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Last weekend I enjoyed the special privilege of time with 100 amazing women, including my sweet and amazing daughter, Rebekah. I have three sons as well who I love with my whole heart, but for decades now just the one daughter. Some years ago, she and I clearly transitioned from mother and daughter to friends, really good friends. My deep admiration for her life choices compares only to my regard for my dear husband.
Perhaps in similar fashion to many of us, some of her early life choices led to surprisingly rich outcomes in the long run, owing to the grace of God. She is brave and strong and true.
By vocation, she is a senior forensic scientist for the State of Alabama and has a very low tolerance for subtlety or vagary in conversation. Quite literally, justice depends on unvarnished clarity from her about the facts before her.
I, on the other hand, specialize in both subtlety and vagary, often forestalling clear speech for as long as possible in hopes that Christ will come again before I have to say something that I know will possibly hurt someone’s feelings and make life tense for a while.
Rebekah found a technique that allows us to meet halfway in our differing styles of engaging and I have used the technique many times, perhaps even with some of you.
When hard truths must be spoken, she opens with “Have a seat. This is not going to be one of our feel good conversations.”
Her technique has a surprisingly calming effect on me. I am able to settle in and get situated. It usually still hurts, but I know what we are talking about and the truth really does set us free, after it shakes us around between its jaws for a while like a ferocious tiger with a sweet baby lamb in its clinches.
The prophets Ezra and Nehemiah might have taken a page from Rebekah’s playbook before reading the scroll of the law to the people in our first reading, a reading that reduced them all to tears.
The fascinating thing is that, in the Hebrew, the line where it says that the prophets both read the scroll and gave its interpretation so that “the people understood the reading” the word is actually the verb that means “to sting” something.
I’d probably have cried, too. But, it is clear that they aren’t crying in sadness, but in agony. They are suffering as they hear information that they have clearly not heard or understood previously and it’s painful to hear.
It also took most of one day to read it to them! This is not a quick summary of things done and left undone. This is the entire covenant code that spells out what it looks like to belong to God.
And, from their reaction, we can imagine that this is not what they thought it was. Just as the folks sitting in synagogue that Sabbath must have thought when Jesus basically said, “The one you’ve been waiting for, it’s me.” Don’t you know they were thinking to themselves, “What’d he just say? He’s the messiah?!? Surely, not! Isn’t that the carpenter’s boy?”
How many times have you reached a point where you say, I’m not entirely sure what’s happening here or seems about to happen, but I’m very sure that what’s BEEN happening, clearly isn’t working. The way I’ve been doing things is not a) helpful to this relationship; b) making life better; c) you get the idea.
Still, there is that moment between letting go of the way we thought things were and accepting the way things are, that space that truly feels like an absolute wilderness: terrifying, no landmarks, to us utter darkness, a time to recall the words from Psalm 139 that tell us that “the dark and the light are both alike to God because God is present in both.”
So that, even hearing how far we have gone off track with our lives and what needs to happen for us to recover, we can actually move from feeling stung to feeling comforted. How else could David – a man with so much blood on his hands — compose his hymn of praise for the laws, the statutes, the commandments, and the judgments of God? How could that man — guilty of so much — declare that the judgement of God is to be desired more than gold and that its taste is sweeter far than honey?
Last week, when we were celebrating the life of Bob Fowler, Stuart mentioned how much his conversations with Bob meant to him. I suspect that some of those conversations did not always start out as “feel good conversations”, but not only did they end up that way, but their legacy will be in the form of continued wisdom that will shape conversations in this parish for decades to come.
We are midway through this season of light, before we enter Lent, a time when we officially invite the Spirit’s voice to speak to our hearts, asking God to help us see where we have moved off the track and are headed for a ditch.
There will be times when the full meaning of the law of God will “sting us” reducing us to agonizing tears. But remorse or contrition are never intended to be a final destination point for us; rather, they are meant to be more like a 5,000 mile checkup before we continue the journey.
These will be the moments when we are set free by the truth, receive sight to understand what is truly real. Even in the moment where it stings, by God’s grace, we will see in time that this is our day of rejoicing.
Oh, but what do we know about the way the Spirit moves – unpredictability! The only consistent thing about the activity of the third person in the Trinity is that she blows where she will, invariably designing to catch us off our guard.
Grace is fortunate to have so many opportunities for prayer, reflection, contemplation, and fellowship. I would not be surprised if the sports/politics/and stock market table of men that convenes in the parish hall before the early service got as much news from the Spirit as the weekly Centering Prayer group. But, if you aren’t part of either of those groups or any other group, and feel like you are hearing the Spirit trying to tell you a hard truth about something, please know that you can come see Stuart or Cheryl or me and we will do our best to listen with you.
Resistance to the Spirit is not futile. It can be done. People do it for years, engaging with a variety of noise-making pursuits – like “noisy gongs or clanging cymbals” — to try and drown out the still, small voice of God. But, if you’re tired of this routine, and tired of being angry, frustrated, or anxious, consider the possibility that listening closely with the ears of your heart to the law of the Lord, being open to its correction and means for reconciliation, can actually be your way out of the darkness and into the light.
But even if you’re not quite ready to give up the noise, be assured that whether you are wandering hell’s hallways or chasing a mirage of comfort, you will never be there alone:
“Darkness is not dark to you. The night shines as much as the day, for with God, the dark is as the light.” (Ps. 139:12)
The Rev. Cynthia Park, LPC, PhD
January 27, 2019 Year C
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; I Cor. 12: 12-31a; Luke 4:14-21