Be glad in the Lord at all times: again I say, Be glad… Have no cares; but in everything with prayer and praise put your requests before God. And the peace of God, which is deeper than all knowledge, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4.4, 6-7 BBE)
As for me, I will call on God. Yahweh will save me. Evening, morning, and at noon, I will cry out in distress. He will hear my voice. God, who is enthroned forever, will hear, and answer them… Cast your burden on Yahweh, and he will sustain you. He will never allow the righteous to be moved. (Psalms 55.16-17, 19a, 22 WEBA)
Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5.5b-7 ESV)
After the Scripture reading, Joy Brighterday stood behind the pulpit again, on a bright Sunday morning, yet not feeling so brightly inside. In many ways she had led several people through an excruciating, painful episode – an ominous journey from the purgatorial state in which they found themselves to at least the level of earth – to hope in new beginnings with bright, or at least brighter, horizons. Joy herself felt drained, even after three months, but not so much because of the precarious and chaotic journey; she felt drained by what she perceived as the desertion of her friends. Now that all was over with, maybe they were content to simply let God bury his Moses.
Over the past twelve weeks or so, Joy had learned the unfortunate art of scanning down the aisles to the back, the sides of the sanctuary and then just above the heads of the congregants in order to appear as if she were looking at her audience, yet without really noticing any of them. She did the same this morning, not having any desire to know who was present and who was not; wanting, instead, to simply get it over with so she could go home. Nothing extraordinary had happened, at least in her life, recently, and on the one hand she was grateful but on the other deeply yearned from something, almost anything, from her Shepherd-Lord, the Eternal One.
“Good morning to one and all,” she began as usual, “both to those who are here with us in our beautiful sanctuary, as well as those who are listening to our now regularly broadcasted Sunday morning service.” Most of the congregants responded with a hearty “good morning, Reverend.”
“Before we really begin getting into the meat and substance of the sermon today, let me say that these past months, or past year to tell the truth, has been beyond doubt the most tumultuous and trying in my life. In saying this, I am not comparing my trials and tribulations to that of anyone else. I am only speaking for myself so that I can make one point very clear, and that is: the Lord has, indeed, been my Shepherd, my Guardian, all in all. I could not, and would not have made it through were it not for the love and mercy … the grace and strength of our God, the Everlasting One, who did sustain me and did not allow me to be thrown to the ground, never to rise again.”
“Over the course of these past months, I have certainly changed. I hope and pray and believe I have grown and matured, but it was certainly in and through some degree of suffering, no doubt. There were, and still are, questions that haunt me; questions that I am unable to answer; questions about God and pray, pain and suffering; justice and injustice, and more. Yet eventually I came to realize that all of these questions and, yes, doubts are actually built upon an established, reliable foundation. As odd as it may seem, these questions and doubts grow out from the reality of God, the divine revelation of God, and the continuing, intimate intercommunion of God with the whole of the created order, most especially with humanity.”
“Without these three facts – God, revelation, and intercommunion – the questions and doubts would never arise, and this makes all the difference in the world, really, because we ask in anticipation of an eventual answer. In the meantime, we struggle, oftentimes horrendously, and this is the point at which we have to ‘come to grips,’ so to speak, with the care of God in this life, in this world. Here we labor to understand just how it is and to what degree God cultivates and nurtures creation; supports and encourages life; and more specifically, treats and nurses and heals humanity … that is, real flesh-and-blood mortals. Does God? Does the Everlasting One hear our voice? Does the One we call our Shepherd-Lord really care?”
“First of all, we need to make some observations that should be clear, except for the fact that they are patently not clear in our day and time, even among the religious faithful … believers. You see, God is not an automaton, not mechanistic; the Lord of the Cosmos is not an intricate mathematical equation to be understood only by erudite mathematicians. God, in fact, is not even the proper subject of scientific study, though the so-called ‘new atheists’ in science spend an enormous amount of time and energy trying to disprove the existence of this God in whom they don’t believe in the first place.” This drew a round of good-natured laughter.
