Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Meaning in the End

Mark 13:1-8

            Last year in Advent, I followed my practice of the last five years of picking a theme to lace together my sermons for a whole year.  Unlike those of prior years, my sermons this year have made scant reference to the theme.   That theme has been “The Search for Meaning.”  Broad enough, wouldn’t you say?  I don’t know whether the theme or the sermons have been helpful to you, but looking at all the scriptures through this particular lens has at least been helpful to me.  I have deliberately tried to imagine myself each Sunday as a newcomer to St. Stephen’s, trying to put myself in the position of one who has not been to church much in recent years.  I have tried to look at scriptures through the eyes of one who might be vaguely searching for meaning, but more explicitly searching for identity, for a sense of place, a direction in life.  I have listened to the words of the Bible, trying to experience them against the backdrop of not of very much Christian experience, or indeed any religious experience, but of a general lack of knowledge about what any of it means or how to put any of it to practical use.  I have also kept in mind those who sit in these pews Sunday after Sunday wanting to hear something fresh, stimulating, perhaps even shocking to a point.  I have some sympathies for those who fight the yawns of boredom with what can sometimes be a religion that seems to do its best to dull meaning and to dampen imagination.  And, of course, no less important are those, young and old, who are genuinely excited by their faith and who want to dig ever more deeply to plumb it for ultimate Meaning.

            This particular hermeneutic—the search for meaning—has gotten to be quite interesting.  Hermeneutic, by the way, is what we biblical students call a principle of interpretation—what I sometimes refer to, as I just did, as a lens through which to read scripture.  It has been interesting because, as this year has unwound, I have found myself eager to engage in conversations with people—both here and elsewhere—who are in fact looking for meaning, and who are willing to talk about it.  Although I have been doing it for years, I have begun to do it with much more attention and energy than ever before.  Just two weeks ago, I was in a kitchen full of people who were chatting about what they did and did not experience in Christianity.  Some were people who had never had much if any experience of church at all.  One or two had some experience, but it was mostly negative, constricting, hyper-judgmental, and critical.  At least one was a young, enthusiastic convert to Buddhism.  The average age of the group might have been thirty, or slightly less.  I can’t quite get enough of such conversations.  All of them teach me something about what many people are actually thinking these days about their own lives and what gives them meaning—or not.

            So it is in that frame of reference that I hear this gospel message today.  It is sometimes called “The Little Apocalypse of St. Mark.”  We hear it today for a couple of reasons.  One is that we have been reading Mark all year long, with few exceptions, and we are coming to the end of it, where this passage appears.  Another is that we are two Sundays away from Advent.  Even though some of us preachers slug it out each year with Advent themes like judgment, repentance, watchful waiting, hope, justice, and the signs and wonders that point to God’s future with humanity and the planet we live on, I suspect that most of that stuff doesn’t go down very well because folks have their minds on Christmas—which is in contrast much more pleasant to think about.   Maybe there is a chance before we hit Thanksgiving and thus the grand opening of the “holiday season” to grab on to something shockingly apocalyptic.  So my jumping off point today is to ask you what on earth can be the meaning of impossibly difficult things.

            Difficult things.  That is what we face as we look towards any future that we can reasonably imagine.  If you are a recent college graduate and have landed in Washington, DC, because you have a job, you have already probably been through more job searches, more interviews, written more letters and networked more than I have in my entire life.  You know that the future, while you are excited and positive about it now, is chancy and maybe even bleak.  If you are approaching retirement, you must have some sense of foreboding as Congress plans your financial future in the process of trying to veer away from the “fiscal cliff.”  If you have made it to your seventies or eighties and you are still in good health, perhaps you have a sense of an impending ordeal, for few of us get past 85 without some serious and hard challenges.  And who among us can look at the mounting evidence of a rapidly changing climate and not worry about the future?  Forget what is causing them:  storms like Sandy and Katrina and record snowfalls and melting ice caps do not promise an easy time for planet earth and its dithering politicians. 

