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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Sandra L. Randleman

June 15, 2014

 Our Father

Psalm 8; John 14:1-17, 26-27

  Several years ago our church’s mission team to Rwanda had the opportunity to take a break from their mission activities to experience an overnight safari. The participants looked forward to seeing the rich abundance of wildlife which is the heart of the life and history of Africa. We have been told that to fully understand the culture and people of Africa, one must experience a safari. The team set forth from camp on its first outing shortly before sunset, a favorite feeding time for the animals when they are most active and easiest to view. The team filled two land rovers and were accompanied by two experienced Rwandan guides, or at least, the team thought the guides were experienced. The drivers drove the team deep into the grassy wildlife reserve seeking wildlife sightings. They drove and drove. While the team saw no animals, they did notice the sun had set and the sky was darkening. They grew hungry and wondered when they would return to camp for dinner. Finally, the team saw and felt some African wildlife in the form of numerous small bugs swarming around them. Still, they drove on and on. It was readily apparent that their guides were absolutely lost! Many silent prayers were fervently prayed without ceasing. By the grace of God, the vehicles happened upon a road, and the road, in time, returned the weary travelers back to camp at last. Exhausted, they fell into bed and for some reason, everyone decided to forego the sunrise safari ride the next morning.

Our lives can be measured by the times we are facing an important life decision. We ponder what to do next and may find ourselves asking the question asked of Jesus by Thomas, “How can we know the way?” Jesus answers His bewildered disciples by saying, “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” Jesus is teaching that the way and the truth is not an established path, or a geographical direction, or even a prescribed checklist of things to do. Instead, the way is a relationship with the person of Jesus, who shows us God the Father. God, Jesus tells us, abides in Him and the Father in Jesus. The way is our unity with Jesus even as there is unity between Jesus and God. The unity between Jesus and God is so complete that Jesus explains that His disciples can see and know God in Jesus’ words and deeds.

Then Jesus tells His disciples that He will pray to the Father and the Father will send another Counselor, suggesting that Jesus has also been serving as a Counselor to His disciples. In other passages, Jesus speaks of Himself as the One who sends the Counselor, but then since God the Father and Jesus are united, they share fully in their work. The Counselor will continue the work of Jesus as the Spirit of Truth or the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will be with His followers forever so that Jesus may be as present to His disciples today as He was when He lived on this earth. The Holy Spirit will also remind His followers of Jesus’ teachings, and teach us and guide us as we seek to apply these teachings to our life’s circumstances. We are offered peace that passes all understanding, for we are never alone and always have Jesus through the Holy Spirit, with us to guide and comfort us. The Holy Spirit makes our unity with Jesus, and through Jesus, with God the Father, possible.

This is Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost, a day for pondering and expressing gratitude for the gift and mystery of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We believe that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are somehow distinct, and yet One and undivided, united in will. The Trinity is a holy mystery, difficult to define in words. As Paul wrote in I Corinthians, now we see through a glass darkly, but someday we will fully understand. One imperfect analogy is to view the Trinity as similar to a musical chord: three notes played together that provide a lovely and rich united sound. We proclaim our belief in the Trinity each Sunday as we recite the Apostles Creed. The Nicene Creed in our Book of Confessions provides even more details describing God the Father as the maker of all that is, seen and unseen; and Jesus as the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father and of One being with the Father; and the Holy Spirit as the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and from the Son and has spoken through the prophets. When we worship God, we worship the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Today is also Father’s Day, a day for expressing gratitude for our earthly fathers and those who have been like fathers to us. I was blessed with a wonderful father, and I am grateful for the time we shared on this earth. I am thankful for all that he taught me and especially for his gift of unconditional love and wise guidance. But the best gift my father gave me was the example of his life-long Christian faith reflected in the way he lived his life with integrity and in his active participation in a church. On Sunday mornings, our family was always in church, attending Sunday school and worship, and we were usually back on Sunday evenings for the evening worship service. A vibrant church community was woven into the fabric of our lives.

