1 Samuel 17.57-18.5
2 Corinthians 5.6-10, 5.14-17
Whatever it is that keeps widening your heart ©Suzanne Grimmett
Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?
These words on Jesus’ lips in the midst of the stormy sea might prompt us to ask ourselves the same questions.
Where do you find courage when you need it?
Last week I mentioned the novel, The Secret Life of Bees and I would like to extend that reference today as I think the themes speak loudly to the question of where we find faith in the midst of the storms of life.
The main character, Lily is a young, motherless white girl who has suffered abuse all her young life but escapes and is cared for by a community of African American women in segregated South Carolina who call themselves the ‘Daughters of Mary’. Their unorthodox worship is centered on the presence of a black Madonna statue. The Madonna is the symbol which communicates to these women that divinity can be found in a black feminine form, a knowledge that is empowering and life-giving in the chaos and oppression of a sexist and racist society. In one dialogue, where Lily expresses the need to go back and touch the heart of the Madonna statue to find courage, August, the spiritual leader of the Daughters of Mary tells her;
You don’t have to put your hand on Mary’s heart to get strength and consolation and rescue and all the other things we need to get through life. You can place it right here on your own heart…your own heart. ….When you are unsure of yourself, when you pull back into doubt and small living…she’s (Mary’s) the power inside you, telling you to get up and live like the glorious girl you are…..whatever it is that keeps widening your heart…that’s Mary too, not only the power inside you, but the love.
What widens your heart and gives you courage? What do you find faith?
Is it about believing hard enough that God will save you? What do you do in the face of personal tragedy- the death of one close to you…or that diagnosis you never expected? And what do we do with natural disasters, the sort of thing referred to historically in insurance jargon as “an act of God”- earthquakes, tsunamis, bushfires, storms at sea?
Jesus did elsewhere make clear that terrible events are not the result of the sin of the victim nor the sin of their parents when he was asked about an accident with a falling building, yet the sense that maybe misfortune is in some way visited upon us by God remains strong in people’s minds.
Of course, there are natural consequences of our actions.
Natural consequences are at play even in natural disasters. We may not have any agency over shifting tectonic plates or meteor strikes, but irresponsible use of the environment and its resources have led to more intense storms, bushfires and other weather events.
Hoping that faith might be some kind of cosmic protection does not seem adequate in the face of the trials and sufferings that come upon us, whether through our own fault or through human violence or through natural events beyond our control.
As we see the storms people can create for themselves, the violence we do to one another and the relentless oppression of the powerful over the weak, the advantaged over the disadvantaged, we may well find ourselves crying to the Lord with the disciples, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
How long, oh Lord?
What are some of the things that you cry out to God about? We might well in light of current events in Australia cry, do you not care that those fleeing violence face indefinite detention, even when their children become gravely ill? Do you not care that serving in the military can leave some feeling traumatized and alone in their pain without adequate support, with an average of one veteran dying by suicide every two weeks in Australia? Do you not care that in Australia one in four women report physical or sexual violence from a partner, and one woman a week is killed by a current or former partner? Do you not care that we are perishing?
Or we might pray with the Psalmist “Arise, Lord- let no human power prevail!”
The storm in the Gospel story is symbolic of such suffering and chaos, the collapsing of the waters above and the waters below into one mass. It is an undoing of the first act of creation, which begins with the dividing of the waters (Gen. 1:6–8). God’s creative work is a call to life in its fullness and rich diversity out of the chaos of nonbeing. It is also a call for us to use our own agency and God given gifts, insights and abilities to bring about change and healing for ourselves, our communities and the world. In this work, the presence and power of Christ in the midst of the storm is a powerful reminder that while suffering will be a part of our lives we are never alone in the boat. But faith is a necessary ingredient it seems, if we are to find our courage.
I think the kind of faith Jesus is speaking of is exemplified in paradoxical language of St Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians. After a list of great trials and sufferings he has undergone, including beatings, imprisonments, sleepless nights and hunger, Paul bears witness to a way of embodying suffering and yet tapping into a well spring of life that is not reduced by the trials he has undergone;
We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
What if faith is not so how much we believe or how strongly we assent to propositions about God and meaning, but how willing we are to trust to the power of love and the presence of the crucified and risen one? Paul is suggesting here that instead of being spared suffering, he has found a largeness of life and an opening of eternity in the midst of hardship and pain. He has lost everything yet in some way gained treasure beyond price. And in possessing that treasure, Paul says that he works together with Christ. As an agent of the new creation, Paul’s life is defined not by accepting suffering as some kind of badge of honour, but in working through and in love for a better world, showing the way to life in its fullness.
Thinking of faith in God as some kind of insurance policy against suffering if you believe hard enough, (or as something God demands of us), loses the heart of its meaning. St Paul with his affirmation of fullness of life in the midst of hardship is telling us something entirely different, as does the fictional story of the white girl who, with the help of loving wise women and the symbol of the black Madonna, begins to find a new way of healing and wholeness. When Jesus says, “Be still” he is asserting the creative power within him beginning creation over again, inviting us to release our fear and have the faith to join him in making the world new.
I think the story of Lily seeking courage from the statue of the black Madonna is the story of a girl crying out in fear and pain at the storms of life and searching for faith in the wrong place. When she learns to place her hand on her own heart, seeking in her own way the divinity already present and active in her life, calling her to strength and healing, she draws close to the truth that faith is not about what you believe, but whether you can entrust yourself to love. Paul, too, exhorts his readers in Corinth to “open wide your hearts” In this exposing way of courage and vulnerability we are being taught to commit to the way of love despite all the fearful impulses to guard and shut down our hearts.
Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith? Do you not see that love is an empowering force like no other- stronger than the storms and capable of healing us from the wounds which can shrink us to insignificance. Whatever storms you are encountering, or whatever chaos in the world makes you despair, know that you are called to a bigger, more expansive life. Suffering is unavoidable, and faith is no free pass guaranteeing an easy life. There will be losses in every life, and yet the promise of faith is that we join our lives to the love that is eternal. May you know the freedom and joy of having nothing, and yet possessing everything. May you have the God-given courage when you feel tossed about in the storm, to honour your own heart and hear the beloved voice calling you to live beyond your fears. +Amen