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Sunday, February 4, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
As a tree torn from its soil, as a river separated from its source, the human soul wanes when detached from what is greater than itself. Without the holy, the good turns chaotic. . . . Prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy.
Abraham Joshua Heschel
What do you do when the concept of soaring in your life sounds absolutely impossible, because even walking through it feels like a laborious chore? Some of you working parents, young adult professionals, and high school students as well have expressed that you have these moments when the only thing you can do is take one hour at a time, place one foot in front of the other, and trust that life will not always be this way as you wait for the pace to slow down. As you go from one activity to another, you are just not sure you are ever going to catch up with yourself. And as you try and manage the physical and spiritual chaos the best you can, the concept of soaring in your life sounds absolutely impossible, because even just walking through it feels like a rather laborious chore.
In other conversations I have had, others of you have admitted to me that for you, life’s crazy schedule subsided years ago and, frankly, time moves too slowly now. The footsteps of little ones are long gone; the exhaustion from a productive day at work is in the past; and now you have to figure out anew who you are and what you are supposed to be about. Some have told me that getting old feels like a chore and wears you out both in body and in soul. You have accumulated so much wisdom and experience, but you find yourself grieving because, as Dr. Atul Gawande has written, “there is no particular reproducible pathway to aging. Rather, we just fall apart” (Atul Gawande, Being Mortal, p. 35). As you try and manage the physical and spiritual chaos on a daily basis, the days of soaring through your life feel long gone, and even walking through it is a chore.
Isaiah’s people, the people of Israel, lived daily in extreme moments of physical and spiritual crisis and chaos. Remember, this section of the book of Isaiah was originally written to the Jewish people exiled in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem. They had been taken captive by force and deported from the only homes they had ever known. Their holy places had all been destroyed; their bodies, their spirits, and their imaginations held captive.
But not only did they have a physical experience of exile (something with which most of us probably do not identify), they also lived with a spiritual experience of exile (perhaps something more familiar): “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.” They felt absolutely invisible to God. Their lives as tenuous as the grass, they could wither up and blow away without anyone even noticing.
Have you ever felt that invisible—so invisible that you could just disappear and no one would notice? The exiles from Israel no longer even used their energy to dream of soaring, running, through their lives. It was hard enough to walk. Most days they simply took it hour by hour, putting one foot in front of the other, fervently hoping that life was not going to stay that way forever.
As they experienced that kind of severe dislocation and chaos, the exiled Israelites began to do what we might also do in moments of crisis. They started to base their faith on what they were feeling or experiencing at that moment, rather than basing it on radical trust that God knew how to be God. They started to believe that the sum total of the human experience is what God is. They began to project their despair outwardly onto the whole cosmos and upon God, too. They felt powerless and out of control, and that led them to believe that God must be powerless and out of control, as well. They felt hidden and invisible; therefore, God must have fallen asleep on the job and simply disappeared. Since they had lost the battle and were being held captive, God too must have been defeated. The exiled Israelites did what we so often do in moments of crisis: They assumed that God was identified and defined by what they were feeling. In their chaos and deep despair, they inadvertently shrunk God down to their size.
Yet into this experience God sent the prophet Isaiah. Into their struggle, into their nihilism, into their loss of confidence in God’s ability to be God, came Isaiah’s voice and poetic suggestion. “Get outside,” Isaiah proclaimed. “Get out of the realm of the lights of Babylon and look up. Look up and see that brilliance. Look up and see that order. Look up and realize that the One who created you also created these celestial bodies, set them in their place, and calls each one by name. Not one is missing, not one. God calls them into existence and into their places in the heavens, and God calls you and God calls me into our particular places and our particular times. Look up, children of God, look up.
“And as you do, try as much as possible to doubt your doubts and to suspend your disbelief, even just for a moment, so you might remember that God is much bigger than the despair, the chaos, the physical and spiritual fatigue that you battle. Look up. Breathe deeply. You rest in this God’s hands.”
With his strong poetic call, Isaiah pled with his people to try again to ground their faith in radical trust in God’s ability to be God, rather than basing their faith primarily on what they were feeling or experiencing at any particular moment of life. God is more than a sum total of our human experience. Isaiah wanted them to look up, because he knew those upward looks could be moments of sustenance and deliverance, moments of holy perspective, moments of grace.
I learned on Thursday morning that a dear friend, a faithful member of my former Black Mountain congregation in North Carolina, died earlier this week. His name was Cal Chrisman. Cal faithfully served as the treasurer and the chair of the finance committee through most of my time there. Cal once stood tall, at about 6'4" or so. He had an MBA from Harvard, served in the Navy, and had been a force on Wall Street. Back in 1988, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He had surgery and treatment and continued to vigorously live his life.
