[Spoiler alert! I’m going to talk about faith today…]
A fun job that I have had really since the 1980s has been to write curriculum for the United Methodist Publishing House. I can’t begin to guess how many words and pages I have composed over just shy of 40 years, but it’s been plenty. I am currently writing a set of daily Bible devotions for adults, and today’s lesson brought me back to Isaiah 43:1-7, which in turn led me to remember the words of one of my very favorite hymns of all time – I hope it gets played at my funeral. In Isaiah, the writer quotes God in the wonderful promise of leading the Jews – and then us, in our time – as we make our way back home. The hymn is “How Firm a Foundation,” which sadly is not sung very often nowadays, as it takes a back seat to many of the more contemporary songs. Nothing wrong with most of the contemporary stuff, but for me, the root and remembrance of my faith is cemented in the words and music of many of the “golden oldies” of hymns. Just listen to the affirmation! “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in God’s excellent word! What more can He say, than to you he has said, than to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled.” Right away, we who follow the Living Christ are not let to try to just make our way through life – instead we have a true and strong foundation for all we are and all we might accomplish in this life. That would be enough, I would think, for me to find my place in the midst of God’s promise to me, no matter what happens.
And what happens comes in the next stanzas. I remember hearing this next one during the time of my father’s death. Dad had just turned 65, a little older than I am now, and I was a 36-year old pastor. It was a terrible time for our whole family, as Dad succumbed to lung cancer, right at the time when he and Mom were starting to really enjoy living in retirement and all that brought. The words, “When through the deep waters, I call thee to go…” There was no way around it – Dad was dead, and each of us had to just seem to wade through those times when it nearly felt we were drowning. Strange that God “called” us to go through that. It said a huge truth to me, that our faith doesn’t make all the terrible things in life go away, but instead, makes it possible to move through them. “The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow.” God’s promise again – we will survive this. As hard as it is. “For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.” I still shed some tears when I read or speak those words. Can it be that, in those painful, killing times, that God simply says – I will be with you – you are never going to be alone. AND, beyond that, God says, I will even bless the troubles you have heaped upon your shoulders, and in fact, in those worst moments, I, your God, will make those the holiest of times, not because of how terrible they are, but because we are in this together. Wow.
The third stanza – “When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie” – once again, our faith doesn’t keep us from the hard times, where it almost feels as though we are under siege, or under trial – but we just need to know that there are times when we have to step foot through those places where it feels like even the soles of our feet are on fire, it’s so hard. BUT – “My strength, all sufficient shall be thy supply.” So, throw whatever you want, as I live my life and encounter these just icky times of struggle – God’s strength, which is sufficient for the day, will fill me, and give me the hope and power to take another step ahead, when all I want to do is really quit.”
Beyond just giving me strength… “the flames shall not hurt thee, I only design thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.” There is meaning and purpose, even in suffering, when it feels like almost all is lost. God will use even those worst times of life to purify and refine our faith into something so valuable and strong, as we learn to just give away all the unneeded things, and to avail ourselves of God strength and God’s presence. Everything in my life has purpose. Everything brings me further along the path to a holy existence with God.
And then, the final and most powerful words yet – the strongest affirmation we can hang on to. Are you a child of God? Do you hear God’s word asking you, “Do you trust me?” Hear this final statement of power and hope: The soul that on Jesus still leans for repose, I WILL NOT, I WILL NOT desert to its foes! That soul, though all Hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.
Do you feel alone or abandoned today? Are you living a disappointed life, or feel as though your heels are being scratched and clawed on by the powers of Hell? Recall, and stand firm on that foundation, because God will never let you go. God will never forsake you, even if it feels as though you have lost everything – those things in your life are only things, and the true power, the true strength and the true incredible richness of your life will never be apart from the One who has claimed you and loves you forever. Never.
After 42 years of ministry, and singing our hymns two or three times a Sunday morning for weeks on end, especially the words of this hymn are etched on my heart – I’ll never forget them. Sure, there are many other hymns just as powerful and strong, but none more powerful for my life’s experience. Fear and dread and worry and despair must leave my life as I recall these words, and remind myself once again of God’s fond and certain love for me. Because of that honest truth, I have all that I need, and all that I want, except to love and serve God even more each day. I hope you can claim that power for your life as well, as together we walk forward into the future that is God’s.
Bless you today, and thanks for letting me “theologize” a bit.
Word for the day: lenity. Pronounced LEN-uh-tee. Not a very common word, which is a shame because it seems we could use more lenity in our world. The root of the word in Latin, lenis, which means “soft, or mild.” Lenity, in our time, is the quality of being mild, or gentle especially toward another person. It does mean softness or smoothness, but its synonym is actually “clemency.” In world that seems to be so hard-edged and demanding its rights and even revenge, lenity offers a different path, where one doesn’t have to win – one has already won by the approach you take to the world around you.
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.