Children are often asked a question on their birthdays, after the presents are open and the candles extinguished. —“so do you feel older?” It always seemed like a silly inquiry. Even on those big birthdays—crossing over to double-digits, or becoming a teenager, or hitting any number ending in zero—you don’t usually wake up on the morning of your birthday feeling any different than the day before. Well, given the content of the past seven days, I did wake up my birthday feeling as though I had aged at least a year. What a week it has been. On Friday, many members and friends of this congregation gathered to remember with thanksgiving the life of Laura Lee. Yesterday, I officiated at my first wedding. The preparations that went into those events were significant. I’m not always the most organized and detail-oriented person, and these qualities are needed in exponential quantities for weddings.
This has been a big week for the world, too. I’m sure many of you have been following the headlines regarding the surge of violence in Israel and Lebanon. The conflict in that region usually hovers just below the boiling point, but once again an episode of mutual retaliation has broken the relative quiet. The global community is still on edge from the North Korean missile testing that occurred a short time ago. The unrest in Iraq and Sudan continues on. The G8 summit gathered for their annual meeting, and the globally popular World Cup finished up in Germany. My favorite headline of the week was by far a story that came out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A Christian minister has started a successful program to reduce the number of guns in the country. People have been lining up to trade weapons for bicycles and roofing material.
Sometimes weeks like this come and go, and I absorb all the headlines, and all the joys and sorrows of ministry, without having the presence of mind to reflect on where God is in all this. But every so often in the midst of these weeks of life and death, violence and love, I am reminded of the one thing I need to know to be able to handle all this, as a pastor and as a person: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”
We belong to God. This beautiful and broken Creation belongs to God. And keeping mindful of this profoundly changes the way we live and move and have our being. We are delivered from fear and anxiety when we trust that all things, seen and unseen, are resting within the arms of a loving and merciful God. God embraces us, and the life of faith means mustering the courage and the confidence to return his embrace, to hold onto what saves us.
A little over a year ago, when Ben and I were spending some time in Ohio before we returned to California to move into the Parsonage and begin our new life here, we went Whitewater rafting with a friend. As it turned out, we did not have an experienced raft guide. He seemed confident as he went over the basics on land, but soon after leaving for our expedition, we learned that he was leading his very first rafting trip. On the very first series of rapids, he panicked. Our raft spun out of control as we passed through a narrow channel between rocks. Even though my head was literally spinning, I can remember clear as day that he kept repeating hold on, hold on. And I remember thinking, dude, I’m holding onto an oar. How is that going to help?
Sure enough, I flew out of that raft and into the river, still holding onto my oar with a death grip. And I’d like to believe that one sign of my calling as a preacher is this: even as I was at the mercy of a quickly moving current, drifting away from my raft and toward a very large rock, I thought: boy, is this ever a sermon illustration.
I did what the apprentice raft guide said; I held on. But I was holding onto something that couldn’t keep me safe. I was holding onto something that was as unmoored as I was. It was a tool to steer us away from danger, but it could not be trusted for anything more. The guide had failed to remind me that to stay in a raft, you have to wedge your feet tightly into the side of the boat. Only then are you safely lodged in the only thing between you and the chaotic waters. Holding onto the oar doesn’t work, a lesson the raft guide learned when he himself was thrown from the craft—along with Ben— on the next major rapid.
We have to be sure that we are grasping on to what grasps us, that what we hold in times of celebration and hardship— and everything in between— is what holds us.
It is all too easy to forget that we belong to God, and that our best move in any situation is to reach for our Heavenly Father. Whether our lives are in a state of humdrum or hubbub, peace or strife, the words of that Psalm are true as ever. The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it. We are God’s, God holds us, God is intimately involved in every breath we take. This is true for each one of us, and this is true for all the nations.
I hope you’ll understand that today I will close with borrowed words. I have run out of words this week, and am content to rest in God’s gracious arms, and to simply entreat you to do the same. I found a poem that speaks to me in weeks like this, a poem that rehearses the faithfulness of the Psalms in contemporary language. The author is Bruce Prewer, a Christian pastor who lives and ministers in Australia.
THIS I DARE BELIEVE
This is God’s world, and it is not aimless.
Time has a purpose and God is its steward.
Loving God, I believe, scatter my unbelief.
It is not possible that greed and injustice are forever.
It is not possible that the meek will stay dispossessed.
It is not possible that peacemakers must inevitably fail.
It is not possible that nations will always make war.
It is not possible that the merciful will be always be scorned.
It is not possible that forgiveness will at last dry up.
It is not possible that the weak are doomed to be down trodden.
It is not possible that the hungry will always go unsatisfied.
It is not possible that sincere hearts will always be exploited.
It is not possible that laughter shall finally be stilled.
It is not possible that fear will always outwit love.
It is not possible that the cynics will always be right.
It is not possible that goodness will have flowered in vain.
It is not possible that death will render all things futile.
It is not possible that Jesus will ever be forgotten.
It is not possible that faith will die out on earth.
Christ holds God’s secret in open, wounded hands,
Christ is our future and all will be redeemed.
Loving God I believe, scatter my unbelief.
“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” Thanks be to God!