My grandmother was terrified of lightning storms. If a truck went by, it sounded like thunder to her. If I was outside, I would be called in. If I was at a neighbor’s house, I would be called home. At my tender age, I didn’t share her memories of people who had been killed by lightning, or her young memory of working in a wide open cotton or tobacco field when a storm rolled in. If I had, I might have been more understanding of her fear. I wasn’t. In the end her fretting anesthetized me from sharing her beyond rational fear.
That is, until Amazing Grace Daycamp the year my son was 7. We held camp at a park on the high point of town. Uncharacteristically, I left the site to meet someone for lunch in the middle of that day. It was sunny and humid. While eating lunch, I looked past the person with me and saw a suddenly dark, churning sky. I immediately jumped up and ran to my car and drove back the the park. The children and counselors were tucked into the picnic shelter as the rain came down in a fierce assault. I saw one of the counselors holding my panicking son, trying to console him with no success. If it were only rain, I would have charged from my car to the picnic shelter in an instant. But it was lightning. It was lightning as I had never seen before. The air itself was charged with layers of electricity floating between my car and the shelter. It was not merely a lightning bolt coming down every few seconds. It was continuous cracks floating in mid-air, as though we were being stewed in a cauldron of electricity. Of this lightning, I was afraid. My son saw me and leaned away from the counselor as he begged me to come. Everything in my being cautioned me against it. If I were struck by lightning, who would raise my son? I stayed in my car. He and I would deal with the emotions of that decision for years to come.
This morning we woke to the sound of rain. There were some assertive lightning strikes nearby. I drove Jim to the bus stop, hardly able to see the road for the glare of lights on the pavement. There were some dramatic bolts of lightning. Jim loves watching this. I tucked my worry back in my brain, hoping it would subside before I would take Carys to the bus. It was still raining when that time came, and Carys fussed about getting wet. I teased her, “Do you think you are so sweet you will melt?” It was a common admonishment in my own childhood, often met with giggles because we both knew I wasn’t THAT sweet.
What causes you to pause–getting wet, or fear of being struck? I know, I pose an irrational question when you want to say “Neither one bothers me very much.” I’ve been thinking about this today.
My grandmother knew of someone who was literally drowned by an overzealous preacher who dunked in the river. She didn’t like getting wet any more than she liked lightning. She wouldn’t allow me to go swimming on her watch either.
As I read the familiar Matthew 18 lection for this weekend, it occurs to me that a lot of us are as fearful of getting wet as we are of being struck. Notice I said “Us.” Somehow, we allowed baptismal water to coalesce with the eleventh commandment, “Thou Shalt Be Nice.” It’s deep in my gene pool, I can tell you . Southern girls can be like that. My aunt could justify anything –including murder–if you could do it in a ladylike manner. Conflict and disagreement terrify people like me. I was admonished, “Be a sweet girl and…..” when someone wanted me to do something, or scolded “Don’t be ugly…” when my temper ran hot. Be sweet. So sweet that you might melt if you get wet. Being angry or confrontational could mean getting yourself struck by lightning.” If another member of the church sins against you…” Whaddya mean “IF?” Nice people can’t acknowledge such a thing would happen in church, where everyone is supposed to be nice. For girls, and some boys too, we can internalize the dissonance of finding meanness in the church by telling ourselves we have done the wrong. Or just as likely, externalize the dissonance and pronounce the church to not be a “real” church and it’s members to be all hypocrites to act this way, justifying our departure from the church/institutional religion. All of this, I tell you, is a fear of water. A fear of getting wet. A fear of drowning in our baptism.
Of course, the fear of being struck by lightning is much more reasonable, isn’t it? Everyone knows a person can be killed by lightning.
I have heard a person bracket a comment they believe could be heard as blasphemy or heresy by saying, “I could be struck by lightning for saying this….” I’ve also heard good, faithful churchgoers say something like that when they propose an idea or plan of action that goes counter to the way things have always been, or the way everyone thinks. “God strike me dead if….” I’ve heard that too, as a kind of preventative maintenance measure. God help us, in this way we maintain orthodoxy and keep the nice girls and boys in line.
Matthew 18 comes as our rescue when the lightning floats in the air and the rain pelts down on us. I think it is a little naive of Matthew to say “If a brother or sister sins….” Better: “WHEN a brother or sister sins.” YOu know there’s no way around it Matthew, wherever two or three are gathered and there’s a decision to be made. Pour that water down on your head, and live soaking and drowning wet while you go in courage to that brother or sister in private. Engage difference and confrontation. Be as willing to be proven wrong as you are to prove you are right. Don’t walk out and slam the door in the face of a sinner.
Engage in moral deliberation and have hearty, even heated conversation. Glue your butt to the seat and put your hands on the table, not around the throat of another. Do not fear getting wet. It’s how we all came into this world, and how we come into the kingdom of God.
Do not fear that lightning will strike you down for asking the questions everyone else is afraid to ask. Do not be afraid to probe inside your faith and understanding and even to doubt that what “they” have always said or what YOU have always believed is the truth for all and every time. There’s that strange lightning that floats in the air that frightened me so much. Anxiety is like that lightning. It squashes every new thought, every provocative question, every challenge that could change the way things are even when the way things are is intolerable. It strikes EVERYWHERE, not just there. It kills indiscriminately.
Do not fear. The bible tells us so. How many times?
Walk through the cloud of crackling electricity.
The same electricity that can kill in spite of our best efforts can give light and energy to the world.