For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately. “Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Luke 21: 5-19
I recently spent a few hours on a Sunday afternoon with 8 young adults–men and women in their late 20s and early 30s–from a congregation in Washington, DC. They wanted to talk with me about spiritual practices, and in particular, what our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, has commended to all of us in the Episcopal Church: The Way of Love: 7 Practices for a Jesus-Centered Life.
We spent most of our time discussing the first of those practices, to turn, which, as a flower turns toward the sun, is the daily invitation given to us to turn our focus toward Jesus and his teachings, to consciously open ourselves to him and allow him to guide us through life. Turning also has the connotation of turning around, or turning from those things that are not loving toward ourselves and others, and thus not of God. The word itself acknowledges the fact that all of us fall short, make mistakes, do things that we regret, and participate in evil in ways that we may not be aware of or believe are wrong. Each day brings a new opportunity to turn away from those things that make us lesser versions of ourselves, hold our lives before the life and love of Jesus, and turn toward him, trusting that he is always turning toward us.
I told the group that one of the ways I try to remember to turn toward Jesus each day is to quietly offer myself before him when I rise in the morning, and to think of him before I check my phone. I remember most days, and when I don’t, I stop whenever I realize that I’ve forgotten, and turn my gaze and my thoughts toward him. Likewise when I’m driving, before turning on the radio, I take a breath and turn my thoughts toward him. Obviously, these aren’t huge gestures, but I pray that the daily practice of them helps prepare me for those other times when Jesus may invite me to turn in a bigger way, or–as the gospel texts soberly reminds us–when life itself turns and I’m faced with real suffering and hardship, so that I have more inside me to draw upon, and that I’ve become practiced in turning towards him for those times when I really need his strength to persevere and endure.
As our session was drawing to a close, I asked the group if they had any questions for me. Normally when I open things up for questions with a group, people want to know about things we’re doing in the diocese or for assistance with something they are struggling with in the church. This time was different. The first person to raise her hand asked me how I knew that God truly loved me. The look in her eyes suggested that she wasn’t so much asking about me, but for herself, how I might help her believe that God loved her. The second person to ask a question wanted to know how I had forgiven someone who had hurt me deeply; again, I felt as if the one asking needed guidance on how he might forgive.
Such deep and important questions. I did my best to answer honestly, first by acknowledging that even for someone ordained in the church, knowing for certain that God loves us isn’t just an intellectual matter, but one of the heart and experience. There are days, I told the group, when I struggle as much as anyone with a sense of distance or unknowing–certainly feelings of unworthiness–in relation to the love of God.
If those were my only experiences, it would be impossible to believe that God loves me, or anyone else. But they aren’t. I have had other, deeply personal, transformative moments when I’ve experienced what I can only describe as love. While they are fleeting, they help keep me going, and allow me to hold onto what I choose to believe–that is, what I choose to trust– even when I don’t feel it. Sometimes the choice to believe in God, and in God’s love, is all I have.
Regarding forgiveness, I began by stating the obvious: that forgiveness of the deeper wounds is hard and that it takes time. In order to forgive, we need to have sufficient capacity inside ourselves; we need to be able to define ourselves as something more than the wound we have suffered. The deeper the wound, the longer the healing process takes. Forgiveness also requires a certain amount of distance from the wounding person or situation, so that we are no longer in danger of being wounded again, or in truly dire situations, when we know that God has a hold on us, even as we are in the midst of pain. Forgiveness is an expression of love–first, for ourselves, as we hold ourselves tenderly in that wounded place, and, when we are able, love for the one who has hurt us. Forgiveness, as Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “is the attribute of the strong.” Think of Jesus on the cross, forgiving those who put him there. In his suffering, he was the stronger one. We can’t fake that kind of love and capacity to forgive. Often I fail at forgiveness. When it comes to me, I recognize it as the gift that it is.
Inspired by the questions these young adults asked, I asked in my most recent bi-weekly message to the diocese, if others had questions of faith they would like to ask me. I’ve been deeply moved by what has come back to me.
Before I delve into some of those questions, I invite you to consider your own. You received, along with your bulletin, a half-sheet of paper on which I invite you now or sometime this morning to write your question, or questions, about faith. If you’re willing, we can talk about them in our time together after worship, or I can take them home and respond another way. I can’t promise satisfactory answers to your questions–I don’t have answers for many of my own–but I promise to ponder them, in a spirit of mutual wondering. Questions are fertile ground for faith.
In the questions that have come to me thus far, the range of topics is broad. Some have centered on the Bible–how to read and understand it, what authority it has over us. One person asked if we begin to question literal truth in some places (as opposed to its literary, symbolic, and moral truth), where do we stop?
Others questions have been more personal: “How can I know God’s will for my life?” and “Would you like to know the exact day you will die?”
