Scripture: Isaiah 26:1-6.
It’s great to see your faces life-size, although I always enjoy seeing the people who are online with me, attending by video link. Hello again to you, too! Next week I will be back with you on your side of the camera.
You won’t be surprised that I spend a lot of my days and nights thinking about the war in Ukraine. Because of the circles we moved in during our years in Russia, the plight of the peace movement in Russia since the mobilization has been a big concern. Many of those we knew and still keep in touch with are part of that movement and are taking great risks by opposing the war publicly. It may not be the same level of danger as those on the receiving end of Russian bombs, missiles, and artillery, but I can’t help worrying. Someone asked me a couple of days ago online about the best ways to support peace people in Russia, and there are not many simple answers. The best way I know of is to support Friends House Moscow (friendshousemoscow.org), which is still supporting draft counseling for potential conscientious objectors. Since the Russian Internet is full of advice for people who’ve just been called up, and the right to alternative service is sometimes mentioned in those articles, we hope that our draft counselors are visible and able to respond.
Today I’m continuing a theme that I started on my blog two or three weeks ago: “Perfect peace.” The original blog post was entitled, “You can never learn that Christ is all you need, until Christ is all you have.” Several people on social media had recently been quoting these words from Corrie ten Boom, and in this time of peace that’s less than perfect, and peace that sometimes seems entirely absent, I’ve been thinking a lot about her words. They seem to promise a source of peace beyond the power of the world, either to guarantee or to block, but her words also imply that it will cost us a lot to learn how true that promise is.
The source of Corrie ten Boom’s credibility to say anything about Christ being all you need is based on her experiences during the Nazi time, starting with the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands for nearly five years. Corrie had been working in her father’s watchmaking workshop in Amsterdam. She was the first woman ever to be licensed as a watchmaker in her country. When a Jewish man approached them for shelter from the Nazis, her family agreed to take him in, and in this way they began their path into full participation in the underground resistance, building a false wall to hide a compartment in their home for Jewish people hiding from persecution, and helping the resistance in other ways. As many of you may already know, they were eventually arrested, and Corrie’s father Casper died in jail soon after. Corrie and her sister Betsie were eventually imprisoned in the Ravensburg concentration camp, where Betsie died. Corrie was apparently freed through a clerical error shortly before the rest of her cohort in that concentration camp were executed.
Corrie literally experienced having everything taken away from her, except, as she would say, Christ. In her words, it was her personal experience that “In the center of a hurricane there is absolute peace and quiet. There is no safer place than in the center of the will of God.” But is it really not possible to have this kind of certainty if we have not been through the trials she endured? To put it another way, can Corrie’s words be used to promote an impossible level of holiness, another way for preachers to shame us for our inadequate faith and inadequate discipleship?
I look at it all somewhat differently. As some of you already know, I grew up in a violent and chaotic alcoholic family. My parents were atheists, and my mother in particular never wanted to hear anything about religion or faith. Moreover, my mother was in the Hitler Youth movement in her school years in a German community in Japan during those Nazi years. She was a vocal racist and antisemite during my school years in Evanston, Illinois. We lived on one of the borders between black Evanston and white Evanston, and we were in no doubt about who among our neighbors didn’t measure up to my mother’s standards.
Our time of trial came when my sister Ellen (two years younger than me) began running away from home. The first time she was caught by the police, she was remanded back to us, her family. The next time she spent time in the Audy Home, Chicago’s juvenile jail. When she escaped from a private hospital, she was returned to the Audy Home. The court assigned her to a foster family in Michigan, and she ran away from there. Her last stop was the psychiatric hospital in the west side of Chicago, and that was the last place I saw her. When she left there, we didn’t know what happened to her until she was kidnapped from a bar and murdered. I had no faith to support me. Cynicism, depression, and anger were what I had to fall back on. It was even worse when my parents began blaming me for my sister’s death. During those her times of cycling through one incarceration after another, I was involved in interracial activities in our high school. In my parents’ logic, this meant that, because a black man had kidnapped and killed her, I was partly to blame for her death.
Four years after all this, I was a college student in Canada. There I became a Christian and joined the Friends meeting in Ottawa. Ever since then, Quakers have given me a spiritual home, and much else besides. About three decades after I joined Friends, I was back in Evanston for a board meeting of Right Sharing of World Resources. (By the way, I was glad to see the Right Sharing-related announcements in your newsletter.) On Sunday morning of that weekend of the board meeting, I joined Evanston Friends at their meeting for worship, in their meetinghouse near the corner of Greenleaf Street and Maple Avenue. This meetinghouse was less than two blocks from my home on Maple in my junior high years, and less than two blocks from my junior high school on Greenleaf. I must have passed near that meetinghouse every school day during some of the most difficult years of my childhood, but I never noticed it.
