Surpassing all understanding

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In September 2001, I was serving in a pastorate in Abbeville, Louisiana. Shortly after the 11th, the mayor gathered all of the religious leaders together in the town square to pray about our situation. I’m inclined to believe that this was an egregious trampling on our separation of church and state, but I would have been foolish to fight it. I gathered. Even in the heat of the afternoon.

All of the religious leaders were men, except for me. And I seemed to punctuate the fact that I was a woman, because I was carrying my daughter. There were about three Baptist, five Charismatics, three Roman Catholics, one Methodist, one Episcopalian, and me.

One guy had the nerve to get up and pray for forgiveness for our country. He had been taking preaching lessons from Jerry Falwell, and for him, it was obvious that the reason there was a terrorist attack was because of women in authority positions. And if that wasn’t enough, he specified: “even in our churches.”

I slouched in my chair a bit.

One after one, the preachers got up, with their hair slicked back, evoking dramatic prayers, calling on God for help, and strength, and forgiveness.

I was praying that the service would end soon.

And then the Episcopalian priest got up. He was in his fifties, and in that crowd, his lack of hair was a noticeable. He had a tiny congregation that kept going because of their loving and beautiful ministry to divorced Catholics. He shook a bit with his prayerbook, he got up close to the microphone, and he read a Psalm. He read a Psalm, in a quiet voice and I hung on every single word, as if it was life itself.

The tension and fear that had been balled up in my stomach left. Of course, I was still annoyed with that sexist guy, but even my anger had dissipated. There was some sort of peace that overcame me. And over the course of that year, I began to read those Psalms over and over again. Psalms like this one:

“You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to God, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
my God in whom I trust.’
For God will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
God will cover you with God’s pinions,
And under God’s wings, you will find refuge.”

Somehow, sitting there in my fear, anger, and helplessness, I sensed God enfolding me under those wings, shading me. I felt peace, even as I longed for it.

But why? Why did my fear soothe? I didn’t sense that we were out of physical danger. And contrary to the Psalmist, I knew that my belief in God could not save me or my family from dying in a terrorist attack. I am fully aware that good people of faith died on 9/11. But, nonetheless, there was peace.

Some would say that it was just an emotion, just a feeling that overcame me. Some would say that in my weakness and frailty, in the midst of our patriarchal society, I needed a father figure whom I could rely upon at that moment, and so I conjured one up in my mind. And I was suddenly hiding under the wing of the cosmic granddaddy of them all: the God of Abraham and Sarah. And that’s what gave me comfort.

Maybe they are right. I would never downplay the place of imagination or emotion in these situations. We know that a little bit of creativity, hatred, and anger can cause a world of destruction. So, if an individual’s imagination conjures up a thousand years of belief and prayers and tradition, and that in turn causes peace, well that’s no small matter to brush aside.

But we also know that peace is something that runs deeply. It moves us from emotion and stirs us into action. It can cause us to seek justice and mercy, and emboldens us to do amazing things.

So let us rest, enfolded under the wing of God, and in that sheltered place, let us long for peace.

photo’s of a church in the square in Abbeville, by Adam Melancon

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4 thoughts on “Surpassing all understanding

  1. I live here in Abbeville, and have been a member of both the church in the photo, as well as the Episcopal church you spoke of. The pastor of the Episcopal church is very calming to listen to and is a great speaker.

    Great article, thanks for the photo credit!

  2. There are many powerful Psalms like the one you just quoted. Can you imagine the number of people, scattered on every land on the planet throughout the last 2500 years or so who have been similarly comforted by that very same Psalm? I think there is a reason those Scriptures are considered sacred to so many people, even to non-Christians.

    You are right, it would be easy to say that comfort you experienced is all self produced, like whistling in the dark. You found a gent whom you could easily find commonality with in contrast to the other men who made you feel uncomfortable. But like I said, that would be too easy. It reminded me of the short article and my reply on this site from last week, (which I reprinted on our group site this morning, I hope you don’t mind). I have been thinking a lot about external forces influencing our spiritual growth. These articles jof yours give me some hope and encouragement in that area. Thanks again.

  3. Adam,

    Wow! Blogging is so fascinating. I’m always amazed at the medium–that we can make this connection from Abbeville to DC.

    Your photos are great. This is the second time I’ve used them. Did you see the other one? It’s here. Is that a Tabasco sign from Shucks!? I miss that place.

    I miss Abbeville in general. Wonderful people, wonderful food. I hope all is well there.

  4. HIS,

    Of course I don’t mind. I’m honored.

    Okay, so I said it to Adam, but I have to say it again. Blogging is so fascinating. Surreal, even. Thanks to you, on one Sunday morning, I preached to a congregation in D.C., while, at the same time, I was uknowingly taking part in a sermonette that was running on De-Conversion and Atheism Central. Great comments on De-Conversion. It gave me a lot to think about.

    But then again…I’m not sure anything’s more surreal than Richard Dawkins’ signature on a banana….

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