Shafts of Light, IV: Corrie ten Boom
The Psalms have been with us for literally millennia.
But just recently, scholar Robert Alter who teaches Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley offered up a new translation of the Psalms into English which reviewers say capture the simplicity, the physicality, and the coiled rhythmic power of the Hebrew, restoring the remarkable eloquence of these ancient poems.
Here is his translation of Psalm 46.
God is a shelter and strength for us,
A help in straights, readily found.
Therefore we fear not when the earth breaks apart,
When mountains collapse in the heart of the sea.
Its waters roar and roil,
Mountains heave in its surge.
A stream, its rivulets gladden God’s town, the holy dwelling place.
God in its midst, it will not collapse.
God helps it as morning breaks.
God sends forth holy voice and earth melts.
The Lord of armies is with us,
A fortress for us, Jacob’s God.
Go, behold the acts of the Lord
Who made desolations on earth
Caused wars to cease to the ends of the earth.
Let go and know that I am God.
I loom among nations, I loom upon earth.
The Lord of armies is with us,
A fortress for us, Jacobs God.
corrie ten Boom was the first certified female watchmaker in the Netherlands, but that superlative soon paled in comparison to her work during the German occupation of her own Dutch town of Haarlem.
She sheltered, hid, fed, and cared for Jewish refugees, asylum seekers, and those who were able to escape the Nazi Regime through luck or simple twist of faith. She is an apt hero on Congregational Care Sunday as we seek to offer vital, life-giving, mutual care for one another in community, and she is an apt hero on Mother’s Day when her heroic sacrifices mirror that of mothers through the ages who risked it all to usher life and love into the world.
As a Christian, ten Boom holds the title “Righteous Among the Nations,” given to the rare non-Jewish individuals who risked their lives to aid Jews during the Holocaust.
Slowly at first, and then with growing intensity, ten Boom became immersed in an underground resistance, maybe akin to the Underground Railroad or the Sanctuary Movement, that developed a network of resources to usher those whose lives were at stake into safety.
Her work as a watchmaker became her cover: the repair of watches, her secret code.
A woman’s watch has come in need of repair, a man’s watch needs a new second hand, a child’s watch is now in stock: all code for communicating the urgent needs of women, men, and children seeking shelter.
It wasn’t easy, but community formed. Through this quiet but critical network, a resistance worker with telecom expertise was able to reconnect the telephone that the German invaders had disconnected three years prior, and later, an architect with the resistance came by to install a hiding place accessible through a brick hidden passage behind the bookshelf (brick was better than wood, he said, it wouldn’t echo when knocked on by the Gestapo).
When ten Boom and her family were ultimately arrested and sent to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, four Jews were hiding behind that brick wall, and all four were spared.
When I first came across the legacy of Corrie ten Boom, I was worried. I am skeptical of a sad story with too much of a happy ending. Sure, sometimes some semblance of joy, relief, and return is possible by the end of an impossibly hard story, but too much celebration at the end seems inauthentic, saccharine, and potentially dangerous.
Watching interviews of Corrie, the people who sometimes surround her seem much too joyful when hearing about the horrors she came through, as though her story were only a means to an end: more saccharine evangelism.
One interviewer in particular was cloying, syrupy, schmaltzy, dripping with joy at Corrie’s story, smiling as she named God’s protection in Corrie’s journey. I was worried. But within ten Boom’s own articulation of her struggle, first with the resistance, and then in the concentration camp, it is clear that her trust in God truly did give her strength, and her frantic, anxious prayers in the middle of the night truly did calm her fears.
There is no triumphant God of rescue in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp where tens of thousands of women died. There is no jubilant Christus Victor when prayers of thanks include black fleas and a half portion of gruel.
But if you have been through times of suffering, and I know you have, you remember how even the smallest gestures toward hope mean the world: that one ice chip in the hospital was so soothing, that twenty-dollar bill meant you could stretch your budget twice as far this week, the weekly friendship after your wife died made you feel infinitely less alone.
