Paul’s Hallmark Card
by Michael UseyRomans 8:18-28 NIV
How do we live with life’s loose ends? Do you know what I’m talking about? Relationships that have gotten messed up, and you don’t know how to make them right again. A failure that haunts you. You want some closure, but closure seems impossible. How do we live with loose ends?
One of our long-time members, Mary Ann Stone, died in her sleep Sunday night. Her grandson, Stephen, discovered her Monday morning. Her adult daughter, who grew up here at College Park, left 20 years ago because of our acceptance of LGBTQ folk–she did not call to tell me of MA’s death; despite me calling her several times–her son answered her phone. I reached out to her several times, but never got to speak to her.
They had the funeral Thursday afternoon at her daughter’s church; there were only three of us from CP present. There was no mention of Mary Ann’s over 60-year membership here at College Park in the obituary, nor was any mention of it made in the funeral–which was conducted by her daughter’s associate pastor, a woman who had met Mary Ann exactly once (she said so).
Now I humbly say we give really good funeral here–with a full array of ministers, photos, good liturgy, music, and thoughtful memoirs. We have held wonderful funerals for Maston, her husband, and Cynthia, her daughter. Mary Ann’s grandsons Stephen and Philip went through our youth group, and MA’s adult daughter knows I am still quite involved in their lives. When David her brother was on trial, I was with them in the courthouse daily. Her own two sons, John and Benjamin, are both Eagle scouts like my sons, and John and my Zach hiked the 100 mile trek in Philmont together once summer. I would never out anyone, but her family should have stayed at College Park, since they could have benefitted from a welcoming and affirming LGBTQ church.
So what happened? How and why did we get the cold shoulder? I know that we’ve all been ghosted. On the one hand, a funeral here takes a lot of work, and makes for a difficult week, so I didn’t mind terribly, or take it personally. On the other hand, everyone here loved Mary Ann deeply: she was smart, funny, extremely giving, and was surprisingly direct. I loved her; so did people here who knew her. It was hard not to say good-bye. The hardest thing about being a pastor is not the hours, the pay, or the criticisms; it is the unresolved relationships, exactly like this loose end.
Eckhart Tolle has become a famous writer teaching us how to live in the now. There is wisdom here. We can become preoccupied with the past, especially past mistakes, and we can be fearfully preoccupied with what the future may bring. But we need more than the now. The “now” has its own blinders.
There is an ancient Chinese story which teaches this lesson. There was a farmer who had worked his fields for many years. One day his horse ran away. It was his one horse, vital to his life and livelihood. Days passed, and his horse did not return. Upon hearing the news his neighbors came and tried to express their sympathy. “Such bad luck”, they said. “We’ll see,” the farmer said.
The day after the horse returned, bringing two wild stallions with him. The neighbors returned. “Such good luck!” they exclaimed. “We’ll see,” said the farmer.
The next day the farmer’s son tried to train one of the wild horses, was thrown off and broke his leg. The neighbors returned. “Such bad luck”, they said with true sympathy. “We’ll see,” said the farmer.
A few days later military officers came to the village to draft young men to fight in a war. It was a terrible war, and many young men never returned. Seeing that the farmer’s son had a broken leg, they passed him by. “Such good luck!” cried the neighbors. “We’ll see”, said the farmer.
We never know what the present fortunes of our lives will bring. But those with long-sight help us live with faith and in the faithfulness of God. Paul said it this way in our passage for this morning:
In all things [the good and the bad] we know that God is working for good with those who love God, who are called according to God’s purposes.
More about that verse in a minute. These are anxious times—for our nation, for our planet and for our households. We wonder if the center will hold. We feel like the character in Green Pastures: “Everything nailed down is coming loose.” But those with the long-sight of faith can help us. Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps America’s greatest theologian, wrote these words:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone. Therefore we are saved by love.
Here is what some have called the prayer of relinquishment: we offer to God what we cannot manage ourselves. We let go. Sometimes faith means holding on, holding on to what is good and true. But other times faith is letting go, letting go of what is damaging you, no longer bringing life but something closer to death. Anne Lamott has spoken to our human condition as a child of God: “We are so ruined and so loved, and in charge of so little.”
The apostle Paul prayed to be delivered of his “thorn in the flesh”, prayed and prayed, but was not delivered. Instead God came to him with these words: My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor 12:8) Grace that is sufficient can come when we suffer life’s trials.
I read an article recently that defined religion as a right relation to reality. The reality that is, not reality as I wish it would be. In an essay on marriage Wendell Berry writes words that can apply to all of life:
Some wishes cannot succeed; some victories cannot be won; some loneliness is incorrigible. But there is relief and freedom in knowing what is real.
Sometimes we have to live with loose ends, with what is real, and live in hope that someday, if not in this life then in the world to come, things will be mended and made right. We want closure, but what if closure is not possible? Not now.
Sometimes winning a battle is not worth the cost. Sometimes winning itself is a kind of defeat. Sometimes winning an argument is just not worth it. We demand to have the last word, but the last word never makes anything better. Do you want to be right or do you want to be free?
Jesus said when people refuse to receive you and reject you, shake the dust off your feet and move on. When you suffer your own failure and defeat, shake the dust off your sandals and move on. Shaking Off the Dust is an act of letting go of what you cannot fix, of moving on and offering those who have harmed or rejected you into better hands than yours, God’s Hands. It can be a freeing act, and it is an act of trust: We are in good Hands, all of us.
