Get Ready for God: Grounded in Christian Faith
Delivered by Heather Palmer on Sunday, August 14, 2016
First Baptist Church in Newton
While I was growing up in a grimy suburb of London we attended a Baptist church two, sometimes even three, times each Sunday, and a vigorous youth group on Sunday and Monday evenings. I was baptized when I was 12 and given as my personal text words from Paul's letter to the Galatians "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ Lives in me." I learned to practice daily Bible reading - from the only translation we had - the King James Bible. To this day, when I recall Bible passages they come to me in that translation.
In high school, I joined the student-led Christian Union and shared experiences with girls from different Christian denominations. And when I got to University, I met intellectually stimulating theology, new Bible translations, and a dazzling array of Christian devotional styles and religious music. The vibrant Divinity school there was awash with the excitement of theological revolution. I joined Christian student groups and read much popular, and some formal, theology books. In my Bible reading, I learned that I should seek what the writer meant by digging into the historical context. I bought a concise Bible commentary and a Bible word dictionary. I came out of these experiences with a deep commitment and a systematic liberal theology framing my faith.
With hindsight, it was a rather intellectual framework - a faith of ideas and actions: "I believe this, therefore I will do that." But, almost as an afterthought - of course - with God's guidance.
A Framework for Belief and Action
That framework carried me through the next phase of my life. I met my husband, Philip, when he came to my medical school on a summer exchange program from his medical school in Virginia. After a long distance courtship, we married 52 years ago, and I came to the States. Our residency and fellowship training soon brought us to Boston. My daily Bible reading fell by the wayside. But we joined church activities on the social justice issues of the day – civil rights and protest against the Vietnam War.
Soon, we found ourselves in the tug of war between work and family. By the time our two kids reached elementary school, we had settled in Newton and joined First Baptist Church. We became Sunday School teachers. Philip, with his gentle patient manner, was much better at it than I was! We served on various church committees. We couldn't attend mid-week study groups at church, but I usually read the book proposed for study. We faced various crises, of course - illnesses in our family, and some serious, bruising, challenges at work. But Bible readings that we shared in church, the sense of support from our church community, and our nightly prayers guided us through some wrenching decisions.
I worried that the culture in which our kids were growing up was overtly anti-Christian. And there was no youth group at First Baptist Church in Newton. I had a Jewish friend and neighbor, with kids the same age as ours, and she explained how the Seder and other home religious practices strengthened her kids' religious identity and sense of self-worth. So, taking that example, we invented our own practice of home worship. It began with an Advent wreath. For each Sunday of Advent, we had a theme with a brief phrase to remember. After dinner, we took turns reading passages from the Bible related to the theme. And we had an activity. For instance, on the first Sunday we had the room in darkness, then each lit our candles and talked about Jesus as the light coming into the darkness that had separated us. Then we added a Lenten series.
Again, each Sunday had its activity. For instance, early in Lent we planted dead looking seeds into little pots and then watched as they sprouted as we moved toward Easter. Finally we added year round what we called "Candle-time," which we kept up until our kids left for college. Every Sunday after supper we lit our own candle, shared reading of the lectionary passages, and then went round the table asking each person "Is there anything you want to thank God for or ask God's help with?" Recently, I learned with pleasure that our kids have warm memories of this home worship.
Christianity of the Heart
By the time our kids were out of the nest, and we had reached Medicare age, that framework of systematic liberal theology was feeling a little faded and church life seemed very routine. Then, immediately after Philip retired, 13 years ago now, came the biggest and final challenge of our married life. Philip began to develop dementia complicated by neuromuscular rigidity and disturbed behavior. I threw myself into doing everything I could to support him and thought I was managing brilliantly. But after 4 years, as his illness progressed, after many nights of lost sleep and troubled days, I wiped out. I woke with a complete memory loss – I could not remember what had happened even the second before. My daughter summoned an ambulance that got me to hospital where her then fiancé met me. Our son flew in from California. And church members helped us find support services for Philip. After about 6 hours, and several diagnostic tests, but without any treatment, my memory function returned. But I knew I had exceeded my physical and emotional limits.
The intellectual framework of faith that had brought me thus far was not enough for the road ahead. With many sources of support now in place, including a couple of good angels that God sent to us, I began to get more rest, and resume physical exercise. On any given day, exercise can seem burdensome or unnecessary. But, if practiced consistently over time, it builds flexibility and strength. So, with the help of a therapist, I now began "practicing" relaxation exercises to build flexibility and strength in my handling of emotions and feelings. As with physical exercise, I learned to use these exercises even when I didn't feel I needed them. It proved easy to fit relaxation practices with Christian words and images from those stored in my mind.
