Finding Inner Strength Amidst Turmoil

An artist's depiction of Ancient Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem.
An artist’s depiction of Ancient Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem.

My good friend UK Sarah shared the sermon she prepared to preach at St. Phillips Anglican Church in St Heliers, Auckland, New Zealand. I asked if I could share it here. Reading it helped me ground myself amidst the tumultuous emotions in the aftermath of the news of the Paris attacks. I am finding time away from media and spent in meditation instead is helping me get some perspective.

Sermon, Sunday 15.11.15, Reverend Sarah Clare

1 Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

‘Will your anchor hold in the storms of life?’

I don’t know about you, but I find these ‘apocalyptic’ passages quite difficult to read.   Mark 13 as a whole chapter talks about some frightening end-of-the-world stuff which can seem pretty off-putting to us. But then the shocking events in Paris yesterday were very much in that vein, weren’t they?

Yet I do think there’s an encouraging message for us in today’s passage.

Jesus and the disciples are leaving the Temple… Not some gigantic version of Holy Trinity cathedral, but a vast construction that covered an area somewhere between 35 and 45 acres – roughly the size of twenty football pitches – big enough to fit a quarter of a million people within it, comfortably. [I’ve read that the smallest stones weighed 2-3 tons; some weighed 50. And there’s one still in existence today in the Wailing Wall, that’s 12 metres long and 3 metres high and weighs 100s of tons…! How on earth they ever built it all is beyond my understanding. It was designed to inspire awe; it spoke of majesty and wealth – and God.]

Another artist's rendering of ancient Hebrew temple.
Another artist’s rendering of ancient Hebrew temple.

Anyway, Jesus and his disciples have spent an eventful morning in this amazing Temple. Jesus has managed to answer several theological challenges from chief priests, scribes and elders who are desperate to trip him up. It must have all felt quite scary for the disciples, given the authority these guys had over ordinary people.

So, it’s as they’re leaving the Temple after all this controversy that one of the disciples turns to look at it in all its glory and says, ‘Wow Jesus, just look at those huge stones and buildings!’

Maybe he was relieved that they’d all survived the morning’s encounters. Maybe he needed the reassurance of something solid and secure… like the Temple. That was rock solid – surely? Something to trust. Something that spoke of the enduring nature of God, of His power and might.

So just imagine their shock when Jesus says – ‘Yes it is huge and wonderful. But do you know what? It’s not going to survive; it’s all going to be destroyed.’   What?? It’s literally unimaginable…

Jesus continues this conversation a bit later, when he’s with his inner circle – Peter, James, John and Andrew. By now they’re up on the Mount of Olives, opposite the Temple. Not surprisingly the disciples return to the subject. ‘The Temple’s going to be destroyed? When, Jesus? And how?’

And Jesus has an interesting response, doesn’t he? Because he sees that behind their question is not so much a fear about when all this might happen, but how they are to survive it. So he warns them not to be distracted; a whole bunch of nasty stuff is going to happen – wars, earthquakes, famines, and people pretending to be their saviour- but they shouldn’t let any of this ‘lead them astray’…

Lots of people have studied this passage over the centuries. Some see it as describing the literal end of life, as we know it, some time in the future. Others give it a more contemporary context.

The fact is that at the time Mark was writing his gospel, things were already pretty difficult for the followers of Jesus. They were seeing and experiencing violence, destruction and persecution aplenty. Tacitus, the Roman historian who wrote Histories, gives a vivid description of all the traumas in the Roman empire, man-made and natural, in the middle of the first century. That tells us that Mark might well have been using the current chaotic situation to give people some perspective and remind them of their anchor in the world…

Fast forward 2000 years. Has there ever been a time when there hasn’t been something scary happening in the world? And the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris yesterday are yet another example. More bloodshed. More grief. More fear. One more appalling man-made trauma to add to the long list in my lifetime alone….

And there have also been massive earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis across the globe even in the last decade, which have destroyed the lives and livelihoods of millions…

Our world seems to exist in a state of chaos. Our reason tells us that oceans aren’t meant to flood; the earth isn’t meant to shake; the sky isn’t meant to turn nasty and attack us; and humans aren’t meant to kill each other – and yet all these things do happen, over and over again. And when they happen, they destroy our sense of certainty and security….

Our security and our peace, can also be shaken by traumas that happen closer to home, in our own lives.   The unexpected can rip from us that sense of solid ground beneath our feet. Whether it’s illness, bereavement, or some other tragedy, we can feel buffeted to the ground…. we can lose our sense of direction and perspective.

I think Jesus’ words speak very much to us here today because essentially he’s reminding us that there will be chaos in our lives, there will be trauma; but through it all we need to trust. To have faith.

I heard of a good mnemonic for faith the other day: ‘Feeling Afraid I Trust Him.’ (repeat) ….. Bad stuff will happen, but we are not to let it deter us from following the path he has laid down for us.

And he likens all this to birthpangs. Those of us who have borne children know just how incredibly painful that is! And we have usually had the benefit of modern medicine!!! Imagine just how difficult giving birth must have been in 1st century Palestine. Real pain, real suffering. Jesus isn’t trying to minimise any of this. He knows just how painful all of this can be.

