The last two weeks have been trying, so I hope to get back to rescheduled blogging very soon. But until then, here is the sermon I preached in Salado yesterday morning. Hope there's something there that either makes sense, or touches you. Thanks for reading :-)!
Hebrews 11: 1-3 & 8-16
I was working as a chaplain intern the weekend of July 4, 2009. On this particular Friday night I had many pending crises going on simultaneously. In the middle of juggling the different episodes of care, I remembered a lady I had visited earlier that morning. She had broken her shoulder the night before and was trying to stay positive as best she could in spite of the tremendous pain she was enduring. I remember she said poetry, especially by the poet Emily Dickinson, gave her comfort. So while I had a second that evening, I thought let me print out the poem I saw on my friend's blog by Dickinson, and run it up to her. I found it quickly enough and printed it. I reread the first stanza,
"Hope" is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—”
That will work I thought to myself.
She was delighted with the poem choice. As she lay in her hospital bed, the poem reminded her of her own faith. She found the touch of hope and calm in that faith. She in return gave me a tremendous gift that evening, as she in spite of her condition, saw God's purpose for me and affirmed God's promise in a few short words, “You are very special; you were meant to do this work.” Her words quelled my own doubts and my momentary lack of faith in God and myself.
Last summer I completed this hospital internship in Austin. Internships of this type go by an innocuous acronym, CPE, which stands for Clinical Pastoral Education. Some people regard, as myself, this time as one of the hardest things they will ever do as part of their seminary training. Not only are you thrown into crisis situations where you have little or no experience to offer pastoral care and direction, but you and the people in your peer group examine your life, your faith walk, and why you act and believe the things you do. Looking back I remember thinking and laughing with my group mates that the day I finish CPE is the day of the eschaton; the day I see Jesus. The end of CPE marked the end of the intense trial of self-examination, the questioning of faith; as well as the hope that I was actually following God's calling, and meant to do the work I thought God was calling me to do. The end of CPE, I thought, would mark the time of divine arrival, a happiness that would permeate my entire being and make every future interaction go perfectly. Now as we can all attest, every situation can never go perfectly. But through our experiences, especially the hard ones, faith grows...it's the thing, along side hope with feathers that perches in the soul. This perching becomes the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
The Hebrews passage today talks about faith and hope. It's questioned if the letter to the Hebrews was actually written by Paul. But there is no question as to that it was written to encourage, and even written to stand on its own, or touch the soul, as some would consider in the way of a sermon. One of the ways it does this is by providing the example of Abraham to illustrate its point. Abraham listened, obeyed and trusted God so much that he set out for a place not seen. He believed God when told, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them...for so shall your decedents be.” Abraham believed God. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that had foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”
But what is Faith? What is Hope? And, are we automatically happy because we have faith? Is faith ever questioned? Was Abraham happy? Was his faith ever tested? Abraham was in the promised land for years and did not ever see the glory of the promise itself. Did he ever doubt, then? Knowing some of the aspects of Abraham's story, and the echoes of Abraham's story in our own story, we know perhaps that this is true. The test of our faith is apparent by living everyday. We strive to be hopeful and faithful. We strive to be happy. We chase the substance of happiness. And think at times that if we're happy, that will be a sure sign that we have unquestioned faith and hope.
This is the 50th year of the longest running American musical, The Fantasticks. Some of you may not know this but the creators of the Fantasticks, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, both went to the University of Texas where they met and collaborated on many projects as students. Matter of fact as a side note, the University of Texas is hosting a celebration weekend of events this fall to commemorate the marking of this milestone in American theater. If you're not familiar with this musical, it's a fable about life with all its sweetness, hardships, turmoil and blessings. At the end of act one, the young couple at the center of the story are happily together, and their fathers restore their differences. Happiness and faith abound. However, the happiness they showcase is a form of brainless, idiotic happiness. They are happy without the substantive understanding that true happiness is more hard won than that. True happiness is found at the end of the play when the boy and girl, he after being badly bruised and battered by life; and she after losing what is most precious to her, find each other again. They realize that you can go through a lot of pain in life and come up standing. Happiness, and really faith, comes when you realize the human race, and notably you as an individual, can go through a lot of pain and come up standing. That's what we need to hear. Is that not the gospel?
