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The Tempests and Agitations of the World

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Spring is taking a long time this year to get to West Michigan.  Last week was extremely stormy here in Grand Rapids (and many other places in the Midwest).  Literally.  We had snow and wind and massive amounts of rain.  The Grand River crested to record-setting levels.  Creeks and other rivers overflowed their banks. 3 ½ inches of rain in one day alone meant that many, many folks have (and continue to have) flooded basements.

As we all know, last week was stormy in other ways as well (and as my colleagues here have beautifully discussed): Boston—and all of us really—caught in the awful tumult created by the appalling violence of two young men. 

I am struck by how many verses about floods and storms are contained in scripture.  Whether natural or metaphorical, it is clear that few things expose our feeble power, our incredible fantasies of control more than raging water, whatever form it takes.

The magnificent short psalm, Psalm 93, is full of overwhelming deluges:

The LORD reigns, He is clothed with majesty;
The LORD has clothed and girded Himself with strength;
Indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved.
2 Your throne is established from of old;
You are from everlasting.
3 The floods have lifted up, O LORD,
The floods have lifted up their voice,
The floods lift up their pounding waves.
4 More than the sounds of many waters,
Than the mighty breakers of the sea,
The LORD on high is mighty.
5 Your testimonies are fully confirmed;
Holiness befits Your house,
O LORD, forevermore.


And yet, as Calvin reflects in his commentary on this psalm:

It is then declared that such is his faithfulness that he never deceives his own people, who, embracing his promises, wait with tranquil minds for their salvation amidst all the tempests and agitations of the world.

What interests me especially here is Calvin’s sense that part of God’s faithfulness lies in not “deceiv[ing]” us about the calamities that threaten to devastate us. The “testimonies,” then, that are “fully confirmed” celebrates the ultimate power of the “Lord on high” but don’t diminish the real terror of the loud and looming waters.

The unseasonableness of both the weather and the news made me think of a Mary Oliver poem, written not for spring, but for the coming of winter.  Nevertheless, the poem’s conclusion provides at least a small measure of consolation in a moment when spring seems very far away indeed. 

Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness

  by Mary Oliver

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends

into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?

So let us go on, cheerfully enough,
this and every crisping day,

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed. 


“Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness” by Mary Oliver, from A Thousand Mornings. © The Penguin Press, 2012.  If you do not own a book of Mary Oliver’s poetry, you need to remedy that today.  

This version of the poem appears at


Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

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