There was a lovely sunrise this morning while we were driving east on Sutton Road. A large orange ball rising up through the trees.
On New Years Day 1940, when Lew was 16 years old, he and his brother tried to go ice skating. He wrote about it in his journal, “Mick and I endeavored to go skating this morning, but alas! we came home forlorn and defeated by a bitterly cold wind.” Not many 16 year old boys write like this, lyrical and poetic, but Lew did. He even spoke like that.
In my mind I hear his voice in dramatic tones saying, “I was forlorn and defeated by a bitterly cold wind.” Then he’d smile with a glimmer in his eye. That was Lew.
That day in 1940 wasn’t the only cold wind he faced in life. He braved other challenges. In his early years, he lost his mother at the age of four. In his final years he struggled with an aging body that was wearing out. Lew faced all the challenges in his life with faith, courage and determination.
Saint Paul compared the human body to a tent. He wrote, “If the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Paul actually made tents and sold them for a living. It’s how he earned his room and board. He knew from experience that even the best quality tent only had a limited lifespan. The tent would wear out and need to be replaced.
As he worked making tents, Paul had time to reflect on our life in the body. The body itself is like a tent, fragile and temporary. Paul was also a Christian immersed in life in the Spirit. He had a deep conviction in the resurrection of Christ. He believed that when our tent wears out and falls down, God has prepared a new place for us to live, a permanent structure. It’s a “house not made with hands, eternal in heaven.”
Francis Hole was a soil scientist and lifelong Quaker. He said this about bodies: “Our bodies are disposable, biodegradable containers for Spirit.” This quote fits well with Paul’s image of the body as a tent. It’s a container for something else.
In the last few years, I have watched Lew each week as he came to church. I have marveled at his determination. He always kept moving, even though everything was so difficult. Walking into a restroom, going down a hallway, coming up for communion — all of these things posed great challenges for Lew. Every place he went he had to drag along his tent that was falling down. But he faced it all with grace and perseverance. Now he’s been set free from his worn out tent. He is settling in to new accommodations. In words from Paul, what was mortal in Lew has been swallowed up by life.
Peter Kreeft, a philosopher at Boston College, says that death wears five faces. Death is a Stranger who comes to us uninvited. Death is an Enemy who steals what is precious. Death is a Friend who relieves suffering. Death is a Lover who brings us face to face with God who loves us passionately. And lastly, death is a Mother who births us into eternal life.
Lew encountered death in all of these ways. But the last face, death as Mother, intrigues me most. Lew lost his mother at the beginning of his life. He gained a new mother at the end. This last mother birthed him into an unimaginable life, beyond anything we in our tents can dream of.
Everyone knows that we all die in theory, but they seldom believe it will happen to them personally. They’re usually shocked when it does. But for each of us, our tents only stay up so long. I look forward to when what is mortal in me is swallowed up by life. I look forward to joining my dear friend Lew in the house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Amen.
[This is a church newsletter article from last month, reflecting on recent losses in our congregation.]
I miss my friends. Lew, Lois, JoAn, Kelly, Pete, Larry, Alice, and others. They’ve gone through a door that takes them to Christ. I’ll go through the same door one day. But for now, they live with Him on the other side of the door, and I live on this side. They graduated, and I stay in school. I miss my friends. I think about them every day.
My friends were a presence in my life, but now they are absent to me and present to Christ. I know them only as absence, as emptiness. Just as I start to get over one of them leaving, another goes away. It’s hard to lose a friend. It leaves a hole in the heart, and you must learn to walk around the hole.
My friends are in heaven, but where is that? If heaven is the place where God dwells, and God is everywhere, then does that mean my friends in heaven are everywhere too? It may not be possible, though, to call heaven a place at all since it’s so unlike anything we ordinarily call a place. Heaven is the not-a-place behind all places.
When John Wesley needed new faith, he sat in a home on Aldersgate Street and listened to Luther. So I have been reading Luther too. Luther points my attention back to the Gospel — to a heart with simple faith that holds onto promises. Faith has nothing else to cling to but a promise.
To a heartbroken woman whose brother had died, Christ made a promise: “Whoever believes in Me, even though they die, yet shall they live.” I trust in His promise too. Standing next to an icy cold grave, the promise seems as thin as thread, but faith tells me it’s as strong as a steel cable. Strong enough to hold me and my friends.
I trust Christ has given life to my friends who have died. He has welcomed them to His Father’s house. Christ will also give life to me one day when I walk through the door. I will see my friends again, face to face, in the not-a-place behind all places.
But for now, I simply miss them. Their absence swirls around like drifting snow, waiting for spring.
When I was four years old, our family moved to southern Nevada. I grew up in the desert. I walked through the desert each day to get to school. After school, and on weekends, I played in the desert. I was familiar with sand, lizards, and Joshua trees. I learned early to love the desert.
(After I die, you can mix a spoonful of my ashes in with the Nevada desert. The rest can go in a Memorial Garden.)
