It has rained so often this spring and summer, especially on weekends, and Hurricane #6 is sending Floridians back up North, that I thought I would preach on umbrellas.
For the past 25 or 30 years, whenever I come into my office out of the rain, I let my umbrella dry by opening it in a corner. One day this past year, at Chagrin Falls, someone came into my office, saw my umbrella, and looked as if she would faint. She pointed at it as if she had discovered some ugly rodent: “Don’t you know what bad luck that is, to open an umbrella inside the house?” I smiled and mumbled something about not believing in that kind of superstition, but then got to thinking about it afterwards.
You know, a lot of bad things have happened to me and my loved ones in the past 25 or 30 years, and I’m wondering if opening all of those umbrellas inside might not have been the cause of them!
As many of you know, I work for North Royalton City Schools, where they’ve had a lot of rain and flooding. At our first meeting of the whole North Royalton staff to begin this school year, the Superintendent showed a 22- minute movie narrated by a photographer for the National Geographic magazine. His name is DeWitt Jones. I brought the video home for a night so Bernadette and my Father and I could watch it. It reminded us of how much we loved looking at the pictures in that magazine when we were younger, and how we used to save each issue, as if to throw one away would be a sacrilege.
The photographer showed many examples of the pictures he took and tried to explain how he got not just good, but great pictures. For example, he showed a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco with the crescent moon just above it, and then another one of the same bridge 15 minutes later that was absolutely gorgeous because the light had changed and the sun was nearly down so the moon and the arches of the bridge were outlined in front of the colors of the sunset. He described how one day he missed taking pictures of a field of dandelions, but then returned when they had gone to seed and created magical vignettes of light streaming through the puff balls. And of course there were the faces: the face of a little boy who put his hand over one of those jets of water like the dancing fountains at Tower City and he caught his picture just as the water squirted out and hit him in the face; but then he stayed to catch the look on his face right afterwards—his mouth open wide in a howl of delight.
The point this photographer made again and again with his prize-winning photographs was that many people, like the Apostle Thomas, say: Unless I see it, I won’t believe it. But DeWitt Jones said: “Unless you believe it, you won’t SEE it!” And so he came to a philosophy that he claims is at the heart of National Geographic: “Celebrate what’s right with the world.” He gave a little twist to the motto of many of our Olympic athletes who wanted to be the best in the world by winning a gold medal or setting a world record. He said: don’t just be the best in the world; concentrate on being the best FOR the world.
His attitude was: if you believe that you can discover something or make something good and beautiful in any situation and you come to it, wait, and come back to it with that in mind, you will find it and you can celebrate it. It’s the difference between believing that the open umbrella is the cause of everything bad and that it is the symbol of something very good.
I was recently by myself in my car, driving to Pennsylvania, on a 125-mile trip and it started to rain. And then it stormed. The rain came down so hard I could barely see. I had never seen lightning act like a broken power grid, going in all directions over the sky. I would have pulled over, except I couldn’t see what to pull over into, and there was no shoulder to pull off on.
And the thought that struck me, as I leaned forward over the steering wheel to see the lines painted on the road ahead was: I could easily be killed now. I could run into a puddle or a flooded stream too deep for my car; lightning could strike one of these many trees and put a branch in front of or on the car. And even though I prayed for the umbrella of God’s protection, I knew I was no better than those who died in earthquakes and mudslides, in hurricanes and typhoons, or from a suicide bomber or a sniper’s bullet.
And I’m wondering if you can believe that in that negative, fearful, even cowardly experience, there was this comforting sensation: the feeling of brotherhood, a camaraderie with all of the people living and suffering and dying, experiencing moments of intense joy and just as intense fear or grief; a feeling of participation in the dance of life, all of it enlivened, embraced and comforted by God. [I confess I cannot muster up this same feeling when someone ELSE is driving].
I wonder if this is what Elijah felt in 1 Kings 19:4, when he said as his own death seemed imminent: “It is enough, now, O Yahweh, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.” It’s a feeling of oneness with your ancestors, with all who have gone before. In the novel The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, the main character puts it this way: “That which sustains the universe beyond thought and language, and that which is at the core of us and struggles for expression, is the same thing. The finite within the infinite, the infinite within the finite (p. 49).”
When I decided to preach on umbrellas, naturally I looked to the Bible for an appropriate text. There are no umbrellas in Scripture. Not surprising. It rains so little in many of the biblical geographies [how much?]. But the word “umbrella” comes through the Latin word “umbra,” which means “shade” or “shadow.” Aha! I thought: In the Middle East, you need an umbrella for sun, not rain. In Psalm 17:8 we read those familiar words: ‘Keep me as the apple of your eye. Hide me under the shadow of your wings.” What Elijah was given after his prayer was a cake baked on the coals and a jar of water; he was given sleep and strength to walk forty days and forty nights to the mount of God, Mount Horeb. He was led to the shade of a cave, to a shelter. And there he found Yahweh in the still small voice (1 Kgs. 19:12).
