Word of the Week

It's always the little things, isn't it that stick with us through life? It's usually not the grand gestures or the extravagant moments, but the whispers. The experiences that are engraved in our memory and won't let us go, even if we tried. Many call this the beginning of grace.

A gem like this has stuck close to me since high school-- though it was not taught to me by any teacher or shared with me by any friend. In fact, it's crazy that I remember it at all.  It came from a banner hanging in my school hallway.

From 7th grade on my parents sent me to a Christian school about a 30 minute drive from our home in downtown. They were concerned about the quality of education I'd receive from the public high school assigned to me and they felt really great about academic and social opportunities available for me at this place. My grandparents were even kind enough to help out with the tuition. Small class sizes, individualized attention and loads of spiritual formation was a part of everything I experienced here. Though I wish now that my teenaged years had been full of more racial, religious and socio-economic diversity, I am thankful for the spiritual foundation for my time at the Christian school gave me (basic Bible classes in seminary were much easier from all the preparation!).

In line with this value system, each year, the senior class would select a class verse and class hymn to be read and sung at graduation. Then later, each class' verse of scripture would be sown into a banner and placed along the walls above the lockers. The banners were usually all quite large and colorful. You could hardly walk down the halls without noticing them.

Though I have no memory of my particular class verse was, I do remember one. This banner hung directly across from the door I walked into every morning next to the principal's office. As I gathered my wits together to keep going through school each early morning, I read it daily and was memorized:

When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future. Ecclesiastes 7:14

It never made much sense to me, especially the ending. "Man (or woman) cannot discover anything about at his future?" Such a sentiment seemed to go against everything I thought I knew about God at the time. Growing up in a fundamental driven household, I believed that I grew up to do the right things at the right times, then my life would be free of trouble. The only people I thought at the time who experienced trouble were those who went against God's plans for their life. (And, with my "I'm spiritual" hat on I knew I wasn't one of them).

But, as I've grown up and heard the words, "when times are good . . . when times are bad" in the back of my head, this verse of scripture has equally made more sense to me and frustrated me all the same.

No matter how good you are or not, life interrupts. Plans you once betted your life on are quickly destroyed. People whom you thought would be in your life forever simple do not have the breath to climb the mountains with you.  Grief comes. Sadness comes. The unexplained comes. Life makes absolutely no sense. We cannot have a specific 30 year life plan and even dare to think it will come true. We just don't know. And, it's frustrating. Many of us truly wish for life to simply be more lineal and fair.  And it isn't. It never will be.

But, this does not take from us the moments-- the pure and beautiful moments of our journey. Which is what I think this verse is all about.

When life is good, let's rejoice, but when it bad, let's remember that each experience of life can be just a season. Life's joys, even as tainted as they may be by past losses, will return. Joy comes in the morning . . . (even if we have to wade through the night for years and years and years).

Over the past couple of weeks, I've heard countless stories from friends and colleagues about this dichotomy of life.

Some parents' children have died much too young from rare diseases. While other parents' children have soared into a new school year-- making their first goal at soccer matches and getting their first 100% on Spelling Tests. Some parents have cried new deep rivers of tears. Other parents have smiled for so long they thought their mouths would burst.

Some marriages have ended in bitter word wars over financial issues. While other marriages have only just begun with cakes, glamour photos and gleeful expectations based on promises for a long future. Some have entered new dark seasons of self-doubt and life crushing agony. Other folks have soared to high once in a lifetime emotional peeks.

Some long-term partnerships have ended because of the death of one from an unsuccessful battle with cancer. While other partnerships have soared with the expectations of new shared dreams and common goals. Some have cried tears they never expected to ever leak. Other folks have simultaneously said to themselves, "I didn't know that life could be this wonderful."

This is the mystery of life. Or as my friend Leslie said the a couple of days ago on Facebook, "On any given "best" day, someone, somewhere, is having their worst day.  I guess that's the deal.  Please God, give us strength when we need it."

I'm glad for the ever-present reminder of this wisdom as I long for the day when we are all made whole.

Promises in the Night Lent Series:

There's More!

Genesis 17:1-17, 15-16 with Mark 14:22-26

Ever finish a meal and find yourself asking, "There's got to be more; I'm still hungry." Or, ever come to the end of a vacation and say to whoever you are traveling with, "There's got to be more; I'm not ready to come home yet?" Or, ever find yourself watching the credits of a movie and say, "There's got to be more; that can't be the ending!"

Several weeks ago on the morning of my birthday, I experienced one of these, "there's got to be more" moments as Kevin gave me my gift. After parading in the house the night before my birthday with lots of "You can't ask me where I've been" and "You can't look in this big bag I just brought in" my expectation level was raised higher than normal. I woke up even wondering what could be in the huge bag that sat in the middle of the living room floor. Certainly, I thought, Kevin had out done himself and I would be receiving a really great gift this year!

