The Comfort of the Staff

In the 1997 film Titanic, there is a scene near the climax depicting a trapped Irish mother comforting her children and tucking them into bed for the last time as the flood waters rose around them.  In a nearby cabin a similarly trapped elderly gentleman embraces his beloved, cuddled in their bed for what would be the last time.  Meanwhile atop the deck of the foundering vessel, men and women of means are seen frantically flitting about in selfish panic, searching for some unseen speck of hope.  The mother’s last wish was that her children not be afraid.  The husband’s last wish was that his bride not be alone.  The moneyed fought with all their human might to avoid the inevitable, their unrequited last wish not coming to be for most.  In the end, more than two out of three passengers went down with the sundered ship to a frigid watery grave.  None of the victims wanted to die that night, but most died nonetheless.

A few years ago I visited the Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia where the remains of 121 passengers are interred.  With little exception, these were the remains of the ‘moneyed’ folk who had frantically jockeyed for position on one of those woefully inadequate lifeboats, and lost.  Their last moments were no doubt spent in panic and frenetic desperation, and it was their screams that had briefly pierced the glacial chill that fateful night before falling silent.  A third of those graves belong to unidentified victims, just as anonymous as those entombed in that broken wreck at the bottom of the sea.

Of course, Titanic was a fictional account of a historical tragedy, but the layers of response depicted are profound and very familiar.  Those trapped below were faced with the realization that, despite all the attempted heroics going on around them and barring a miracle that must have seemed unimaginable, they were going to die.  This is that moment of which David spoke when he penned  “….though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4).  Notice that David didn’t say his peace came from knowing that God would rescue him from the mortal threat – only that He wouldn’t leave him to face it alone.  Atop the doomed vessel were those who were still clinging to an unseen hope, even as the spectre of death became more and more assured.  Down below were those who had seen that black shadow and chosen not to fear it, but to defeat it in the only way a man can truly defeat death – by robbing it of it’s sting!  Paul made it clear that the ‘sting’ of death is sin (1 Corinthians 15:56), the carnal separation from God in favor of self-reliant clamoring for one’s own desire.  Regardless of where the victims found themselves, they left this life in one of two ways – either trying with their last breath to live, or trying with their last breath to have lived well.

There is and can be no peace apart from the willingness to trust that great events are sometimes controlled by more than the desperation of one unwilling victim.  Mistaking religious frenzy for faith does not bring comfort, it only intensifies loss.  Remember the faith of David from the Psalm. He knew if God chose to rescue him, the ‘rod’ was available to vanquish the threatening enemy.  He also knew that if the Good Shepherd so chose, He could use his ‘staff’ to draw him near and out of harm’s way.  David was comforted by the fact that either way, he was not alone.  Not to miss the point, David fought to the very end, as are we instructed to do both by example (2 Timothy 4:7-8 et al) and by direct command (1 Timothy 6:12 et al).  In the end, however, the believer faces death and mortal threat in a profoundly different way than does the unbeliever. 

We are still yet comforted by the Master’s ‘rod’ and His ‘staff’ to this day, and are called upon to manage our own response to crises with that unshakeable truth in mind.  Resting on the promises of God from His word is at last the only real comfort that provides a ‘lamp to our feet’ and a ‘light to our path’ when the way inevitably grows dim.  In the end, it is that ….peace of God, which passeth all understanding,” that is promised to “….keep our (your) hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7).  Ultimately, like the faithful husband and comforting mother, Isaiah declared that “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee.” (Isaiah 26:3).

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