Semi-Sermon: Panic and Serenity


 I confess. Nasty political news gets to me. It puts my mind in Hell. Yesterday’s NY Times headline reads ‘Trump Gets Terrible — Things can get worse, and with him, they always do.’  Staretz Silouan says Keep your mind in Hell – and despair not!

Yesterday’s paper had a short video of a dog racing toward a mound of leaves and diving in – disappearing into a Mt Edna of leaves!  For the moment, Trump is in exile!  I try to remember the little things – and big things – that fall outside the ugly frenzy. Hellish news keeps my mind in hell. Other things keep me from despair.  After a winning world series night-game, right fielder Mookie Betts skips the celebrations to feed the homeless on the steps of the Boston Public Library.

There’s nastiness, good news, and long-term damage out there. We’re losing the three-legged balance between Congress, the Courts, and The President. Congress abdicates its role as a check on Presidential power, and Presidential power, unfettered, packs the Courts. It’s creeping dictatorship, the love of power, unchecked revenge against enemies, and demonization of non-whites and Dems. He celebrates violence against journalists in Montana. He waits over a week to notice the murder and dismemberment of a US resident in a Saudi Embassy. He calls a woman “Horseface.”

I got this less than cheering message from a friend in Brazil: “A despicable human being is about to become Brazil´s next president. Things are going to get nasty down here… what’s happening to the world? Could you please enlighten me?”

 I have no enlightening words.

The Washington Post reports that for three consecutive years the average American life span has gone down from drug overdoses. George Will, in the Washington Post, calls this a “disease of despair.”  There are more drug-related deaths now in one year than deaths in the entire 10 yrs. of the Vietnam War.

Loneliness is another killer. We need neighbors, cousins, joy-mates, Grandkids, Otto, and cats. These are survival connections.  To maintain them defuses despair. Openness to Creation also defuses despair.


Our Hebrew Bible reminds us that Job found his mind and body rotting in Hell. He suffers affliction after affliction, pain after pain. Then he hears the whirlwind celebrate Creation. He’s overwhelmed. His complaints ‘melt away.’  He had been in Hell, yet at last, despairs not.

The King James has Job say, “I abhor myself. But why would he loath himself? He’s done nothing wrong, And God knows it. He refuses to “curse God and die.” He yields in amazement to the glories of Creation. He “melts away.”   

Steven Mitchell finds the theme this masterpiece of world literature to be “. . . nothing less than human suffering and the transcendence of it; it pulses with moral energy, moral outrage, and deep spiritual insight.” The insight is that despair is not the last word.  “I melt away” is a permissible rendering of the Hebrew, and it captures Job’s amazement at the glory of Creation.

When we think of creation stories, we think of Genesis, but the Lord’s words in the whirlwind or storm give a Creation that to my ear is more vivid than Genesis.  Job’s Lord lays the cornerstone of Creation — “while the morning stars burst out singing / and the angels shout for joy!” Job hears singing, shouting and covers his mouth. He melts away.


I can remember worse times – the sixties. That doesn’t make the present OK, but it shows we’ve survived, up to now, even worse. I ducked down in a VW van to hide a Black friend as we drove to Mississippi. Viola Liuzzo, a church activist from Detroit, had been murdered by the Ku Klux Clan.

There were daily Vietnam body counts on the TV news, and many assassinations — Martin Luther King, two Kennedy’s, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, the Oakland, California, school superintendent. Patty Hearst was kidnapped. The civil rights workers Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were murdered. There were deaths at Kent State. Detroit, Los Angeles, and other cities were on fire.  

So far we’ve been spared assassinations, though twelve pipe bombs have been found aimed at Obama, Clinton, CNN, Brennan, Biden, and others. We’ve been spared lethal, exploding pipe bombs, murders, and burning cities – so far. The president jokes over his disruptions.

Yet even in the violent 60’s the mosaic of experience presented more than Hell. We celebrated the Beatles, and the inspirations of Martin Luther King. There was the rolling surf of the Sonoma Coast and Casco Bay, strangely indifferent to politics. Music, poetry and quiet kindness are indifferent to politics, as is a dog diving head first to disappear into a Mt. Edna of soft leaves.

I’m not advocating quietism, or burying heads in the sand. Our good pastor leapt to a table in defense of the Berrigan Brothers in the ‘60s. I applaud.  I look for quiet moments that remind us of who we are beyond outrage, exhaustion, and despair. I seek hope and quiet as substitutes for fury and desperation. A bit like tai chi, action can be rooted in meditative quiet.

We are mosaics, bits of hell, bits of despair, bits of hope. We walk, see, inwardly wail, and day-dream. We sense ways of taking up with the world and being happy to be of the world. Serenity and hope can elude us but we seek it. We keep our minds in Hell and despair not. Job’s despair is defeated with morning light. He melts away.


We are mosaics of moods and responses, mosaics of outrage and relief, shoutings, fears, and tremblings. And we embrace things that are precious — laughing kids and leaping dogs. Serenity – melting away – doesn’t shrink moral space. We melt away in music or star gazing without losing a moral compass, or a sense of the invincibly precious. Whatever the hell, despair not.