After finishing breakfast quickly, Kevin asked, "Ready for your gift?"

I said: "Of course!" I and sat on the couch waiting to be presented with the bag I'd seen the night before. As I began to tear into the  tissue paper that sat on top, I discovered two wrapped items. The first was a metal stand for firewood. And, the second box contained fire poking set, also for the fireplace in our living room. Nothing else seemed to appear in the bag.

Fearing we'd had one of those "husband buys a wife a gift that the husband really wants" moments, I soon objected, even though I'm sure I sounded completely unappreciative of the gesture of his remembering my birthday. I have to admit, I was quite blunt:"You got me a fire poker and a wood holder for my birthday? What were you thinking??"

Kevin just smiled and said, "You've been talking how much we need tools for fire building, I'd thought you’d like it." But he smiled with the grin that he didn't fear going to the marriage dog house soon . . . which I thought was weird. Didn't my tone of voice convey that I was disappointed?

I complained too soon! Thank goodness Kevin didn't follow the wisdom of what James Allan once said: "The very fact that you are a complainer, shows that you deserve your lot."

"Quick" he added, "look at the bottom of the bag under the extra layer of paper. There's more!"  And to my surprise at the bottom of the bag was in fact my real present-- an IPad, an amazing gift, better than I could have ever imagined.  It turns out that the fire set was all a joke and I fell for the trap almost line by line as Kevin imagined.

In our Old Testament promise text for this morning, we read of another encounter of similar laughable proportions where two characters were asked to think differently about their expectations, realizing that God longed to give them more.

When we meet Abram and Sarai in Genesis 17 as God begins to speak to this couple saying in verse  one of our text, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you and will make you exceedingly numerous" it's not the first time that we read of language of promise directed toward this family. In fact, when Abram first enters the Bible in Genesis chapter twelve, we hear God asking him to set out on this unknown journey of leaving his home and journeying to a place that God would show him. And, at this moment, Abram was also told about ancestors of his being numerous.  "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you."

But other than protection and guidance for the journey, this "I will bless you" plan of the Lord's did not seem to be working out. Abram and Sarai had no children. And, without children it was going to be hard for their descendants to be great and numerous because they didn't have any!

So, we read in Genesis 16 that Sarai took matters into her own hands, figuring that because of her advanced age God didn't really want to use her in the plan after all. I can't imagine the pain, the rejection and disdain she must have felt toward God as she gave her maidservant, Hagar to spend the night with Abram.  Because if it were for Abram's God and all this promise business, she could have kept Abram all to herself. The childless couple could have willed their estate to their head servant without any shared nights in one another's bedrooms being involved. I can imagine Sarai angry at the world she found herself in-- deeply in fact!

So, while it was fine and good that God called out this family, especially choosing them for the adventure of  going to the "promise land"-- by chapter 17 this experience had not turned out like they expected. I'm sure both Abram and Sarai went to bed each night wondering, "what went wrong?" Because they must have heard wrong from the Lord. For this was not the broken pieces kind of life that either of them hoped they'd have. Nomad wanderers far from their hometown, childless, but yet with a son birthed for them from a slave.

I can't imagine Abram or Sarai having the strength to ask for anything else, to ask for more or even hope that there was more. For, beaten down-- sitting in the darkness-- without hope for the impossible dream of parenting together and just stability in their lives to come true.  There was sadness in both of them, especially Sarai that just couldn't go away.

But, even in the darkness a promise comes-- and this promise is "There's More."

Look with me at verse 4, God says, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. . . . I  will make your exceedingly fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you."

"So Abram, you think that I've forgotten you?" God says, " You think that this desire that you have buried deep within you to have a child with your wife is dead, gone and long past?  Think again. Hear me again. You will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. It is your promise for the night."

Just as God said last week to Noah and the crew gathered around the ark-- I will remember you-- God saying to Abram, "Hang with me here. Keep walking with me. Keep moving. Why? Because there is more a comin'!"

I don't know if you are like me, but when someone makes me a promise or says they are going to do something for me, I'd like a sign. Even if it is just a handshake, even if it is just a confirmation email, even if it is just a piece of paper with my name and theirs on it-- documentation is always good for peace of mind and sleep at night, in particularly difficult situations.

And such was the case with Abram and Sarai too. They needed a sign of this promise. Ishmael, Hagar's son after all is 13 years old by now! If I were Sarai or Abram and God still wants to promise our family "father of many nations" business, then, I might have wanted to tell God just to leave me alone. Let me be. But, if you insist God on saying this promise again, then I'll need more...

