, the policy of separating families was rescinded.
But the psychological wounds are still raw,
many families are still separated,
and the storm is not over.

We have neighbors here, in our community,
who are either directly or indirectly traumatized
by the way our country’s leaders act toward and speak about
immigrants and the countries they call home.

We have choices before us, as to how we will respond.

We can choose to (and I would add, we are called to)
be in the boat with those suffering a storm.
Following Jesus means going where Jesus would go:
being with the vulnerable and isolated,
and speaking truth to the powers.
Or in terms of Mark chapter 4:
staying in the boat with them,
and rebuking the wind.

I believe it is part of the Gospel imperative
to be as close as possible to those who are storm-tossed.
It is part of the Gospel imperative
to rebuke the powers behind the storm.

We can speak up and say, “No!
It is a distortion of the Gospel when our top leaders—
both elected and appointed,
including ones who identify as fellow Christians,
members of our body—
when they use scripture to urge people
to submit to the injustices done against them.
We must publicly disavow any notion
that the Gospel of Jesus is consistent with a new policy
that says death-threats from gangs,
and from physically abusive spouses,
is no longer enough for us to show compassion,
and give safe haven for a while.

Christians may well disagree, and disagree respectfully,
about what a just immigration policy looks like.
But I dare say all Christians—
every Christian in this particular congregation,
and every publically and politically engaged Christian
from Jim Wallis to Franklin Graham,
can and should say,
“Wait a minute. No.
Followers of Jesus
show compassion for human beings in the midst of a storm.
Followers of Jesus
extend mercy and hospitality toward human beings
whose lives are being threatened, especially children.
The way of Jesus puts compassion, mercy, and hospitality first.
Abstract notions like national security and the rule of law
are significant, and have their place,
but not before seeing the image of God in all human neighbors.

“Zero tolerance”—
as an approach to solve any complicated human problem,
where real suffering is involved—
by definition prioritizes ideology over compassion,
and is not consistent with the way of Jesus.
If we love and are loyal to the God revealed in Jesus,
the God we see portrayed in all of scripture,
then we can’t proof-text our way out of this one.
Compassion, mercy, hospitality, being with the other—
this is the life we are called to,
at whatever the personal and political cost.

May God give us courage and wisdom to live the life we are called to.

And now, let’s turn to the hymn,
“When the storms of life are raging, stand by me.” HWB 558
The verses of this hymn are basically a list
of many different kinds of storms we might be facing.
And the prayer for each of them is, “Stand by me.”
Be with me in the storm.

As we sing, we can make this a prayer we ourselves are making,
as we face our own real and present storms.
But we can also sing it as a prayer coming from the lips
of other vulnerable ones in our world,
and we can hear their cry for someone to stand with them,
and consider whether that is a cry we are being called to answer.

Let’s sing!

—Phil Kniss, June 24, 2018

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