Several questions were about the very existence of God, and the nature of God, which is where I’d like to spend the rest of my time this morning. “Are there days when you wake up in the morning,” one person asked, with the thought “All this stuff about God can’t possibly be real. Have I been deluding myself all these years?” Another asked, “How can we truly know that God is good?” Still another asked, “Does God intervene? How do we pray for God’s protection over our drive from our home to our work while children are starving? Yet we ask God to watch over us. Is He watching over them? Or are we watched over at all?”
In answer to the first question–if I ever question the existence of God–the answer is yes. For me, doubt is not the opposite of faith, but essential to my life of faith. I’ve had my share of doubts and struggles, in part because of all that I see in this world, as do you, I cannot reconcile with the reality of a loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God.
Among Christians, in the Bible, and from the traditions we’ve inherited from our spiritual ancestors, there are “answers” to the hardest questions that human beings have asked for millenia, but to be honest, I’ve never found the answers I’ve heard or read compelling or satisfying.
There’s a book in the Bible, the Book of Job, written centuries before the birth of Jesus, which tells the story of a man from whom everything of meaning and importance to him had been taken–deliberately so, it seems, by Satan and with God’s consent, in order to test his faith. If you only read the first and last chapters of the book (which it seems many do) you’re left with the impression that despite everything that happened to him, including the death of his children, losing all his property and immense physical suffering, Job never lost faith in God and of God’s goodness. But the middle 37 chapters tell another story entirely. In them, Job pours out his grief and outrage, and he rejects every explanation that his well-meaning friends offer to explain why these things had happened to him, which sound a lot like the platitudes we can fall back on in such times–such as, there must be a reason for this; surely your sins have brought this upon you; just trust in God’s plan.
What turns things around for Job isn’t any of the answers given him. No, what happens is that Job has an experience of God speaking to him at last. The long stretch of God’s silence is at last broken. To my reading, it’s not that great of an experience, actually. God isn’t particularly consoling to Job, and God explains nothing, as if the mystery of human suffering must simply be accepted. But for Job, the experience of God coming to him was enough. It didn’t take away his suffering, or answer his questions. But it was enough for him to believe in God and keep living.
Such moments when they come (and they come on their own timetable) are what keep me going. Yes, I study the Scriptures. I show up in church, I say my daily prayers, and do my imperfect best to follow in the way of Jesus. But my faith in the reality of God, and of a God that is good, is sustained in moments of encounter, either in my own heart, and equally compelling when I see the impact of a God-shaped, Jesus-centered life in another person.
I’m reminded of a song which put to a melody a haunting poem that is said to have been discovered on the wall of a World War II concentration camp:
I believe in the sun.
I believe in the sun, even when,
even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love.
I believe in love even when,
even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God.
I believe in God even when,
even when God is silent.1
Such belief would be impossible without some previous sense of God’s presence and love. Often it’s the memory of God, the desire for a connection with God, or someone’s faith in God that keeps us going when our faith wanes. Once, when my heart was deeply broken as a young person, a wise spiritual mentor in my life said to me, “God is still with you, even though it doesn’t seem so now.”
The question, “Does God intervene when we pray for specific things?” goes to the heart of prayer. How can we give thanks to God for sparing us from suffering when others are not spared? What are we actually praying for when we ask God to open doors for us or those we love, heal our infirmities, make wars to cease–not to mention helping us navigate through the smaller yet real complexities of our lives?
What I believe is this: God does intervene through us; God moves through the lives of human beings, and that as we draw closer to God and strive to follow the example of Jesus, we have greater capacity to be agents of positive change in places where God’s love is needed. I’m not rejecting the possibility of other forms of divine intervention, because there is so much about God that I don’t understand. And I pray for all manner of things that I need help with, that I long for God to do or to make possible. I bring all my desires before God, because that’s what our faith encourages us to do. In the end, however, I recognize that in prayer–even in the prayers that are of raw desire or desperate help–what changes most through my prayers is me.
When we pray for others who are suffering, we put ourselves in God’s hands to move toward some form of response, and in some way we take on the suffering of others as our own, which we see in Jesus on the cross.
“Christ has no physical body here on earth but ours,” Teresa of Avila reminds us, “No hands and feet but ours. Ours are the eyes with which he sees, ours are the feet on which he moves; ours are the lips with which he speaks to this world with kindness.”
In closing, let me simply emphasize the importance of your questions, and to encourage you to hold them in your heart and share them with one another. Offer them to God–even to the God you’re not always sure that you believe in–and wait to see what happens. Strive to be a community that honors the deeper questions in life and create space wherever you can to explore them together.
One of my gifts to you, that I’ll leave with members of the vestry, is a collection of faith sharing cards, that are simply questions to prompt meaningful conversations among you and a way to go deeper on the path of faith. As we go deeper, what matters isn’t so much the actual answers that come to us, but the relationship itself–with God, through the presence of Jesus and in the power of God’s mysterious spirit that lives and moves through us all.