A couple on vacation attended services last week at a well-regarded mainline church. The sanctuary was beautiful, the prelude was stirring, and the pews were full. As worship began, there was every indication that this would be a meaningful hour.
Later, the husband said of his worship experience, “Just 24 hours earlier, Hamas had launched a cruel attack on Israel, and Israel was poised to retaliate, yet the pastors said nothing about this. When it came time for the prayers of the people, no one touched on what was happening.”
Why the collective silence last Sunday in that particular church? We can only speculate.
Sometimes I wonder if what Christians want on Sunday is a reprieve from the woes and heartaches of the world.
Many of us this week have been battered by a fresh round of unthinkable violence in the Middle East. War crimes have been committed on both sides of the conflict. Rising in our throats are very real concerns that what is already bad could grow far worse.
Looking on from half a world away, we can feel overwhelmed and powerless. It makes sense, then, that when we gather for worship, we would want to center ourselves on the Good News rather than be buffeted by the latest round of gut-wrenching news.
I get it. I want that too.
What I regularly struggle with is this: if our worship is, to be honest, if it is to have integrity, then it must not sacrifice the sins and sufferings of the world on the altar of our overwhelm.
I say this because if the Good News is genuinely good if all that Jesus said and did to embody the Good News has any claim on us, then worship does not offer us an out. Rather it gives us something enduring and reliable to hold onto, even when—especially when—we are overcome by the hardest of news.
This has been an unspeakably painful week for the human family and in many ways. I’m not sure what I was looking for from the lectionary this week, but it most certainly was not the Apostle Paul singing, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say ‘Rejoice’.”
Dare we even speak of rejoicing—let alone always—when news in the Middle East is so deadly and dire?
We can’t unless we understand Paul’s circumstances. His call to be a people grounded in true and lasting joy was not announced from a beach chair on a sunny Mediterranean shore. No, Paul’s challenge echoed off the walls of a dark, dank prison cell.
How? How, I want to know. How does a sane person find joy in a prison cell? How could Paul write about making joy our greatest reality when he himself was imprisoned, living with the prospect of never again being a free man?
Joy? What did Paul know and feel that would inspire him to offer such a counterintuitive message to his friends in Philippi? What did Paul feel and know that enabled him to face his circumstances but not at all be defined by them?
Paul’s words to us this morning call to mind a Paul from another age, the 20th-century Lutheran pastor and theologian Paul Tillich. It was Tillich who spoke of God as the Ground of Being.
The Ground of Being. It’s a commanding way of speaking of God, is it not?
I don’t know what happens to you when you hear it, but this way of speaking about God calls me down and in rather than out and away.
Tillich’s metaphor can draw us into our very depths where God can hold all that we are and all that we experience in the same way the rich brown earth holds and nourishes the roots of growing things.
When God is our Ground of Being, we, too, are free to discover what Paul knew very well: that it is in and with and through God that we live and move and have our being.
Nothing is more real than this. Nothing is more true or more powerful.
This is not to say that we should ever deny what unsettles us, that we should dismiss or disrespect what frightens us. We can and should hold space for feelings and realities we would rather not live with. But we need not be swallowed up or disabled by them.
Imagine writing from prison, shackled, cramped, barely fed, guaranteed nothing, imagine all this and having “rejoice” be the word you most wanted to share with others. Not just “rejoice” but “rejoice always.”
How? Like Jesus before him, Paul was far more than a keen theological thinker. He was also a man profoundly in touch with the divine taproot, with the great Ground of Being.
Jesus would say of his experience that he and Abba God were one. Paul would write to the church in Rome that he was confident that nothing, absolutely nothing, could ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Paul and Jesus were not the only ones in human history who found joy-giving, peace-imparting, circumstance-defying grounding in God’s persisting, perfect presence.
Ordinary people have found this too.
A friend whose young family is breaking apart cries real tears of grief and then says, “Even still, even now, I can feel God holding me.”
A woman with a creeping illness, one that is slowly paralyzing her and which will eventually claim her life, welcomes each day as if it were the grandest of adventures because, she says, she was born for more than progressive loss.
I’m also thinking of young Anne Frank, who lived a self-imposed incarcerated life during the German occupation of Amsterdam during the Second World War.
Writing in secret, Anne’s words—now wildly famous—are those of a young woman in touch with something profoundly true and enduring, something that had little to do with her circumstances and everything to do with her rootedness in good, in God.
From her cramped quarters, Anne would write: “Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!”
Elsewhere Anne would pen this observation: “It’s difficult in times like these: Ideals, dreams, and cherished hopes rise with us only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
This, too, Anne would scribble in her diary: “I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.”
What can we do from here, we might ask, as we consider the atrocities taking place in Israel and Gaza? We can certainly call or email our elected officials imploring them to help secure a ceasefire and to ensure humanitarian aid gets to the people of Gaza. We can also make donations to human rights organizations and encourage others to do the same.
Something else you and I can do, something that will not turn the tide tomorrow but which is nonetheless a significant contribution, is this: we can do what prisoner Paul encourages. That is, we can be anxious about nothing but bring everything to God in prayer.
Rooted in God, even as we are planted in front of the television watching the latest news from the Middle East, we can live into Paul’s wisdom, wisdom Anne Frank too understood: that is, to ground ourselves in whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable.
To do this is not to deny or dismiss the devastation we are now witnessing. To do this is an act of resistance. To do this is to say to the headlines: you may be true, but I am in touch with something even more true. And it is this that governs and guides my thoughts, words, prayers, and choices.
“We can’t solve today’s problems with the mentality that created them,” Albert Einstein wisely noted. Allowing ourselves to succumb to fear or hate, even while we are not in the line of fire in the Middle East, will not help us, nor will it serve the world.
Jesus had a secret that made him strong, a different 20th-century German theologian asserted. Paul did too. Anne Frank as well. It’s a secret hiding in plain sight in our lesson this morning:
“Finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. As for the things you have learned and received and heard and noticed in me, Paul, do them, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Let us pray: Ground of Being, ground us. Ground of Being, hold us close. Ground of Being, liberate us to live fully and freely, no matter what might befall us. Grant us your joy and your peace, just as you did for Jesus, Paul, Anne, and countless others. Because you are persistent and powerful, make a way for these gifts to come to all your people, especially those in the Middle East. Amen.