2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1.
I start this morning with a story by Rachel Naomi Remen from her book Kitchen Table Wisdom. This essay is entitled “At Last”. Just a few words about the author. A medical doctor, Rachel Naomi Remen, found herself, as a healer, needing to be healed. The stories she shares remind us that we all have stories to share and that stories have the power to heal.
Two days before my mother’s eightieth birthday I asked her how she wanted to spend the day. ‘I want to climb to the top of the Statue of Liberty,’ she replied. ‘Isn’t there an elevator?” My mother looked at me. ‘I want to climb the stairs,’ she said.
She had lived in New York City for almost eighty years but she had never had this experience. She clearly remembered her first view of the liberty’ when she had sailed into the New York harbor from Russia. She had been five years old then. Now, of course, she had a severe heart condition, and there were 342 steps to the top. Undaunted, I realized we could do it three or four steps at a time, resting in between. We would take her nitroglycerin and simply allow all day. When I proposed this to Mom she was delighted.
During the six-hour ascent, I had many misgivings. How had I gotten into this crazy thing, climbing the Statue of Liberty with an eighty-year-old woman with severe heart disease? But it was her wish and so we continued, a few steps at a time. She may have had angina but she also had an iron will. I think half of New York must have passed us on those stairs.
Finally, unbelievably, we were six or seven steps from the top. As we stood there taking what must have been our three-hundredth time-out, my mother eyed the last few steps between her and her goal with resentment. ‘Why,’ she said, ‘couldn’t we have done these first?’
In thinking of this story now, I remember all the times that I too have resented the climb, the amount of living needed to gain the precious understanding to know how to live well. And how important it is in the struggle for freedom from the old ways not to be limited by style or self-expectations or to worry about what others may think. To be willing to do the really important things any way you can, even three steps at a time.”1
I find I resonate with this story especially when the mother says: “why couldn’t we have done these first.” If only we could do all difficult things tackling the last few steps first. But I think that may be what Paul is getting at in this passage — that it is only by hearing the stories of other’s faith and by his own growing and knowing faith experiences that he can truly understand and speak and act courageously because of that faith and he learned to trust it. Growing up in faith, like Rachel’s mother — sometimes it takes climbing those steps one step at a time.
Paul still has a lot to tell us about faith. Much of his writings are examples that don’t always work for us today, but his growing understanding about faith does as his faith was his own and strengthened as well because of the faith of others. This passage reflects on one of the Psalms Paul knew so well — Psalm 116:10: “I believed, and so I spoke.” Paul and the Psalmist, separated by many generations, are participants in one faith.
According to Dirk Lange, “Paul understands that speaking is possible only because of his faith. Only faith — not who we are, not our successes or giftedness or influence or power — but only faith establishes this radical ‘freedom’ of speech that can proclaim the gospel in and out of season, despite all hindrances. The reality of faith is communal. When Paul calls on the psalmist to witness to Paul’s own faith in his time, Paul acknowledges this communality. Nor does Paul exclude the community from the relationship. Through his preaching, the community at Corinth is also part of this faith. Faith extends to include all.”2 Paul’s faith extends to include us, just as our faith extends to include Las Cruces, and all we meet, including future generations.
Mark Elliott wrote: “In 1934 Karl Barth and Emil Brunner each had a strong opinion about the point of contact between God and human beings. Emil Brunner believed the point of contact was located inside of us, while Karl Barth saw the point of contact as truly beyond us. To generalize many pages of argument, Brunner believed there were echoes of Eden still inside our heart, soul, and mind, while Barth staunchly argued God was nothing like us, but instead distant and ultimately ‘other.’
Elliott continues: “Bede Griffiths is a Benedictine monk who in his travels around the world asked various people of faith, ‘Where is God?’ Hindus and Buddhists in the East, he discovered would typically point to their heart while Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the West would point outside of themselves to the heavens. (I invite you to take a moment to respond to Bede Griffith’s question.) Where do you believe the intersection occurs between God and your own life? Inside or outside? Up or down?
Paul claims that our inner nature is being renewed. This renewal will also eventually draw to a close when ‘the earthly tent we live in is destroyed.’ Paul’s point is that at some point we all die — that in time everything human will crumble and perish, whether it is a city, a home, or even our own life. In the face of our death, and the struggles of life and ministry, Paul then steers us to the hope found in ‘eternal’ things. If Bede Griffiths happened to meet Paul and asked his question, ‘Where is God,’ Paul might have pointed at first to his heart, and then with his other hand to the world and the stars above.”3
Where do you believe the intersection occurs between God and your own life? In spite of our struggles; in spite of physical pain; in spite of spiritual pain; in spite of emotional pain; in spite of belief; in spite of doubt we have the faith of our fathers and the faith of our mothers and the faith of our ancestors, the faith of Paul’s Psalmist, the faith of Paul, the faith of all who have gone before to help us recognize the intersection that occurs between God and our own lives to support, uphold and guide us when we’re not so sure of things ourselves.
Elliott notes, “When I ask people in a Sunday school class to describe their experience of God, they often begin by referencing moments they cannot fully explain but that somehow hint at a spiritual dimension in this world. Celtic Christianity describes such moments as ‘thin places.’ I have found church members often describe them as coincidences or déjà vu.”3
It is often difficult for us to use mystic language about events in our lives that are out of the norm. That is not usually encouraged in our culture and we don’t often have a vocabulary to speak clearly of these things except maybe the statement, “That was weird”, or “well, that was a woowoo moment.” I’ve told the following story often in terms of my own faith journey and in the telling and retelling is a sense of comfort that was not there in my initial telling.
