“Be thou to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me…”
In the opening chapter of his book, “A Brief History of Time,” the physicist Stephen Hawking, tells a variation of a story that has been retold for decades. This is my favorite version of it. A powerful sultan was having trouble sleeping. He woke up in the middle of one night in a cold sweat filled with anxiety. He called for his most trusted servant to come. His servant who had been sleeping soundly, came to him, rubbing his eyes, “What is it, master?” The sultan said, “I cannot sleep. I need to know, what holds up the world?” The servant said, “Master, everyone knows the world is held up by 4 great elephants. Now go back to sleep!” He went back to sleep but woke up a second time, this time even more anxious than before. He called for his servant again. His servant, who had been sleeping soundly, returned, rubbing his eyes, a little aggravated. “What is it now, master?” The sultan said. “I know that the world is held up by 4 great elephants. But tell me, what holds up the 4 great elephants?” The servant said, “Master, everyone knows that the 4 great elephants are held up on the back of a huge turtle.” “Ah, yes,” said the sultan, and he went back to sleep. But then again, he awakened a 3rd time more anxious than before, and once again he called his trusted servant who by this time was getting extremely irritated. “What is it now, master?” The sultan said, “Everyone knows the world is held up by 4 elephants who are held up by a turtle. But what is it that holds up the turtle?” The servant said, “Master, you can go back to sleep, because its turtles all the way down.”
This is the only part of Hawking’s book I think I understand! Scientists like Hawking call this an “infinite regression.” In the simplest terms, it means that when it comes to certain questions like time, infinity, life, existence, you can never get to the bottom of it all. You reach a point in which there is no explanation except an explanation that has no explanation. It’s like dividing 10 by 3, you get nothing but 3’s all the way down. It’s like the age-old question: What came first? the chicken or the egg? For questions like that the answer is turtles all the way down. Even so, I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night wondering: what holds up the universe?
As we approach the 2nd anniversary of Katrina on Wednesday, in this stormy season of anxiety, one in which our entire city, the Big Uneasy, rests without peace, many of us are waking in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, asking ourselves the question what holds up New Orleans? Is it the city government held up by the state government held up by the federal government held up by FEMA held up by Homeland Security held up by the Army Corps of Engineers? Sounds like turtles all the way down. What holds our church up? An architect’s plan on top of a long-range plan on top of a short-range plan on top of the best laid plans of mice and men. Sounds like turtles all the way down! And what holds you up? When you wake in the middle of the night filled with anxiety about what tomorrow holds? Is it the house built on coffee grounds raised 14 feet held up by the mortgage held up by the bank account held up by the insurance company held up by the tax assessment, held up, alright! Sounds like turtles all the way down. And when your get to the rock bottom of it all, is there a rock? Is a there anything solid on which we can with confidence build our homes, stake our lives? something permanent?
I have often thought of all the volunteers who have streamed into our city over the past 2 years, who have worked here for a week and then returned to their homes in other places: Places on higher ground. Places on solid ground. Places above sea level. But then I would read in the papers about what had happened in their city, their state—the fires in the west, the floods in the east, the mudslides, storms and tornadoes in between, the collapsing mines and failing bridges and earthquakes. I remember when the group from Boston returned home, within the next few weeks to experience record flooding, to be mucking and gutting in their own neighborhoods. I emailed them: should we send a team to you? It’s the kind of thing that makes you wake up in the night wondering: Is there any place on this planet where you can stand on something solid, something, somewhere permanent?
Everyone longs for something permanent. There is perhaps no other human desire or drive that is more pervasive than our longing for something permanent. The problem is that we human beings are notorious for confusing that which is truly permanent and that which is only temporary. I am reminded of the most helpful discussion that Steven Covey includes in one of his books about what he calls the “changeless core.” Everyone of us needs something at the center of our lives that has the power to endure even when everything else around us is blown away. All of us organize our lives around someone or something upon which we depend as an ultimate source of security and peace. Is it your Spouse, Family, Home, Money, Possessions, Pleasure, Self, Approval of others?
As important as all these things are, not one of them is changeless. People make mistakes, people let us down, people can be fickle, people are not perfect, people do not live forever. Money comes and goes, and lately money mostly goes. Possessions? Many of us in New Orleans found a cure for our love of possessions after Katrina: gutting houses, carrying out armloads of soggy clothes, linens, pillows, blankets, sodden wooden furniture that fell apart in our arms, soaked stinking books, load after load of doo dads and knic knacs, all the stuff that we can accumulate in our acquisitive culture. I haven’t enjoyed a day of shopping since, and I question every purchase I make: do I really need this, do I really want this, will I one day soon have to deal with the disposition of this or is there something better, more lasting in which I might invest my limited wealth?! And to think, there was a time in my life years ago when a week was not complete without a trip to the mall, even if I needed nothing, just to shop. For what? Anything, something, to comfort, to pacify, to hold, to possess, to bring home.