What I experienced on that Sunday morning, all those years later, during that almost completely silent meeting for worship, was peace and healing beyond what I can put into words. It was like healing via time travel, retroactive healing, as if the power of that worship could reach back to that junior high kid in that apartment on Maple Avenue.
I am not claiming that my experience was the equivalent of Corrie ten Boom’s much more dramatic and severe trial. Not at all. But as I looked back on both of our experiences, a passage of Scripture came to me, Isaiah chapter 26 verse 3 in its King James voice: “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee.” Let me read the Scripture in a more contemporary translation, with some context, starting with Isaiah 26 verse 1:
Isaiah 26:1 In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:
We have a strong city;
God makes salvation
its walls and ramparts.
2 Open the gates
that the righteous nation may enter,
the nation that keeps faith.
3 You will keep in perfect peace
those whose minds are steadfast,
because they trust in you.
4 Trust in the Lord forever,
for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal.
5 The Lord humbles those who dwell on high,
he lays the lofty city low;
The Lord levels it to the ground
and casts it down to the dust.
6 Feet trample it down—
the feet of the oppressed,
the footsteps of the poor.
. . . . .
Verse three can be misinterpreted as yet another impossible standard: just keep thinking about Jesus and nothing bad will happen. Let’s be honest: this is a promise the ten Boom family and countless others apparently did not experience in this life.
But I see the promise in a different way: the choice to keep one’s mind stayed on Christ is a choice that nobody can take away. The Nazis could not take that choice away from Corrie ten Boom. My mother’s prohibition about even mentioning God could be healed retroactively.
Now, I don’t want to be glib about whether I would remember that choice under trial. I honestly don’t know, but it is still a desperately worthwhile goal.
Secondly, and closely related: these texts are a powerful corrective to much that is repellent about contemporary Christianity. Recently I’ve seen Christians mocking other Christians for stating their pronouns, for advocating being “safe men” (apparently what we need are dangerous men!), for using contemporary music in worship. Probably the opposite positions come in for mocking as well. (You know, even assembling this list might be a form of mocking; I better quit before I enjoy it too much….) So much of what passes for discourse among Christians (Quakers included) seems so hypercritical and crabby. And I won’t even go into all the ways Christians scandalize the secular world we’re supposed to be engaging. Often it turns out that non-Christians have a better handle than many Christians about how we should be treating people.
For all this negativity, I hear the prophet Isaiah’s words, and Corrie ten Boom’s words, as a severe but refreshing corrective. If the last choice I had in this world would be to stay centered on Christ, can I exercise, or at least imagine, that choice right now? What would that do to my priorities? How would that affect how I communicate what’s in my heart and listen to what’s in yours?
This same exercise is helping me to confront despair. God is apparently not forcing humanity to make decisive choices concerning global warming (although nobody could accuse God of hiding the evidence). God is not staying the trigger fingers on the front lines in Ukraine, or the police batons that are being used to beat antiwar protesters in Russia. Since Judy and I can vividly imagine specific Russian people who are passionately anti-war, I’m honestly scared for them.
To sum it all up frankly, God doesn’t seem to be doing what I spend hours asking God to do.
Intellectually I know that we humans have the ability and freedom to treat each other cruelly, to overthrow each other’s empires and sabotage democracies, to trample down lofty cities by the feet of the poor and the footsteps of the oppressed. We have the ability and freedom even to choose self-extinction, and some scientists warn us that we’re well on the way there. We’re not guaranteed happy endings to any story at all, except one: our relationship with our Creator. Prayer is an expression of that relationship, but not a form of control. The relationship itself is where God’s promises are kept in the face of our despair. Or as Matthew chapter eleven verse 28 puts it, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Next week, I would like to return to this same scripture, and expand the context by bringing in some of the previous chapter in Isaiah. It’s easy to take the promise of perfect peace as encouragement for our individual piety, but Isaiah is writing in a national and international and very political context. [As you can see from my Ukrainian shirt,] I don’t want to avoid that context, especially at this time in world history. I don’t think it is an honest use of the Bible, either. So next week I hope to reflect on what “perfect peace” might mean in these wider contexts, and especially for evangelism that has power and integrity for our real world.
As I end today’s message, I’d like to repeat the queries I mentioned earlier. If you find them useful, feel free to reflect on them during our time of open worship:
If the last choice I had in this world would be to stay centered on Christ, can I exercise, or at least imagine, that choice right now?
What would that do to my priorities?
How would that affect how I communicate what’s in my heart and listen to what’s in yours?
This message was given by Johan Maurer to Spokane Friends during meeting for worship on Sunday, September 25, 2022.