“Be Still and Know that I am God”: Stillness and Faith in the Time of Coronavirus

This is a sermon about stillness. About being still. About doing nothing because there is nothing you can do. About listening. About compassion. And about faith. But mainly about stillness, because, like so many of you, I have been forced to be still by a national crisis that has shut down the place I work, closed the places I worship, and asked me to stay away from people and places other than my home. 

As it turns out, I am catastrophically bad at being still.

I am very good at doing stuff. It is a core part of how I define myself to myself. I am a stuff-doer. I’m the guy who gets things done, moves agendas forward, makes difficult things happen. You can count on me; I’ll get it done. And I want everybody to know that I will do it. Asking me to be still comes very close to telling me to suppress the most essential feature of my being.

Now, however, we are facing an epidemic, and the most important thing required of us is stillness. We need to stop going places–to church, to school, to work, to anywhere. We need to stop congregating. And that means that we have to slow down; if we don’t, people will die. The logic of compassion and human connections demands that we do one thing. And one thing is nothing. 

It is really hard.

Yeah, I know about yoga and mindfulness and “be here now.” I have tried meditation before–really tried it because I understand, intellectually, how it can benefit people. But every time I try it, I think of something that I need to do, and until the desire to do it overwhelms me. 

I don’t think I am unique in this, though, perhaps, my admittedly compulsive personality makes things even harder. The impulse to “do something”—to act immediately when we see a problem that we think involves us—is such an important part of human nature. We want to do things that matter. And when we can’t we do things that don’t matter just to make  ourselves feel better. We push elevator buttons repeatedly even though we know we only need to do it once. Or we buy enough toilet paper to get through the century because we are allergic to the idea of doing nothing for two weeks. 

Hugh Nibley spoke wisely about this tendency to engage in furious activity and think it meaningful work in his indispensable essay, “Zeal without Knowledge”: 

Zeal is the engine that drives the whole vehicle: without it we would get nowhere. But without clutch, throttle, brakes, and steering wheel, our mighty engine becomes an instrument of destruction, and the more powerful the motor, the more disastrous the inevitable crack-up if the proper knowledge is lacking. 

I have long admired this essay, and I have tried for most of my professional life to draw the necessary distinction between doing stuff and getting stuff done. But I have never encountered anything like the current situation in which even zeal WITH knowledge won’t work. Stillness is all that matters now. And, quite frankly, stillness sucks.

Which brings us to the text of today’s sermon, which is the beautiful 46th Psalm:

God is our refuge and strength,   a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
      though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, 
   the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
Come, behold the works of the LORD,
    how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the chariots with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”
The LORD of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah (Psalm 46, ESV)

The final lines of this psalm connect stillness to faith in a way that few read it can forget. Just as zeal without knowledge produced recklessness, stillness without faith produces complacency. It is faith that gives stillness its power

And by faith, the Psalmist does not simply mean belief in God, or even a sure knowledge of God’s existence. Faith in this context means trust–the knowledge that God is competent, and the knowledge that He is good. In his recent translation of the Hebrew Bible, Robert Alter translates “be still” (har-pū)  as “let go.” Let go and trust God. He has this covered.

It is very easy to be glib when giving advice like this. “Let go and trust God” is the sort of thing that people can say when they really mean, “don’t worry about all the bad stuff that is happening in the world, just do what makes you happy and let God take care of all the things that are going wrong.” For centuries, people have used such formulations as excuses not to do anything about real social and global problems.

But that is not the case here. Nobody is telling us not to worry about coronavirus. We should all worry about it because it threatens some of the most vulnerable people in our society. We should worry about it, and that worry should lead us to . . . . stillness. Because being still is the only way to fight this. It is the best way to protect our loved ones–and to protect millions of people we do not know. Be still, stay home, don’t do things. And trust that God has it under control. 

Because that, along with nothing, is the only thing that we can do.

Comments

  1. A timely sermon, Michael. Thank you.

  2. Laurie Maffly-Kipp says:

    Thank you for this, Michael. I share the challenge of stillness. But perhaps it helps to distinguish between physical stillness and energy directed toward love and care, which can take many forms. I just listened to Bishop Michael B. Curry’s sermon at the National Cathedral, and he framed our task in terms of “contagious love.” “Love can heal, when nothing else can.”

    We can devote energies toward connecting with others, even if virtually. And, whether you know it or not, you are one of the best at doing this: you have united people around reading Camus, and you reach out to people with your words in blog posts. This is vital and valued connection, something we all need now. So, maybe it is just a matter of reframing our understanding of what it means to “do stuff,” at least in the short term.

    Yours in peace and stillness.

  3. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Suzuki: a useful toll for surviving both C-19 and sacrament. Frankly, my bible … (smiley face here)

  4. This so beautifully and accurately describes the cause of do much panic. My efforts to be calm and “be still” seem futile and the peace I’m am seeking evades me. I don’t think doing nothing means “not being productive.” For me it is asking me to produce and rely on faith. Faith, I’ve been establishing and strengthening and adding to s so many years. It means having the eyes to see, lean upon, be protected and supported by my foundation of trusting God when i cannot see (with my mortal eyes) the structure I’ve created spiritually. Question is, is my structure sound enough to support me when tested in these difficult times. Answer, i hope it’s yes, but I’m seeing where, how, and need for strengthening my foundation. “When the winds come……’ not “IF” the winds come. Can i, will i, put my trust, source of comfort, strength, and peace in the hands of my loving Heavenly Father, which can result in actually much more than “doing nothing” as the world defines “nothing.”
    Great article, thanks for sharing it.

  5. I think a positive outcome of this within the Church will be a realization of what is scaffolding and what really matters. It could lead to a deeper commitment to ministering and away from managing programs and good intentioned bureaucracy. It could lead to individuals to be still and know God, away from the sometimes distracting congregational nuances and programs, rather towards deeper testimonies and personal faith.