2011.3. 20 Rev. Kim, Young Bong
“A Song In the Midst of Disaster”
Psalms 121:1 - 8
The aftermath of the destruction, left by the March 11th earthquakes and tsunami in Japan, has been growing to a catastrophic scale. In addition, it is difficult to even predict the impact or the duration of the damage that the breakdown of the nuclear reactors is currently causing. It is becoming a global issue and not one that is just affecting Japan. It is clear that the number of victims who have perished, whose lives were extinguished in a moment, will be beyond our imagination. Furthermore, there are those who have been spared their lives, but have lost everything. Their homes, material possessions, livelihoods, have all disappeared, leaving them utterly distraught. It is hard to even imagine what they are going through.
In the face of such an enormous tragedy the careless remarks of certain American and Korean religious leaders have caused quite a stir. Personally, I have been anxious upon hearing the news coverage of this event. I was worried about the possible reckless comments that certain judgmental Christians could make, as they did previously during the tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia or the earthquake that shook Haiti. Unfortunately, my fears came true. Remarks such as “Japan’s current misfortune is the result of their distancing themselves from God” or “The current crisis is the punishment they get from idol worship” were heard from various Christian voices. As a result, Christianity is facing intense scrutiny from the media. How can we now spread the gospel in Japan? How can we gain legitimacy as Christians in Japan? It is truly a concern that can put us to shame.
How can it be that we, as Christians, are so eager to act in the name of the Lord, yet we do not strive to understand the Lord’s will? How can one be so insensitive and dismissive of other people’s misfortunes and yet have a firm belief that he/she is living for the glory of God? I sometimes wonder if I believe in the same God that such people believe in. Hearing a comment such as “I am too embarrassed to be a Christian” is no longer a novelty. In reality, this is not a matter that only concerns religious leaders. It is not difficult to find Christians eager to pass judgment and criticize others rather than sharing in their grief.
Dear beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, let us fast and pray for Japan during this period of Lent. By fasting more than a meal a week, let us share in the pain and suffering experienced by the people of Japan. As of now it is not certain of how we can help them. There are various efforts to collect relief funds for them. However, money probably is not the issue at hand. It is possible that Japan may be able to overcome this disaster by its own means. It is more important for us to acknowledge and share in their pain and suffering than it is to collect monetary contributions. Therefore, let us be at one with them through prayer and fasting.
At the same time, let us devote ourselves to fasting and relief offerings, from now till Easter, for the cause in Japan. Japan is different from Haiti. We should be driven to act by our desire to stand in solidarity with them and not because they lack the resources to help themselves. In order to show the sincerity of our prayers, let us decide on the amount of the offering as our hearts dictate. For those of you who cannot participate in the fasting, you can also participate by reducing your expenses to contribute to the relief fund. Your contributions can be offered during the worship service or deposited in the box provided near the entrance. We will then send the collected offerings to the place that has the greatest need for it.
Today we read chapter 121 of the Book of Psalms in accordance with the calendar of the liturgical year. Last weekend, as was I reading the schedule of events as listed in the liturgical year in preparation for this week’s sermon, I saw the news coverage on Japan. Upon seeing the giant waves, some towering over 50 feet, engulfing entire cities and villages at a speed faster than a jet plane, the words of Psalm 121 that have always been a source of inspiration and comfort to me now felt distant. Let me read you a few verses again.
The Lord watches over you-
The Lord is your shade at your right hand;
The sun will not harm you by day,
Nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm-
The will watch over your life;
The Lord will watch over your coming and going
Both now and forevermore.
This chapter of Psalms is composed of many songs. It is also a much beloved chapter of Psalms. Amongst it, there is also a hymn that we sing frequently. It is a hymn that starts off with the words “The Lord watches over you, the Lord is your shade at your right hand”. When I sing this hymn with my eyes closed, I am filled with reassuring confidence.