            Lest you think that I am totally out of line in bringing up such a string of pleasantries, allow me to point you to the gospel for today that mentions just a few of the signs of a pretty dark future.  Try earthquakes, famines, and wars.  “Aha!” someone will say.  “We must be at the end of the world now!  Look at how many of these prophecies are coming to pass!”  Well, yes.  And they came to pass last year, and ten years ago, and fifty years ago, and a century ago, and five hundred years ago, and every single day and year since Jesus said them and Mark wrote them down.  There is nothing new here, and, come to think of it, nothing all that “apocalyptic,” if by that you mean “revealing,” which is what the word actually indicates.  Wars, famines, earthquakes, and a host of other things do in fact reveal things, however.  All such things expose human weaknesses.  All of them underscore our vulnerability.  Each of them propels us into crisis.  Not one of them, nor any other such catastrophe, can be thoroughly tamed—not even war, which, while not theoretically inevitable, still proves among striving, competing, driven people a very attractive option.  Witness the reluctance on the part of many actually to bring to an end our longest war to date.  Witness even more the eagerness on the part of some to inflame war with Iran.  Witness those who this very minute rub their hands in anticipation of yet another showdown between Israel and the Palestinians.  Mark Twain somewhere called original sin “ordinary human cussedness.”  There are few signs of a human future free of ordinary human cussedness.  So put all this together and you have a recipe for ongoing apocalypse: a very difficult future.

            Now if that were the only meaning in life, I doubt that you would need to come to church to find out about it.  But the whole point of this story is that the disciples are asking Jesus questions about when his prediction of the Temple’s destruction will come to pass.  Jesus sets them straight about how when is not the issue but rather how to be disciples under tough circumstances.  Now that is something that we can get a hold on.  How can we live as people of faith, as people of hope, no matter what the future brings?  Keep in mind that there is no such thing as “the future,” only what we can imagine or predict now, in the present.  The important thing is always who we are and what we do now.   Jesus says to his disciples in this whole passage (only part of which we read today) to keep cool.  Stay centered.  Do not go with the latest fads.  Don’t follow everyone who comes along claiming to be the newest messiah or who claims the mantle of Jesus.  When you are under pressure, keep calm and carry on, never worrying about what to say or fearing what will happen to you.  In short, Jesus’ words are words not terrifying but encouraging.

            Now there’s a thought.  We have to admit that an enormous amount of religious animus is invested in scaring the hell out of people.  And that in turn is really about controlling people, usually for sinister ends and cynical purposes.  But Jesus is not into that at all, though he certainly spares the religious establishment of his day no dire warnings.  Just because you see the world falling apart does not mean that it is coming to an end, he points out.  These things are the birth pangs of a new era.  And what might that be?  It is fairly clear that Jesus viewed the Kingdom of God as the onset of a new age, possibly a thorough renovation of the world as we know it, and certainly an age where love and justice would characterize relationships.  If Jesus, like the Early Church, was indeed mistaken (I know that it may rattle some of you to think that Jesus ever made a mistake about anything, but hear me out), if Jesus was mistaken about the imminent coming of the reign of God, then is there any value at all in considering this new age being born? 

            The answer is that in fact that this “new age” is exactly what gives meaning to everything we do as Christians.  This is where we find the meaning that we have been and are and always will be searching for.  This “new age,” of which Jesus speaks, is another name for the resurrection life into which we have come through baptism.  It can also be called “heaven,” because it is life with God both now and eternally.  You may also refer to it simply as “Christian life.”  If you find the notion of being born again attractive and helpful, that certainly is a biblical metaphor to describe it, for this “new age” is exactly what Jesus had in mind (I am bold to assert so!) when he talked about becoming as children, or being begotten from above.  If you find the imagery of the cross particularly compelling, think of the new age as one in which you are taking up your cross and following him, for that is an apt description of discipleship, that state which is precisely what Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James, John, you and me to live in and practice. 

            Time only moves forward.  Reality, therefore, is always thrusting in the direction of what is yet to happen.  There are two ways of living in time.  One is memory and the other is imagination.  Memory can be a good thing—thank God for it—but it can also be a curse.  Most of us spend 99% of our time playing out of our book of memories.  We are trying to work out the leftovers from past experiences in the present, trying to make this relationship better than the old one, measuring our current life by what is in the past.  But imagination, or inspiration I’d rather call it, is to have a vision that is not necessarily tied to the past, at least not to past behavior or past events.  And that is what Jesus’ resurrection opens for us.  That is what the new age involves.  It is a vision, in fact a whole gallery of visions, of what life can be with a few fundamental and key changes.  It is, like those many paintings of Edward Hicks, a peaceable kingdom, where lions and lambs, wolves and sheep, dwell together, a veritable paradise where Republicans and Democrats, Jews and Arabs, stop hating each other.  It is a vision of community rather than the illusion of personal self-sufficiency.  It is a vision of life based on an ethic of charity rather than a value of acquiring as much as possible.  It is a vision of a world where humans are no longer at war with nature, and God dwells in and with all people, who indeed recognize their oneness with God and each other. 