“Of course, there are respectable, well-known and accomplished scientists of faith, who spend a great deal of time and effort answering the ‘new atheists,’ too. This does not change the fact that God as God falls outside the limited parameters of science. Really I don’t know that God is even the proper subject of philosophy or even – and I may shock some of you now – theology. I just don’t know anymore. God is God, sovereign and immanent; the same God who said very simply, ‘Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’ This God is Yahweh of whom the Hebrew people, even after being freed from Egypt, were terrified.” And, in what may surprise you, God told Moses they were right to be terrified.
Excuse me for being so bold this morning, but I think we have lost something valuable along the way in growing and maturing into contemporary culture. We have lost an ancient … an ancient ‘looking,’ if you will … the primordial intuition of the mysterious unseen … the numinous world filled with gods and goddesses, dæmons and wraiths, demigods and jinn and phantoms. And, no, I do not mean that we’ve lost our imagination, although I believe this is sadly true to an alarming extent; and after all, what does imagination really mean? It is the ability to form new ideas and to image, or conceptualize, something other … something not present to your ordinary senses.”
“Yes of course, it’s also the ability to be creative and resourceful, but if we’ve lost the ability to image, to conceptualize, the extraordinary other present all around us yet unseen, then we are most certainly impoverished … impoverished mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. But as I said, imagination is not primarily what I’m talking about now. What I’m talking about is not so much imagination as intuition. And I very much like the definition of intuition as ‘the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning; known or considered likely from instinctive feeling rather than rational argument or cognitive analysis.’ You see, it’s not scientific, or mathematical, or whatnot. It’s what Rudolf Otto wrote about in The Idea of the Holy … instinctive sensation, spiritual impression, inner discernment.”
“This is the God, whom I encountered over these past months, and this – the very real and living God – is the One with whom we have to contend in all of our questions and doubts, fears and reservations, frustrations and anger, and so much more … our longing … you know, our thirsting and hungering from the depths of our soul for the gentle, heavenly whisper, the healing touch, the strong arms that enfold the universe, the divine kiss and heartbeat of One who will hold us and never let us go.” Some eyes in the sanctuary began to moisten, but Joy didn’t notice or realize she was driving through to the hearts of so many.
“It feels like hell sometimes … especially when you’re down in the trenches … when God seems so far away, or not anywhere at all … when the Everlasting One seems deaf, or doesn’t care enough to listen to your cries of pain. Yeah, hell’s an appropriate description, I think, especially since hell is precisely complete severance from God, in terms of relationship but even more, in our very being … an unbreachable separation. And you feel this way… I felt this way; again, not comparing my own experience to that of others who travelled with me, so to speak, and endured far more than I had to endure … yes, even worse than a bullet in the back.” Joy chuckled a bit. “But now, with all of this in mind, let me say…”
As Joy was glancing up and down the aisles, looking from stained glass window to stained glass window, and sight-brushing the tops of heads, her eyes just could not help but catch a corner glimpse of one very distinct figure: Angelica Graver. Joy faltered. Seated next to her was, of course, Morris, and on down the pew were Effete, Rue and Bane, Blue, Moxie and Able. In the pew behind them sat Captain Bernard Ruff and his dear wife, Suĳnwe and Grace, Drs. Pert Kibitz and Sage Wiseman, and Lucent Keener. Suddenly the Reverend Joy Brighterday was suspicious … happy to see them all in church, but suspicious.
“I discovered to be true what the Psalmist declared about Yahweh. Believe me when I tell you I cried out to God morning, noon and night! God was faithful to answer … sometimes in unsuspected ways, at other times in very mysterious ways, and at yet other times quite clearly and simply. I did, in fact, cast my burden on the Everlasting One, and found God to be an excellent carrier, who did sustain me. Why does it seem as if God does not do this for some other people? I don’t know … but should I? I’ve thought about this, too, and really I’ve come to the conclusion that, no, there should be no expectation for me to know because it’s completely beyond human capability. I would have to know each person and their situation perfectly.”
