At some point in our lives, we all have one of those experiences where we are lying in bed at night listening to the sound of a storm raging outside our window. The pelting of rain against the glass, the crashing of thunder, the howling of the wind and depending on where we live, the cracking sound of trees falling in the forest and sometimes even crashing onto our roofs. One night, when I was still quite young, I was at my grandparents’ cottage when a tremendous thunderstorm blew in across the lake. Having fled my own bed at the storm’s first sounds, I was neatly tucked in my parent’s bed between them when lightning struck the house. I have never forgotten the sight of the beautiful swirl of pinks and yellows that radiated into our room through the window. I was both terrified and in absolute awe of it all.
In many places in scripture, God is described as the shelter from the storm. In Psalm 29, God brings the storm. Which is bit surprising because when people are asked to reflect on where or when we feel close to God our response often includes experiences in nature. I myself would say that looking at a starlit sky, watching a sunset or looking out from a mountain top vista are all places I have experienced a sense of the Divine. There is something about the awesome beauty of nature that evokes a sense of the sacred. Rarely, however, do we consider those aspects of nature that are destructive as also being potential conduits for the Divine. And yet that’s what today’s psalm implies.
The voice of God thunders over mighty waters, breaks the cedars, shakes the wilderness, strips the forest bare, causes the oaks to whirl. If this is that’s what the voice of God does, I can’t help but wonder what exactly God is trying to say to us through all of that destruction.
My only conclusion is not that God or the writer of Psalm 29 is trying to scare us but rather that the writer is trying to convey to us the powerful nature of the Divine, so that we might know who we are and who God is. There is nothing like a storm to remind us that despite all we human beings can do, life is ultimately beyond our control. I don’t think that it’s fear this psalm is trying to evoke from us as much as reverence and respect.
Earlier this week when I first looked at Psalm 29 and read the part about the voice of God thundering over the mighty waters, I found myself thinking about this very week 16 years ago now. It was the Sunday in the church calendar that we traditionally celebrate the baptism of Jesus and we were planning on having a baptism of an infant here that Sunday. It was also two weeks after a huge tsunami had hit Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and 11 other countries. Over ¼ million people had been killed and another 2 million had been displaced from their homes. As a global community we were still reeling from the impact of the news. The sight of the waves reaching land and the destruction they caused being replayed on the nightly news was definitely awe-inspiring in the most terrifying kind of way. I was wondering how were going to gather around baptismal water as a symbol of God’s love, grace and renewal when we were still recovering from the violent force of water we had just witnessed.
Water refreshes, renews and cleanses us. We cannot live without it. And it destroys, devastates and kills and all of it comes from the same source, the one we call the creator, the source of life.
So I was grateful that Sunday 16 years ago now when I remembered that one of the definitions of baptism that we so seldom speak about in the United Church is that baptism is a sign of death and resurrection. We don’t talk about that much because baptism is usually a time of happy celebration and who wants to talk about death when we are celebrating the baptism of a child? But if we are going to gather around water as a symbol of the Divine then how can we avoid the way that water both gives and takes away life? It would be like gathering around experiences of God in nature, but not those experiences in nature that are destructive.
If we are going to say that God is in all things, then God most definitely is in the storms of life, as well as in the peaceful moments. But there is a difference between God who sends storms as Divine retribution and God as one who allows storms or who comes to us in such a way that storms are simply part of life.
To speak then of God in the waters of our baptism or in the fire of our Pentecostal faith, as one who is about death and resurrection, surely is to gather around an image of God who exists both within experiences of death and within the redemptive capacity of resurrection.
The question I posed to the gathered community 16 years ago was whether it was possible for us to find in the destructive waters of the tsunamis that battered and destroyed so many thousands of life, any kind redemption, new life?
It was a difficult question to ponder just two weeks after the event that was still unfolding before us with disastrous consequences. What’s so often true in life is that we can rarely see or experience redemption until we are a good distance from the destruction out of which new life arises. Sixteen years later, there are still those who are grieving the loss of loved ones who died in the tsunamis but there are also those who have experienced redemption and new life.
To begin with, the tsunamis prompted the largest global relief response in human history. Some of that relief went to training women to process fish, giving them the first paid jobs they had ever had and therefore for many of them along an escape for many of them from abusive situations. Other women were empowered to create livelihoods for themselves through savings and loans programs. One Sri Lankan man who knew personally the benefit of prosthetic limbs, used relief money to rebuild his prosthetics clinic destroyed by the waters with additional capacity for vocational and job placement programs for people with disabilities. Farmers whose lands were flooded with salt water, their crops ruined, were assisted in desalinating their land to make it usable again. The seeds and tractors they were given helped to create the biggest crop yield they had ever had just one season after the tsunami had devastated their land.
The voice of God resounds over the waters. The glory of God thunders over the raging seas. God’s voice is powerful and full of majesty. It is a voice that demands reverence and respect for it creates things we cannot create.
And yet, we humans have been made in the image of this Divine ruler. We too have the power to destroy and to build up. We need look no further than what has happened south of the border this week for evidence of this truth. And so as we sit in awe and wonder of a Creator who both brings the storm and calms the storm, may the strength that we seek from this sacred source, be the strength to rebuild and to remake and may our peace come from the blessed promise of resurrection and the possibility of new life in all our places of death and despair.
May God’s powerful voice, ring ever loud and clear in our ears evoking from us the repeating sound of glory, glory, glory.