The Terrifying and Short-Lived Providence of God

There’s not much I can say at this point that I would be confident in attributing to all Americans.

Most generalizations are pretty dicey right now.

We are such a divided country with such widely divergent experiences that it’s hard to speak for everyone.

It feels most days like the political divide has us living in completely different realities from one another.

But here is a generalization that I feel 100% confident in attributing to pretty much all Americans: we are really, really tired of not knowing what’s going to happen next.

If you’re like me, you let yourself be lulled into a false sense of optimism coming into 2021. It’s like we all thought that if we could escape the literal numerical reality of being in 2020, the Year of Doom, things would look up.

Everyone knew 2020 was a wash, but 2021! Things are going to be different!

We earned a fresh start.

We stuck it out and didn’t go (completely) crazy through a pandemic that restricted our movements and took away friends and family too soon, massive racial justice work on the streets and in our hearts, lost jobs among soaring income inequality, and rounding it out with murder hornets of all ungodly things.

We made it. We were all so ready for a new year with a fresh start.

And then on day 6 of the new year, right wing militants led an insurrection that invaded and desecrated the United States capitol.

After thinking for so long, “Things can’t possibly get worse,” they did. In spades.

If you’re like me, you’re exhausted, afraid, disappointed, embarrassed, and losing faith that this dream called America is even real anymore, if it ever was—and we know it wasn’t for generations of oppressed people.

White violence was tolerated and apparently even welcomed in the halls of Congress, as capitol police put up a pitiful defense against the insurrectionists and in some cases ushered them directly in.

White supremacy ran amuck in the House and Senate for five hours—or rather, it did so in flag-waving openness rather than just in the polite, buttoned down, suit-clad form in which it usually manifests there.

I can’t take any more crises. I just can’t.

The constant swerve between adrenaline-fueled panic and apathetic exhaustion has worn me to a paper-thin facsimile of myself.

I need to have something to lean on. I need something to count on. I need to know that tomorrow is going to be okay.

I need God to show up and tell me that my universe is not going to continue to explode each week in new and increasingly creative horrible ways.

But the messages of God’s presence this week tell me the exact opposite, and the witness of scripture backs it up.

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord. Baptism is so hideously domesticated in the Episcopal Church that it’s very difficult to grasp the true gravity of it.

We dress our babies up in frilly white dresses, dribble water across their foreheads, get our photo op, and call it a day.

It’s hard from those tame traditions to actually experience the reality of baptism, which is, in its essence, a symbolic drowning.

It was intended to induce the literal experience of drowning, of dying underwater, before being raised up to new and resurrected life.

It was done in a fast-flowing river by full immersion. Jesus did not lean his head over a shallow bowl and get his forehead wet.

In early baptisms (and some traditions today), you went under without knowing fully if you would come back up, and that was part of the point.

You can’t be resurrected unless you die, and shoving someone underwater and holding them there was the easiest way to enact that in ancient times.

If you’re like me, you’ve felt like 2020 was a bit like being held underwater, and just when you’ve come up for a breath of air, the attempted coup shoved you back under.

It does feel like this country is drowning, and like drowning people often do, we clutch at and fight each other, pushing each other down in our panic and almost guaranteeing that we all will perish.

I have been searching for God’s wisdom in these Biblical texts and in our tradition of celebrating Jesus’ baptism in this first week of Epiphany.

And as I tried to place myself imaginatively in the story from Mark, I had an epiphany of my own.

God awakened me to this: God’s providence is always immediate and short lived.

God never provides for anyone years in advance.

God never sets things up comfortably for the Israelites or the disciples or even Jesus himself for days or weeks or months ahead.

God provides now, for the very next immediate moment, and that’s it.

The promises of God are eternal, but God’s care and sustenance can only happen one day at a time.

And we hate that.

As Jim Finley often says, “God protects us from nothing and sustains us in everything.”

God did not stop coronavirus, or racism, or the attempted coup. God let it all happen.

God did not stop the Israelites being enslaved, or Jesus being crucified.

God did not stop the terrible things that have happened in your life.

And if that’s the case, how do we know God loves us?

Well, what did God do?

God led the Israelites out of slavery and into the desert.

God raised Jesus up on the third day.