“At any rate, did my Shepherd-Lord allow me to be moved? Well, I suppose the first question really ought to be, should I be counted among the righteous.” This elicited some kindly laughter. “I will assume so since I number myself among the redeemed, by grace through faith. And so the answer to this question is to first expand upon and amplify the meaning of the word ‘moved,’ so the question becomes, ‘Did God allow me to be tossed about, to be shaken to paralysis, to stumble and fall (in a deep and fundamental sense), and to ultimately be defeated?’ All of these meanings are packed into the little Hebrew word môṭ and, ‘no’ is the final answer.”
“Now, was I glad at all times, and did I rejoice continually, or even praise the Lord God consistently during this horrendous period of time? No, I did not; however, by the grace of God and the ever-present Spirit of Life, my faith was sustained and I did make my requests known to the King of kings and Lord of lords. And again and again, throughout the tossing and turning, the tumult and agony, the supernatural, heavenly peace of God came … or, rather, I should say divine peace, which certainly defies human comprehension, was gifted to me … yes, even me, the unworthy servant-child in the kingdom of heaven.”
“Throughout all of this I was most assuredly humbled … numerous times. I would love to be able to stand here and tell you that I humbled myself, but unfortunately this was something God had to do in me, through me, and for me. It got done, though, and in the process I saw with frightening, crystal-clear clarity that God does, indeed, oppose the proud and so, consequently, the proverb is true that “pride precedes the fall.” I, however, was raised again from humility to an invigorated and more mature spirituality, to intimate understanding and communion I have never before experienced, to an appreciation of the exalted position of the servant of God … the one, true and living God; the real and, in the old sense of the English word, terrible God.”
“So, yes, I can and do testify that I was sustained, kept from keeling over; I was heard and answered, and throughout the hurt and dismay, I received and benefitted from the love, mercy, grace, and strength of this living God. No, perhaps I cannot answer those who claim that this same God has rejected their prayers, their heartfelt appeals during painful tribulation, but… as I said before, I would have to know each of those individuals personally and perfectly, as well as each of their unique situations, to even begin to be able to offer an answer. This is beyond my ability, but it is not beyond me to share my own testimony in truth, which I have done now.”
“It is also not beyond me to remind my listeners of the thousands upon tens of thousands of individuals who, down through the ages, have been marginalized, oppressed, persecuted and even martyred for the sake of Christ … willingly. These individuals form part of the cloud of witnesses that now surrounds me and applauds my own personal testimony because, you see, though much may remain inexplicable, the Everlasting One, the Ancient of Days, is through and through veritable, reliable, trustworthy and dependable, as well as empathetic, loving, caring, fostering and nurturing. This is the cumulative testimony of the ages, and it may not satisfy all doubts and questions, but it does defy all irreligious accusations and blasphemous assaults upon the divine character of God.”
“After these many months of purgatorial trial, I can say to you what I have said; I can declare boldly the veracity of my own testimony. I can invite you, too, to unrelentingly strive forward in your faith-commitment to God, by the power of the Spirit, in and through Jesus our Redeemer. Amen. And I can charge you as your pastor, your shepherdess, to “be glad in the Lord at all times … yes, rejoice and in everything, with prayer and praise, put your requests before God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all human knowledge, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord and Shepherd and Savior. Amen and Amen.”
There was really no way Joy could tell how her purgatorial companions had received her sermon, but the fact that they were all present and now smiling broadly, some with tears in their eyes, gave her an adequate impression. Something deep inside also told her she’d find out for sure as everyone gathered once again – the first time in a long while – for Sunday dinner in the Keener home… At least, Joy Emmanuelle Brighterday dearly hoped so; she was practically starving for the table fellowship with these very people, her people … her hard-won family.