As you know, I had been raised Roman Catholic and had a sense of call to ministry when I was 12 years old. Within that tradition that meant becoming a nun and that was fine until I was 15 years old and started dating and wondered how in the world could I become a nun and date. But more significant than that were the questions that I was wrestling with in this faith tradition. I had become unchurched for several years, got married at 18 and Ray and I had Marc when I was 21. Ray left our family when Marc was 4 years old. Never in my wildest dreams had I thought I’d be a single mother. Those were tough days but about a few years later the following happened to me.
I was working full-time and going to school full-time. My son was a happy kid and my parents were around helping me out in a variety of ways. Life was good. One Sunday morning, church bells woke me and I also woke with an amazing awareness that I needed to get dressed and get to that church up the block to give thanks for God’s blessings.
Church bells usually ring about 10 minutes before a service begins so I had to hustle to get out the door. As I approached the church I knew I was late and I made a promise to myself that if no one else showed up late I would just continue this walk back home, get the Sunday paper, make a cup of coffee and light up a cigarette.
Well, I walked three sides of that building and thought “phew — that was close” when a family of five pulled up to the curb and ran into the church. And I followed close behind. I did not know anything about this church and I did not know what I was walking into: Holy Rollers; snake charmers; a cult? Well, this was the Edgewood Congregational Church in Cranston, Rhode Island — a United Church of Christ congregation and I don’t think I can describe the sense of embrace and welcome I received from them — a real “home coming.” It was from this experience that the earlier sense of call had been reawakened. That was a blessed and God-led experience. I can’t explain it any other way.
In our passage Paul seems to indicate that just as Elijah heard a still, small voice, and Moses climbed a mountain to see God’s glory, we can discover God’s presence all around us — inside and out; up and down — if we have the eyes of the heart to see.
There’s an old story about a disciple and his teacher, a story Paul might have liked. ‘Where shall I find God?’ a disciple once asked. ‘Here,’ the teacher said. ‘Then why can’t I see God?’ ‘Because you do not look.’ ‘But what should I look for?’ the disciple continued. ‘Nothing. Just look,’ the teacher said. ‘But at what?’ ‘At anything your eyes alight upon.’ the teacher said. ‘But must I look in a special kind of way?’ ‘No, the ordinary way will do.’ ‘But don’t I always look the ordinary way?’ ‘No, you don’t,’ the teacher said. ‘But why ever not?’ the disciple pressed. ‘Because to look, you must be here. You’re mostly somewhere else,’ the teacher said.”4
This reminds me of a story I heard listening to Willie Nelson narrating his book: It’s a Long Story: My Life. Lots of ups and downs in Willie’s life but always with a strong sense of faith throughout his life. Willie tells the story of how difficult times were often the fodder of some of his songs. Lyrics would crop up after some disappointing late night gigs or after some tumultuous situation and he always seemed to find something to write about, jotting words on scraps of paper as he went along.
Well, after some success Willie was finally hired as a song writer and he couldn’t believe his luck as he spent his time writing lyrics and getting paid for it. The problem was, he was struggling to come up with lyrics while he was sitting in a bare room and while things were going fairly well in his life. “What do I write about?” he asked. “Write what you see,” was the basic response he received. Sitting in that sterile room not much came to him. Then he took those words literally, write what you see and he began writing: “Hello walls.”
Hello walls, (Hello, hello.) How’d things go for you today?
Don’t you miss her. Since she up and walked away?
And I’ll bet you dread to spend another lonely night with me,
But lonely walls, I’ll keep you company.
Hello window, (Hello, hello.) Well, I see that you’re still here.
Aren’t you lonely, since our darlin’ disappeared? Well look here, is that a teardrop in the corner of your pane? Now don’t you try to tell me that’s it’s rain. She went away and left us all alone the way she planned.
Guess we’ll have to learn to get along without her if we can.
Hello ceiling, (Hello, hello.) I’m gonna stare at you a while.
You know I can’t sleep, So won’t you bear with me a while?
We gotta all stick together or else I’ll lose my mind. I gotta feelin’ she’ll be gone a long, long time. (Hello, hello wall)”5
This song was a huge hit in 1961. What is it that we miss when we are mostly somewhere else? What is it that we miss when we do not use the eyes of the heart to see?
Like strengthening all muscles — it takes intentionality and consistency. The same is true for strengthening our spiritual/faith muscles. Living in the world can be and often is difficult. We all know that. Living in the world can discourage us. We all know that. But our faith makes it possible for us to continue moving forward because there is a deepening spirituality and a daily renewal within us when we walk daily with God. One of the blessings of age is the realization that we are privileged to see what God has done and where God has led us. We no longer have to wonder if God will be faithful, because that has already been proven many, many times.
John Stendahl wrote: “Imagine possibly such nonexistent but powerful things as our stories and dreams, our songs, and fictions, the truths we tell that are not yet facts. (The truths we tell that are not facts.) Imagine also our words of defiance, our refusals to be discouraged, even our bravado in spite of all that would convince us to despair or betray our God. Each day we make these choices and have the courage to choose faith.”4 To quote Anne Lamott: “But courage is fear that has said its prayers.”5
May God bless us this day, this week — to have the courage to be present and to choose faith that allows us to move through each day one step at a time. Amen.
- Rachel Naomi Remen; Kitchen Table Wisdom, 1996
- Dirk Lange; workingpreacher.com
- Mark Barger Elliott; Homiletical Perspective; Feasting on the Word; Year B, Vol. 3, 2009
- John K. Stendahl; Pastoral Perspective; Feasting on the Word; Year B, Vol. 3, 2009
- Willie Nelson: It’s a Long Story: My Life, 2015; Hachette Book Group (audiobook)
- Anne Lamott; Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, 1999
Copyright DMC, 2018