I couldn’t tell of course what would happen next. God doesn't promise that we will not suffer, but does promise that God will be there to help us bear the suffering and show us the way forward. Through activities and discussions at First Baptist Church in Newton over the past few years, we are rediscovering spiritual exercises that have long existed in Christianity. Along with many of you, I find that these spiritual exercises, when practiced consistently over time, build spiritual flexibility and strength. By God's grace, as we face serious challenges, we are together going deeper into the Heart of Christianity. We are joining the Church that is emerging among the tumultuous changes that catapulted us into this century.
It is a new phase of God's relationship with us. As our reading from Isaiah said "God says 'Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. See, I am about to do a new thing'.” Those worship practices that had faded are not just to help us find Gods' guidance - they need to be revived to help us find God and God to reach us. God wants to clean out all that hinders love in us, to surround us with light so that we can see clearly and deeply, and to set us afire with love so that we can do God's work.
In his book The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg explains loving God in terms of human relationships. When we love someone, we reach out to them, we pay a lot of attention to them, and we want to be with them and share everything with them. Just so, to love God, we wake up with God, we fall asleep with God, and in between share everything with God. This doesn't cut us off from life. Instead it enriches life as we become aware of the depths where we feel God's constant love and guidance.
How does this play out in daily life? Let me give a couple of examples. During Philip’s long slow decline I had to face difficult decisions that I could not discuss with Philip as we always would have done. Nine years ago, it became clear that his large size - he was 6 foot 5 inches tall and 260 lbs. - and his increasingly severe disability made it dangerous for us to keep him at home, even with two aides coming in to dress and shower him in the shower we had installed in our dining room. As I researched skilled nursing facilities, I also prayed constantly. I learned of a facility nearby that focused on quality of life, and the empathy of its staff. As I walked for the first time into the bright entryway, I heard clearly in my head, in just the voice that Martin Luther King had used in a famous sermon, "The Promised Land.” I knew that I had found the right place. Philip was there for the remaining 6 years of his life. His illness progressed to include difficulty speaking and swallowing. But the staff, the two good angels I mentioned earlier, and other families there supported us and cared for us both. And when his life ended 2 years ago, the community of First Baptist Church in Newton was there to help us celebrate his life.
Here's another example from daily life. Philip had sudden and frightening episodes of respiratory distress and the need for continuous oxygen. By reverting to simple and ancient practices I found I could be mindful of Gods' constant presence and loving kindness. Orthodox Jews bless God many times a day as they experience God's gifts. As children we sang "Count your blessings, name them one by one, Count your blessings see what God has done." So, some evenings when I returned from visiting Philip, worried about some new downturn in his condition, I would sit down before bed and list all God's blessings for that day, and then all the worries that were disturbing me. The first list was always longer than the second. The actual writing was helpful, along with remembering the words that we read from Matthew: Jesus offers to share with us the yoke that bears the burden. Having, as it were, laid my burden before God, I found I could sleep.
I began daily Bible reading again, helped by having a daily lectionary website on my phone so wherever and whenever I can find a few minutes I can read and re-read the daily readings. On any given day, the readings may not make much impression, but every so often a passage or phrase leaps out at me as the word I need that day. So I print it out and carry it with me. Even in these early stumbling steps along this new way, I find I am learning to go below the surface of life, and get closer to those depths where we meet God. Things fall into perspective, and I find God showing me the way.
I often turn to Psalm 42, that we read this morning.
"Why are you cast down, 0 my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God.”
Hope. That word hope is everywhere in the Bible, from one end to the other. What does hope really mean? The passage we read from Romans tells us: Abraham, though he knew his body was "as good as dead", "hoped against hope" that he would become the father of many nations. But this hope was not just vague wishing-the passage goes on to say Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
I don't know what further challenges the future holds, but I do know that God will keep the promise to be with me to the end. I don't have to decide everything, or know everything now. I can trust God to show me the way. I believe the same is true for our church community. We don't know where we'll have to go, but we can be sure that God will lead us throughout our journey. ·
So now when I hear those words from Psalm 42, I no longer hear them as a cry of despair and resignation:
“Why, are you cast down O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God”
Instead I hear it in a new and unorthodox translation as a call to be prepared:
What’s the matter with you? What are you fretting about? Get ready for what God will do!