Nevertheless, reading this chapter of Psalms, while picturing the catastrophe that Japan is going through, I could not help but wonder “how much of this is true”? It states that God neither sleeps nor dozes off; God watches over and cares for me, and protects me from all disasters. However, how was I to interpret this? According to the predictions of some experts, the earthquakes of Japan serve as the prelude to a future disaster of astronomical proportions. I wish that this is not the case. However, if it was to happen, I wonder if I could still say “amen” after reading this chapter when I am faced with such a disaster. As stated in this chapter, will God rescue me from all impending disasters? Should I just believe and pray accordingly? Should I pray that I alone be saved from the disaster that affects everyone else?
There are people that pray this way. There are those who expect such special treatment and follow God. Before we go on to examine whether this behavior is right or wrong, we cannot deny that God does not act this way in reality. Amid those that have perished in the earthquakes and tsunami of Japan, it is very likely that there were faithful Christians among them. Nevertheless, that immense wave that has devastated the country of Japan held no preferences or prejudices. It is impossible for people looking for special favors from God to not be taken aback by this cold reality. Even those, not expecting any special treatment from God, are baffled as well.
Jesus knew well this confusion people are experiencing. Faithful believers at that time tend to regard God as a rigid paternalism. They believed that God only pours grace on those who believe in God just as some parents who only wish that their children would prosper no matter what happen to other children. Thus, they acted as if they themselves were God to those unbelievers. They were never hesitant to judge and punish others.
In fact God never enjoys judging humans’ misfortune or punishing them. Rather, he carries our pain and helps us to overcome it. But those who misconstrue God as showing favoritism also misconstrue God as taking sides. Jesus talked about this misunderstanding as follows:
He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45).
God doesn’t espouse favoritism of one against another. That is because both the good and the bad are God’s children. The righteous and unrighteous are God’s children as well. If the righteous and the good are the children in his house, the unrighteous and the bad are like the children who left his house. We may not say that children who left their parents against their will are not the children of their parents. Parents tend to worry more about the children who left them. As such all humans are the children of God. The only difference is that some live in his house and some don’t. Thus, God treats all of us with the same love. He never loves one more than another.
Some of you may want to ask, “Then, why do we believe in Jesus Christ?”
The reason we believe in God and Jesus Christ is not to secure his favor. The reason is that living in God is the happiest thing on earth. Who do you think is happier between the one who lives in the parent’s house and the other who doesn’t? If you think the one who left the parents’ house is happier, one’s family must be in trouble. In fact one who left one’s parents can’t avoid hardship even though his family is in trouble. Moreover, one who lives in the house of one’s parents must be much happier when the family is not in trouble. Parents’ love toward the children is the same, but the children who decide to stay with their parents are happier. It is not because parents love one child over the other but because the child is living with one’s parents. This is why we believe in Jesus Christ and God.
Having said that, we can better understand Psalm 121. The Book of Psalms 121 talks about God, the one we believe and confess as our father. The one whom we confess as our father is the one who ‘created the heaven and earth.’ We learned through the Hubble telescope that the Universe is so vast. We still don’t know the full extent of the Universe but we are overwhelmed only by the size of it known to us to date. We are confessing the one who created the Universe as our father. God is taking care of us like a father in addition to our confession that he is our father. It means we shouldn’t forget about that.
I heard one episode from a pastor friend. He was facing hardship economically when he got married. He worked as an evangelist in a church located in a remote rural village, and living as such is not economically sustainable. Thus, his wife often complained about the money. One day, the pastor took her to a rice field by putting her in the back seat of his bicycle. Seeing a golden rice field waiting to be harvested, he said “Don’t worry, honey. These all belong to my father.” Then, his wife responded with surprised eyes, “Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier?” Then, the pastor smiled back and said “No. I mean not my father, but the Father! (pointing the sky with his finger)”
We can neither laugh nor cry about the episode but it makes sense in some way. The one whom we believe is the one who created the heaven and earth. He is so huge beyond our imagination. We call him “Abba” for Father. The great Father takes care of us. This is a fact that moves us. How small are we against the huge tsunami that swept across the east coast of Japan? Then, how trivial are we against the one who created the whole universe? But God is looking for us, calling us and treating us. He doesn’t look at us from a distance but close at hand, and looks at every move we make and share our joy and pain. Believing him means to serve the great and observing God and live in his house.
