Monday, March 22, 2010

When "All Hell" Breaks Loose in our Lives

“All Hell Breaks Loose: Discovering the ‘Who’ in the Story”
Ruth 2
Greenville College Chapel
Monday, March 22, 2010

This is the woman with whom my wife is occasionally in competition for my attention (display picture of Queen Elizabeth in gold gown). Unfortunately, when I am engaged in research and writing, good Queen Bess oftentimes receives more of my time than does my beloved. I always try to remind Darlene, however, that it’s rather unseemly to be jealous of a woman who’s been dead for over 400 years! My particular interest in the “Virgin Queen” centers around her role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. When she wore this particular hat, she was always careful to position her public self in a posture of private piety (display picture of QE at prayer). Unfortunately, this particular side of public self has little appeal to most biographers today, so this is the way that we have come to think of her, as in this recent Hollywood portrayal by the sensual and seductive Australian actress, Cate Blanchett (display Cate Blanchett as QE). In any event, it is clear that this rather charismatic figure from the past continues to exercise a certain magic even after so many centuries have passed. How did such a woman come to hold so much power over our imagination?

It was late in the morning of the seventeenth of November, 1558, that Elizabeth Tudor was proclaimed Queen of England, France and Ireland, and Defender of the Faith. In the years preceding, she had been held a virtual prisoner by her sister, Mary, and was now inheriting a kingdom riddled with debt, deeply divided, and ruled by a pervading uncertainty. A young woman in her mid-twenties, well-educated, whom most believed would soon be married to a proper king, she faced the daunting challenge of setting the agenda and determining the course the bereft island nation would sail in the latter half of the sixteenth century. Probably no one on that day would have believed what would actually happen over the course of the next 45 years. The development of the young queen in her role as a wise and strong monarch was to prove decisive in providing England with a long stretch of peace—what some would later look back to and proclaim as a “Golden Age”—during which some of the country’s greatest preachers, poets, and statesmen would come of age. And the way that this child of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn would accomplish that task is by putting one foot in front of the other each and every day and, slowly but surely, transforming the fortunes of a third-rate nation-state into one of the greatest empires in human history.

One of my favorite theologians, Woody Allen, has quipped that “80% of success in life is just showing up.” In my experience as pastor and teacher over the past thirty years one of the lessons I have learned is that success is not always determined by promise. Oftentimes, it comes about by sheer doggedness—the willingness to work hard, day in and day out, without immediate reward towards a simple goal. Today’s text from Ruth reminds us of this important lesson that when “all hell breaks loose” in our lives, the single most important thing we can do is get up and be about the business of the routine. The challenge for us, in the midst of a culture that lives for the spectacular, is to learn to embrace the seemingly ordinary as the primary place where we work out our own salvation.

Kathleen Norris speaks boldly of this in her wonderful little book, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work.” Norris is able to elevate the meaning of what we think of as menial work to a place of holiness and sacrality. She writes, “we want life to have meaning, we want fulfillment, healing and even ecstasy, but the human paradox is that we find these things by starting where we are, not where we wish we were. We must look for blessings to come from unlikely, everyday places—out of Galilee, as it were—and not in spectacular events.” Having arrived back in Bethlehem, Ruth knows that the survival of the little family constituted by herself and Naomi is dependent on her getting up and going to work. Now a “theology of the spectacular” would suggest that what Ruth needs most here is a miraculous in-breaking of the Holy Spirit into her mundane existence. But God is not to be found on the mountain in this story. Instead, God is hidden in the interstices of normal, everyday life in Bethlehem. And so, Ruth does what women have done throughout time: she gets on with the everyday necessities of simply surviving.

For the first time in this short story, we are introduced to a man who does not die off within a few verses—one, Boaz. And, there is no question but that Boaz, operating out of a patriarchal context, wields the power in this second chapter, carefully looking over Ruth, the foreigner, and seeing that she has opportunity to at least not be openly molested or harmed. But, as Phyllis Trible points out in her book, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, while Boaz exercises patriarchal power, he does not have narrative power in the story. “He has authority within the story but not control over it,” (178). It is Ruth, the inferior foreigner, who has by her own choice to get up and do what needs to be done, created this situation. As Trible suggests, “Her deference results from her daring; it is derivative, not determinative. . . The favor that Boaz gives her is the favor that she has sought. Therefore, she, not he, is shaping her destiny,” (176).

The narrative framework of this second chapter further reinforces Trible’s point. The feminist nature of this patriarchal narrative comes through clearly by the circular design which surrounds the episode with Boaz. Today’s text begins with two women, the younger taking the bull by the horns to go work in the fields, and ends with the same two women engaged in critical reflection on the events of that day. Naomi even seems to perk up a bit from the ashes of her bitterness to proclaim, “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness (the Hebrew word, HESED) has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Yet, it was Ruth’s dogged determination to provide for them that had set the entire set of events in motion.