So let’s consider what it means to live in the good hands of God. Faith at its deepest is not an accumulation of beliefs but trust in the goodness of God, in what Brother David Stendle-Rast calls, the faithfulness at the heart of things.
Two verses that point here. The first is God’s word through Jeremiah given to the Hebrew people languishing in Babylonian captivity, which we looked at a few weeks ago in our summer series:
For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not your harm, to give you a future and a hope. (Jer 29:11)
As I said to you, I don’t believe that the plans of God are fixed, but rather are constantly in process moving to the final goal of our well-being and the well-being of the world. A river diverted will still find its way to the sea.
God is not like a Watchmaker in the sky who has designed the world as a time clock, then stepped out of it to watch it run. God is more like a Chess master, who watches all that is happening and makes the right moves to achieve the final victory. God is the Great Improviser who works with us in all circumstances of life for the good.
Which leads to our focus verse, Romans 8:28: In all things, we know that God is working for good with those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.
Romans 8:28 is the great encourager, the feel-good greeting card of scriptures. Taking it by itself (which is a mistake, as we know by now), it seems to guarantee the prosperity of all who love God. We’re starting to see a pattern with these misused verses—they’re focused on us, on our prosperity, on giving us strength, and on our personal good. God loves us all, unconditionally and eternally, and loves to bless us, but God also doesn’t guarantee that our lives will be easy or filled with plenty. This is because we live in a fallen world, and until Jesus returns to redeem creation, bad things happen to everyone all the time, even to good people.
In English there are two general ways this verse gets translated. The first is this: God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God. While the second manner of translation is this: In all things, God is working for the good of those who love God.
In the first translation, some misread it as “If a person loves God, and is called by God, then every single thing that happens to that person is for their own good.” In other words, no matter what events happen to that person, all of those events are actually good things for them. People who misread this verse think this is because God is explicitly controlling every single event that happens to that person.
There are of course extremely heinous crimes that occur in the world – murder, rape, kidnapping, torture, war – and in many cases, the victims of those crimes are people who are sincerely trying to follow God. God is not controlling every single event that happens to God’s followers. If that were the case, then that means that God is forcing people to murder, rape, and kidnap. This first translation is not a good one, in my opinion.
On the other hand, the second translation has this to say about Romans 8:28: “If a person loves God, and is called by God, then everything that God does to that person is for their own good.” In other words, God is always at work with that person for their own good. However, this does not mean that every single event that happens to that person is necessarily good – because many of those events are not caused by God at all. We are all free moral agents. Clearly God is not controlling every event that occurs on the earth today. As 1 John 5:19 testifies, “the whole world is lying in the power of the evil one.” Also, Jesus tells us to pray that “God’s will be done on the earth, as it is in heaven”. If God’s will were already being done on the earth, then why would we have to pray for it?
In everything, the good and the bad, the best of times and the worst of times, for our good and for the good of the world. I think Paul means that evil and pain is never the will of God, but God can take evil and pain and use it for good. Over and over again in life we see this. When evil attacks with pain, God uses it to build character. When evil shows resistance, God uses it to build strength. When evil cripples with tragedy, God finds a way to victory. When evil destroys with death, God restores life. God is in the transforming business. God can turn trouble into triumph.
Corrie Ten Boom who helped many Jews escape the Nazi death camps used this image. A woman doing needlework has the beautiful design side to her face, but if you turn it around all you see are loose threads. We may not see the good God is working out, the good might not appear for a while, but God is at work for the good, your good, and the good of the world. All we might see are the loose threads, not the design in progress. But God is at work for what is good, beautiful and true.
Let’s look at the life of Christ who, more than anyone else I know, embodied the goodness, beauty, and truth of God. We might have expected the world to follow, and all be well. But he was rejected, executed by the powers -that-be, nailed to a tree to suffer the humiliating death of the cross.
On the night before, he knew what was coming. He prayed to his Abba: “All things are possible to you; remove this cup,” was his agonized plea. But then came his prayer of relinquishment, the relinquishment of his life into the hands of God: “Not my will, but yours be done.” Trusting in the goodness of God he called Abba.
Then, the next day on the cross we hear these final words: “Abba, into your hands I commit my spirit.” The prayer of relinquishment. He was quoting Psalm 31. It’s a Psalm meant to be read at evening. I have heard that in Jesus’ day these words were the bedtime prayer of Hebrew boys and girls. The cross was not the end of the story of Jesus. On the third day, God raised him from death. The Resurrection was the finish and fulfilment of Jesus’ life.
John Ruskin, the famous 19th century British art critic, wrote about an artist finishing a painting. He said, the artist does not finish it, not perfectly. The painting is finished by God, in God. “God alone can finish.” In the end we do not finish the story of our lives; God does. And God will redeem all our loose ends in the Final Healing in God’s good hands. Grace is gathering the loose ends, mending and making things right. We cannot do it on our own. Here grace comes, like the morning light.
The mystic Julian of Norwich was given visions from God, which she called Showings. Perhaps this is her most well-known saying: Sin is part of our human life, but All shall be well and all shall be well, All manner of things shall be well.
Later in his life the great preacher and my Emory professor Fred Craddock said, “This is what I want most: ‘To live simply, to love generously, to speak truthfully, and leave the rest to God.’”
So, in the meantime of your life, before God finishes your story and gathers up all the loose ends, do your best—the best you can and the best you know—and leave the rest to God.
And when you’ve not done your best? When you are haunted by the past and anxious about the future? The same applies: Do the best you can and the best you know, and leave the rest to God.