July 15, 2018 | By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Ephesians 1: 3-14
“We aren’t sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what.” Thai Navy SEAL Facebook Page, after the rescue of 13 from flooded caves this past week.
The world held its breath. Twelve middle school age boys and their coach from a Thai soccer team were trapped for two weeks in flooded cave tunnels. They survived by sharing–their meager food, their flashlights and cellphone lights, their body heat in the damp, dark cave. An incredible team assembled to assist them–Thai Navy SEALS, and divers and cavers from other countries. The governor of the province and other political leaders watched and implemented crucial decisions. A doctor voluntarily swam into the cave and stayed with them, monitoring their health at risk to his own. For these heroic people, the risk was worth it. In fact, one retired Thai Navy SEAL, former Sgt. Major Saman Gunam, died of lack of oxygen while placing oxygen tanks along strategic points so that the team could use them when they got out.
Many decisions were weighed. Should rescue wait until the rainy season ended some time from now? Finally conditions dictated there was no choice but to get the team out now. More rains were coming that would surely flood the cave. While lives could be lost in the rescue, lives would certainly be lost if the caves flooded again.
These kids, while trained child athletes, had already endured much to survive as long as they had, and certainly were not trained divers. The flooded caves were dangerous even for professionals, with incredibly tights fits and narrow passageways that could easily cause anyone with the slightest bit of claustrophobia or anxiety to panic. The doctor gave the boys sedatives to keep them calm, and they were taught the basics of diving and using an oxygen mask. Professional divers guided them out in small groups over several hours, through about two hours of underwater caves, until all the boys, the coach, and those who’d stayed with them to care for them were all out safely. We could breathe a corporate sigh of relief.
In many ways the Thai cave rescue is mythic and archetypal symbolism that played out in real time. Classical myths often portrayed the ordeal as a passage through cave or water from death into life. Freud believed that dreams of being trapped or escaping caves or rooms hearkened back to our earliest memories of emerging from our mother’s wombs. In mythology and in our psyches, one must go through an ordeal, some frightening, life-changing event, in order to emerge from spiritual or psychological death into new life. This Thai soccer team lived it, and lived it on live TV for the world to see; and in our own small way, we have lived it with them.
Several of the boys have expressed the desire to become monks–I assume Buddhist monks–for awhile after they’ve recovered. It’s not very surprising. This story is full of religious symbolism and meaning. Light and dark, death and life, hope and fear, doubt and faith, all make an appearance. Rebirth. Self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Redemption. Themes that certainly resonate with us as Christians.
A few years ago during Wednesday noon Bible study Robby Fultz made an observation that stuck with me. Robby is one of those folks who keeps me on my toes because he does his homework before his comes to Bible study. He said that in studying the meaning of the Greek word that we translate as “salvation,” he’d come to see that possibly a better translation of the word is “rescue.” It’s like we’re drowning someone throws us a lifeline or comes out in a boat and fishes us out of the water. I don’t know if Robby made this connection, but I did: Robby is a firefighter, and rescuing is part of what he does. I can imagine being caught in a fire. Maybe there’s no escape: but maybe also I become so panicky and frightened that I properly judge the situation before fire sucks the oxygen out of the air. I need rescuing, and I need rescuing by a professional–someone calm, cool, and equipped for the job. That professional may care in a broad, general sense–those divers, for instance, cared generally for the soccer team and knew at a deep level how important it was to save them–but they were trained to look at the big picture. That’s what you want from that professional, the ability to look at the big picture, to be able to imagine and prepare for all the risks and challenges, and not be distracted by worry about themselves or so much concern for my personal health and welfare that they can’t be objective. Non-professionals may care a whole lot, but they can’t get the job done. Professionals may care, too, but they don’t let that distract them from the job that needs to be done.
Several years ago, I heard Presbyterian pastor and author Frederick Buechner tell the story of his personal struggle with his daughter’s anorexia. In the face of this terrible disease, he felt helpless and weak; his own identity and sense of self were so wrapped up in his children that he couldn’t find his way forward to give his daughter what she needed. Finally, he told us, his daughter was checked into a clinic that specialized in dealing with this terrible illness. The people who ran the clinic, he said, were dispassionate professionals whose care for his daughter was entirely focused on healing her disease, and not in the baggage that he and all of us inevitably carry as parents. I always remember that he said that their dispassionate professionalism was more like the grace of God than his own powerless, puppy-eyed love.
Our reading from Ephesians celebrates the dispassionate professionalism of God. That may sound jarring at first, but think about what Buechner says about his daughters’ doctors or the steel-jawed expertise of those Thai divers. The author of Ephesians tells us our confidence that God is just such a professional is a cornerstone of true faith. God has made plans from the foundation of the world, and those plans can’t be thwarted. God has planned our salvation, and the salvation of history, from the beginning of time. The elements are carefully laid in place: they include our redemption through Jesus Christ, our adoption as God’s children, the forgiveness of our sins, our participation in the inheritance of Christ, and the plan “to gather all things up in Christ in the fullness of time, all things in heaven and on earth.” Think for a minute on the tantalizing implications of the phrase, “God will gather ALL things up, in heaven and on earth.”
God knows the big picture, and our safe rescue is a part of that picture. It’s even possible, based on this passage, to believe that “all things” may experience that same rescue. Though all of history seems to work against God’s plans, and all of human nature sometimes seems contrary to God’s plans, God is a dispassionate professional who cares for us, but doesn’t let our own panic or fear or self-involvement distract God from the big picture. Our rescue, and the world’s, is inevitable. It comes with a cost, yes: Just as Sgt. Major Saman Gunam gave his life for those boys, so Jesus gives his life for our redemption. For Sgt. Major Gunam, and for our Lord, the end goal was worth the risks entailed. They both have the kind of dispassionate professionalism that can put their self-interest second to the big picture.
Ephesians makes the point that a mystery has been revealed to us who believe. The mystery that’s been revealed to us is exactly this: that God is the consummate professional with a full grasp of the picture who has the ability to rescue us, and to rescue the world. God can and will get us out of the dark, dank cave, even as the water is creeping up around us, and into the light of life. We have put our trust in the right place. This is grace: grace is that ultimately, it’s not up to us to save ourselves. Though we participate in it, we do it with the guidance and under the care of the professionals. We do it under the care of God who loves us and who is sovereign over history and whose plan to rescue the world cannot be thwarted. And we do it with the companionship of Jesus Christ, who accompanies us through the dark, claustrophobic waters into the light of God’s eternal grace.
The fact that we’ve had this mystery of God’s unflappable professionalism revealed to us is the source of our hope and of our faith. Faith is simply really believing that God has the ability and the desire to save us; but not only that, faith is to believe that God will save us. God will get us safely to the other side.