I am aware that not everyone has such a positive experience with their earthly father, and no earthly father can provide his son or daughter all that is needed, because, of course, all of our fathers are imperfect human beings. No human father can protect his child from all harm or give his child the answers to all of life’s most difficult and challenging questions. The best gift that a father can give his child is to point to the way, the truth and the life, a relationship with Jesus and through Jesus with God, the One who is the source of all wisdom and love. All of us can look to God as our Father, a Father who gave us the gift of life and most importantly, who knows us and understands us completely and loves us perfectly and unconditionally and eternally. God is a Father of all wisdom, and His wisdom is available to us as we pray and seek His guidance through prayer and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. As we come to know Jesus, we will know more of God the Father.          

Richard Rohr has written a wonderful book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.[1] Father Rohr describes our spiritual life as including two stages. In the first half of life, we tend to be most concerned with establishing ourselves with a focus on finding our careers, friends and spouse, and creating our identity and developing healthy habits. People in the first half of life may be viewed as building a strong container for their lives. It is an important and necessary stage to build one’s container well. The second half of life provides the opportunity to fill the container with contents. But the second half of life is often precipitated by a crisis, some kind of falling. We may lose a job or a significant relationship, or endure an illness, or suffer the death of a loved one, and the structure of our spiritual life feels shaky and uncertain. The falling may occur when we are young in years or, most often, when we are more mature in years. Few of us escape some kind of falling at some point in our lives. The fall down, in fact, is an opportunity to grow spiritually and to fall upward. Just as we learn to ride and balance a bike by first falling off the bike many times, falling is a necessary stage for growing in our spiritual life.

After the fall, life is forever changed. We need a guide to encourage and help us to get up, move forward and fall up. Jesus’ disciples experienced their crisis in Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and death and their realization of their betrayal and desertion of their leader. The disciples had to acknowledge that the death of Jesus meant the death of their dreams of what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus. They experienced fear for their personal safety and future. Yet, Jesus’ disciples received a new spiritual understanding with a new vision and a new life through the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. They were forever changed.

Last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday. We celebrated the gift of the Holy Spirit given to a small group of disciples gathered in an upper room. They waited and prayed together until the promise of the Holy Spirit was fulfilled. A small band of frightened disciples was transformed into the greatest and strongest Christian teachers and missionaries the world has ever known. The disciples were filled with a life-giving power which empowered them to share with others the good news of Jesus and to establish the Christian church. Despite the rigors and hardships of their ministry and persecution that threatened and ultimately claimed their human lives, they received the fruit of the Holy Spirit. They knew love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. They came to regard the gift of their message of God’s love shown in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a pearl of great price, a treasure more valuable than anything the world could offer.  

In the example of the disciples, we may discern and understand the guidance of the Holy Spirit only after a time of waiting and praying. It is through the Holy Spirit that Jesus’ promise to be with us always is fulfilled, as the Holy Spirit draws us closer to God. God can use the painful parts of our lives, the falling down times, to make us stronger and more spiritually mature.

I have the privilege of talking with many people who have experienced challenging times. On many occasions, I have heard people say that they are now thankful for how God used the accident or the illness or the fire or some other seemingly horrific incident of their lives to bring spiritual growth to their lives and the lives of their close family members. What once seemed the worst possible thing that could happen to them, had become, through God’s grace, a positive catalyst in helping them and others close to them to become wise and compassionate persons open to seeking and finding God at work in their lives and world. But this is a perspective and understanding that comes much after the crisis and not when we are in the midst of it.

Our painful times can be redeemed so that we can die to earthly things and goals that ultimately fail and disappoint us. We can live in this freedom, more joyfully and abundantly and with something of real value to share with the world. Through the Holy Spirit, we can become new creations living a new life filled with hope and promise.

No experience of our life is lost or wasted when we are open to the grace of God who can redeem and use all things for good. Even if we have hurt ourselves or other people through poor decisions, God can somehow rework, transform and bring good when we bring the matter before God and lay it with humble repentance and earnest prayer before Him. God the Father who raised Jesus from the dead, is a God of resurrection, transforming death into life. God can also transform our falling down into falling up, for He is the Divine Alchemist who makes gold from the human regrets, losses, disappointments and failures surrendered to Him.

