Terrorist attacks and mass shootings bring to the foreground a high level of existential fear that hides in the shadows. Politicians like Donald Trump play to the fears of the crowd with great bombast. The news media fill the airwaves with talk and analysis about terrorism, which realistically is a much lower threat to world security than climate change and global inequities. Terrorism will not defeat us but our own fear of it may do so, by increasing militarism and isolationism.
“Be still and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations. I am exalted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:10). This is a sovereign command from Yahweh, the Lord, to calm the waters of chaos, which is promptly obeyed. The Bible pictures God in constant struggle with Chaos (“the mighty waters”). The original creation was done by pushing back the waters of chaos and creating purposeful and good creatures in the beautiful Garden of Eden. Psalm 29 pictures God sitting enthroned on the flood after a mighty thunderstorm. When I read Psalm 29 as a liturgist I ask the congregation to create the sounds of the storm by clapping hands and stomping feet in a crescendo until the storm is stilled and God is enthroned in the silence that follows. The idea of chaos represented by storms and floods is older than the Bible – stories like Noah and the ark are common in ancient religions. But over and over the Bible emphasizes that God is in charge and will push back the chaos, if we seek God’s help. The Gospel story (found in several versions) of the stilling of the storm by Jesus when his disciples are overwhelmed by fear is a continuation of this tradition of the sovereign command of God. Mark tells us the crowds were amazed, “who is this that the wind and the waves obey him?” (4:39).
I recently saw the powerful drama, A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, at the Gamm Theater in Pawtucket, R.I. with the brilliant Marianna Bashaam playing the lead role. The play is about how chaos encroaches on American family life. The scene was New Orleans in 1947, but all of today’s social problems are in the mix: sexism and sexual abuse, violence, alcohol and drug abuse. The theme of mental illness as disintegration into chaos is presented at the conclusion of the play as Blanche Dubois is led away to a mental hospital. There is no comfortable conclusion, only an implied challenge to the chaos. I ached for a sovereign command from God “be still…” but it was left unsaid.
Walter Bruggeman, ever aware of the dangers of individualism, points out in his Old Testament Theology (p.657) that “Be Still” is not a “pious, devotional act of contemplation,” but a command from God to chaos. I understand his objection but I do think that the use of the text as an introduction to silent prayer and meditation is appropriate. Indeed it is even more appropriate knowing that we all face the forces of chaos on a daily basis. We meditate and pray in order to find the courage that comes from God to face the violence, the abuse, the addictions and the consumerism that threaten us everywhere. The command of God to the forces of chaos seeking to destroy the earth is equally applicable to those same forces at work in our personal, social, economic and political lives.
Someone penned the following repetition of the text as an introduction to prayer. I like it very much.
Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know that I
Be still and know that
Be still and know
Be still and