            You caught a glimpse of such a vision as you read or sang Hannah’s Song this morning [1 Samuel 2:10-10].  Not unlike Mary’s song when she was pregnant with Jesus, Hannah’s song rejoices in a life turned upside down, a radical reversal of values—the poor lifted from the dust, the rich cast down—because God makes no peace with oppression.  The way that kind of vision works is not just to give us a phrase or two to put on Christmas cards, but actually to shape the way we think and live.  Feature it as a kind of future that we literally pull into the present, as we begin seeing more and more that things which were cast down are being raised up, things that had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, Jesus Christ.

            So were the makers of the Mayan calendar right?  Is 2012 the end of it all?  Suppose it is.  Wars, earthquakes, famines, all the rest of the misery they can film and report:  what would the meaning of it all come down to?  And what would be the point of your life in the largest context you could conceive?  If our hopes are built on anything less than the saving grace of God, author and giver of all things, then we might as well toss in the towel, because at best we have a few fleeting pleasures here and there, and nothing much will matter when there is no one left to tell the tale.  But the Christian hope sees the vision of the new age as more than a pipe dream. It is real.  It is true.  It is dependable.  Life for each of us will assuredly come to an end, but God will last beyond every dying spark.  And those whose energies, lives, hearts, souls are wrapped up in God will not have gone to waste.   Quite the opposite.  We will be like God, for we shall be living in God.  Self will cease to matter.  God will be all in all.

            And that is why the Christian life is full of little ironies, such as when we gather for each other’s funerals, affirming the meaning of life in the midst of death, saying the words of the Prayer Book, “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song:  Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

© Frank Gasque Dunn

Monday, November 12, 2012

Of Storms and Saints

 Revelation 21:1-6a

            It ought never to be true of the Church that we live in a bubble, unfazed by what is going on in the world around us.  I cannot imagine that there is anyone here today that has not in some way been touched by the effects of Superstorm Sandy.  And yet I can well imagine that we could put all that aside and concentrate on All Saints, our glorious litany, our marvelous sacraments of baptism and eucharist with not so much as a word about Sandy.

            Tragically, the Church sometimes goes to the other extreme.  We are so overcome with the scale of human tragedy in such experiences as 9/11, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and various catastrophes (wars come to mind), that frequently we stop everything to address the concerns that arise out of those crises.  Because we often fail to connect what is happening in the outer world and what we are focusing on and celebrating in church, people rightly get the idea that what gets us worked up in church is really not terribly relevant to life’s real concerns.

            There really is a connection between the devastation of a storm like Sandy and what we are celebrating on the Feast of All Saints.  In fact there is more than one connection—indeed a whole string of connections. 


            Most obviously, there is a connection called suffering.  The much misunderstood and misappropriated Book of Revelation assumes that the Christian community will continue to undergo great suffering.  Most scholars believe that Revelation indeed was written during one of the waves of persecution when the Early Church was threatened to the point of possible annihilation in some places.  Surely it is clearly written to encourage perseverance during times of great duress.  

            Most of the time, in my experience, we miss this element of All Saints.  If we are paying attention, we might hear the phrase, “these are they who have come out of the great tribulation.  They have made their robes white in the blood of the Lamb.”  That passage is not even read today, though it sometimes makes it into the All Saints celebration.  It refers, of course, to the host of martyrs that have given their lives because they clung steadfastly to their faith in Christ Jesus.  Some of them we remember[ed[] in the Litany [that we frequently use to begin][that began] the Liturgy [on All Saints] [this morning].   Names like Jawani Luwum, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero bring not only themselves to mind but scores of others who have similarly died for their faith.    

            Not all suffering, of course, is martyrdom, and not all suffering arises from persecution.  Indeed not all people of faith suffer for their faith, and not all who suffer are people of faith.  Yet the deep bond between suffering and faith abides because few things help us to get through suffering, to endure it, and possibly even to transform it more than faith.  You know this.  And you particularly know it if you have hung around the Christian community for very long.  Prayers and hymns remind us of it continually.  Collects in the Book of Common Prayer resound with phrases like, “suffer patiently for the truth’s sake,” “…those who, following the example of their Savior, laid down their lives for their friends…,” “proclaim Christ in suffering and joy alike,” “who, in a time of plague and pestilence, were steadfast in their care for the sick and dying, and loved not their own lives, even unto death….”  Who has not dwelt on the words of Negro spirituals, songs of exhortation that have kept people hoping and living during impossibly difficult times?  A host of hymns and spiritual songs attest to the strength of faith to pull us through with words like, “…who trusts in God’s unchanging love builds on a rock that naught can move,” and  “why should I feel discouraged,…when Jesus is my portion?” 

