Last week, I preached a sermon about how we have to welcome the Word of God into our lives before we can welcome anyone else. But can we really welcome the Word unless we can welcome our self, in all of our honor and dishonor, our saintliness and sinfulness? We have to be honest, we have to be real with ourselves, if we want God to be real for us. And that means that we are going to have to take a good long hard look in the mirror. Sounds easy, but we are really good at looking and not seeing what there is to see. French writer Malcolm de Chazal said, "Monkeys are superior to men in this: when a monkey looks into a mirror, he sees a monkey." But we have a habit of looking into a mirror and seeing everything but who we really are. We may see the person our parents or our spouse or boss want us to see. We may see the person we thought we were going to be or the person we failed to be. There are times when we look into the mirror and say, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the biggest loser of them all?"
As I pondered these questions, I looked out at the still water in the percolation pond just a few feet away from the labyrinth. It’s part of a system of ponds that was built decades ago to recharge the groundwater and keep the valley from sinking. It struck me that what the valley needs, our spirits also need right now. In order to be good shepherds of the Creation, we need to let Jesus be the Good Shepherd of our souls. We need to let the living water of his love percolate deep down into our dried up aquifers. You know what happens when you drain an aquifer? It collapses on itself and can no longer hold water. The same thing will happen to our spirits. So we need to let Jesus recharge our groundwater, refresh our commitment to life in all of its amazing forms and variety so that we can obey his command to love, not just in word and speech, but in truth and action, and by the grace of God restore the Creation.
Now, we can look at the mechanics of this eruption in our lives and see nothing but devastation. Or we can search for the meaning and find the first fragile signs of our new creation. The first plants to come back to Mount St. Helens were the wildflowers. Nice touch. So, if you are ever lost in the ash fall, read Psalm 29 and remember this: wherever the oaks are whirling, the deer are surely calving. Wherever something is being destroyed, something else is being created. Isn't that, after all, just what the Gospels are saying? Doesn't Jesus spend a lot of time trying to tell his disciples that he must suffer death in order to bring new life? Doesn't Paul say we have to be united with Christ in a death like his in order to be united with Christ in a resurrection like his? [Romans 6:5] You see, this relatively young volcano and this New Testament witness to the very same truth: the old creation must pass away or get blown away so that the new creation can come, and we're going to come, one of these days. [2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 4:22f; Revelation 21:1-5]
This hymn has been one of my favorites ever since I encountered it as the opening hymn of the 1982 General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Thrilled at having been elected a delegate to our church's national convention—and thinking that that might be a start to a kind of political career in the national church—I thrilled at the stirring words and melody of the hymn, and it has stirred and moved me ever since.
It seems that sometimes we have to be down before we ever think to look up. We have to be in the depths before "deep calls to deep" and the reality of God washes over us like a wave. But it is in the darkest, stillest night that we can sometimes hear heaven singing. "At night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life." It is in those situations of extreme adversity that we occasionally find inspiration for great works of creativity. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, as they say. Many of the hymns in our hymnal were written when the authors themselves were lost in a dark night, so they wrote the song they needed to hear God singing.
So the cross of Jesus Christ challenges all of our assumptions about how God's power works in the world. It works in weakness. Now, how does that work for you? How does the cross help us deal with something like cancer? I know that I'm not alone in wondering why an almighty God would create a world where cancer kills almost 8 million people a year. Cancer is so widespread it almost seems to be a built-in feature of life on this planet. And in fact it is, when you consider life from an evolutionary perspective. It's ironic that gene mutation, the cellular process that drives evolution and makes life on earth possible, is the same process that makes cancer inevitable. If God had somehow made our immune system so strong that it could kill off all mutant cells, we human beings would never have evolved in the first place. But understanding the science doesn't help us come to terms with the sickness.
So do we believe in this God who is our Father? And, if we do, what does it matter? To answer those questions, let's put the two together. We said that we have to believe that God is far beyond us so that we won't make God look just like us. But we also need a God who is a Father to us so that we can dare to believe that God loves us. And—this is important—only when we love God as our Father (or our Mother) can we love others as our sisters and our brothers.
Looking back at life from the farthest limits of the sea, finally, we are able to see. And what we see is that all of those days spent complaining about the things we didn't have could've been much better spent giving thanks for the things we did have. And that's not all. We also see that the people who blessed us on our way are a lot more important than the people who hurt us along the way. We come to face the fact that everything we've ever done was made possible by gifts we were given, or to put it more theologically, by grace alone. When we get to that place at the farthest limits of the sea, whether it be in our 30's, 40's, 50's, 60's, 70's, or beyond, that's where gratitude is born.