Although I grew up in a desert, I didn’t grow up in a church. After our move, we got disconnected from church. I didn’t go to Vacation Bible School or Sunday school. In my teens, we started going to church again. We attended First Presbyterian where Rev. Philips was pastor. He preached long sermons. I tried not to fall asleep. But my eyes grew heavy. Finally at the end of the sermon, he’d say three little words: “Let us pray…” At last I could close my eyes! I didn’t find God in church (at least not right away).
I found God in the mountains. Or rather, God found me in the mountains. When I was fourteen, I went to a Presbyterian youth camp in the Sierras. The camp was called Calvin Crest. I spent a week there in 1977. We sat on the floor in the lodge and sang songs. We heard speakers tell us about God and faith. We swam in the pool and played on the field. We went hiking. We had a campfire at night.
On the final night at the campfire, people came forward, one by one, threw a pinecone on the fire, and shared how they met God that week. I wasn’t one of them. I still wasn’t sure whether I believed in God or not. I was an agnostic.
The change happened next year at Calvin Crest. I can’t tell you why it was different. I don’t know why an agnostic became a believer, but that’s when it happened. We did the same things: sang songs, listened to speakers, sat around a campfire. But I changed that week. One night I left our cabin and walked out among the trees. There was a smell of pine in the air. The stars were clear. I looked up at the night sky, and suddenly I knew that God knew me. God knew me all along, but I hadn’t known this until now. God who made galaxies knew who I was, a teenage boy. It was a startling thought. John Wesley’s heart was ‘strangely warmed’ when he found faith. I just remember smiling and laughing to myself. The little laugh people use when they finally get something. That was the birth of faith in me.
Later I learned that there are reasons to believe in God. Thomas Aquinas has five of them. Blaise Pascal and C.S. Lewis also offer good reasons to believe in God. But I don’t think reasons to believe will make you believe in God. Reasons only remind you that the belief in God you have is reasonable.
After Calvin Crest, I started reading the Bible. I noticed a curious thing about how people find God in the Bible. They often find God in the desert, on a mountain, or by a lake. In other words, they find God outdoors, like I found God at Calvin Crest. You can find God indoors too. But we often bump into God out in God’s creation. John Calvin said nature is a theater of God’s glory. It’s a theater where the play is always going on.
Some of you have found faith. You can point to a time in your life when faith appeared. Others have not yet found faith. Still others have walked through pain and sorrow and wonder if they have lost their faith. Everyone is in a unique place in their life of faith.
To anyone who needs a new faith, I’d say ask for faith. And put yourself in a place where faith can appear. Jesus said, “Ask, and it shall be given you. Seek, and you shall find.” Just by going to Calvin Crest 36 years ago, I was seeking God. And much to my surprise, I was found by the One who had been seeking me all along.
I need a new purpose. For the last few months I’ve struggled to understand what my purpose is at my church anymore. To help discover a new purpose, I’ve decided to read Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life. I have read a few chapters in it but not the whole thing. It’s one of the best selling books of all time. I have great respect for Rick and Kay Warren, in particular their humanitarian work around the world, as well as the noble and vulnerable way they handled their son’s suicide.
I like how it begins. “It’s not about you.” True, it’s not about me. It’s about God and God’s purposes for my life. Warren makes a distinction between speculation about our life’s purpose and revelation of our life’s purpose. He ends with Christ, as he concludes chapter one. He quotes Ephesians 1:11 in The Message: “It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for.” My new purpose, whatever it is, will be grounded in Christ; and it will emerge, I trust, from a living and interactive relationship with Christ.
It’s been three months since the Awful Week. Still here. I’ve been reading Luther a lot, getting reacquainted with the gospel of Christ. I’m reading John’s Gospel a lot too. There is a sweetness, a comfort, in John’s portrait of Jesus that I had not noticed before. It is food for the soul, rich and nourishing. I’ve been feeding on Paul’s letters too quite a bit. And I keep using the Prayer Book for Earnest Christians, a collection of old Anabaptist prayers — there is something in the language in these prayers that speaks to the heart, to my heart. I write them out to put them in my phone and have them readily available. Here is another, this one a prayer to Christ.
O most gracious and compassionate Lord Jesus Christ, rich in love. Most gentle, humble, patient Lord. What a beautiful example of a holy life, rich in virtue, you have provided for us. Now we are to follow in your footsteps.
You are an unspotted mirror of all virtue, a perfect example of salvation, a faultless standard of faithfulness, a sure plumb line of righteousness. How absolutely my sinful life contrasts with your holy life.
Although I am to live in you as a new creature, I am living rather in the old creation, in Adam, instead of in you, my dear Lord Jesus Christ. I ought to live according to the Spirit, but sadly, I am living according to the flesh, and I know that scripture says, If you live according to the flesh, you will die.