And the "more" proof, the sign that this family received was a name change.

Abram is told that he will be called Abraham from this point forward and Sarai is told that she would be called Sarah.  Abraham is a name meaning, "ancestor of multitudes" while Sarah translates "princess."  Not only would they have words of promise to speak of a change coming, but they would embody the transformation.

Most notable is Sarah’s new role.

Previous to chapter 17 when God spoke it was all about Abram. And because of this, it would have been easy to assume, for Sarah did that God didn't need her, that she wasn't important. But, everything changes in verses 15 and 16. Look with me in what God says about Sarah, "I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her." 

Sarah's soon-to-be announced pregnancy would become an experience of co-creating with God.

But not only this, God would change too. God would show in this covenant making progress more of the divine character-- more than anyone had ever seen before!

Baptist Hebrew Bible scholar Dr. Tony Cartledge says this, about what we are learning about God: "For the first time in the Hebrew text, God is referred to not as Elohim or Yahweh, but with the Hebrew name El Shaddai." This is the only time in the book of Genesis that El Shaddai is used to speak of God-- which is our sign to pay attention!

Dr. Cartledge goes on to write of El Shaddai, "While translators have commonly translated El Shaddai, God’s name, as “Almighty God” or “All Powerful One,” God’s name change to El Shaddai has more to do with fertility. The words in God’s new name most clearly relate to the Hebrew word Shaddaim, the plural form of the word for the female breast."

 And with this name change, it’s as if God is saying: “We’re in relationship. I will be your God—your fertility God who gives you what you desperately need. And you, Abraham and Sarah . . . you will be parents of a whole new nation.” It was a covenant promise of unprecedented before and unprecedented since proportions.

Such reminds me of the hope that came in Jesus' words from Mark 14 when he broke bread and said, "take and eat; this is my body" and when he lifted up the cup and said, "This is the blood of the covenant poured out for many."

Jesus too, in the midst of this dark night-- as we talked about the betrayal of Judas last Sunday-- shared with his disciples about the something more that was coming as well. And though they did not understand and though they too must have thought that Jesus was crazy for speaking like this, a promise of NEW covenant is made.  My disciples, Jesus says, "I'm going to keep renewing and renewing again my promise to show you more and more and more of myself each time you eat of this meal."

It's a promise in the night that no matter how dark the next couple of days might be, no matter how lost the disciples would soon feel , they'd always have the signs of this new covenant given at this meal. They'd always have the loaf of bread and cup to come back to and taste and drink of the "MORE" or of the abundant life that God had promised all people.

This meal Jesus gave became the sign of promise we call this day communion.  It's the meal of more.

 I recently heard a true story about a dear church member who faithfully worshipped in her local church for her entire life.  Diagnosed with a terminal illness and given only days to live, her Pastor was called to her bed to discuss her final wishes. She told him which songs and scriptures she wanted at the service and what outfit she wanted to wear as she was buried. He took great notes, not wanting to miss a thing. 

Then, as the Pastor was leaving, the lady suddenly cried out, "Wait. There's one more little thing. I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand." The Pastor didn’t know what to say.

"So that puzzles you, does it?" she replied before she went on to explain:  "In over 70 years of attending community socials and dinners, church functions and birthday parties, seems like every time someone would tell me, 'Keep your fork.' I liked to hear that because it meant something better was coming, like chocolate cake or pickled pears or pecan pie, something sweet and wonderful. So now I want my friends and family to remember me with a fork in my hand and I want them to ask, ‘What's with the fork?’ I want you to tell them: ‘Keep your fork, the best is yet to come.’"

The Pastor became teary eyed as he kissed his dear friend good-bye. But his heart was full as he believed along with her, something better was yet to come.

As expected the woman soon passed, and at the church funeral, many, many people walked by the casket, for she was greatly admired in the community. Everyone wanted to pay their deepest respects to this beloved one.

They all saw the fork. Over and over, the Pastor was asked, "Why the fork?" And over and over he only smiled and said, “The best is yet to come.” During his homily during the memorial, he told what the fork had meant to her, and how he couldn’t stop thinking about it.  The fork symbolized everything this humble servant of God believed about purpose of her life.

So whatever kind of sign you need today-- whether it be a fork, an invitation to the Lord's Table as you will be receiving soon, or writing some of these promise words of scripture down and keeping them close to your heart-- I invite you to do it. And do it this week. As you take up these signs of remembrance, know though the nights and days of this season of repentance of preparation called Lent are long-- we are not a people ever who are without hope. Why? There's always more.

Thanks be to God for this our promise for the night today.