Even if we accept that God’ love is not partial, it is hard to accept all that verse 121 says. God who built heaven and earth can certainly protect me from all the disasters if he wanted to. I acknowledge that he has such power. Still, such things do not happen often.
Of course, anybody could have a story or two that cannot be explained any other way than God’s miraculous intervention. While I was away in Korea a deaconess in our church had a heart attack. I was startled when I heard the news from Korea.? But when I came back and got the details, I became convinced that it was only through God’s imminent intervention that she is alive today. Her life was saved by a mere margin of few minutes. If she waited for all the medical team to assemble when she got to the hospital, she could have died. But when she got there on a 911 call, all the necessary team members were there already. I could not but affirm the truth of today’s verse, “The LORD will keep you from all harm - He will watch over your life” is truth.
But the problem lies in that it doesn’t happen every time. Not forsaking God by not leaving God is no assurance of God’s miraculous intervention whenever we are struck by disasters. Really, in many cases, people with good faith suffer the same trials, hardships, accidents and sicknesses as other people do. When that happens, we may begin to question the words, “The LORD will keep you from all harm - He will watch over your life.”
One of the theologians I was personally and deeply influenced by and I respect most is Stanley Hauerwas at Duke. He is a Christian ethicist and he is the most trusted among the living theologians. He not only excels in his academic world, but he deserves respect in his life and belief.
A while ago, he published his autobiography, Hanna’s Child. Recently, he shared one of his own hardship stories in the book at the Fuller Theological Seminary. Reading the story on the internet, I felt pain in my mind and received the grace at the same time.
He focused on his experiences of pain in living with a wife with a bipolar disorder. She poured her anger about the hurt she had received from her mother when growing up onto her husband, and this got worse and worse. She blamed everything that happened to her was his fault, and eventually left him. Dr. Stanley Hauerwas narrated the story of raising a son while dealing with a wife having a bipolar disorder, and explained unbearable loneliness, anger and pain under the circumstances. His wife died of heart attack about ten years ago. I was surprised and marveled to learn that his academically profound and spiritually fertile writings transpired during the time of such painful period. Understanding the pain he went through, I got to respect him more.
It doesn’t mean that a firm faith exempts one from pain, hurt, agony and trials everybody may suffer. Very influential Rev. Henri Nouwen once suffered depression. Once called a modern - day prophet, Rev. William Sloan Coffin of the Riverside Church in Manhattan lost his son in the twenties in a grisly accident. Rev. Ha Yong Jo who has had strongest influence over Korean Christianity over the past generation gets dialysis three times a week. There is no end to such examples.
Then, what is the meaning conveyed by chapter 121 in the Book of Psalms? What is the meaning of the words like God watches over us and does neither slumber nor sleep, and he keeps us from all harm?
At this point, we need to ask what harm means. What is harm? Harm or misfortune indicates the incidents that shake our lives, such as a failed business, a lost beloved one, suffering from diseases, or a catastrophic disaster. However, such external incidents do not always shake our lives. Even at the same incident, some people are shaken to the core, but some are not stirred even an inch. Why? It is because it depends on our mind and how it confronts with the disaster or misfortune, rather than the actual disaster or misfortune.