It is not by random choice that the umbrella has become a trademark for an insurance company. It is a symbol for protection. Of course, all the while I was driving in the storm, I never once thought how lucky I am to have insurance. I wanted a different kind of protection, the kind spoken of in Psalm 37: “The children of men take refuge in the shadow of your wings;” or in Psalm 57: “Yes, in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until disaster has passed.” The song I was singing was: “And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings; bear you on the breath of dawn; make you to rise like the sun, and hold you, hold you in the palm of His hands.”
Umbrellas in our house are a lot like letter openers or three-pronged plug adapters: you can never find one when you need one. We’ve solved that problem by buying lots of umbrellas. Most of them don’t work very well. I have one that I can open, but I can’t get it closed again—it keeps springing back open—that one IS unlucky—because it can reopen after you’ve put it on the floor beside you in your car. Many of the others have come loose from the ends of their ribs, and so the bare rib sticks out like some skinny kid who’s been on a diet too long. I wish I could invent something that would quickly put the cloth back on those ribs as you are going out the door. We have really little umbrellas that fit in a purse or briefcase, but aren’t much good in a storm; and then we have the golf umbrellas that can cover your whole family, but can carry you away in a wind and are very difficult to get into the car with you, without getting as wet as you would have been without its protection.
The umbrella of God’s protection seems just as varied to me. As I came to realize in my frenzied drive through Ashtabula county in the storm, the protective shade of God won’t save me from death, but it will help through that passage.
There is another thing. When you look in the New Testament for shade and shadow, you come across this saying of Jesus: What is the kingdom of God like? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, though it is less than all the seeds that are on the earth, yet when it is sown, grows up and becomes greater than all the herbs, and puts out great branches, so that the birds of the sky can lodge under its shadow” (Mark 4:31-32). And couple that with this wonderful story in Acts: “More believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women. They even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mattresses so that as Peter came by, at the least his shadow might overshadow some of them” (Acts 5:14-15).
Without making too much of this, does it not seem to you that the ribs of God’s umbrella are intended to be made up of all of us? “See how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to live together in unity” (Ps. 133:1). “Not for these only do I pray, but for those also who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that you sent me” (Jn. 17:20-21). Does it not follow that much of the protection and shade we need comes through our community, a community that constantly needs repair and fixing; that gets tossed around by the winds of change, disaster and hardship; but is the way God seems to dispatch the shadow of his wings? Does it not follow that an essential component of discipleship is not to forget the umbrella; indeed, to become the umbrella of God’s loving care, the shadow that He casts in the world, the protection He offers to those who are rained upon or baked in the boiling sun?
The point comes home to me when the care group delivers a meal to the spouse of someone who has just had surgery; when Paul Hummel calls to wish us a happy anniversary, when I see Danita or Scott or Jim or Shirley or Don or Ed or Tom or Martha or Mike or Joan or the choir working long hours for the good of this community, when I hear Joan preach, when I think of the contributions Gary and Linda made. –Umbrellas all.
The evidence can get personal: You feel beleaguered with all you have to do; you have anxiety about your job; you are dodging the arrows of office politics and the lightning of those little mean zingers less sensitive people are throwing around…and then someone who loves you calls, just to say hi, to see how your day is going, to say I love you or miss you or look forward to seeing you—and presto: an umbrella opens inside and you feel the presence of God.
The presence of God…not just in lightning and fire but also in shade and shelter. It’s the unity principle, the principle hinted at and celebrated by the National Geographic photographer. There is this passage from the Life of Pi: describing Pi’s feelings when he rode home on his bicycle from visiting a bakery run by a Muslim Sufi or mystic:
…on my way back, at a point where the land was high and I could see the sea to my left and down the road a long ways, I suddenly felt I was in heaven. The spot was in fact no different from when I passed it not long before, but my way of seeing it had changed. The feeling, a paradoxical mix if pulsing energy and profound peace, was intense and blissful. Whereas before the road, the sea, the trees, the air, the sun all spoke differently to me, now they spoke one language of unity. Tree took account of road, which was aware of air, which was mindful of sea, which shared things with sun. Every element lived in harmonious relation with its neighbour, and all was kith and kin. I knelt a mortal; I rose an immortal. I felt like the center of a small circle coinciding with the centre of a much larger one. Atman met Allah (p. 62).
And then he concludes: “The presence of God is the finest of rewards.”
Unless we believe it, we will not see it. As Psalm 91 reminds us: “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most high will rest in the shadow of the Almighty [and will} say of Yahweh, “He is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” For…He will cover you with his feathers. Under his wings you will take refuge. His faithfulness is your shield…You shall not be afraid of the terror by night nor of the arrow that flies by day; nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that wastes at noonday. …Because you have made Yahweh your refuge and the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall happen to you…For he will give his angels charge over you to guard you in all your ways. They will bear you up in their hands so that you won’t dash your foot against a stone…I will satisfy him with long life and show him my salvation.”
Let us pray:
If we believe it, we will see it. So increase our faith, O Lord, and give us eyes to see. Lord, let us never ever forget the umbrella of your loving kindness. Amen.