Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In these last days, I have been aware that some of our young adults have been returning home. Study abroad programs have been suspended. Parents have been holding their breath, waiting for their students to get home safely, or to know that their kids can shelter in place. Our prayers are with all who are traveling.
Last fall, I traveled to Madagascar for a couple of weeks. I knew that there would be some adjustments both coming and going. I anticipated sleepless nights and uncomfortable travel while I was there, and perhaps heightened awareness when I returned home. But what I didn’t anticipate was that the most difficult travel would be the in-between-time navigating the trip home.
In Madagascar, we traveled through multiple airports and stayed in a number of hotels or guest rooms. At each new place, there was a group of porters who would step forward to assist us with luggage and even carry it up a flight or two of stairs. It was somewhat embarrassing, but it was incredibly helpful.
When it was time to come home, we flew from Madagascar’s capital city to Paris and then on to Chicago.
My two travel companions and I got off the plane in Chicago, and everything was different. The small, colorful airport from whence we had embarked was replaced by a large, impersonal, cosmopolitan airport. We waited at one of dozens of carrels for our bags, navigated a long, narrow hallway to board a train, followed signs to a heated tent where we waited for a bus, struggling to keep our luggage with us as we zig-zagged through stanchion barriers that held us in cue.
There were no porters in Chicago, no one who noticed when we struggled, no one to lift our bags up the stairs of the bus. And once we were on the bus, there was no place to set the bags down other than in the aisle obstructing the path for everyone else. It was such an odd experience. We were between here and there, and it was surprisingly uncomfortable. There was no place to sit and no easy way to stand. I planted one foot on the floor and rested the other foot on my bag while I reached awkwardly for a strap to hold onto. It was clumsy and ungainly. The bus rounded the corner and left the terminal. I peered out the window and found no landmark, no sign pointing to our destination, only an open road. And I wondered how long will this last?
That’s where we find ourselves now, too – wondering how long this in-between-time will last.
We’re not quite sure how to settle in to this liminal time. We’re looking for a balance between the frenzy and the calm. How much do we do, and when can we just be? How do we stay connected? There are certainly moments of creativity and productivity in this interim. But there’s grief, too. The performances, competitions, celebrations, travel, and study upended. Job uncertainty. Weddings and baptisms postponed. Funerals that won’t draw together the congregation that might have been gathered. Restrictions that keep us separate from loved ones who are struggling. Even if we ourselves are doing fine, we see disequilibrium around us. So we come together tonight to be quiet, to breathe. To pray a psalm. “Be still and know that I am God,” as Psalm 46 says.
The psalms are a playlist for life, you might say. They give voice to the times of stability, of joy and thanksgiving, and they provide a song to sing in times of pain and fear and loneliness, in times of dis-ease. The psalms sometimes startle us with their strong emotions and negative imagery. But they give permission to pray what’s really on our hearts, to lay it all before God. They give language to those times when we move from comfortable, settled lives to times when we are uncertain or distraught about what the future brings; and then once again when we move to a new future.
Psalm 46 landed on my ears and brought comfort in September of 2001. Just after 9/11, Dr. Phil Quanbeck read it to our staff:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change.
The earth – the world – did indeed change on 9/11. Phil was a retired religion professor, and we valued his wisdom, his confidence. If Phil believed it, maybe we could, too. But even more, there was surprising comfort in the truth that he named:
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter.
That was the hard truth. And yet, the psalmist promised:
God is in the midst of the city – right there where the heartache lies.
God will help it when the morning dawns.
Phil delivered hope that we would one day return to a new sense of equilibrium. And indeed, we did.
The culture in which we live values control. We like to be in charge of our futures. We want things to go as we have planned. And yet, we confess faith in Jesus… “who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…and humbled himself, was obedient to the point of death – even death on the cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)
Walter Brueggeman says that when we confess faith in Jesus who was crucified on a cross, “we recognize that there is an untamed darkness in our life, and that is fundamental to the gift of new life.”* We really don’t have control.
What’s more, we are not claiming, “everything will be fine because God loves us, and God is in control.” Our faith acknowledges that there will be dark times when we can’t see our way forward, but God will be found in the depths, and God will transform our despair into hope and new life.
The reason we can bear darkness and uncertainty is that there is One to call out to. There is One who promises to be with us. And in that solidarity, a change happens; new life begins to flourish. God is found in dark places; God was found even at the cross; and there God tends the promise of new life.
We see it in soil where seeds are sown and break through the earth and bear fruit. We see it in a tomb that lay empty on the third day.
We are in a liminal place right now. We are in between what has been and what comes next. It feels precarious – like a passenger standing on a bus who plants one foot on the floor and reaches for something to hang onto. We don’t know how long this will last. But this God who made heaven and earth, who brought order to the world, is our refuge and strength. This God came to us in Jesus and promises to be with us for all time. This God holds our future and is trustworthy.
The nations are in an uproar, and the countries stumble – even ours;
Though our patterns have changed,
though best practices in health care are shaken;
though the virus silently roars as it spreads,
though the markets tremble in its tumult.
The psalmist tells us we need not fear.
Come and see the works of the Lord, she says.
Come and see what desolations God can bring to the earth.
Who knows what new life can spring from this seemingly barren time.
God can make wars to cease.
God can shatter the divisions among us.
God can break the weapons we use when we pit ourselves against one another,
and God can return us to our best selves.
God can use us to help one another through this uncertain time.
Come, God says. Come.
For this night…
Be still, and know that I am God!
* Walter Brueggeman, Spirituality of the Psalms