On Tuesday the 5th I made my first hospital visit in Chapel Hill. Elizabeth and I went together. Emily Thomas had fallen, broken a hip and dislocated her shoulder. She gave me permission to share a bit of our visit with you. In spite of her discomfort and the uncertainty about where she would be headed for rehab, one of Emily’s primary concerns was that she could not hold her Bible.
She is partial to Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, but the book itself was too cumbersome to manage with her injured shoulder. So, she said, she was just going over in her mind the parts of scripture she knew best. That made me curious to know what she loved—what was her canon? She said the Book of James, Matthew, Psalm 118, Psalm 119—though she acknowledged that 119 is so long that she usually just takes up one verse each night. For the record, that would take you through 176 nights.
It’s always humbling to be in the presence of someone whose life has been so shaped by these words that, in a pinch, they can do without the physical presence of the book, because God and time have written the words on their hearts. My father is a retired pastor. Years ago he told me of a congregant who so loved the book of I John (from which we have just read) that this man began every day by reading it through again.
For most of us, though, it’s not whole books or chapters—its fragments, stories, phrases that have snagged on the rough places in our hearts—words that come back in the night when we can’t sleep. For me, one of those recurring phrases is the admonition not to be afraid. It runs all through the scriptures, old and new, and God seems to plant it in my path at significant mileposts.
That word of grace—it showed up again two weeks ago, as Lee and I arrived in Chapel Hill. We did not make it to worship that Sunday, so that afternoon as we unpacked boxes in what still feels like Bob’s office, I was delighted to come across a volume of sermons written by a beloved professor and friend, Pat Miller. I settled into a comfortable chair and told Lee that we were about to have church.
On the Tuesday before, Pat and I had shared lunch together. During the course of our conversation he had mentioned a particular Christmas sermon that contained a story of a mutual friend. Shirley died last year and I miss her, so I set about to find the sermon in the little book. As it turned out—the sermon in question was rooted in the words “Do not be afraid.”[i]
Fear takes many forms. For some of us it surfaces as anger, for others paralysis, and for still others it manifests as a restless, ceaseless activity—a refusal to be still. And fear can be triggered by a wide range of circumstances.
In Isaiah’s day there were many reasons, old and new, for the people to be afraid. Their leaders were in exile in Babylon, the people were scattered, their homeland had been decimated—but now, to add to that list of woes, a new enemy was on the horizon, threatening to overwhelm even their captors. It had been a long time since the people knew a settled life, but this looked like the last straw. Into that precarious place, God speaks a word through the prophet.
God says, “Enter the courtroom; let’s settle this question.” God asks, in effect, “Are you turning your back because of the latest newspaper headlines? Have you forgotten ‘who I am’? Is it time for you to take things into your own hands?”
We, too, live in a day in which the relentless drum of news can shake our faith. Natural disasters, fickle leaders, horrific violence, greed everywhere we turn—including in our own hearts—what are we to say? What are we to do?
The book of Isaiah proclaims that the key is to re-member whose we are—to let God’s performative word re-create us, so that we act not from our own strength, but as we are inhabited by a love that drives out our fear.
The author of First John also knows something about that kind of love. He reminds us that because this is a love that cannot be earned, it also cannot be lost —such a love originates in the heart of God, and is meant to make its way into the world.
We love because God first loved us. We love because we have experienced that love in Jesus, and now have the chance to experience it in each other. We don’t have to be afraid because God’s love is stronger even than death.
Let’s be clear: seeking to follow the Christ does not mean that threats will vanish from our lives—one look at how Jesus’ life ended should settle that question. That’s not the assurance we’re offered when fear is banished.
What we are promised is that there is a life that courses through us even now that is deeper and wider and stronger than the worst illness or injury or circumstance that we will ever face. The name of that life is “eternal”.
But, honestly, I don’t know how helpful that word is to us—because eternal is not a word we use much outside of church—so it needs to be unpacked. Try this on. Here’s how Frederick Buechner describes eternity.
“Eternity is not endless time or the opposite of time. It is the essence of time.
If you spin a pinwheel fast enough, then all its colors blend into a single color—white—which is the essence of all the colors of the spectrum combined.
