A few years ago, I attended a worship symposium at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. One of the workshops I attended was led by John Thornburg, who has done a great deal of work in Cameroon transcribing and translating hymns and songs.
One song he shared with us is called “Dans la barque avec Jésus.” It was written by a woman named Thèrese, and it is based on the story in the gospels where Jesus calms the storm at sea. The song talks about being in the boat with Jesus and about the sense of calm and peace the disciples found there.
John shared that he often found the process of translating tricky. It’s not enough to get the vocabulary correct—you have to understand the context, too. “Dans la barque avec Jésus” was no exception. As they worked on the English text, John realized that Thèrese looked like she wanted to say something. When they encouraged her to speak up, she said—you are translating the song as if it is being sung after Jesus calms the storm. But this song is set during the storm.
John and his colleagues realized that they had missed a profound theological point that Thèrese was making. We can find peace and calm not only after the waves are still but even as the boat is being tossed on the raging sea.
The book of Job tells a story that is both tragic and somewhat confusing. Job is a very righteous man, but the accuser (ha-satan in Hebrew) says to God that Job is only pious because God has blessed him. If God were to take away all that Job had, the accuser says, surely Job would curse God.
So God gives the accuser permission to test Job’s righteousness. Job’s family is killed and his possessions destroyed. Job responds by shaving his head, sitting in ashes, and saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
But do not be fooled. Job is not exactly the patient character we often hear about. In fact, although Job never curses God, he does question God, and boldly. Job’s friends chime in with lame explanations about why these terrible things have happened, only making things worse. They are trying to calm the storm rather than ride it out with Job.
In fact, they had it right before they ever opened their mouths—the first reaction of Job’s friends to his misery was to weep aloud, to throw dust on their heads and to sit among the ashes with Job in silence. Their silent presence with Job turned out to be a much more honest and comforting response than the platitudes and explanations that follow. There was nothing that they needed to say. They only needed to sit with Job among the ashes.
Twelve years ago today, the streets of Manhattan were filled with ashes that came to be called “the dust of death.” The Sunday after Tuesday, my dad preached on Psalm 102, which we heard in prayer earlier:
For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
I am too wasted to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning
my bones cling to my skin.
I am like an owl of the wilderness,
like a little owl of the waste places.
I lie awake;
I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
those who deride me use my name for a curse.
For I eat ashes like bread,
and mingle tears with my drink. (Psalm 102:3-9)
Artist Makoto Fujimura lived and worked just blocks from the twin towers at the time.He writes about when he finally found his son, whose school had barely served as a refuge from debris from the second tower. C. J. was covered in “the dust of death,” the ashes matted in his hair and turning his black backpack gray.
For I eat ashes like bread,
and mingle tears with my drink.
I’m sure many of us have stories from September 11, 2001. We know exactly where we were and what we were doing and whom we called first. My parents came to pick up my siblings and me from school, and we went to the church. Someone plugged up a TV in the office, and we sat watching the news in numb disbelief. People wandered into the building, seeking some source of comfort in others and perhaps, impossibly, in God.
Something happened to us as a nation that day. As I wrote this sermon, I found myself tearing up—that happens every time I think or talk about 9/11, and I didn’t even know anyone who was killed that day. I’ve heard someone say it’s almost like our entire country has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. My dad put it this way: “For all of us, some wound got burned into our psyche.”
Yet I can’t help but feel that instead of seeking healing, we too often have lashed out. How many times since that day have we as a nation explained or accused instead of mourning or restoring? On 9/11, we experienced something that had never happened here—and yet all around the world, that level of violence and destruction is commonplace.
Did we give ourselves time to grieve? Did we make adequate space to sit in the ashes and to find that thousands of people in other places were sitting in the ashes, too?
In the book of Job, God challenges even his best follower’s conception of God’s power.
