The Gift of Being Thunderstruck – 3/21/21

Storms were my greatest fear when I was a child.  The loud sounds of the thunder, the flashes of lightning, torrential rain, and blowing winds sent me into a panic.  Every time a storm warning came on the television I forced my parents to retreat to our basement, believing a tornado could be coming at any time.  I saw tornadoes as the culmination of my fears, this powerful vortex of wind which would destroy our home and take our lives.

My parents tried all manner of tactics to get me to calm down when we would descend into the basement.  But there was only one thing that finally worked.  My father had an old reel to reel player.  And with it were tapes of my grandfather.  I never really knew my grandfather.  He died when I was around two years old.  But my parents told me I had a special connection to him, that I would never cry when he held me.  That they would take me to visit him, and he would play his fiddle and sing.  And when he did, I would dance around in front of him.  These tapes were recordings of that music.

While the thunder boomed outside, while the winds whipped up, and while my own anxiety rose, my father would play those tapes.  It was difficult to hear the recordings, particularly with the cacophony occurring outside.  So I had to listen intently.  And as I began to focus on my grandfather’s voice, a peace began to descend.  The storms lost some of their power over me.

We continue with our Gifts of the Dark Wood theme today with the Gift of Being Thunderstruck.  When I refer to being thunderstruck, I refer to those times of sudden awareness, a sense of revelation, when we hear or become aware of things which give us a sense of peace or purpose moving forward in the path of our lives.  In our first reading this morning, we read from the book of Job a reference to God speaking through the thunder and lightning.  Thunder gods are a common feature of ancient religions.  In creating loud noise in the sky and throwing bolts of lightning, the gods could gain the attention of the people who feared this power and gave the gods their obedience.  Thunder and lightning as divine power is expressed not only in the Bible, but in many other ancient religions. The Hindu lightning god Indra possessed the thunderbolt Vajra, using it as a weapon.  Zeus famously had his thunderbolt, given to him by the Cyclops.  The Mayan god Huracan is sometimes depicted as three bolts of lightning and was known for creating powerful storms.  The Australian Aborigine god Mamaragan spoke through the thunder, riding storm clouds to throw his lightning bolts.  The Israelites used similar imagery to describe the voice of Yahweh, just as their contemporaries who worshipped Baal in Canaan or Marduk in Mesopotamia.

It is believed that these myths were created to explain the origins of storms.  But I believe this imagery also speaks to us today as a metaphor of how we experience the direction of the Divine.  The imagery of the gods speaking through lightning and thunder often aligns with the sudden flashes of awareness we obtain.  Like walking through a Dark Wood, not being able to see a path ahead, sometimes we feel lost where we are in our lives.  And in the midst of all that darkness, there is a lightning flash.  Suddenly, very briefly, we are able to see.  In that flash of lightning, our surroundings are illuminated.  We are able to see in a moment where we are and where we may need to go.  We move in the direction the lightning has illuminated as we are suddenly able to catch a glimpse of what is ahead.

In our second reading this morning, the speaker finds herself in the Dark Wood, walking a gray path. She doesn’t see anything striking, all seems peaceful.  She notices some sounds, a lilac before her, but not much more.  Then suddenly there is a patch of bright red tulips.  And their appearance, the sudden unexpected brightness, the strength these flowers show, brings to the surface a desire for change.  The speaker witnesses their power and desires to be like them, feels seen by them.  There is a change in her perspective when she sees this color in her otherwise gray surroundings.  She witnesses these flowers holding their ground, their strength like a bright battalion.

And this encounter changes her.  She has a new passion within her, a new way of seeing.  She no longer wants to preserve the silence of the woods.  The tulips have brought something out of her, something she didn’t know existed.  The sudden appearance of these bright flowers in her path gives her a feeling of being thunderstruck, changing her outlook on the path ahead.

I have never heard the booming voice of a sky god.  Never experienced a resounding voice speaking to me from the heavens.  Never had an experience like those recounted in the Bible where people are described as hearing the voice of God.  But I have had moments of a sudden awareness, moments of clarity, “aha” moments like seeing those red tulips in which I felt a connection to the Divine.  One of the primary ways I have heard the Divine is through the voice of fellow travelers.  Whether because I am more attentive in those times or because I am in my greatest need, when the path ahead is covered with darkness and the storms rage around me is when these voices become the most clear.

During my residency at BroMenn, one element of the curriculum was writing a theological reflection.  My theological reflection focused on my struggles with a view of the afterlife.  As a child, I was taught that heaven was a literal physical place – a place with streets paved with gold, where all of Christ’s followers would receive their own mansion, that believers would be given “glorified bodies” and we would be reunited with everyone that we have loved and lost (provided they were believers as well).  This often led to a sense of escapism – that this life is just something that we have to endure.  That it really does not matter if we are happy.

In our residency group, I shared that I no longer see heaven as a place like this.  I no longer believe I will be reunited with those that I love, at least not in a physical sense.  But that sense of escapism continued to linger.  For so long I was taught that my happiness does not matter, and it has been difficult for me to shift that understanding.  If there is no heaven like I once believed, the purpose of life that was for so long instilled in me was gone as well.  While there was comfort in thinking there is no physical place of torture looming, there was discomfort in thinking there is no paradise that I will be able to go to once life is over.

After sharing my reflection, a member of my group asked me, “What does heaven look like for you now?”  This is the first time I had been confronted with that question.  After a few moments of consideration, I was surprised by my answer.  I said simply, “Heaven for me is an absence of suffering, suffering that I have endured in the past and the fear of the suffering I will endure in the future.”  And the words she said were like those tulips seen in the gray forest.  She said simply, “You don’t need streets of gold for that.”  While such a simple and obvious statement, I have carried those words with me.  Reminding me that my faith is not meaningless simply because I can no longer hold to certain tenets, reminding me that an absence of certainty is not an absence of hope.

Sometimes these lightning strikes of understanding arise suddenly, sometimes over time.  In his autobiography, Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela wrote, “I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, ‘Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people;’ instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.”

As we have seen over the past year, the lightning strikes which light our path forward may be painful, difficult to experience.  In the wake of the tragic killings of George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, the thunder cracks were painful to hear.  But they brought a new awareness of the path which lay ahead for us as a nation coming to terms with its racism.  The storm of the pandemic forced us to seek shelter, isolating us in our homes.  But in its lightning flashes we have regained a sense of the power of community, what we lose when we are separated from one another.  In the storm of the last presidency, we saw the degree to which xenophobia continues to permeate much of our society.  But it has also brought for many of us an awakening of the need for advocacy for immigrants and refugees.  Just this week we heard the thunder claps of the effects of hatred for the Asian community, and we had more awareness of the work which remains to be done.

When we experience one of these moments of being thunderstruck, either suddenly or over time, the path we walk changes.  Our outlook is altered, our motivations shift, our plans evolve.  When we listen intently as we wander the Dark Wood and the inevitable storms come, those voices can help us to weather those storms.  Just like the voice of my grandfather, it may be difficult to hear, we will need to focus our attention, but that voice may give us the peace we need in the midst of our fears.

Today we tie a ribbon as a prayer that we will find the gift of being thunderstruck.  That in those times when the storms of life surround us, when we feel lost in the Dark Wood, that the illumination of lightning and the sound of thunder will make us aware of the path ahead, give us peace even while we wander that the darkness will not last.  That voices will speak to us which will give us calm in the midst of the storm.