Never, No Never!
Toward the end of Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, Vladimir asks Pozzo: “What do you do when you fall far from help?” In Act III of Shakespeare’s, King Lear, the mad king has fallen “far from help.” He rages about his life that is out of control: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow! You cataracts and huricanoes, spout Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks. You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires, Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts, Singe my white head. And thou, all-shaking thunder, Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world, Crack Nature’s molds, all germains spill at once, That makes ingrateful man.” (III, ii, 1 – hurricanoes are waterspouts. Cocks are weathercocks, or weathervanes. Vaunt-couriers are forward scouts. Germainsare the seeds of life.)
“What do you do when you fall far from help?” What do you do when the winds blow and “crack your cheeks?” Though from differing centuries, Beckett and Shakespeare’s questions fit aptly into the absurdity of our 21st century lives. Years ago, we could simply “wish upon a star” or “talk, keep talk, keep talking happy talk,” but not now, not in a day when winds have blown with unimaginable, catastrophic results from an ever-evolving pandemic, as schools and hospitals and so-called “safe” houses are bombed in the Ukraine, as well-dressed looters prey on the poor through price gouging at the gas pump, as politicians who have lost elections announce that they have actually won, as a conspiracy theorist claims the shooting of children at Sandy Hook never happened and then is caught in his own lie in court. What do we do when the winds blow hard and we fall far from help?
There is an underlying sense of malaise in the air, an ominous fear that haunts many of us as we wonder, “What trouble will come next?” When will the next disturbed soul fire in a school or mall, a synagogue or a mosque or a church? When will the next white nationalist group march on the Charlottesville mall? When will the next elected leader announce that a red light means go and a green light means stop?
Despite these scary and divisive times, I still enjoy listening to Rogers and Hammerstein’s old song of the cock-eyed optimist, but it’s the older song of Lear that speaks to the madness of our times: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow! You cataracts and huricanoes, spout Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks.”
Beckett asked his question a few decades too early. His should be the official question of the 21st century: “What do you do when you fall far from help?” Ask that question and you take the first step into the unsettling world of Revelation. It is a world where normal assurances don’t work anymore, a world where evil is not an occasional visitor, but landed gentry; a world where simple religious formulas don’t produce the desired results any longer; where we pray but the heavens are silent; where we are faithful to God and compassionate to our neighbor and yet find ourselves accosted and accused, beaten and jailed. It’s a world where madness is the norm and God is nowhere to be found.
D.H. Lawrence described the book of Revelation as detestable and our theological ancestor, John Calvin, wrote a commentary on every book in the New Testament, except Revelation. In his superb commentary on this bizarre book, Mitchell Reddish asks: “Would we not be better off distancing ourselves from this book that has been the fertile field for fundamentalist soothsayers . . . and that to some people seems more of an embarrassment than a work to be taken seriously? (p. 2).”
Reddish asks what many Christians wonder and practice, simply by choosing never to read this final book in the Bible. And, while the temptation is great to lop off the end of the New Testament, ultimately, we do so at too high a price. For Revelation speaks to Christians like us who live in a world gone awry, to a church embattled from outside and within. Its language is strange and its images turn common sense on its head, but its promise is too much to set aside; it is the promise for which Christians and the church thirst when flood waters rise and threaten to consume us.
Logically, chapter seven should be the final chapter of Revelation. The last of the seven seals is broken and the end of the world should occur. Instead, chapter seven is a strange interlude, a holy pause with one scene happening on earth and the other in heaven. On earth, angels are at the four corners of the flat globe, stationed to hold back the violent wind of God, while in heaven, a multitude of too many to count saints hold a sold-out public concert. A slain Lamb rather than a marauding Lion sits upon the throne of God and saints in dazzling clothes not stained red but made white with blood sing a hallelujah chorus.
Welcome to John’s magical, mystery world. It’s a world to which many religious nuts turn in chaotic times as they read this bizarre book like a literal manual of the end time. Meanwhile others laugh out loud at such religious nonsense and dismiss it as a cookbook for kooks. Both groups miss the mark of what this “revelation” is about and therefore both groups distort the power of its message.
In the second scene in chapter seven, the scene set in heaven, a multitude of martyrs cannot stop singing songs of praise and thanksgiving to God. In John’s vision, these choristers are the Christians, the unlikely saints, who kept believing when they had fallen “far from help,” who kept hoping when hope seemed foolish at best, who kept witnessing to the non-violent love of God in Christ when others flexed their military muscles, and who kept giving of themselves in the name of the One who gave himself in love for the world. They died and the world laughed at their feeble, ineffective witness. They died but now they sing in unison around the throne of God.
These singing saints are met by a slaughtered Lamb that is also a ruling Lion and a gentle Shepherd. Revelation assaults the senses with fantastic, often changing, images that try to capture the inexplicable – how God redeems suffering, even the suffering death of Jesus. Revelation dares to ask Christians and a church to put their life’s trust in God, to believe in the good purposes of God, and to love God even in the midst of terror and suffering, sin and storm.
Believing in the redemptive power of God in Christ is never easy in any time. It is much easier, though, to believe in God when life is calm, when we are comfortable and can equate our prosperity with God’s reward for our sincere faith. Believing is easier when we carry the biggest stick and equate our political and military prowess with God’s divine intention for us. Believing is much easier when God provides a protective bubble around us to deliver us from the paths of drunk drivers, from the guided missiles of cancer and Covid, from exploding bombs on buses and school yards, and from horrific storms that mock our preparedness.
Look again at who sings the doxology in the seventh chapter of Revelation. These are the believers who held onto the promise of the Gospel even when life was at its bleakest and their faith no longer made any sense. Revelation puts the church on notice that we are called by God to hone our faith in troubled times, not to escape suffering, not to dodge pain at all costs, but to suffer with those who would otherwise suffer alone, to pray for and bear witness to the love of God in Christ even to family and neighbors and co-workers for whom the notion of divine love is nothing more than pious pablum, to bind the wounds of those victimized by our warring ways, to raise our voices to those in positions to make peace, to get involved in the lives of those who are struggling the most, to gather here Sunday after Sunday to lift our voices in praise while the majority of those around us scratch their collective heads and wonder why we do, to give sacrificially for the work of Christ in the world precisely when most people are cutting back on what they give.
If we are to add our voice on earth to the chorus of heavenly praise, then we must not be content with our nation’s pathetic response to a pandemic of shootings. Nor can you and I sit smugly by in our comfortable homes when too many can find no affordable, or any kind of housing.
If we are to join our voices on earth with the heavenly choir, we must sing something other than mindless praise songs. Since my childhood, I have sung the early American folk hymn, How Firm a Foundation. The song has survived several centuries, but the hymnwriter is now known only to God. Written in an age of great anxiety and uncertainty, soon after our Revolutionary War, the final verse declares: “The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose, I will not, I will not desert to its foes; That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.”
What do you and I do when we fall far from help? That’s Beckett’s question, not ours, not in this century, not ever. The promise of Revelation is not that the storms will hit elsewhere and the powers that be will be as gentle as a lamb. The promise is that all who follow the slain Lamb and sing with the chorus of heavenly angels despite chaos and catastrophe, even in the midst of chaos and catastrophe, are never far from help, never far from a God who will “never, no, never, no, never forsake.”
So, my friends, it is time to sing. Yes, it is time to sing.