Mary Oliver writes: “When it’s over, I want to say:  All my life I was a bride, Married to amazement.  I was the bridegroom, Taking the world into my arms.”

Isaiah is more exuberant. “I will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst forth into song, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”

Be married to amazement. Protest. But also let yourself melt. Embrace the invincibly precious. Take up the world in your arms.                              







7 comments on “Semi-Sermon: Panic and Serenity

  1. dmf says:

    while we can choose to turn off, tune out, the news don’t think we can choose to be peace-filled or amazed, such graces not seemingly a matter of work/effort or even good intentions, we are at the mercy here of the ἄγγελος

  2. Steve Webb says:

    What makes this era in history so much worse than the sixties, indeed so much worse than any other era in history, is that history itself is abruptly coming to a close. What? Oh yes! The miraculous Holocene, the freakishly stable geological epoch that has made human life possible in the first place, is in rapid transition to something wildly different and inhospitable. Yet the entire human race goes about its business more or less in denial of the onrushing catastrophe. I don’t mean that if you ask people directly whether climate change is real they will all deny it, nor do I mean that some governments aren’t trying to implement—far too late, as it happens—policies to circumvent it. What I mean is that within ten minutes of agreeing that of course climate change is real, look at the science, people go right back to living their lives exactly as though it were not real. Practically speaking, in other words, we are all climate change deniers. Scientists and activists tirelessly remind us that we must immediately stop using fossil fuels, immediately stop eating beef, immediately stop using plastics, or else face certain extinction. And by immediately, they mean right now. Which means of course that we face certain extinction, because, let’s face it, we—all 7.5 billion of us—are not going to do any of those things, certainly not immediately. So we flip an inner switch, darken that part of our minds, and resume talking about politics or culture or religion. We simply ignore the fact that the geological stage on which history is enacted is disintegrating right out from under us. This is what I find so depressing and enervating about our times. To me, it feels more and more like a crippling, world-wide neurosis, one for which there is no cure. Well, what’s the alternative, mass hysteria? No, that won’t do either. In fact, all pessimists should just pipe down. Sorry I brought it up. Mum’s the word.

    • Steve Webb says:

      I need to get my facts straight or at least not run off at the mouth so breathlessly that I get them grossly wrong. Homo sapiens, as everyone knows or can easily find out, showed up some 300,000 years ago during the Pleistocene Epoch, also know as the last Ice Age. The Holocene is the almost twelve-thousand-year-old, post-Ice Age period of warm and stable conditions that corresponds to the rise of civilization. So my characterizing the Holocene as the epoch that “made human life possible in the first place” is patently wrong. However, one can say that the species has thrived during the Holocene in a way that it might not otherwise have done during heavy glaciation. Indeed, it was during this short period of relative warmth that historical humanity came into being and eventually arrived at its present impasse. It’s the climax of history, the staggering impact of industrial civilization on the environment, that is now bringing the Holocene to a rapid close, producing in its place conditions of extreme heat and humidity that will unravel civilization and ultimately prove fatal to the species.

      There, that says it a little better. My previous bleat merely expresses my bewilderment about how to psychologically adapt to these uncanny facts. Maybe what I’m called “denial” in my previous comment is just the admirable human capacity to keep on keeping on despite our knowledge of the inevitable. Maybe “We’re not dead yet” is all that remains to us of hope, that and perhaps the capacity to keep ourselves to short views (to return to an earlier discussion).

  3. dmf says:


    When sorrow lays us low
    for a second we are saved
    by humble windfalls
    of mindfulness or memory:
    the taste of a fruit, the taste of water,
    that face given back to us by a dream,
    the first jasmine of November,
    the endless yearning of the compass,
    a book we thought was lost,
    the throb of a hexameter,
    the slight key that opens a house to us,
    the smell of a library, or of sandalwood,
    the former name of a street,
    the colors of a map,
    an unforeseen etymology,
    the smoothness of a filed fingernail,
    the date we were looking for,
    the twelve dark bell-strokes, tolling as we count,
    a sudden physical pain.

    Eight million Shinto deities
    travel secretly throughout the earth.
    Those modest gods touch us —
    touch us and move on.

    Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Hoyt Rogers)

  4. dmf says:

    to open questions

  5. Thought-provoking the comparison of the present time with the late Sixties. And I would not here come forward with any conclusions. Yes, we are not now involved in such a large-scale imperialist war, killing hundreds of thousands of foreigners and tens of thousands of our own. On the positive side back then we had a counter-culture, an idea that there might be ways of “dropping out” and they might be the right ways. On the negative side we had much more faith in this counter-culture (and its economic independence) than it warranted. We had not read enough Marx (we never have); we did not know that capital was going to overcome soon enough. We were confused. But of course there is much confusion today (including confounding righteousness, self-interest and slander — a grand American tradition that leads us back through McCarthyism to Salem). Best, William

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