I have a friend that speaks truth with humor and relevance, but always without malice. Do you know anyone like that? She recently blogged about a quote she came across that said, “The God-Life is a great life. He turns an ordinary story into an amazing adventure!” Aside from second guessing the author’s true intent, my friend calls superficial phrases like this, self-help drivel with a dash of Jesus juice. She writes that with this type of phrasing, she can only imagine the delivery of the line coming out of a Amy Poehler/Seth Meyers SNL Weekend Update sketch. She wonders if the trend to mask happiness into a sign of faithfulness is just pride parading around in the skin of positivity. She questions how some turn Christianity into an exclusive club, where its members, as she writes, “live such adventurous, glamorous lives where happy juice if the drink of choice and troubles are just little speed bumps that slow you down just enough to get you to pause and reflect but don't get you to stop, look and listen. Happiness is not an object to be captured. Happiness, and faith, are more hard won than that.
Let me give you the second stanza of Dickinson's poem, which I started with this morning,
“And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm-”
Two weeks ago now was one of the hardest weeks I've had in a really long time. I lost an immediate family member that I had no true adult relationship with, and consequently had not significantly seen since my late teen years. On the heals of this unexpected shock, I was not selected for two positions I applied, two dear friends moved to states away from Texas (I know the nerve), and I was bit by a rooster named Sue twice. (It's okay you can laugh at that last part...even though it did hurt and I still have the bruises to prove it). But on the other side of this exhaustive week, I realized that even though things appeared to be against me and coming apart, and perhaps I did not even see hope and faith in the exact moment; I did notice after a few days the ebb of despair dissipate and the pieces pull together. The way was made clearer, and little by little brighter. I could see the seeds of reconciliation planted in fresh soil, the transformation of understanding for the sensitivity of timing, and the appreciation for the promise of new life bestowed upon the friends I love. I regained a footing of faith and subsequently hope. I felt faith-filled. I sensed a tinge of relief centered happiness, but that of which only comes from a covering of peace.
I'm reminded that the gospel does not equal happiness. Happiness is an image, a glimmer from which the gospel resonates. The gospel is peace. It's the peace found in reconciliation, transformation, new life and resurrection. From that peace, we get a glimmer of warm happiness. Some call it joy. Reminder to self: Happiness should never be the object solely sought. Happiness, correction joy, comes out of peace.
Faith then, as a commentary I looked at put it, is an attitude of commitment by which one persists and endures while all things seem contrary. The experience of each person, as it’s shown in the letter to the Hebrews and in each of our lives, shows how faith works at some crucial juncture in each life. Each person 's story allows us to watch individuals wrestle for meaning in contexts that seem crushing and unmanageable. Abraham responds to life as a pilgrim caught between past and future in a very demanding present. And yet his trust, as well as our trust, in God's concern gives us perspective, patience and persistence. As Abraham, we’re of our own time, but stirred by looking forward, we’re seekers; directed by what was yet to be, encouraged by what is anticipated. Abraham sensed that the meaning of his days could be clarified in time and vindicated by God. True faith is characterized by a forward look and an openness to the pull of the future that God has planned. Abraham did not look back. He only looked forward.
But once we go through the hard times and arrive at the promised land, do we stop? Is every situation and interaction perfect now? Unfortunately no. However, no is never the end of the story. Faith and hope continues the cycle. God’s promises and steadfast love always endure.
Please indulge me to end this with the last stanza of Dickinson’s poem, and then once again the first,
“I've heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.”
"Hope", and I'll add faith, is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—”