This week our confirmation youth made cookies to give away.
It turns out we had more cookie dough than time to bake them so in the end, we only had time to make a delivery to one place. Off we went with two boxes overflowing with fresh, delicious chocolate chip cookies to Fire Station #3 in DeKalb.
We piled out of the cars and I walked to the entrance with six energetic middle school students. We rang the bell and waited. Pretty soon a couple of men came to the door and opened it with quizzical looks on their faces for our visit was not anticipated. They invited us in. Our kids gave them the cookies. They were appropriately, enthusiastically grateful.
So there we stood making small talk with them when one of their colleagues made his way to join the group. It turns out that as he approached, he only had in his sight line his two friends and the boxes of cookies which they held aloft for him to see. He saw the cookies, but could not see us. And he proceeded to speak aloud his excitement about those cookies with these words, speaking loudly, “Are you _______-ing kidding me?!?!?” Our kids stood there wide-eyed. I poked my head around the corner and said to him, ‘Ummmmm, we have children here.” He was, of course, appropriately mortified and apologized profusely.
We took the usual photographs with our young people and firefighters and boxes of cookies in front of the red fire engine. A few minutes later we got back in the car and one of our young people said to me, “Pastor, it’s not as though we haven’t heard that word before.” And then the one in the seat behind me who has fewer filters than many proceeded to share with us all the frequency with which this word used in her home. Addressed to her.
Now I will confess, the incident itself did make me smile for a moment. Later, I shared the story with other leaders and we rolled our eyes. And yet, as I sit with the promises before us in today’s words from John, it has me thinking about how the protection promised by the Good Shepherd can seem so very hard to come by.
My impulse the other night in the fire station was to protect our kids.
They were quick to tell me that such violent language (even used playfully or in jest) was nothing new to them. One of them shared quite transparently that in her experience, in her home, it is not used playfully and is used frequently.
And that is “just” language.
Oh, I do have to admit that such coarse language does not shock me as much as it did a generation ago, although perhaps it should.
- Even so, those moments at Station #3 got me thinking of all the things which ‘threaten’ — not only our children, but each and all of us.
- It has me going deeper into the promises of today’s Gospel where Jesus speaks the certain truth that nothing, absolutely nothing at all, can snatch us out of the Father’s hand.
- It got me wondering about just what this means for you and me and all who from time to time at least, sense ourselves to be far away form God’s protective hand.
- Indeed, what does this promised protection look like?
Certainly it does not mean that God will protect us from harsh language or from people or circumstances which would denigrate or harm.
It cannot mean that we will be immune from disease or accident, from heartbreak or dashed dreams.
No, the promise that God will not allow anything or anyone to snatch us away is not a promise that no harm will befall us or any of those God so loves. We have evidence to the contrary all around us.
At the same time, it seems to me that this is not only a promise for the hereafter, although it certainly includes that. Rather, it must be so that there is some essential quality to God ‘not letting go’ which makes a difference in this life now. Indeed, this must mean that in the midst of all that would and does stretch and pull, challenge or even harm, God’s strong benevolent hand is always, always holding us tight. Always.
I do have to say that while I do not always know what this means, but I do know it when I see it. Indeed, I am thinking now of my old friend George Nelson. Pastor George will be fondly remembered by some readers of these thoughts for he served as visitation pastor in the congregation I first was pastor. It was after I left there that he was diagnosed with the cancer which would eventually take his life.
Like you, I do not remember that many sermons, and I have virtually no newsletter articles committed to memory. This one I recall, though, and virtually word for word.
George was undergoing treatment for his cancer. He had penned a note for the newsletter, written to the people of the last congregation he would serve, thanking them for remembering him, for the ways in which they were caring for him. In part he wrote this: “In these days when days and nights are turned around and I am unable to sleep, I find myself singing the words of the old hymn…
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say It is well, it is well, with my soul.
It is well, (it is well),
With my soul, (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
If you know the story behind that beautiful hymn by Horatio Spafford, you will know the one who wrote it was beleaguered by endless tragedy. (You can find the whole story here.) My old friend, George, had also suffered his share of the same. And yet, in the battle of his life, near the end of his life, he experienced the truth and he bore witness to this truth that no one and nothing could or would ‘snatch him out of Jesus’ hand.’
And so what for you and for me? How does the truth of Jesus’ ultimate protection and care shape our every day?
It occurs to me now that maybe it begins with remembering that ‘physical health and protection’ or material wealth is not the only good God brings. And that sometimes God’s goodness and protection may not be experienced in those more physically tangible ways at all.
For perhaps we experience the truth that ‘nothing can or will snatch us from Jesus’ hand’ is known in these ways or ways like them:
- In an imagination which keeps creating even when it has been rejected too many times,
- In the ability to love again, even in the wake of heartbreak,
- In the courage to risk once more even when things didn’t work out as hoped the last time or the time before that.
- Perhaps it is in the wonder that faith does not fail us even when evidence for believing seems meager.
- Indeed, maybe it is in being given a heart which is open to the pain of the world and which keeps seeking to respond even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges…
- And maybe it is in the ability to keep singing even as suffering and death seem to be winning the day.
Whatever else may be true, I know that I have witnessed the truth of this promise in the lives of the faithful like my old friend George and in seemingly countless ways in my own.
Surely this is a promise we need to receive and to speak again and again.
For this certainty that nothing can snatch us from God’s hand?
This enables us to be and do, to risk and to grow, to love deeply and long.
It enables us to live into all God calls us to be.
And that is surely everything.
- How do you hear the promise that nothing can snatch us from God’s hand?
- How does this promise speak in the face of human suffering and loss?
- Where in your life or in the lives of others have you witness this promise come true?