Out from under the Covers

Since I didn’t have anything hard-scheduled first thing this morning, I went to bed last night without setting the alarm. That allowed me the ability to wake up in that glorious way people are able to do sometimes, just gradually accepting the reality that it’s morning and that at some point they’ll have to get out of bed, but only when they’re good and ready. At least, that’s the way my awakening started. That gauzy bliss came to a screeching halt when the rebooting brain cells hit the sector that recalls that I’m still only half-employed, and I have no idea how I’m going to meet even my basic financial obligations this coming month. Emotionally, this time of day is often very difficult for me; I suspect it’s truly some chemical deficiency that occasionally makes me slip into morning terrors, and that I’d probably benefit from some very small dose of antidepressant to ward them off. On the other hand, I’ve discovered from past experience that with the obligatory burying my head in the covers and crying that I just can’t face another bout of financial insecurity out of the way, once I actually crawl out of the bed and into the shower, the impending pressures seem at least manageable.

Once I did get on with the day, I discovered a few more congregations to forward my information to. I also attended the funeral of a wonderful woman, a beautiful celebration of her life. A good funeral can often extend hope to not just the grieving family, but to anyone facing pressures and struggles in their lives, and that was the case today. Immediately after the funeral, I got a chance to talk with my older daughter on the phone a bit, which always makes me feel good. I got some good news regarding health insurance coverage for at least the next couple of months, and actually made some progress toward possibly getting ordained even before finding the full-time call I’m so desperately seeking. Then, I thought about the good conversation I had with a friend in Toronto via Skype the night before, and about how nice it was to have been able to get together with family a few days ago, even if it was due to a death in the family.

This evening, I sat down to read a little bit more of the book I’m reading now – In the End – The Beginning: The Life of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann (Fortress Press, 2004). Moltmann is a great German Reformed theologian, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. His thoughts have greatly influenced my own, and, among other things, he could arguably be considered the father of liberation theology. His books are often difficult, slow reads; I’ll admit that sometimes it could take me half an hour just to really understand what he’s packed into a single page. He will never be featured on Oprah’s Book Club. But this book, at least the part I happened to read this evening, was very different from his usual dense, scholarly writing. In it, he opens up a bit about his own past. Maybe because of the way my day started, or maybe just because it’s a compelling story, it really struck me.  I thought I’d share an extended quote from the book here:

I am … a survivor of “Sodom and Gomorrah”. To say this is not poetic licence in the religious sense. It is painful fact. Whenever I call up that catastrophe and descend into the dark pit of remembrance, I am overwhelmed again by fear and trembling. I am talking here about the destruction of my home city of Hamburg in the last week of July 1943. Night after night, about a thousand Royal Air Force bombers appeared over the city, and with explosive and incendiary bombs kindled a storm of fire which … burnt everything living and reduced every home to rubble. During those nights and in that fire 40,000 people died. Ironically, the code name given to this destruction by the RAF was Operation Gomorrah. Together with others belonging to my school class, I was an air force auxiliary in an anti-aircraft battery in the inner city. The battery was stationed on the Outer Alster, easily visible for aircraft, and it was completely wiped out in a hailstorm of bombs. But for some incomprehensible reason, the bomb which blew to pieces the school friend who stood beside me at the firing platform left me unscathed. I found myself in the water, clinging to a plank of wood, and was saved.

…In the end, those of us who had survived made our way through the wreckage of the streets, climbing over charred bodies. We were convinced that this was indeed “the end,” and that the war would be over in a few days. But this terrible end was followed by two other years of unending terror which destroyed the lives of millions. There is no need to describe it any further. But for the description of Hamburg as Sodom and Gomorrah I should only like to add that during the Nazi dictatorship about 40,000 people were murdered in the Neuengamme concentration camp near the city, and about 50,000 Hamburg Jews in White Russia. That too is part of the catastrophe which I escaped. At that time I was 17 years old. What effect did this catastrophe have on me?

I come from a secular Hamburg family of teachers. My grandfather was Grand Master of a Freemasons’ Lodge in Hamburg, and had left the Church. For me, religion and theology were totally remote. I wanted to study mathematics and physics. Max Planck and Albert Einstein were the secret heroes of my youth… But in that catastrophic night, for the first time in my life I cried out to God: “God, where are you?” That was my question in the face of death. It was not the theodicy question we are all familiar with – the question, how can God allow this to happen? That always seems to me like an onlooker’s question. The person who is in the grip of a catastrophe, or is already in the jaws of a mass death, asks differently about God. And then came the other question, the one which has haunted me all my life ever since: why am I still alive and not dead like the rest?

Three years as a prisoner of war, from 1945 to 1948, gave me time enough to search for answers to these two questions. In the first year particularly it was for me a struggle with the question about God. Like Jacob, wrestling at the brook Jabbok with a dark and mysterious angel, I tormented myself with God’s dark and mysterious side, with his hidden face and his deadly “no” which had put me in misery behind barbed wire. At the end of 1945 a well-meaning army chaplain gave me a Bible. I must have looked at him somewhat uncomprehendingly: a Bible of all things! I then went on to read it without much understanding until I came to Israel’s psalms of lament. Psalm 39 caught my attention: “I am dumb and must eat up my suffering within myself…”My life is as nothing before you… I am a stranger as all my fathers were.” Those were words that echoed what was in my own heart… Later, I read Mark’s gospel. And when I came to Jesus’ death cry: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” I was profoundly struck. I knew: this is the one who understands you. I began to understand the Christ who was assailed by God and suffered from God, because I felt that he understood me. That gave me new courage to live. I saw colours again, heard music again, and felt the stirrings of renewed vitality.

The kindness which Scottish miners and English neighbours showed the German prisoners of war who were at that time their enemies shamed us profoundly. We were accepted as people, even though we were only numbers and wore the prisoner’s patch on our backs. But that made it possible for us to live with the guilt of our own people, the catastrophes we had brought about and the long shadows of Auschwitz, without repressing them and without becoming callous.

In that Scottish camp I arrived at Christian faith and decided to study theology. Mathematical problems lost their charm. True, I had no idea what the Church was about, but I was looking for an assurance that would sustain existence, and asked about the truth of the Christian faith. In 1948 I returned to Hamburg, limpin indeed like Jacob but “blessed.” That was my new beginning, the beginning I arrived at when Hamburg was at its end: in the end was my beginning.

Two experiences put a mark on me.

First, I discovered that in every end a new beginning lies hidden. It will find you if you look for it. Don’t lose heart!

Second, I found that if one gathers the courage to live again, the chains begin to smart, but the pain is better than the dull resignation in which nothing matters, and one is more dead than alive. (33-35)

In every end there is a new beginning. Terrifying at moments, life is still good. And God is good, too. Even in the midst of troubles, even in the midst of morning terrors with the covers pulled over your head and questions of where God is in that moment, God is still good. Don’t lose heart.