One of my favorite Garrison Keillor stories is the story of the storm home and the storm child. Keillor begins the tale by saying that the principal of his school was fearful that a winter blizzard might strand at school the kids who lived in the country. So he assigned them all a “storm home” in town just in case. If a blizzard struck, each child was to go to his storm home.
Keillor recalls his storm home vividly. He remembers it being a house near a lake inhabited by a kindly older couple. The grounds around the house were filled with all sorts of colorful and fragrant flowers. Keillor also recalls that his storm home had a statue of Mary among the flowers, thus suggesting to him these fine folks were Catholic. Given Keillor’s Lutheran upbringing, he remembers wondering how a Protestant boy would manage in a Catholic home. Nevertheless, his imagination led him to envision what it would be like to spend the night in his very own storm home; what it would be like to be a storm child. Keillor even imagined the kindly older couple somehow choosing him: “That one!” they would have said as they pointed at the young Keillor. “We want that boy! The one with the thick glasses!”
There was no great storm that year, no blizzard that would have led to the need of a storm home. Still, Keillor anticipated the possibility of spending the night in his very own storm home. He thought to himself, “Blizzards aren’t the only storms and not the worst by any means. I could imagine worse things. And if the worst should come, I could go to my storm home and knock on the door. ‘Hello,'” I’d say. “I’m your storm child.”
“Oh, I know,” she’d say. “I was wondering when you’d come. Oh, it’s good to see you. How would you like a hot chocolate and an oatmeal cookie?”
We’d sit at the table. “Terrible storm. They say it’s going to get worse before it stops. I just pray for anyone who’s out alone in this.”
“But we’re so glad to have you. I can’t tell you. Carl! Come down and see who’s here.”
“Is it the storm child?”
“Yes! Himself, in the flesh!” 1
Do you ever long to be somebody’s storm child? Do you ever dream of having someplace to go, away from it all, a place where you’re loved and welcomed, a place full of hot chocolate and oatmeal cookies, a place of green pastures and still waters, a place safe from the storm.
My guess is that many of us are feeling that way about now. Our world is in a chaotic state. These past few days have seen the war in Iraq escalate at an alarming rate and it looks like it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Some of us not only want to be sheltered but we pray that God might shelter our loved ones who may find themselves in harms way.
Psalm 23 speaks to us of the Good Shepherd who longs to be our shelter from the storm. The familiar words and images of Psalm 23 bring comfort to many of us. Yet we may also feel a sense of guilt if we take advantage of such comforting shelter. After all, there are people suffering and dying across the globe. Who are we that we should be afforded the such comfort? Yet the words and images of Psalm 23 echo down the corridors of our lives calling us into a safe place, an inviting place that says come in and sit down, and I will be your Shepherd and you will have nothing to fear.
But to be sheltered from the storm never makes the storm disappear, neither is it license to dwell in self-pity or develop a martyr complex. To be sheltered is to be made to feel safe. The storm rages on. The wind blows. The rain falls. The sky turns dark and ominous. Shelter grants refuge. Shelter grants the kind of sustenance and encouragement, warmth and confidence, love and attention that is needed before having to face the consequences of the storm. To be sheltered is not a matter of escaping the storm, but of weathering the storm.
But it’s never been Psalm 23 or any other “words” of Scripture that actually grant the shelter, the comfort. It’s never been “words” that provide the actual safety. It’s never even been the comforting images the Scriptures conjure up that welcome us into an authentically safe place. But like a mother who wraps her fevered child in a handmaid quilt, Scripture mediates the active presence of our God who grants us the comfort, the shelter, the warmth and reassurance we need to weather the storm.
The familiar words from the Gospel of John speak to us of God’s unconditional and sacrificial love. A love so complete that God would give to the world his only Son, so that no one might perish but all might come to be sheltered eternally.
Our God is a palpable God. Our God is a God who is pleased to dwell among us setting the holy story within the human story so that the wonder of the story may be touched and experienced by all.2 Our God longs to be in tangible, touchable contact with us. Our God longs to be incarnate among us and within us.
And the most extraordinarily ordinary way the presence of our sheltering God is made incarnate is through the gift of the Church. It is here that we gather together. It is here that faith is shared. It is here that we are fed on Word and Sacrament. It is here that we come to know what it means to belong, what it means to be loved, and what it means to love. It is here, through people like you and me, throughout the ages and across the globe, that God has chosen to make the holy presence manifest.
Within us all there is a basic and fundamental need to belong. The need to belong is really an expression of the need to be a part of a family; to be a part of a group that loves unconditionally, trusts implicitly, and welcomes enthusiastically. In the best sense of the word, belonging is to be loved and cherished and welcomed and received. To belong is to have someplace to go, someone to go to when the storms of life threaten to overwhelm. When we are truly the Church, we are vessels of God’s holy presence; we are the gift of a storm home, not simply to one another but to the world.
The Church, is not just a place we occupy, it is an environment we help create, a way of life we help to establish. The gift of the Church is a holy gift from God. The gift of the Church is the gift of God’s presence and the gift of one another. We can never forget this. Scott Peck writes in his book, A Different Drummer, that our world has been seduced by a fantasy that says, “if we can resolve our conflicts, then someday we shall be able to live together in community. Could it be: If we can live together in community, then someday we shall be able to resolve our conflicts.”3
The gift of the Church is the gift of community, it is the gift of a “sanctuary,” in the sheltering sense of that word. The Church is hospital. The Church is safe house. The Church is a people of refuge. The Church is never simply a building, but the people, who, in their homes, and cars, and offices, and schools become for others, by the gracious presence of God, shelter from the storm.
We are all “storm children” who have found our storm home. We now have a responsibility to maintain the safety of our sheltering fellowship. We have a responsibility to communicate to the world that there is refuge here among God’s people. Blizzards aren’t the only storms and not the worst by any means. We can all imagine worse things. And if the worst should come, it is with faith and confidence that we are able to profess…
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He gives me shelter from the storm;
He brings me peace when all around me is chaos;
He resuscitates my faith.
He leads me to those who love me for His Church’s sake.
And even though I must travel
through pain and uncertainty,
grief and disillusionment,
hardship and heartache,
I am not afraid.
For You are with me;
Your hot chocolate and oatmeal cookies comfort me.
You sustain me when the world hates me;
You claim me through water and the Spirit;
my heart overflows with joy.
I am certain that nothing in life or in death
can separate me from Your love;
for I know that I am welcome in Your presence forever;
for I know that I am eternally…
Your storm child.
Copyright 2003, Jeffrey K. London. Used by permission.
1Garrison Keillor, Winter: Stories from the Collection News from Lake Wobegon Audio Book, Unabridged. [Audio CD]
2Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1993), 58.
3M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum (New York: Simon and Schuster/Touchstone Books, 1998).