I think of the character in Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut who “tried to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.” And now, all the things that once seemed essential are to me now like barnacles, heavy baggage, certainly not the stuff of which a changeless core can be constructed. Can your “changeless core” withstand a Category 5 storm? Not if it is constructed out of temporary stuff. But something permanent.
In my study this week I read something fascinating in a book by John Claypool about the story in Exodus of Moses demanding Pharaoh in Egypt to “let my people go.” The Pharaoh, who was turning quite a profit, building his empire on the breaking backs of all these Hebrew slaves, refused. And so God sent one plague after another,10 in all, turning the Nile to blood, with invasions of frogs and locusts and flies. You can’t help but wonder why God went to all that trouble when, in the end, he still had to squash Pharaoh by force. But scholars have shown us how each of these plagues were related to something that the Egyptians considered to be divine. The Egyptians were polytheists. They did not believe in one God, but in many little gods. They worshiped the river, the sun, the pharaoh and his family, even frogs, locusts, and flies. And so what this story is really about at a deeper level is how God challenges the authority of all the little gods in which we human being invest our sense of security and peace.
The point of the story is that at the rock bottom of it all is God and God alone, the One who is the Creator of the river, the sun, the pharaoh and his family, the frogs, the locusts and flies, the turtles, the you and me sister, the you and me brother, he’s got the whole world in his hands. In a way, as Claypool points out, he was trying to deliver the Egyptians from a form of bondage also, the kind of slavery that is idolatry. The tragedy of every form of idolatry, Claypool writes is “relying ultimately on something that is ultimately unreliable.”
So many of us have been like Hansel and Gretel who left a trail of bread crumbs as they journeyed into the woods thinking that it would help them find the way home. But when it came time to go home, the birds had devoured that trail of bread crumbs. No, when it comes time to go home, we need something more permanent than bread crumbs to follow. If that’s what your life depends upon, if that’s how you hope to find your way home, you will be lost. Don’t do it! That’s why the first commandment Moses delivered to his people went like this: Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Stake your ultimate reliance on something ultimately reliable. Something that can never be swallowed up or destroyed. Something permanent.
Perhaps there is no other message that is more important for a minister to give his or her congregation in this world of ours in which we human beings get so confused about what is truly permanent and what is only temporary. An ancient eastern parable is told about a master who awakened his students in the middle of the night and summoned them outside to see the stunningly beautiful panorama of brilliant blinking stars, the Milky Way, the constellations glimmering across the night sky. Pointing to the galaxies above, he said: “Look at my finger! Look at my finger!” They got the point. The point is not the finger!—but rather, that to which the finger is pointing. So it is with me, my message, my ministry, my finger—it points to that which cannot be captured, controlled, confined, changed.
So it is with our steeple we are building. Though it consumes much of our time and energy it is not the most important thing at Rayne. Have we not learned that this steeple, as awesome as it is, is not permanent? But it is only a finger. It points away from itself to that which is permanent. “Set your mind on things that are above,” says Paul. It is a most revolutionary, counterintuitive thought at the center of our faith: “The things you can see,” says Paul, are temporary. “The things that are unseen?—that’s what’s permanent.” So it is with your soul. C. S. Lewis once wrote, “You don’t have a soul. You ARE a soul. You have a body.” “The body they may kill,” says Luther, “God’s truth abideth still.” Something permanent.
Isn’t that what Jesus was talking about when he told the parable about the foolish man who built his house on the sand and the storms came and flooded the house and swallowed it up. But the wise man built his house on the rock and when the storms came the house stood strong and withstood the wind and the rain. Where is this rock?! In what city is it located?! Jesus answered: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like the wise man.” The Word of God. Hear it. Believe it. Trust it. Live it. Do it. Stake your life on it. And what is that word but love– unconditional, unfailing, unconquerable, changeless, love—something permanent.
Not unlike the kind of peace the Psalmist had found: He asked himself the question what is holding up the universe, what is holding up my life. And the answer he gave was not to be found in any thing, any person, any place, any possession. For at the bottom of everything, even the worst of things, especially at the bottom of all the things we cannot fully understand or explain, with strong arms to catch us when we fall is God. In you, he says, My God, my Rock, my Refuge, my Fortress, my Savior. Something, somewhere, someone permanent.
Some of you will remember the haunting song written and performed recently in our sanctuary by William Thiele’s brother:
Permanent, a Song by James Tealy
I would gather up some cardboard and build myself a house
I’d find some shiny things and call them mine
It’s all I had to offer, it’s all I knew there was
I’d take a shallow breath and call it life
There must be something better
I know there’s something real
Cause I can feel
Something wind and water
Cannot wash away
Have I really been so blinded by all that I can see
To think that what I see is all there is
There is hope below the surface, there’s life beyond this skin
And grace to get us to that place from this
And I have built a home there
My days here won’t last long
I’m so soon gone
Somewhere wind and water
Cannot wash away
In the meantime I’ll keep a looser grip
On the stuff I’ve piled in this sinking ship
And I’ll hold tight through this long night
Cause He’s permanent
Cause He’s everlasting
He is permanent
He is everlasting
And His peace inside me
Will not wash away