In his little masterpiece, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Fr. Henri Nouwen engages in a powerful critique of the temptations which so often surround us. During the season of Lent in which we currently find ourselves, one of our tasks is to carefully evaluate the layers of cultural lies which so often enmesh us and prevent us from denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus. Nouwen points out that the three temptations which confronted our Savior continue to haunt us: the temptations to be relevant, to be spectacular, and to be powerful.

These temptations are fueled by a culture that presents to us a false picture of life. We are encouraged to believe that if we are not enjoying great food, experiencing great sex, and making great money, that somehow we have missed out on the American dream. The church has, all too often, been sucked into a spiritual version of this secular vision, proclaiming that God is primarily to be found where there is health and wealth. But all of these promises are devoid of the message of the cross and claim that God is not in the everyday and the mundane, but in the spectacular.

The result, Nouwen maintains, is that when you look at today’s church, “it is easy to see the prevalence of individualism. . . that, if we have anything at all to show, it is something we have to do solo. You could say that many of us feel like failed tightrope walkers. . . most of us still feel that, ideally, we should have been able to do it all and do it successfully. Stardom and individual heroism, which are such obvious aspects of our competitive society, are not at all alien to the church,” (55-56).

Nouwen, himself, experienced this temptation to be someone and something spectacular and found the privileged college yards at Harvard and Yale to be deadening to his own soul. On a trip to Central America, he rediscovered the joy of life among simple peasants who shared their modest meals with him in a true spirit of love and peace. Henri’s work with the mentally handicapped at L’Arche, just north of Toronto, helped him to recapture his faith as he bathed, fed, and prayed over those marginalized by our society. There, he had to find a way of reclaiming the everyday, the ordinary, as a means of working out his own salvation.

One of the places that I came best to understand this principle was in the conversations I had among the elderly during my ministry in London. Most of you, I trust, are familiar with the efforts of the German Luftwaffe to bomb England into submission during the summer and autumn of 1940. Day after day and night after night, young men would climb into their small aeroplanes to combat the Messerschmidts that rained down fire from above. But less is told about those who carried out their duty below. Donald Purr, a retired accountant, would oftentimes join me for tea on Mondays. Well into his eighties, he would regale me with stories of the London Fire Brigade, called out to do battle with the conflagrations that threatened to render the capital into one giant ash heap. Purr, himself, was given the job of taking up a station near the dome of St. Paul’s, from whence he could watch the fireworks both above and below. His assignment was to stand prepared with sandbags and fire extinguishers in case of a fire on the roof of Wren’s cathedral. A direct hit on the dome, he told me, would have carried he and his men into the very pits of a fiery inferno below, along with the remnants of the German bomb. Why did they do it, I wondered? Donald would invariably get a twinkle in his eye and with that wry sense of British humor that I came to love say, “Because it simply had to be done. There was nothing else for it. It was either climb up there every night and wave our fists at Hitler’s planes or give in; and we damn well weren’t going to surrender to that bastard!”

I came to admire Donald’s pluck and stiff upper lip and he helped me to better understand the response of the London congregation where I worked. As the war was winding down in the early months of 1945, a new menace came to haunt the populace: the sound of the deadly V-1 and V-2 rockets launched from Penemunde. The last of those rockets came winging its way across the English channel on a Saturday night and landed in the West end right on top of the shops that lined Tottenham Court Road, taking with it Whitefield’s Victorian Chapel. By the next morning, Palm Sunday, the congregation no longer had a structure in which to worship. They did what folks did in New Orleans a few years ago, they didn’t stand around waiting for a miracle but dug right in to try and reclaim what was left and to rebuild what wasn’t. They decided to get on with life as they knew it, in order to render life as they yet hoped it might be.

An ocean away back here in Greenville, during the same era, the college had had to adjust first to the Depression and then to the loss of students to the Armed Services. Dr. Long, the President, had insisted that the atmosphere of the classroom must be to enable students “to face life squarely and come to grips with it,” (Tenney, 314). A scholar of chemistry by profession, H. J. never met a challenge he didn’t think hard work and prayer couldn’t solve. It was through his efforts that Greenville came to achieve that all-important accreditation with the North Central Association which propelled us into the next chapter of our history and created a campus that could accommodate all of those returning veterans from the recent war.

One of those veterans was John Strahl, whose name would eventually come to embody all that was best in Greenville College athletics. As a young soldier the age of many of you freshmen and sophomores, John found himself at the Battle of Anzio in Italy in early 1944 watching his buddies being killed and later having to scoop their body parts into bags for shipment back home. Such an experience surely shapes one so young. Like the young captain John H. Miller depicted in “Saving Private Ryan” by Tom Hanks, Strahl simply wanted to get through the hell of war so that he could return home and get on with life. But in order to do so, John had to learn to put one foot in front of the other and to do whatever that day demanded. For he and countless other soldiers like him, war wasn’t about heroism or the spectacular; it was about survival and getting home. And when he got home, he decided to make his life count, not by doing something extraordinary, but by giving himself over to the mundane day-to-day existence of a coach and teacher, carefully carving out lessons in life from the everyday and the ordinary.