Along the way, though, he developed rather serious complications from the cancer surgery and treatments. His back fused together, and over time he started to curl in on himself. By the time I met him, he was severely bent over, unable to look up very easily without lifting his whole torso. He lived many years in that bent-over posture. Sometime after his cancer and treatment, however, amongst the growing complications and pain, Cal realized he wanted to deepen his lifelong interest in astronomy. He felt drawn to it. Sometimes he would wake up his wife, Lisbet, at 3:00 a.m. just to get her into the car to go and see a special constellation. She’d do just about anything for him.
When they permanently moved from Bronxville, New York, to the top of a mountain outside of the small town of Black Mountain, they built an observatory on the top floor of their home and installed the most amazing telescope I had ever seen outside of a national park. Through its configuration, Cal was free to look down in order to see up. And look he did. He spent as much time gazing into the heavens as he possibly could. If it were nighttime and he was not at a church meeting, Cal was either reading or in the observatory.
I think Cal knew what Isaiah was trying to tell his people. He knew that, by looking up, he would be reminded that he existed in the very presence and care of God. By looking up, he would find a sense of sustenance and deliverance, holy perspective, moments of grace. The stars, the planets, the myriad of discoveries would testify to him by their brilliance, their orderliness, their perfection. The night sky would proclaim to him God’s mystery and grandeur. The stars would remind Cal to breathe.
I believe Cal was drawn to those upward looks for they reminded him that God was more than simply the sum of his human experience of pain and illness. Those upward looks prompted him to remember the importance of doubting his doubts and to again and again ground his faith on a radical trust in God’s ability to be God, rather than solely on what he might have been feeling or going through at that time. It was his way of traveling through every dark night of the soul that he experienced.
Charlotte Brontë traveled through her own dark night of the soul. Her sister Emily had just died, and her other sister Anne was dying of tuberculosis. In the middle of her despair, Charlotte wrote to a friend. She said, “I avoid looking forward or backward, and I try to keep looking upward. The days pass in a slow, dark march. The nights are the test. The sudden wakenings from restless sleep, the revived knowledge that one lies in her grave and another, rather than being at my side, instead is in a separate and sick bed. However, God is over all.” For Charlotte, those internal upward looks were moments of sustenance and deliverance. They reminded her to base her faith on radical trust in God’s ability to be God, rather than only on the deep grief she was experiencing during that tragic time in her life.
Isaiah, the exiles, my friend Cal, Charlotte Brontë—they all knew what we know. There can be no doubt that life is full of extremes, including moments of sheer delight and exhilaration, along with days wrestling in the Pit of Hell, dark nights of the soul. Just watch the news. Mark Twain once said, “It’s easy to be Christian when you are holding a handful of aces.” But rarely are we holding a handful of aces. Sometimes holding onto faith, or letting faith hold onto us, can be tough enough. But this is one reason we keep coming together in worship as church: so that on the days we cannot believe, someone else can hold on to our faith or on to our hope for us until we are ready to claim it again for ourselves.
Isaiah knew that kind of community was important. He also knew that under the strain and stress of human life, even youth would faint exhausted. Those who normally run through life, soar through life, will have seasons of fainting dead away. So that poet invites us not to simply look forwards or backwards but rather to look up. The poet invites us to remember that God is not defined by what we feel or don’t feel. God’s care and power is not limited by our finitude.
So when we think we can barely put one foot in front of the other, we are invited to get outside of the bright lights of crisis or chaos, physical or spiritual exhaustion, and look up. We are invited to remember that, unlike us, God is not susceptible to burn out. Unlike the way we grow weary in our faith and in our life, God never grows weary of being our God. In God’s time and in God’s mysterious way, God will give us the strength and the courage to keep on, perhaps carrying us through those moments on the wings of eagles, sustained by God’s very breath, realizations we might not have until much later.
Hearing about Cal’s death led me to think more about our time in Black Mountain, in particular about the place where we lived. Unlike Cal and Lisbet, we did not live on top of a mountain but, rather, on the side of a mountain. The driveway was very steep. There was no driving up when it snowed, that was for sure. But because we were so sharply up, the one street light on our cul-de-sac did not break through the deep darkness that would surround us at night. Although I was always scared of running into a black bear—which could have happened—I was always astounded whenever I made myself stop at night from moving from my car into our home and peer upward. I had never seen a night sky so bright. It would help me breathe.
One night, when my son was around eight or so, he and Greg arrived back home after some event. I had just finished watching the news; my mind was full of the weight of the world, the seemingly never-ending violence, the pain and fear experienced by so many. But I clearly remember my son’s voice breaking into my nightly worry fest. “Mom!” he shouted. “Come and look! I can see some planets! Come out here and look up. Do you see it? Do you see?”
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. The Lord does not faint or grow weary. The Lord’s understanding is unsearchable. The Lord gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Do you see it? Do you see?