Tuesday, May 19, 2015

In Tough Times

Isaiah 40:27-31
2 Corinthians 6:1-10; 11:22-33
Matthew 8:23-27

A few weeks ago I opened the sermon time up for your questions.  One of the questions that still sits with me came from Carol Butler:  What rationale can we give our children for going to church?  You might ask yourself why you come to church.  What is the value for you?  What makes you get out of bed and get dressed on a Sunday morning?  I heard the story of a mother who went in to wake her son up for church on Sunday morning.  He mumbled and pulled the covers over his head.  She tried to cajole him, “It’s Sunday.  Let’s go to church!”  But he just grumbled and rolled over.  Finally she pulled the covers off and exclaimed, “Tom, get up!  You’re 50 years old and you’re the pastor.”  Believe it or not, there are days even pastors don’t want to go to church. 
So why do you come?  I think the reason is always personal.  I can’t guess what motivates you, but let me tell you why I went to church long before I became clergy.  My relationship with God is what grounds me.  Paul Tillich, the great theologian, wrote that God is the ground of our being.  I have experienced that as true long before I read Tillich.  There have been times in my life when it feels like the bottom has fallen out and I can’t find my footing.  Until I pray.  Until I worship.  Until I have a chance to talk with members of my church.  It’s really easy for me to think that God thinks what I think, likes who I like, hates who I hate, until I come to church and that’s where I meet the God who will only be love, no matter how I argue or whine.  And I have to anchor myself again in this God of love.  Anchor is not a bad analogy.  I probably shouldn’t try a nautical metaphor since I don’t know anything about sailing, but going to church anchors my personal faith.  So even when the sea gets rough, I don’t get washed away or lost.  It has been drilled into me that I belong to God and God’s people won’t let go of me. 
Being a practicing Christian doesn’t protect me from storms, from harm or danger.  It’s not an insurance policy.  Paul is a perfect example.  Being a practicing Christian actually put Paul in harm’s way.  Because of his evangelizing, Paul was hunted and beaten, he survived shipwrecks and persecution.  God didn’t keep bad things from happening to Paul, but Paul managed to get through by trusting God.  Paul could keep going because he believed God was with him and because he had God’s work to do.  Paul had a mission in life and a partner in that mission.  Paul found purpose in his faith.  So even in really tough times, Paul had a reason to keep going.  The shipwreck or beating didn’t define him.  Persecution didn’t define him.  His belief in God’s love defined him.  Others could hate him, but he believed he was loved by God and that sustained him and gave him courage.
That may not seem like a big deal reason to go to church, but it works for me.  The assurance I banked in good times has anchored me in tough times.  Jesus’ teachings have guided me out of bad decisions.  They’ve made my character stronger, hopefully not just for my own life, but also in the way I live in the larger community—economically and politically.  We struggle together here over what justice looks like, and what makes for peace and the common good.  We learn compassion from sharing our stories and our lives.  And I tell you what, trying to do justice and live compassionately can wear you down.  It is so much easier to only be interested in myself, to do what makes me happy and not care about other people (and that comes back to bite us personally and socially as Marie Antoinette could tell you).  Going the distance takes constant inspiration and good partners.  We encourage each other and inspire each other.  And when one of us hits a rough patch, we hold each other up.  We are the hands of Christ for one another.  You can’t count on that from your co-workers or neighbors.  I heard one of the doctors at a Philadelphia hospital this week attribute the medical community’s ability to respond so well to the train derailment because they routinely practice disaster drills.  Churches are small communities that have experience in dealing with disasters large and small, in comforting and putting life in perspective and helping us to make meaning and find purpose.  That’s how we can run and not be weary—because the community of the faithful holds us up.
I wrote this before we saw the high school musical The Drowsy Chaperone which says pretty much the same thing.  When we are blue, we need a song for our heart.  The play says you get that from musicals.  I love theater and I love musicals, but on a gaping wound that’s like a Band-Aid.  I need the songs of the faith in tough times.  I need the songs of lament and the songs of assurance.  I need the songs that remind me that even in my darkest hours, the love of God is a fire that never dies.  I need the song of God’s passion in my heart.  I need to hear how deeply I am loved.  This is where we sing those songs to each other, where we sing them for each other.
In the tough times, I need a framework on which to build meaning and I get that from my faith community.  It’s like going to school.  We learn to read and write and do math and understand science for what is coming.  We learn to think for ourselves by thinking through story problems in math.  That’s why we read the Bible—to learn to think theologically for ourselves.  We don’t need someone else to tell us what the stories and teachings mean.  We need to learn to figure them out for ourselves because today and tomorrow and the next day, we are going to be faced with decisions that matter in parenting, relationships, business, and politics.  We do that best in community so that we are not fooled by our own conceit or despair.
I think the Christian faith is invaluable in learning how to become more beautifully human.  There are too many ways to become inhuman.  I think about guitars and violins and other instruments that need to be constantly tuned, our souls need to be tuned frequently so that we hear God and not just ourselves and the noise of the world.  Just like professional basketball players practice every day in order to play well, just like concert pianists practice every day to perform beautifully, we need to be practiced and ready to deal with tough times—when we lose a job, or a loved one dies, or a relationship crumbles, or we receive a dire diagnosis, or the bottom falls out and we feel ourselves falling, it helps to know from experience that God is there—that God’s people are there—that we can sing “It is Well with My Soul.”  You know the story of that hymn don’t you? 
This hymn was written after traumatic events in Spafford’s life. The first was the 1871 Great Chicago Fire which ruined him financially (he had been a successful lawyer and had invested significantly in property in the area of Chicago which was decimated by the great fire). His business interests were further hit by the economic downturn of 1873 at which time he had planned to travel to Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre. In a late change of plan, he sent the family ahead while he was delayed on business concerning zoning problems following the Great Chicago Fire. While crossing the Atlantic, the ship sank rapidly after a collision with a sea vessel, the Loch Earn, and all four of Spafford's daughters died. His wife Anna survived and sent him the now famous telegram, "Saved alone …". Shortly afterwards, as Spafford traveled to meet his grieving wife, he was inspired to write these words as his ship passed near where his daughters had died.[1]
This is the first verse in Stafford’s original lyrics:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Practicing our faith teaches us to know in the toughest of times that God’s love continues to hold us and claim us—that we have a home and it is well with our souls.

[1] “It Is Well with My Soul,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_Is_Well_with_My_Soul, accessed May 16, 2015.

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