This same attitude can be seen in today’s story. It would have been quite easy for Ruth, this young Moabitess, to give in to despair or to prostitution. Her situation was grave and there was no one any longer to look after her. Like many of you today, Ruth may well have wondered what the future held for her and where God was in the midst of her crisis. All hell had broken loose in her life and no miracles seemed to be in the offing. With a bitter old woman at home and having taken up residence in a foreign land, like numerous migrants who have come to this country looking for something different, all she knew to do was to put on her work clothes and to get on with the business of survival. So, she rolled up her sleeves and set to work. And from that decision came all that was to follow.

Now, my friends, I want to tell you that I am concerned this morning that some of you have opted for a very different approach to life—one which flies in the face of the mundane existence suggested to us by Ruth. Some of you believe in a god who ropes off the ordinary and is to be found only on the extraordinary and the ecstatic. And so you spend much of your time searching for the next spiritual high, like a crack cocaine addict in search of a fix, working yourself up into an emotional frenzy in hopes of discovering a spiritual buzz that will get you through the day. You live a divided life, a Gnostic one, in which the sacred and spiritual exist in two separate compartments and “never the twain shall meet.” You aren’t here for an education or to ask hard questions about God and the nature of the world in which we live, but for two things: a degree and a spiritual high. You are convinced that God is like some Santa Claus in the sky and that if you can only speak the right magical words, lay claim to the right spiritual gift, or reclaim the right frenetic music and lyrics, that you can escape all of this muck and mire of normal existence and attain some spiritual nirvana.

And then there are some of you who are so enslaved to the gods of consumption that you find yourself in an almost untenable condition with less than half a semester to go. You stay up late playing computer games or surfing the Internet and haven’t read much at all for your classes. You are a thorough believer that a semester’s worth of work can be done in the last ten days of the semester and that a paper is best written the night before it is due. You won’t admit it to yourself, but your life is thoroughly out of control and you have no discipline whatsoever. Your attitude is to enjoy life, to live in the present, and to expect that God will work a miracle at the end of the semester converting your “F” into at least a “C,” if not a “B,” through the good graces of my colleagues who will have pity upon you.

Both of these are essentially unbelieving, ill-informed approaches to life. For those in the first category, there will come a day, if it hasn’t already happened, when there will not be a spiritual high and the realities of everyday existence will strike you right between the eyes. Your best friend will be hit by a car or your dad will come down with cancer and, try as you might to pray for a miracle, none will be had. And then the temptation will be to think that there was no God there in the first place. And for those in the second category, you may manage to limp through life for a little while with your lackadaisical attitude but, sooner or later, your “sins will find you out” and your lack of discipline and unwillingness to do what needs to be done will result in a self-precipitated crisis, a crisis of your own making. And, as you struggle to work yourself out of a near-impossible situation, you will be tempted to blame it all on God. After all, if God is a god of miracles, why isn’t he helping you out?

In their recreation of the Ruth story entitled, Compromising Redemption: Relating Characters in the Book of Ruth, Danna Nolan Fewell and David Miller Gunn describe the heroine’s approach in this chapter like this: “Ruth gleaned every day in Boaz’s field. She tried not to think of what would happen once the harvest was over. She simply worked as hard as she could, taking advantage of every dropped sheaf, so that they could store as much grain as possible for the coming winter,” (39). Ruth, in short, gave herself over to the ordinary and from her commitment, from her faithfulness to Naomi and to the task before her, God wove an extraordinary story—a story of faithfulness in the midst of tragedy and pain.

I want to invite you in this Lenten season to not only begin to see yourself in Ruth’s story, but to ask what it would take for you to rise up and to discover yourself and God’s will for your life by simply doing what you know needs to be done: by putting one foot in front of the other and being faithful to your calling as a student. It is only when “all hell breaks loose” that we begin to discover the character of which we are made. That character isn’t magically forged when you leave home and depart this campus, it happens each and every morning when you make simple choices about how to spend your time, where you will, and what you will do. This day marks a new opportunity for you to be stripped of the veneer of spirituality which so far has sustained you and to get serious about life at Greenville College. My colleagues and I welcome you in joining us in creating this beautiful tapestry of life and encourage you to talk with us during this advising week, not only about your classes for the coming year, but about the changes you want to make in your intellectual and spiritual life in learning to become more like Christ.

Now, I know that Ruth’s story can seem quite bland compared to glitz and glamour held out there by the culture. But the reality is that most of life is not glamorous but is made up of everyday plodding. Our calling is to remain faithful in the little things and, by so doing, to allow God to spin a story beyond our imagining. This is our challenge as we begin the shorter half of the semester this morning. This is God’s invitation to you and our firm belief that, by so doing, you will discover the God who stands behind all things and the person of character He has created you to yet become.