Where do we turn “in the time of trouble?”
I suppose we all have some hiding place or some wise-sage saying that will take us momentarily from the sorrow and anxiety of today’s world. We can all agree that things do not always go well in our lives. Sometimes there is personal challenge and tragedy; sometimes there is national trauma—and sometimes a sense of anxiety without an object, a general sense of hopelessness, discouragement and defeat. I find much comfort in these times by turning to the Bible.
I am so pleased to have had the experience in the seventies at the University of Chicago Divinity School and its dynamic faculty which allowed me to participate as a naïve student listening to the great conversation around me. (I hesitate to say too much about the Bible in the presence of Old Testament scholar Jay Wilcoxen and the religious ethics critique of Chris Gamwell, both of whom shared with me this dramatic and exciting time of great religious dialogue.)
This dynamic faculty of thinkers at the cutting edge of religious thought of the time taught me a new way to read—a new way of seeing and hearing. They gave me a new vocabulary to express things which until then were ineffable. I look particularly at “wisdom literature” such as the Book of Psalms and New Testament stories which, I was told by Paul Ricoeur, to “revisit.”
Let me give you two examples.
First, an individual tragedy in the summer of 2009 interrupted a church Conference in St. Louis. My son Daniel was going about his job at UPS in an Englewood neighborhood when the violence that is part of the “everydayness” of that community found its way to my precious family. Two gunmen approached him as he left a store and robbed him—they wanted cell phones, packages and jewelry—but in the process they also tried to take his life. They shot him in the back and left him for dead.
When the call about the incident came to me in St. Louis, my immediate reaction was to find my way back home and pray there by his side for his recovery. However, the Holy Spirit, which brings to remembrance all things, pointed me to Psalm 46. This collection of powerful words included phrases and allusions which have power as poetry but miracles in application. Is God our refuge and our strength? Is He an ever-present help in the time of trouble? Is there a river whose streams make glad the city of God? Then, the Psalm demands, “Be still and know that I am God!!”
So I found that river the Psalm alluded to—right past the man-made arch of St. Louis to the God-made Mississippi. There I prayed. And this time God honored my request, and my son lived.
I recall also the national tragedy of the twin towers of New York. When the media asked the giant from the University of Chicago, Martin Marty, for an explanation of the tragedy, he replied, as if he knew the same Holy Spirit that I rely on, “Psalm 46.”
Secondly, I am embarrassed concerning my narrow understanding of the gospel. My consistent reading of Luke’s account of Jesus and the Lepers (Luke 17:10-19) tells me that this is certainly a Thanksgiving sermon. You know the theme, the lepers went away and one returned to say thanks. That’s all you can get out of that story—right?
Perhaps a “revisit” to the story may uncover an additional or hidden meaning of the episode. Remember, Jesus announces to the doomed crowd, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” As they went, they were healed.
If, indeed, there is an explanation needed, it seems to be in the idea of following Jesus’ instructions. We may find that when we find ourselves—on the border— either of Galilee and Samaria, or of life and death; or of sickness and disease; or of despair and hope—calling out to Jesus and then going where he tells us. Apparently, according to the story, the “as they went” is the “how” they were healed.