            An event like Hurricane Sandy exposes our weaknesses.  Suddenly people realize they should never have built houses on barrier islands.  We quickly learn that the things we are so dependent on—electricity and all that it makes possible, like cell phone service, internet communication, transportation, food distribution, potable water supplies—may disappear within minutes.  Nature wallops us.  Rain and wind can completely tear up the most stable infrastructure in a couple of hours.  Life is wrecked.  Life is lost.  We have seen it time and again in the last year or so.  Haiti, New Zealand, Japan, and just last week the Philippines have endured major earthquakes.  Many people seem to have the idea that suffering is something that should not happen in the world.  Inadequate and primitive theology tries to assign blame, on the theory that God directly wills such disasters (though one would imagine that God would have better aim than is apparently the case).  Blame, shmame.  We are quite lucky if we don’t get clobbered by one thing or another.  And suffer we shall.

            We have to be careful when talking about suffering.  It is easy to lump all suffering together and speak of it as if it is all of one kind.  It is not.  Some things are clearly worse than others.  But what is true for all the saints and martyrs, as well as for the shopkeeper with rotting food in New York City last week, is that suffering is the only thing capable of cracking our persistent fantasy of being self-sufficient.  Suffering, even a little bit of it, takes us down a buttonhole or two.  Intense suffering makes us realize just how vulnerable we are.  Prolonged suffering will either make us find our inner strength or drive us to despair.


            That brings us to a second connection.  There is an answer to suffering, but it is not an answer to the question of why we suffer.  The answer is to place suffering in the larger context of the relationship of God and the world, and specifically the relationship of God and human beings.  The name I give to the nature of God in relationship with the world and us is “Providence.”  God provides.  God is a present reality in every situation, from the least to the most significant, in which we find ourselves.  That is vastly different from saying that God plans or wills the stuff that happens to us.  But there is no place we can go where God is not, and nothing that can happen to us that can seal us off from God’s caring presence.  That is a basic truth that you can rely on.  And how do you know it is true?  Because the divine reality—God—lives in you whoever you are and wherever you go.  It is not that God must come to you to help or save you.  God is already in, with, under, over, beside, in front of and behind you, nearer than the air you breathe.  The provident, caring God is in it with you.  If anything makes a saint, it is knowing that truth and wearing it daily, like an old, comfortable pair of shoes.  Knowing it and living it, day after day, until it becomes like an old wristwatch, if you are still familiar with such a thing:  something that you keep noticing and depending on throughout the day, unconscious or dimly conscious of just how much it is a part of you, and something that you miss the moment you take it off, never having guessed how much attention you really paid to it.  That is the way it is with God’s Providence.

            I’ll never forget the night I was in the shower in my college dorm and heard the awful sound of crunching, dragging metal, a collision, as it turned out, of a train barreling down the RF&P tracks through Ashland, Virginia, with the automobile of two first-year students.  The college chapel was packed for the funeral of the one who was killed.  I don’t know who the homilist was that day, but I’ll never forget his message. The death of Henry, he said, was tragic, senseless, and totally unnecessary.  But even in the midst of tragic, senseless, and unnecessary events, the holy God is walking, stirring, bringing about forgiveness and redemption and healing, giving birth and nurturing us.  Such is the provident God. 


            And so we come to hope, a third connection.  This week a plethora of stories has come in the wake of Sandy attesting to selflessness, sharing, sacrifice, deliverance.  People wonder aloud why it takes a disaster to bring us together.  Wonder we may, but that is what disasters do—always have, always will.  In her recent book A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit writes

Disaster requires an ability to embrace contradiction in both the minds of those undergoing it and those trying to understand it from afar.  In each disaster, there is suffering, there are psychic scars that will be felt most when the emergency is over.  There are deaths and losses.  Satisfactions, newborn social bonds, and liberations are often also profound.  Of course one factor in the gap between the usual accounts of disaster and the actual experience is that those accounts focus on the small percentage of people who are wounded, killed, orphaned, and otherwise devastated, often in the epicenter of the disaster, along with the officials involved.  Surrounding them, often in the same city and neighborhood, is a periphery of many  more who are largely undamaged but profoundly disrupted, and it is the disruptive power of disaster that matters here, the ability of disasters to topple old orders and open new possibilities.  This broader effect is what disaster does to society. In the moment of disaster, the old order no longer exists, and people improvise rescues, shelters, and communities.  Thereafter, a struggle takes place over whether the old order with all its shortcomings and injustices will be reimposed, or a new one, perhaps more oppressive and perhaps more just and free, like the disaster utopia, will arise.[1]

