Most of the nation and much of the world is in a surreal stasis. While physical and social activity may have slowed, our emotions may be quite active, swinging from anger, sadness and despair to gratitude, inspiration, and awe. On the side with despair is a sense of powerlessness, especially seeing existing social disparities exacerbated.
The call to action is strangely inverted; communities express solidarity by physically distancing. Many who are not accustomed to staying home are finding time to get personal projects done and are interacting more with family. New to me is watching a Netflix series.
Until now, I had almost prided myself on not being a Netflix subscriber; yet I succumbed . . . during Lent no less. At least I only signed up for the trial period, cautious of the addictive nature of streaming entertainment tuned specifically to my tastes. I had good reason to sign up though. (I know; addicts never start intending to become an addict and they are great at rationalizing behavior.)
Seriously, as I was browsing the internet, I somehow came across an article in The Guardian from last year about the Danish Netflix series Herrens Vede. Intrigued by the sensational alliterative headline “Booze, bishops and breakdowns: the biblical brilliance of Ride Upon the Storm,” I started reading the review with an expectation that it would be an example of Danish media portraying the church as no longer legitimate among Danes. Indeed, the father in the story is described as a strong-minded priest who struggles with his demons and whose wife and grown sons have troubles and confusions of their own. These storylines could be used to depict a dysfunctional irrelevant church, but when I read that the actor who played the father had been an atheist but found God in the course of playing the role, I suspected that the storylines were speaking to people’s lives and perhaps even making the church accessible. I wanted to see for myself; so I signed up for Netflix, at least the trial period
I have limited myself to no more than one episode per day as each episode takes time to digest. Ride Upon the Storm is not inane entertainment; it depicts people suffering through crises of faith and life. In that sense, as we sit in isolation while a pandemic has spread across the country and the world, what better time to engage the questions of faith, asking where God is in all of this?
The title of the series and the theme song derive from the words of the poem “Conflict: Light Shining out of Darkness,” written in 1773 by William Cowper. I find myself singing at least the last phrase in my head throughout the day as a kind of mantra.
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
These words remind us of two stories about Jesus’ disciples on the Sea of Galilee. In one, Jesus calms the waters amid a storm then asks his disciples, “Why are you so afraid?” The other story is when his disciples are terrified when they think they see a ghost walking on the water. Jesus says to them, “It is I, do not be afraid.” I once delivered a sermon as a lay preacher when this was the gospel reading. While my message focused on not being afraid since God is always with us, I also drew upon the loving relationship I had had with my father. Though not always easy, I was always assured of his love for me. So the image of God as father was not as fraught with tension as for others, such as the sons in the series.
Watching this show, I am reminded of the words from an article referring to the play Milk, which is discussed elsewhere in this issue. In Fred Eastman’s 1928 article for the Chicago Theological Seminary Review “A New Aesthetic for Protestantism,” he wrote:
The deepest struggles of our lives are emotional ones, and emotion is the very stuff of drama. One good play which holds the mirror up to a lived spiritual struggle and reflects upon it the light of religion is worth more to the inner life of human beings in the midst of the struggle than all the medieval symbols that could be gathered in one building.
While we have missed gathering to celebrate Easter in church buildings with all their symbols, we have an opportunity to experience Easter privately, personally, and profoundly in the context of isolation and the threat of sickness and death. Celebrating the resurrection of Christ Jesus is celebrating the absolute power of God, even over death. So what is there to fear?
I have heard that the fear of physical death is less than the ego’s fear of death. Indeed, the ego’s purpose is to ensure our physical survival, judging what is a threat then directing us to respond accordingly. Yet, the ego’s drive to be in control can leave little room for the Spirit to direct our lives. Practices that aim to dissolve the ego can lead to a backlash as the ego feels threatened. So I imagine the ugly defense mechanisms of my ego being lovingly tucked in a corner and surrounded in protective blue light, allowing the Holy Spirit to fill the rest of the room. Remembering our baptism through which we are united with Jesus’ death and resurrection is a similar exercise. Ride Upon the Storm illustrates how such church rituals can be powerful as people look for ways to relieve suffering, especially when caused by needs for control, acceptance, security, and acknowledgement. Feeling powerless in this pandemic is perhaps an invitation to release ourselves into the hands of God so we can be led into newness of life.