O you compassionate, patient, long-suffering Lord, forgive me my sins, cover up my defects, overlook my misdeeds, and close your holy, tender eyes to my impurity. Cast me not away from your presence. Do not expel me from your house as one who is impure and a leper. From my heart remove all pride, which is the devil’s weed. Plant in me your humility as the root and foundation of virtue. Root out every bit of vengeance, and grant me your great gentleness. O you highest jewel of all virtue, beautify my heart with pure faith, with fervent love, with living hope, with holy devotion, with childlike awe.
O my sole refuge, my love, and my hope, my honor, my jewel, your life has been nothing but love, gentleness, and humility.
Therefore, allow your noble life to be in me too. May your virtuous life also be my life. Let me be one spirit, one body, and one soul with you, that I may live in you, and you in me. May you live in me, and not I in myself. Grant that I might so acknowledge and love you, that I may walk just as you have walked.
If you are my light, then shine in me. If you are my life, then live in me. If you are my jewel, then adorn me with beauty. If you are my joy, then rejoice in me. If I am your dwelling place, then take full possession of me. May I totally be your instrument, that my body, my soul, and my spirit may be holy.
You, Eternal Way, lead me. You, Eternal Truth, teach me. You, Eternal Life, revive me. Keep me from being the instrument of an evil spirit, that through me and in me, he does not exercise and carry out his evil, his lies, arrogance, greed, wrath, and filthiness. For such is the image of Satan, from which you want to save me, O beautiful, perfect image of God.
Instead, each day renew my body, spirit, and soul after your image, until I am perfect. Let me die to the world that I may live unto you. Let me rise with you that I may ascend heavenward with you. Let me be crucified with you, that I may come to you and enter into your glory. Amen.
Another from the Prayer Book for Earnest Christians, with a few alterations.
Just as I, O heavenly Father, have committed myself to calling upon your holy name, so also look upon me with the eyes of your mercy. Incline your ears, open your generous hands, and give me a cleansed and obedient heart, that I may lift it up to you, O God in heaven.
There at your right hand I have my Redeemer and Savior, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. For my justification he ascended into heaven, where I cannot yet follow him bodily as I inhabit this dwelling. But he has comforted me and given me the firm promise that what I ask of you in his name, you will grant and give.
I acknowledge my powerlessness and nothingness. So I come before you, dear Father, and pray that you will give me a steadfast and firm confidence in my heart, so I may be able to hear, examine, and comprehend your truth. May you keep me firm and immovable, as you have promised through your Son.
O Lord, seal this truth in my heart. Yes, dear God, strengthen my confidence and enable me to fathom how deeply you love the human race, to which you are so inclined and willing to give every good gift. May I firmly trust your almighty power, for I know that you, O God, make no promises that you cannot abundantly fulfill. Since you desire my well-being even more than I do, grant me not to look upon my unworthiness, but only upon your kindness, goodness, truth, and unlimited power.
Because I ought to call upon you with confidence, O God, free my heart of vain and deadly thoughts and desires so that no unrighteousness will be found there. May I ask and desire only what is pleasing to you, to your praise, and for the salvation of my soul.
To that end, make my heart lowly and humble, so that my prayers do not come back to me empty, but that they may pierce through the clouds to you, O God. Grant me also a heart that willingly forgives my neighbor without nursing any desire for revenge.
I also ask you to give me a deep desire and inclination of heart, and a sweet and reverent nature to call upon you as my Father, O God, with childlike love. I address you in the name of your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, whose power is strong and mighty. You love him so dearly that you cannot refuse what I pray in his name. He removes from me, O God, whatever is displeasing to you. He prepares life and grace for me. He is my intercessor and prays for me.
I therefore ask you in his name for the remission and pardon of my sins. Lord, forgive me my sins in the name of your dear Son, Jesus Christ.
You are my God and Creator, who has given me breath and life. So direct the ordering of my life for eternal salvation. For all my works, deeds, and undertakings are in your hands. O Lord, direct them according to your divine pleasure; I commit them into your almighty hand.
However, O God, like the earth without rain and dew, I too am unfruitful without your favor and grace, and must perish and dry up. Shower and moisten me with your heavenly dew, rain, and favor; prepare me to bear fruit. This I also ask, dear Father, in Jesus’ name.
You alone are wise. Not only do you live in the light, but you yourself are the eternal light. I am living here in this dark, blind world; so enlighten me, O God, with your divine wisdom, which is a co-worker of your throne. Send down your wisdom from your holy heaven and the throne of your glory, to be with me and work with me, so I may know what is pleasing to you. Without this gift, O God, I cannot please you. For this wisdom, Lord, I also ask in the name of your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, in whom are hidden all the riches of wisdom and knowledge.
Since I am now burdened with all kinds of anxieties, I pray to you with King David: Lord, show me your face, and I shall be made well, that I may look upon you and live (Psalm 80.3). For there rests my salvation and eternal life. All the saints and your elect possess and enjoy that goodness. Let me also enjoy and share in this, in the name of Jesus Christ your Son, who taught us to pray. Grant that I may speak in spirit and in truth as I say, “Our Father…”