Forrest Church served as the senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City for three decades and authored a number of books. His book, Love and Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow, was written following his diagnosis with terminal cancer. His writing reflects the wisdom of one who had entered the second stage of his life, a journey that was undoubtedly enhanced through his battle with cancer. Forrest Church shared a mantra that he found had served him well in life and was serving him well in dying. I offer it to you for its wisdom:

Love what you have.

Do what you can.

Be who you are.

One can even think of scripture verses that resonate with these same themes. “Love what you have” reminds me of Paul’s words in his letter to the church in Philippi: “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content…in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 11-13).

“Do what you can,” is linked to the commandment that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength and all our mind, and our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27).  

“Be who you are” brings to mind the words of the Psalmist, “I will give thanks to You, O God, for I am perfectfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) as well as the many references in the Bible to the spiritual gifts we are given for the purpose of serving the church and Jesus Christ and His people.  

Forrest Church wrote, “Wanting what we have mutes the pangs of desire, which visits from an imaginary future to cast a shadow on the present, which is real. Doing what we can focuses our minds on what is possible, no more, no less, thereby filling each moment with conscious, practicable endeavor. And being who we are helps us reject the fool’s gold or self-delusion. It also demands integrity—being straight with ourselves and one another.”[2]

When asked if he really wanted cancer, Forrest Church concluded that “we cannot selectively wish away all that is wrong with us without including all that is right.” He chose not to focus on the darkened window pane of his health, but to focus on the whole window of his life which brought light illuminating such gifts as the love of family and friends, manageable tasks that he could still accomplish, his courage to face the challenges of the day. Meaning, for Dr. Church, was not found in longing for what he lacked, but in loving what he had.

Love what you have and do what you can. I would add as part of the “doing”: give all you can. Share your experiences, your wisdom, your faith, your love, your material blessings. Give prayerfully as God leads you. All that we have are gifts from God, given to us that we might share them with others.

Be who you are. As we embrace our God-given talents and gifts, we can seek ways to share them with others. If we are who we are, then there is no need to envy the gifts or circumstances of another. We seek to be authentically who God created us to be in the circumstances of our lives.

Falling down, and all that we learn and experience as a consequence of our fall, can become a part of what we have and who we are. With God’s help, falling down is an opportunity to truly become who we are so we can love what we have and do what we can with more wisdom to give and share all we can. We can never fall upward on our own. Falling upward arises from the way, the truth and the life, our relationship with Jesus Christ, that leads us to the heart of God the Father, and the Holy Spirit that leads and teaches us day by day. It is the wisdom of such a guide that makes all the difference in the journey.

Earlier, I shared with you the story of a safari in Rwanda in which the guides and consequently the participants wandered and became lost. Another African safari story, this time in Kenya, provides an example of a far different experience. Our mission team boarded land rovers shortly before sunrise, while it was still dark. As the team traveled into the African reserve, the sun began to rise, the darkness faded as light came to the world. The eastern horizon glowed with colors of yellow, orange and pink. On the western horizon the moon still hung low in the sky. Soon, we saw giraffes running gracefully through the tall grass. Groups of zebras and wildebeests filed past us. Multi-colored birds flew in the sky above us. God’s beautiful creation was on full display and our hearts were filled with gratitude for the gift of God’s created world. Our guides drove us expertly through the reserve pointing out the wonders of the wildlife our eyes were not trained to see.

On a safari, as in life, the guide can make all the difference. We have a guide of all wisdom to show us the way, the truth and the life, to lead us into an ever deepening relationship with Jesus who is the way to the heart of our Father God who loves us. With such a gift, we can never be lost. Instead, we can love what we have, do what we can and be who we are, the persons God created each of us to be.

[1] Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011).

[2] Forrest Church, Love and Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009), 34.

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