As an undergrad, I had a professor who looked like she shopped in Stevie Nicks’ closet: floor-sweeping skirts, bell-sleeved ponchos, trailing scarves. Cold weather be damned, she never wore a coat, but just added more layers to her already multi-tiered ensemble.
I cannot for the life of me recall what the class was actually about, but I do remember that the professor was passionate about Greek mythology, specifically the goddesses, and managed to work them into every discussion. She seemed to feel that there was a goddess for everyone; it was a matter of simply picking your personal deity and modeling your life after her — like making a selection from a mythological Greek buffet, where gods and goddesses waited patiently, wedged in between the souvlaki and octopus and moussaka.
“Be like Athena!” she’d cry, coils of hair liberating themselves from her messy bun. “Strive for justice and fairness in the face of the oppressive patriarchy! Be like Aphrodite, and own your sexuality!” she’d shout, glaring at the snickering frat boys in the back row.
It was an exhausting class, not because of the reading load or the writing requirements, but from the sheer energy the professor expended at the front of the classroom. Trying to keep up with her as she hopscotched from topic to topic, whirling and waving like Tigger trapped in a cloud of wasps, was utterly depleting. I was always hugely relieved to move on to my next class, taught by an esteemed professor of Literature who hadn’t actually moved in 32 years.
Fortunately, people who give off manic energy like the Goddess Lover are few and far between. But even for those of us whose energy levels fall within social norms, it can be incredibly challenging to be still.
Yesterday, as the organist (literally) pulled out all the stops to deliver a rockin’ prelude before the service began, I looked around and noticed that at least half of the people in attendance — mainly the priest/professors — had their eyes closed and were utterly still. Whether they were cat-napping or communing with God is anyone’s guess, but I was envious, because being still is an ability I sorely lack, as my yoga teacher will attest.
The verse that you often see on plaques and signs about being still is from Psalm 46, verse 10: “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
The psalms are lyric poetry meant to be sung; some are songs of praise, some are songs of thanks, some are songs of penitence, and some of celebration. Psalm 46 celebrates and thanks God for giving Israel a victory; verse 10 appears to be a ‘statement’ from God, instructing his people to put aside their weapons and relax into the security that the Lord provides.
Ah, if only it were that easy! While it’s occasionally possible to be physically still, the real challenge is to turn off the brain. My hope is that science, along with finding a way to delete song lyrics, can create a “SLEEP” switch for our jumpy monkey minds; a way to fully disengage from our To Do lists, quotidian concerns, and existential angst.
If only we could trust that our lives are exactly where they are meant to be, that God has brought us to where we are now both intentionally and purposefully, perhaps we could relax! But most days, our lives seem haphazard, full of half-baked decisions, occasional luck, and a lot of unnecessary drama.
In the face of this, how do we hold onto some sense of purpose, some faith that there is a point to our efforts and an intentional progression to our years, when life seems hell-bent on leaving the distinct impression that we’re on a hamster wheel, going nowhere fast?
That is, perhaps, the crucial challenge of faith, and the Old Testament is full of times when the Israelites faced the same set of crippling doubts. Distrusting Yahweh, they turned to other gods — more often than not, Ba’al, the god of their neighbors.
In response, Yahweh railed against them, often showing the Israelites the error of their ways through pleasant correctives like famine and defeat at the hands of their enemies.
While most of us don’t veer off to Ba’al, we still wrestle with doubt, and look for signs that God is actually paying attention to our lives. But perhaps the proof of God’s attention that we’re searching for so anxiously is right under our noses? Maybe it is in all of the things we take for granted, because we’ve grown so accustomed to the presence of the divine? The human body, for instance, which is capable of strength and agility and beauty that boggles the mind…the natural world, whose grandeur pales only in comparison to its ability to provide for us….the ability to love, selflessly and grandly and generously… the capacity for reason and imagination…the examples we have of men and women whose bravery and selflessness moves and inspires us to become greater than we already are… Are these not proof that God is fully invested in us?
Nicholas Winton was a London stockbroker who, in 1938, went to Prague shortly after Germany annexed the Sudetenland. On the brink of war, hundreds of Jewish families were living in refugee camps in Czechoslovakia, with no programs or plans in place for the rescue of the children. In response, Winton created, through bribes and secrecy and forgeries that put him directly in the deadly sights of the Nazis, a pipeline to get Jewish children out of Czechoslovakia and into safe homes in the UK. Winton organized and funded eight trains to carry the children to the waiting foster parents he had selected; seven of the trains made it, rescuing 669 children (the children in the other train – 250 of them – were caught when Hitler closed the borders, and are believed to have been killed in concentration camps).
Winton never spoke of his efforts, even to his wife, who only learned of them when she found a dusty record book in her attic in 1988. Her husband urged her to throw the book and the paperwork it contained away, but she resisted. Later that same year, the BBC did a story on Winton. If you do nothing else today, take the minute and a half required to watch this short clip right now: Sir Nicholas Winton, BBC
With all due respect to my former professor, we don’t need made-up characters to emulate. And we don’t need proof that God is with us, because we already have it in the irrefutable truth that we have been granted this journey through life in the company of people like Nicholas Winton, whose spark of the divine was a beacon to so many.
So when you are doubting, when your mind is jumping and your thoughts are tied in knots and your faith is as weak as thin ice, think of Nicholas Winton, and be still. And know that in him, and in you, and in the world we’ve been given, God was and is and will forever be among us.
What further proof could we possibly need?