            I don’t know that it can be said of all the saints that they consciously held the hope of a new heaven and a new earth; but I do know that the Christian hope is profoundly anchored in the belief that we are on our way with Christ to a more just society.  Some have always imagined that to be another world after this one.  Others have imagined it as a possibility in this world.  The verdict is still out on that one.  Perhaps it is both.  But the saints in the Book of Revelation hold palm branches in their hands because they are victorious.  They know that their victory is not something that was planned and executed by smart generals in culture wars, but rather a victory that came when the Lamb of God moved heaven and earth to bring humanity into community with God.  There is no more mourning or crying or pain any more, nor death, because the one seated on the throne is making all things new.  That is the hope that sustains the saints.  Ironically it is also the hope that something will arise from each new disaster, pushing us towards a new heaven and a new earth, not least a combination of both right here in this life. 

            The home of God is with mortals.  God is dwelling with us.  The Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  Though they may lose everything, the saints will dwell secure; for all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. [2]

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012

[1] Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell:  The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (New York:  Penguin Books, 2010), 15-16. 
[2] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (Amazon:  Kindle ed.), Chapter xxvii.92.

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Mark 10:35-45

            Be careful what you ask for. 

            James and John, for example, we can fairly guess, had no idea of what they were saying when they rather glibly answered Jesus, “We are able” when he asked them if they were able to drink the cup that he would drink or be baptized with the baptism with which he was baptized.  That cup and that baptism would most definitely take them to and through suffering and good deal more.  All they knew was that they wanted two good seats in glory.  It seemed simple enough.  You know what you want; go for it. 

            But life is not so simple.  Neither is the life of Christ nor the life in Christ.  Mark’s gospel is particularly concerned with suffering, especially suffering that comes along with persecution.  Best we can tell, Mark was motivated to write his gospel to encourage a young church experiencing its first wave of big-time persecution.  And you know what that means.  It means that people were busy looking for ways to survive, because that is what every living thing is always trying to do.  And the quickest way to survive persecution is to flee it.  If that doesn’t work, renounce whatever cause it is you are being persecuted for.  Mark puts into perspective what it is about Jesus and his cause that actually makes suffering worthwhile, to put it bluntly.   Mark wants his readers to understand that Jesus is in fact the Son of God, and thus the Truth from which there is no fleeing, and thus the ultimate reason for giving one’s heart and soul and life to follow this Man.  Mark wants us to see that Jesus’ own journey led him to suffering and death, and that anyone who follows him can reasonably expect to go through the same thing.

            There is not a one of us here today that is not interested in suffering, principally in how to avoid it.  But how real is the threat of suffering brought on by persecution?   That depends.  A great many Christians in this country frequently imagine themselves to be persecuted, victimized.  What they generally mean is that they resent the fact that they cannot impose their will and their religious values upon the rest of American society with impunity.  That people with different religious ideas and customs as well as those with none are protected by the Constitution in this pluralistic, designedly secular society is onerous to them to the point that they flatly deny that this is a secular society at all.  Limits to what one can do in the name of one’s religion does not equal persecution.  But there are other pieces of contemporary life where persecution raises its head.  Bullying, for example.  My heart breaks when I read the too plentiful stories about kids who don’t fit in with their peers being bullied and badgered, sometimes to the point of suicide, or sometimes murder.  Not only kids but a great many adults are persecuted for being lesbian, gay, or transgender.  Ethnic minorities are persecuted simply for being who they are.  Race inspired persecution is something ingrained in societies and cultures the world over.  Pogroms and genocide, not to mention the slaughter of people who dare to dissent from authoritarian overlords, are no less common now than they ever have been, and are possibly increasing.  Hate groups in this country alone grew from 602 in 2000 to 1018 in 2011.  While they do not document a growth in persecution per se, these figures suggest that for a great many people in this country, the possibility of being persecuted as well was the possibility of being a persecutor is by no means insignificant.