Corrie ten Boom was that kind of person of faith: one who could see the hand of God in the smallest, most tender parts of life, and find strength. The way we understand God is powerful: our theological worldview can change our life.
For Corrie ten Boom, she had been taught by her father’s close reading of the Old Testament, that if she drew close to the people of Abraham, she would draw close to God. In other words, her care for the Jewish escapees of the Third Reich was rooted in her understanding of God.
Her theological understanding of the world gave her the strength to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night, risk her life, and seek help for the unnamed stranger fleeing persecution.
Her way of seeing God at work in the world gave her courage to open her front door and receive another new mother and her infant child, shepherding them to safety.
Her religious conviction fortified her resolve as she invited the most medically vulnerable into her home, risking the safety of her sister, father, and cousins.
If you grew up with Holocaust heroes like this on your bookshelves, you might begin to believe that all Christians in Holland, Poland, and Germany made the same risks, but that is not the case. For other so-called Christians, their theological convictions were just as powerful, and led them to do nothing: let God sort it out, they’d say, or even worse, they’d perpetuate the falsehood that Jesus was not a Jew at all, but an opponent of Jews, and therefore German Christians are right to welcome and celebrate the Nazi ideology.
Last week Bill Evertsberg said when you start burning books, you end by burning people, but I wonder if it starts earlier than that, when the Jesus Christ who is preached from the pulpit and prayed to in people’s homes is no longer a savior on the side of the poor and oppressed, but instead a tool for the German state, transformed into a partner with injustice. Theology is powerful.
So Corrie ten Boom’s witness has the power to echo into our own lives as we wrestle with the struggles of our own day. And Corrie ten Boom’s God, a God of rescue and guidance, echoes for us across the scripture passage we’ve already heard here today, as we endure our own hardships, and make our way, some days braver than others.
Psalm 46 tells us that when the world falls apart, trust God and do not fear. When it seems as if the mountains themselves are rupturing, tumbling into the sea, trust God and do not fear. When illness surrounds you, trust God and do not fear. When there’s someone two inches to your left, right beside you, but you are utterly and miserably alone, trust God and do not fear.
This is no milquetoast truth, this is a deep, abiding message of hope, that comes from the deepest pits of despair, a hope that Corrie ten Boom testifies about, not with saccharine platitudes, but from real life experience in the most horrific of historical contexts, that has become for us a shorthand for evil personified.
Psalm 46 imagines God’s voice melting the earth’s chaos and halting all wars. It’s the Psalm that inspired Martin Luther to write “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” It admits that the chaos of earthquake, fire, storm, illness, war, injustice, and strife are impossibly hard, and envisions a future reality in which there is universal peace, a refuge, and strength, a sanctuary where streams of water flow on in endless song to gladden the city of God. It envisions God as one who pauses disorder and ushers in stability.
We may only get small glimpses of this imagined future, but we see it. You may recognize this well known verse from Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God.” Robert Alter’s translation says, “Let go and know that I am God.” Let go of what? Let go of whatever is the opposite of strength and refuge, whatever is the opposite of sanctuary, whatever is the opposite of that endless song that gladdens the city of God.
Let go. Let go.
One commentator goes one step further to suggest that this imperative to “be still” or “let go” is meant to mean “desist” as in “cease and desist” or maybe even more adequately “drop your weapons.”
Drop your weapons and know that I am God. Cease and desist and know that I am God. Stop now, and know that I am God. It is not your little brother saying “stop it.” It is your mother saying, “stop, enough.” Let go and know that I am God. Be still and know that I am God.
Corrie ten Boom had to let go of so much: her own safety, her own financial security, she ultimately had to let go of the very lives of those most dear to her, like her sister and father who died in or on the way to the concentration camp. But her letting go made a way for that small glimmer of God’s vision in the darkest of times.
May we, too, let go,
in the ways God calls us to let go,
and may we see and know
that small glimmer of God’s deepest hope,
now and in the days and years to come. Amen.