William Brown put it this way:
“The Lord’s world is a messy one. God essentially challenges Job’s conception of divine sovereignty, namely one of direct and decisive intervention in the course of earthly affairs. The theological point of God’s challenge to Job is that God does not rule with an iron fist, grinding the wicked into the dust and coercing obedience from earthly subjects. Rather, God governs with an open hand, sustaining creation, leaving both good and bad characters to weave their existence into the complex network of life. God is characterized here ultimately by creativity, self-restraint.”
As it turns out, God’s creativity is closely linked to God’s healing. Makoto Fujimura says this: “Theologically, the whole of earth is ‘Ground Zero’…[and] Christ is the God of Ground Zero… ‘Ground Zero,’ in Christ, can also mean a cancellation point, a new beginning where we can stand on the ashes of the Wasteland we see and still seek renewal.”
Fujimura says that we seek renewal through creativity and the pursuit of deep peace and restoration. He writes, “Create we must, and respond to this dark hour. The world needs artists who dedicate themselves to communicate the images of Shalom. Jesus is the Shalom. Shalom is not just the absence of war, but wholeness, healing and joy of fullness of Humanity.”
What would it take for that wound burned in our psyche to be healed?
The song we will hear next began as a poem by Reynolds Price. Reynolds Price was a North Carolinian, a southern writer with a deep interest in Biblical scholarship. In 1984, doctors found a tumor entangled in his spine. During his treatment, Price had a vision in which he met Jesus by the Sea of Galilee. Here’s how he tells the story:
It was the big lake of Kinnereth, the Sea of Galilee, in the north of Israel… the scene of Jesus’ first teaching and healing. I’d paid the lake a second visit the previous October… Still sleeping around me on the misty ground were a number of men in the tunics and cloaks of first-century Palestine. I soon understood with no sense of surprise that the men were Jesus’ twelve disciples and that he was nearby asleep among them… Then one of the sleeping men woke and stood. I saw it was Jesus, bound toward me… Again I felt no shock or fear. All this was normal human event; it was utterly clear to my normal eyes and was happening as surely as any event of my previous life… Jesus bent and silently beckoned me to follow… Jesus silently took up handfuls of water and poured them over my head and back til water ran down my puckered scar. Then he spoke once—“Your sins are forgiven”—and turned to shore again, done with me. I came on behind him, thinking in standard greedy fashion, It’s not my sins I’m worried about. So to Jesus’ receding back, I had the gall to say “Am I also cured?” He turned to face me, no sign of a smile, and finally said two words—“That too.”
Although surgery and radiation cured the cancer, Price was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. And yet he said this of his years after his illness: “They’ve brought more in and sent more out—more love and care, more knowledge and patience, more work in less time.”
In the 80s, Price became fast friends with James Taylor, who looked to Price as a sort of a spiritual mentor. Taylor is a recovering heroin addict, and a spiritual practice is integral to his program, but Taylor had little background in spirituality and struggled with that part of his recovery. He claims that his friendship with Price was helpful in that way, and over the course of their friendship, the two men collaborated on the popular song “Copperline” in addition to “New Hymn.”
The passage I chose to read from Job is a strange one because the Hebrew is much more confusing than the English suggests. Yet this also makes these few lines very interesting to read in different translations. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase The Message refers to God in this passage as “the One who gives me back my life.” And the Good News Biblerenders verse 27 this way: “I will see him with my own eyes, and he will not be a stranger.”
When Reynolds Price had his vision of Jesus, he knew his savior immediately and felt no surprise. However strange the vision itself might have been, Jesus himself was not a stranger to Price. And Jesus came to him not only to forgive his sins but also to promise a cure—even though that cure left Price sitting in his wheelchair as if in ashes until he passed away in 2011.
In the ashes of Ground Zero, of the wound burned into our psyche, of every tragedy or loss that we experience as individuals and as a people, in the ashes, in the boat, in the storm, Jesus is with us, Jesus is our shelter, Jesus is our Shalom. In the creative, healing work of seeking that Shalom, of seeking wholeness, in our flesh that has been burned away and is beginning to repair itself, there we see God. “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the [dust]; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.” Amen.
Sarah S. Howell