Storms, Worry, Sparrows, and Charleston

Originally published in the Faith column of the Journal Review, June 20, 2015

As I’m writing this, I’m looking outside my window as a powerful, kind of unexpected storm passes through. My son tells me that the streets are flooding pretty quickly. He’s worried about a flash flood. We have friends who just visited from Houston, who talked about the flooding they have had in Texas, so it’s fresh on his mind. The wind gusts enough to get me worried – worried about wind damage, roof damage, and the kinds of things you just have to deal with during these months when you’re from here.

I read the news this morning about another horrific act of violence in our country. The mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. It makes me so deeply sad and distraught, and yes, worried. I worry about a culture, a world that this sort of thing happens in. I worry about the still open wounds surrounding issues of race in our country, wounds that are real, problems that are real. Wounds that must be exposed to light and air – meaning, honesty and communication – to even begin to heal. I also worry about the spirit of revenge and isolation, of living in a world where we are more and more suspicious of one another, barricaded from the perceived threat we are told to be fearful of – the other in our midst. I worry that some proposed solutions to violence continues to be more violence – I even heard one pastor interviewed on a major network suggest that pastors need to arm themselves to defend their churches. I worry because that’s not the world I want to live in nor leave for my kids.

But what if this is just the new normal? What if, as a friend commented, we’re just getting used to what people in other countries, or even some areas of our country experience? What if no matter what kind of world I want to live in or leave for my kids, it’s just going to be the way it is? What if the potential for violence, the culture of suspicion and fear and division is becoming like storms in June in Indiana? Something you learn to live with, something you’re aware of, that may or may not bring disaster personally, but something that becomes commonplace.

As a Christian, neither constant worry nor accepting violence, tragedy and fear as commonplace seem right. Jesus teaches, rather, commands us not to worry. Don’t worry about tomorrow (Matt. 6:34). Don’t worry about provisions, or how long you will live (Matt. 6:25-27). Don’t even worry about what to say or do if you are arrested for your faith! (Luke 12:11). It’s important to remember that He wasn’t saying this to people who had nothing to worry about. The socio-political climate was no less charged than it is now. Arguably, it was much more charged. There was a great tension between the Jewish people and the Roman state. There were revolutionary groups (some very violent) who sought to overthrow the Roman government. There was always the possibility of an Emperor wielding tyrannical power. Within four decades after Jesus ascends, Jerusalem falls and the Temple is destroyed after a great siege. Jesus’ followers would be persecuted from all sides, and have to be on the move. Constantly. Plenty to worry about.

And yet, knowing all of this will come, He says this: “Therefore do not fear them. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, preach on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matt 10:26-31).

Jesus is telling His followers at once to not be worried, but also why they should not be worried. First, when we see injustice, inhumanity, and terrible acts done among human beings, part of us wants to rage and cry out “WHY?” and maybe even wants to try to get control by exacting justice ourselves, by means of retributive violence. He is telling us that God knows all of this is happening. He’s also telling us that God not only knows but cares for our condition, more than we can comprehend. Humans may misuse free will and harm one another, humans may do terrible things. We may forsake one another, even, it seems, our own humanity at times, but God has not forsaken us. He has not forgotten. He has not ceased to care.  And because of this, we are told not to worry, no matter what happens in the world. But we are also told not to stop caring. It’s something of the Mystery of the “narrow way” Jesus speaks about (Matt. 7:14). The way of the world is to either be consumed in worry, to get into a self-defensive mode, or to stop caring altogether. The narrow way says “You must trust God, because He loves you, and you must love your neighbor because He loves them too.”

That Scripture from Matthew just happen to be the one we read at our weekday Liturgy on the Thursday morning I wrote this article. The same morning my son and I got surprised by a storm. The same morning I read more about the shooting in South Carolina and got very sad and worried. I was reminded by Jesus’ words to turn that worrying energy into prayer. Prayer is not powerlessness – it is action, because it shows a direct trust in God, and, if we pray for others, a love for neighbor. Worry shows and does neither of those. Pray for the folks in Charleston. Pray for those who lost their lives, for their families, and, yes, even for the young man who took lives. God cares about all of them. Pray for your neighbor, too, and your neighborhood, and our great town, even if you’re worried about it – especially if you’re worried about it.

Here is a prayer that was recommended by several bishops in the Orthodox Church in America to pray, for 40 days in the wake of the shootings:

“Again we pray for those who have suffered loss of life in Charleston, South Carolina and for their families and friends and we pray that hatred between people of different races, colors and religions be abolished among us, we pray Thee, hearken and have mercy.”