Paul Tournier, who is a physician in internal medicine and a writer from Switzerland, says in his book, “the Adventure of Living,” that:
Doctors readily recognize that the greatest obstacle to successes in life is not a physical ailment. Physical ailments can be remedied through medical services using medical implements, followed up by doctor’s advice. But a psychological obstacle posed by a mental condition is not easy to remedy. (p. 170)
That’s right. When we encounter an incident, if we think, “Oh, probably there is nothing we can do,” then, we might not survive because of this way of thinking. If we are afraid of even a trivial thing, saying “oh, a serious thing happened,” it really becomes a serious thing. Eugene Peterson says like this, interpreting chapter 121 of the Book of Psalm. Water, even in the ocean, cannot sink a small ship, unless water runs into the ship! As the same token, any incident that we meet in the world cannot shake us, unless it runs into us! (A Long Obedience, p.43)
The biggest disaster among disasters is the disturbance in us. That is, disappointment, despairs, and fears. When those things come into us, our lives are supposed to be ruined. The other hands, as long as our inner bearing is strong and sturdy, any misfortune cannot ruin our lives. This is the very meaning of the saying, “The Lord will keep you from all harm and watches over your life.” God is impartial; therefore, the rain does come down on sinners and the righteous. However, the rain wouldn’t do harm to the people who believe in God and are close to him, because the rain could not drench the inner being. But, those who left God will be drenched mentally and physically.
As such, in witnessing the catastrophic disaster that unfolded in Japan, I exclaimed “amen!” affirming chapter 121 of the Book of Psalm. God whom I believe in is not partial. I do not always experience miracles of God. I am confronted with the same things that other people are confronted with, and I also will encounter such things in the future. And yet, I still can confess, “The Lord keeps me from all harm.” The true disaster is struggling alone, after leaving God and forgetting God. Losing God is the worst disaster. Therefore, nothing can be a disaster, as long as we live in God.
I earlier related to the story of Dr. Stanley Hauerwas. The story of Dr. Hauerwas is filled with accounts of hardship which touched my heart.
I’m a Christian theologian. People assume that I know the answer to the question about suffering. I absolutely don’t know the answer to the question. What I’ve learned while living as a Christian theologian is the mere fact that we should not try to answer the question. But, our human nature nudges us to keep asking the question. However, it’s wiser to remain in silence.
Christianity’s worldview is deemed the ‘right answer’ to generally affirm that the Christian path is the way of the truth. However, deeming a ‘right answer’ is in itself reducing Christianity to a mere explanationl. Being a Christian is to learn to live without the need for an answer. It would be truly an awakening realization to see that being a Christian is to learn to live without the need for an answer. Having faith is to live without the need for an answer. You might think it’s too easy to say, but I think this might explain how I am extremely excited living as a Christian. (Excerpt from <News and Joy>)
I hope for those saying thoughtless words about the recent Japan’s disaster to read and to ponder the confession of Dr. Stanley Hauerwas. What he said is right. We are not the people to have answer for these diverse problems in life. As Apostle Paul said, we don’t know the answer until we face God. We live without knowing.
However, one thing is sure. It is that God, who created heaven and earth, is watching over us, taking care of us and keeps us. When we come closer to him, and abide in him, we don’t go though disaster, although disaster confronts us. We don’t undergo death although death may face us. If you feel that I am in no position to speak of suffering first hand, then heed what Dr. Stanley Hauerwas has to say. It is Dr. Hauerwas who confessed that he never left God, but trusted God despite the everyday hellish struggles, suffering, and despair from loneliness.
Today I praise and affirm Psalm 121. Although I know that believers might be helplessly swept away by a tsunami, and if it happens to me I’d be one of them, I still praise and affirm that “he will keep me from no harm.” It is because I truly know to discern the disaster I should avoid and who God is that I trust.
I’m asking you to join my praise and confession. This is the song which helped Dr. Stanley Hauerwas to endure the loneliness and the hellish sufferings of his life. I am certain that this song can also keep watch over you and me.
Lord, Thank you for being our Lord.
Father Thank you for being our father
Thank you for allowing us to know you and live in you.
Hold us and help us keep our faith. Amen.