            But general persecution, even persecution for one’s political beliefs or one’s sexual orientation or one’s racial identity, is not what Mark is talking about, though it might be connected.  Mark—and Jesus—are talking about persecution, and thus suffering, for “righteousness’ sake,” for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the Kingdom or reign of God.  An example of this today might be the suffering that a person undergoes precisely because that person takes on the forces of hate or stands up against inequality or organizes people to fight injustice or speaks up for those who are easy prey to the powers of hate and evil.  When we begin fighting oppression and injustice, speaking up for those who are essentially voiceless, threatening power structures, then quite likely we have begun doing exactly what Jesus was talking about when he talks about denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following him. 

            I say “quite likely” for two reasons.  One is that not everyone who fights against injustice and oppression or who strives for justice and peace is or wants to be identified as a follower of Jesus.  To my mind, that is quite all right.  “They who are not against us are for us,” Jesus once said.  In other words, the cause of Jesus—the Kingdom or Reign of God—extends beyond the particular dues-paying adherents of Jesus.  The cause of Truth is single but its forms are manifold and its supporters far flung throughout the world and history.  The other reason is that those who pick up the sword of righteousness to strike against evil sometimes become more enamored of the sword than they are enamored of righteousness.   Those who strive against powers and principalities run the risk of becoming more self-righteous than righteous.  That is not to say they ought not to run that risk.  But the only way around the danger is to become consciousness of it, and to invest considerable energy in cleaning oneself of pride and self-justification.

            Are you beginning to see how James and John had no idea of what they were asking?  Not only were they asking for places in a kingdom where places don’t matter except in relation to selfless service, but they had no clue about the kind of courage involved in risking precisely the kind of suffering that Jesus himself had multiple times predicted would result for him.

            But we have left something dangling here, haven’t we?  What about generic suffering, suffering that is not a product of persecution, suffering that has nothing much to do with relinquishing one’s place for another, or being a willing slave, or giving one’s life as a ransom?  What about difficult, even torturous suffering, that comes to many of us simply because we are living, vulnerable creatures in this universe?  You and I would like for there to be a guaranteed way to avoid that pain and suffering, and we would pay handsome sums to buy that way if we could.  But we know better.  We know that we are not immune to suffering.  We have the choice of blaming God, protesting our innocence, railing against the injustice of the universe, or hunkering down and taking what comes.

            To be honest, I need to hear something more than either that I will suffer (I already know that) or that I might be persecuted (I know something about being bullied at least).  I get that living in the Kingdom of God means giving up self-centered competition, letting go, living life by a completely different standard from that of the world’s default.  I understand that the issue is how well I follow my Master’s example in serving rather than being served.  But what I want to know is how living in the Kingdom actually makes a difference in the way I respond to suffering, whatever form it might take.  I want to know what I do in order to “drink the cup” which Jesus drinks and to “be baptized with the baptism with which he is baptized,” which I take to mean his willingness to follow his deepest Self, consonant with his Abba’s will, wherever that took him.  How do I do that? 

            As I look back on it, I got from early childhood a very clear message—not least from the preacher of my childhood—that God was a God I could trust.  I did not have to fear being deserted by God.  I did not have to worry about whether God loved me.  And I did not have to do more than speak the holy name itself than I had the full attention of all heaven.   I suppose, as a kid in an alcoholic family, I needed that kind of assurance, because God knows at times life was terrifying, uncertain, to the point of being almost unbearably painful.  There have been some—a few—times since then that I have had to draw on all the resources I could summon in order to get me through.  I imagine that before my time on earth is up, I will have other valleys to go through, nights of sweat, and days parched and barren.  I do not know, as you cannot know, what the future holds. As Thomas Merton once prayed, “ My Lord God, I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.  But I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you, and I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope I never do anything apart from that desire.  And I believe that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.  I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” 

            A young friend of mine, a singer, told me this week that when he is passing through times of great challenge and tribulation he sings a particular song that anchors him.  I said that I did not know his song, but that I had one of my own, a hymn that I have been singing for years. 

            I know not what the future hath
              Of marvel or surprise,
            Assured alone that life and death
              God’s mercy underlies.
            And if my heart and flesh are weak    
              To bear an untried pain,
            The bruised reed God will not break
              But strengthen and sustain.

            I know not where God’s islands lift
              Their fronded palms in air;
            I only know I cannot drift
              Beyond God’s love and care.*

            Find your song to sing, one that will keep you anchored, centered.  And, freed of worry and anxiety, look about you, not for the best seats in glory, but for someone who needs you.  They are not all that far away.

* John Greenleaf Whittier, "I know not what the future hath," in The Hymnal 1940 (New York: Church Publishing Company, 1940), 441.

© Frank Gasque Dunn 2012