God led you through the tragedies that have happened in your life and continues to lead us through the unfolding tragedy that is American life today.

God gives God’s providence, one day at a time.

The most important example of this is the manna in the wilderness.

It was only there for a day at a time and could not be saved or hoarded.

It rotted, and the Israelites had to have faith that when they woke up in the morning, they would be provided for again, afresh.

God didn’t part the Red Sea before the Israelites got there so they could walk comfortably across.

Moses had to walk out into the water with trembling faith while the Egyptian army piled up behind them with deadly force.

God didn’t make sure there was plenty of food on the hillside for the 5000 gathered to hear Jesus preach.

The disciples had to add their faith to Jesus’ prayer, surrounded by hungry people who needed to eat that minute, for the food to manifest.

And God definitely did not provide any guarantees or promises as Jesus carried his cross up Calvary and opened his arms to be nailed to it.

Jesus’ forsaken cry as he died gives proof that God’s providence comes sometimes when it actually feels like it’s too late, like we have truly been abandoned.

As I thought about Jesus being baptized this week, I thought about what he might have felt in that exact moment.

Try to picture yourself there now. Inhabit Jesus’ body for a moment.

He wades into the cool water toward John as the crowd looks on.

John and Jesus and perhaps some of the people who would become disciples understand the significance of what it happening, but most of the gathering does not.

The water climbs up Jesus’ legs to his waist. His robes swirl around his body and he tries not to lose his footing and slip as he comes to John.

John looks in his eyes and they share a moment of deep communion—awe, joy, fear, faith.

John places one hand behind Jesus’ neck and the other across his chest, and plunges Jesus down into the icy depths.

Go to that eternal moment underwater.

Cold, dark, disorienting. Death is real, and it is near.

If John does not bring him back up safely, he will drown.

It is terrifying and it is utterly clarifying. Everything but the primal need to breathe drops away.

But underneath the biological reality is a looking backward and forward along the timeline, back to the miraculous birth in the stable and forward to the ordeal of the Cross and the unknown beyond that.

In a flash it is all condensed, suspended in the water like Jesus’ hair that floats around him in the blurry depths.

It will all end here if God does not provide.

But then in a rush of air and light and noise, John brings Jesus back up and he takes a gasping breath.

Baptized into new life, heart pounding and adrenaline surging. God provided.

God gave Jesus his next breath, which is really all that is promised in the end.

It is a moment of joy and fulfillment, beautiful but itself fleeting.

Immediately the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness, where he will spend the next 40 days having the lesson intensified.

God only provides for one day at a time. There is no pack of supplies that will last for his entire desert retreat.

He discovers each day anew whether he will survive.

And he learns ever more deeply to rely on that terrifyingly short-lived providence.

He will spend his earthly ministry and give his witness to the world in his crucifixion that he knows and believes and has faith in God loving him and leading him one breath at a time.

There was no guarantee of his next breath when he went under the water, and there was no guarantee of his next breath when they laid him in the tomb.

Jesus lived into the truth that grace is only and ever now, not tomorrow, not next year, and tried to teach us to live into it as well.

The knowledge that Jesus never knew that tomorrow was going to be okay strengthens me.

The witness of scripture that Jesus and in fact all of God’s people throughout salvation history had to learn that God would uphold them only one step at a time encourages me.

When I feel like I can’t breathe through the tragedy and fear and uncertainty, I remember what Jesus felt holding his breath underwater in the Jordan, feeling his breath shorten on the Cross, and I know he is with me.

Because I can also imagine his first breath coming up out of the water, his first breath in on the third day in the tomb, and feel it surge through my own chest, over and over and over.

The air and light and life I need, we need, a week from now, a year from now, is not promised.

We cannot cling to a reality that does not exist.

What is promised is that God is with us, here, now, always.

Every next breath is a discovery, which makes every next breath a gift of love.

We need a baptism of repentance and a resurrection into new life in this country, and God is willing to provide it at each and every moment.

The waters may feel cold and scary right now. But let yourself be loved.

Lean into the terrifying faith in God’s providence that only and ever comes one breath at a time.

Feel God bring you up into the light and breathe.

God is forever, but God’s love is only and ever now. Breathe it in and walk on.

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