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One gift of my present context in Palm Beach is oceanfront proximity: there’s only a couple miles between our family’s front door and any number of idyllic beaches (I know, we’re suffering for the Gospel down here, but someone’s gotta do it).
At the beachfront parks here, large chalkboard signs posted at the entrance of park paths orient us to the oceanic conditions: high and low tide times, wind speed, water temperature.
My children’s favorite portion of these signs, however, is the large bottom section, titled “HAZARDOUS CONDITIONS.” Day by day, lifeguards scribble onto the board the particular threats to human life that the beachgoer ought to anticipate:
These “hazardous conditions” signs have done little to quell the impression we had before moving to Florida that basically everything in this state wants to kill you. But they’ve also made me wonder at just how much of human life ought to carry some sort of hazard warning like the ones I walk by at the beach.
I’ve wondered about that a lot over the last days. Wondered it while taking in the horrifying videos and stories from Kabul chronicling the U.S.’s messy, ongoing exit from Afghanistan.
Wondered it while absorbing the news of the devastating earthquake in Haiti.
Wondered it while watching Hurricane Ida rocking the city of New Orleans on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina rocking New Orleans.
I wondered it after my wife received a phone call a couple days ago informing us that a good friend of ours, an elder from our former church, just found out that her 34-year-old daughter had died suddenly and inexplicably the night before.
I wondered about it when one of my children last week stumbled upon a loaded gun that someone had discarded in our front yard, and worried over just how close we were, in our seemingly-safe neighborhood, to something terrible happening.
YHWH Will Keep Your Coming & Going
In these moments lately, the Reformed Christian teaching about God’s providence has been a lifeline. The doctrine of providence is classically (and beautifully) articulated in the Heidelberg Catechism, in Q/A’s 26-29:
What do you believe when you say, ‘I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth’?
That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by eternal counsel and providence, is my God and Father because of Christ, God’s Son. I trust God so much that I do not doubt that God will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and will turn to my good whatever adversity God sends me in this sad world. God, being almighty God, is able to do this; God, being a faithful Father, desires to do this.
How does the knowledge of God’s creation and providence help us?
We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from God’s love. All creatures are so completely in God’s hand that without the divine will they can neither move nor be moved.
I love the way Ursinus and Olevianus (the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism), in a fraught time of their own, first framed these questions in the German Palatinate. Their articulation of God’s almighty and tender keeping of God’s people and God’s creation is warm, pastoral.
In Psalm 121, that ancient expression of trust in God’s providence, the psalmist declares, while on a dangerous journey, that YHWH “will keep you from all evil,” “will keep your life,” and “will keep your coming and your going, from this time on and forevermore.” Lutheran and Reformed Christians have long prayed this psalm at the baptism of a child, and beside the funeral casket of a deceased person being commended to God. God keeps your coming, and God keeps your going.
Admittedly, in the face of what your news browser likely looks like these days, expressions of faith like the Heidelberg and Psalm 121 can feel glib, naive. But, these aren’t pronouncements crafted from the breezy safety of a palace or the ease of an ivory tower. They were forged in the teeth of hazardous conditions: treacherous terrain, bloodshed and heartbreak, political machinations.
There’s humility in their words, and room for the movement of “disorientation” in the life of faith, as Walter Brueggemann puts it. But our mothers and fathers have clung to these brazen claims that we can be patient in the present, and have good confidence in God’s future, because of the wounded-and-crushed One they bear witness to. In Jesus’ nail-scarred embrace, God keeps us from our first day to our last.
It’ll Be Alright
A few weeks ago, I listened to an interview with a Presbyterian minister for whom I have a lot of respect. He was relaying the experience of receiving a shocking pancreatic cancer diagnosis, and his own spiritual journey in the face of a bleak medical prognosis. At one point, he said in a quiet voice, “one way I sum up the Christian hope nowadays is that, because of the cross and empty tomb of Jesus, no matter where my own journey takes me, in the end, I know that ultimately it’ll be alright. It’ll all be alright.”
That’s hope to have “good confidence” in, hope to take seriously, hope to hang onto for dear life: that because of the nail-scarred, risen Christ, it’ll ultimately all be all right.