AND YET, in spite of it all, ‘don’t be alarmed’, he says. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be led astray; don’t allow yourself to be paralysed into inaction. Don’t lose sight of what’s really important – who we are, and what we are called to do and be as his followers:-

We are loved by an omniscient God; we’ve been shown how to live lives of faith and grace, loving and forgiving one another, even those we don’t actually like; we’re to be peacemakers, and work for justice for the vulnerable; and we’re to tell others about how Jesus transforms and heals lives. In other words, ‘Remember’, he says, ‘in spite of the chaos, you need to draw strength and hope from these constants in your life.’

Hope, not despair. However challenging the situation we find ourselves in, Jesus reminds us of something that is immeasurably larger than us and this fragile, vulnerable, uncertain, chaotic world we inhabit. Hope in the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

I doubt there’s an adult in this room who hasn’t experienced trauma at some point in their lives. I certainly have. And when trauma hits, it can be hard to see things clearly; everything whirls around our heads, the ground shifts, and it can feel really hard to look up and find our bearings again.

If we allow ourselves to be distracted away from our goal, if we allow fear to get a hold, then it will suck the life out of our veins. But if instead we remember the anchor that holds us – that never-ending faithful and steadfast love that pours out from God – then we can draw on the strength and the courage of Jesus to bring us through….however painful and however difficult it seems.

‘Will your anchor hold in the storms of life? When the clouds unfold their wings of strife? When the strong tides lift, and the cables strain, will your anchor drift or firm remain?

We have an anchor that keeps the soul steadfast and sure while the billows roll, fastened to the Rock which cannot move, grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love.’

I pray that the anchor of Jesus Christ holds firm for the Christians in Paris right now, that they might bring strength, healing and hope to a grieving, angry and frightened people.

And may we hold fast to our anchor, as our anchor holds fast to us.


The Urge to Do Something in Paris Aftermath Misleading

Eyes Wide Open tries to humanize the loss of all life in Iraq War.
Eyes Wide Open exhibit displays shoes from Iraqi civilians and US soldiers killed in the war.

Yesterday I clicked through an email from the Climate Reality Project to watch 24 Hours of Climate Reality and instead read a message that the broadcast was suspended in consideration of the violence in Paris. This was how I learned of the horror that had been unleashed in coordinated terror attacks.  I logged onto the New York Times website and logged off after about 1 minute of watching senseless video of people meandering around the football pitch or police cars speeding down Parisian streets. By now we all know the drill. Lots of senseless interviews with people who know nothing or can say nothing and bad estimates of the extent of the harm. I decided to turn it all off.

What is a leader to do in face of the ongoing violence? Judging by Facebook most people want to DO something. For some it is a primal angry urge to retaliate. Even before information is in about who attacked whom and why. They filled in the blanks by swearing to sign up for military service or in some way extract an eye for an eye.

In this instance, we cannot alleviate our need to DO SOMETHING by donating to Red Cross or Oxfam.  Although I would not be surprised if some craven political candidates did not suggest a donation to them would be a welcome response. They promise to deal with ISIS. As though their force of personality will trump the collective intelligence of the people already assembled in Situation Rooms around the world.

Other people were dropping to their knees to pray, mainly for the victims in Paris including all of the citizens of Paris whom these attacks were intended to terrorize. I am among those who feel “pray first” is a good response for almost any situation. Especially while we are still trying to make sense of a situation.

I have been a student of International Relations since the Cold War. Ah, simpler times. Sure we worried about Mutually Assured Destruction but as one character in Madam Secretary said, at least we knew the people on the other side did not want to push the button anymore than we did.

Are the people in the Middle East really such different human beings than us or the Russians? I do not think so. Casting them all as evil villains seems a dangerously simplistic way of dealing with the world.

I believe in the innate value of every human life. I believe we are all imbued with a little bit of God’s spirit. My way of seeing God is through my cultural understanding of Jesus, but I admit that God is bigger than my limited way of seeing Him/Her. I want to be more like Jesus, which means I have to transcend my own petty view of the world and love humankind the way Jesus did. God transcends gender, tribe, nation and religion.

When I look at recent wars in the Middle East, I see a complete lack of compassion for the innocent victims of our aggression. Over 10 years ago, the American Service Friends Committee and others created the Eyes Wide Open exhibit to illustrate the impact of the war in Iraq on civilians. It came to Sacramento’s Capitol grounds and evoked little response. I was opposed to the Iraq war, as I am to initiating any war and I found the exhibit profounding moving. I could not find a way to translate my values into any coherent action.

The challenge I am facing as a leader is to somehow transcend any angry gut response and expand my capacity to love.  To mourn the mothers and children, fathers and grandpas who were counted as “collateral damage” in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. I must seek ways to make peace.

I want to find ways to connect with people for dialogue to help move beyond a base level  “get ’em” response to something that builds peace. Transformation will not happen in a moment, but we can begin to build a series of moments that will ultimately lead to a shift and then a swerve.

Lack of action on climate change, racial inequality, refuges, gun violence, and the roots of terrorism.–they are all connected to an inability to see the preciousness of every kind of human.

That is as far as my meditation on the Paris attacks have taken me. Will you join me in not taking action today?