Tuesday, July 04, 2006

“The Air We Breathe”[1]

2 Cor. 6:1-13; Mk. 4:35-41

Michael Moore, the (in)famous filmmaker and critic of American society, presented a controversial explanation of the violence in our culture in Bowling for Columbine. His thesis there is that ours is a fear-based culture, it has been that way from the very beginning, and that fear is behind the violence that plagues us. In the film, Moore caricatures the history of America in terms of fear. First came the pilgrims fleeing persecution. They were afraid of the Indians, so they killed them. Then they were afraid of witches so they burned them. Then they were afraid of the British so they passed the 2nd Amendment. The saga of fear continues through the spread of slavery to the invention of the Colt 6-shooter pistol and the creation of the National Rifle Association. I’m sure if he had made the movie a few months later, he would have had something to say about the current “war against terror.”

Whatever you think about Michael Moore, fear is a prevalent force in our world—much more prevalent than love. Mind you, I didn’t say fear is more powerful than love, but it is much more prevalent. The problem is that, when fear is allowed to define our lives, it has deadly effects. Fear makes us suspicious of everyone so that we retreat behind gates and walls and alarm systems rather than risking contact with strangers. Witness our current obsession with bigger and bigger vehicles, protected by steel beams and on-board panic buttons. We are so afraid that some of us have even resorted to driving what is a commercial equivalent of a military vehicle—the “Hummer.”

It’s not that we should never be afraid. The disciples in the boat with Jesus had a lot to fear in the storm.[2] The water was considered to be a “den of evil,” harboring all kinds of danger that could literally reach out and grab you at any moment. The disciples were courageous enough for simply working on the water. But they knew that the water posed the danger of sudden death, especially in the violent storms that so often struck the Sea of Galilee.

They were right to be afraid of the storm. But they forgot something very important—there is no place we can go that will remove us from God’s loving care. God is always as close to us as the air we are breathing.[3] Wherever we are, God is there, loving us, nurturing us, drawing us into the joy of God’s life and love.[4] As the masters of contemplative prayer remind us, all we have to do to experience God’s presence is to be silent enough to become aware of it. Father Thomas Keating, one of the most influential spiritual guides of our time, says that the point of our gospel lesson is that “Jesus is present in every storm. Since his protection is always present, there is nothing to be afraid of.”[5] When we recognize that God is never any farther away from us that the very breath we fill our lungs with, we can have the confidence to face everything life brings our way.

In order to do that, however, we may have to realign our values. If our most important value is to collect more stuff, that approach won’t work. If it’s to escape hardship or suffering, it won’t work. But if our ultimate value is to live in relationship with the God of life and love, then we can let go everything else, because nothing can remove us from God’s loving care. Those who love their lives, who hang on to them, who cling to them for dear life, ultimately lose them. Only those who let go of their lives find the life that is truly life.

I think that’s what enabled Paul to endure all the hardships he mentions. I’m sure there must have been times when he was afraid—you don’t endure all that he did without being afraid. Listen to the catalogue of his ordeals in the 2 Corinthians chapter 11:

Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. (2 Cor. 11:24-27)

Paul literally faced danger at every turn. Any one of the traumas he experienced would have been enough to turn him into a man who was afraid of his own shadow, as those who survive such things will readily attest.

But Paul knew that there was something in his life that was more powerful than any of those things—the presence of God! He says, “I am convinced that [nothing] in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39). It was Paul’s conviction that nothing he would possibly encounter could remove him from loving presence of God. That faith enabled him to say, “None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. (Rom. 8:37, The Message)

Does this mean that we shouldn’t be afraid of the dangers we may face? Not at all. But we must not make the same mistake as the disciples in the boat—we must not let go of faith. No matter what we face, we must not forget that God is our ever-present help. We must not forget what the Psalmist affirmed:

Lord, you have examined me and you know me. You know everything I do; from far away you understand all my thoughts. You see me, whether I am working or resting; you know all my actions. Even before I speak, you already know what I will say. You are all around me on every side; you protect me with your power. Your knowledge of me is too deep; it is beyond my understanding. Where could I go to escape from you? Where could I get away from your presence? (Ps. 139:1-7, TEV).

No matter what happens in this life, we can remember that God is never farther away from us than a father teaching a toddler to walk (Hosea 11:3), or a mother gently nursing an infant (Isaiah 49:15).

The God who watches over us is the one who constantly cares for and nurtures all creation—plants, animals, rocks and trees, and people of every size, shape, and color.[6] God is never any farther away from us than the very air we breathe. We live in a “God-bathed world” where we can always be “totally at home and safe regardless what happens.”[7] When we learn to trust our loving God to sustain us no matter what, then we can face the future not with fear but faith, hope, and love.[8]

[1] A sermon preached 6/25/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Rev. Dr. Ted Wardlaw, “The Danger in the Water,” a sermon preached 7/20/1997.

[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann’s concept of God’s “interpenetration” of all creation; see Trinity and the Kingdom, 39, 104-5. See also Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 9.

[4] Moltmann, God in Creation, 9-17.

[5] Father Thomas Keating, Reawakenings, accessed at http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/books/excerpts.php?id=14166.

[6] Matthew 5:45; 6:26-30; 10:19; Ps 145:9, 15-16. Cf. also Moltmann, God in Creation, 9-17, 98.

[7] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 61, 78, 90; cf. also Moltmann, Trinity, 104; Moltmann, God in Creation, 5, 96.

[8] Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 79.

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