If you spin time fast enough, then time-past, time-present and time-to-come all blend into a single timelessness or eternity, which is the essence of all times combined.
As human beings, we know time as a passing of unrepeatable events in the course of which everything passes away—including ourselves. As human beings, we also know occasions when we stand outside the passing of events and glimpse their meaning. Sometimes an event occurs in our lives (a birth, a death, a marriage—some event of unusual beauty, pain, joy) through which we catch a glimpse of what our lives are all about and maybe even what life itself is all about, and this glimpse of what ‘its all about’ involves not just the present but the past and future too.
Inhabitants of time that we are, we stand on such occasions with one foot in eternity. God, as Isaiah says (57:15), ‘[inhabits] eternity’ but stands with one foot in time. The part of time where [God] stands most particularly is Christ, and thus in Christ we catch a glimpse of what eternity is all about, what God is all about, and what we ourselves are all about too.”[ii]
Let me paint a picture of a moment where it seems to me that time and eternity came together:
My mother is a Guardian ad Litem in the western part of our state. That means she is regularly appointed by the court to advocate for children who have been neglected or abused. In the course of her work, she reads a lot of reports and interviews a lot of people. She spends a lot of time just being with the children. In the end, she has to recommend to the court the actions that she believes will best serve the welfare of the child in question.
I want to tell you the story of one of those children. I will call her Rachel. When Rachel was about 10 she was removed from her birth parents’ home, after it was discovered that she had been sexually abused by both of her parents for a long time. Rachel was placed in a large, boisterous foster family. With time, their patient and persistent love allowed her to begin again. Ever so slowly she began to come back to life and to tell her story. Finally, after many hours of observation and counseling, the court determined that the rights of her birth parents would be terminated and the way made clear for adoption by her foster family.
Lots of planning went into the adoption ceremony. It would take place in the same courtroom in which all of the earlier proceedings had occurred, but everyone involved intended this to be a real celebration, complete with flowers, food and gifts. In addition to the formal adoption proceeding there would be a naming ceremony in which both the name she was given at birth and the new name she was now receiving would be honored.
When the day came, every member of Rachel’s new family was there to welcome her. The social worker was there; my mother was there.
Step-by-step things unfolded according to plan.
As my mother described all of this to me, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for the judge, for the adopting family, for the fact that our legal system could sometimes be infused with such grace—but it was the end of the story that took away my breath.
When all of the formalities were over, the judge turned to Rachel and asked her if there were anything that she would like to say. She rose, and joy shimmered on her face, but she could not find even a single word.
So the judge issued a different invitation. He asked her to come and join him behind the bench.
He said, “I want for you to see things from up here, the way that I see them.” And when she joined him, he said, “and I want for you to wear my robe, to know how it feels.”
He removed his robe and with obvious wonder, Rachel tried it on.
From this new vantage point, Rachel could look out on the landscape of her life. In this room where the truth had been spoken about the agony she had endured, there was a new truth shining from the faces of those who were promising to be her new sisters, her new father, her new mother. She had entered a covenant of life and well-being, with a future and a hope.
And because that judge invited her to see that landscape the way he saw it, and to know the weight of that robe, he invited her to imagine her place in that future as one who participates in the bringing of justice, in the rendering of healing, salvation.
Sisters and brothers, at that font or one like it, we too were blessed with a new name and new family. We, too, were clothed with compassion, entrusted with a robe, charged to participate in the bringing of justice. We did not earn that gift and responsibility; it just flows from the heart of God.
And if the past is a good predictor of the future, it is the places where we, too, are most wounded—the places where we now grieve—those are the places from which God will bring the most life—if only we will ask God in. Our job is to keep showing up, to keep opening our hearts to others, and to follow where God leads us into the world, rejoicing as God’s redemptive love displaces our fear.
In the words of Emily’s favorite psalm,
“O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good,
God’s steadfast love endures forever.”
[i] Patrick D. Miller, Stewards of the Mysteries of God, Preaching the Old Testament—and the New. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2013, 104-107.
[ii] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, A Seeker’s ABC. New York: HarperCollins, 1973, 26-27.