The New Year - Those Who Go Through a Desolate Valley...

 The New Year  - Those who go through a desolate valley…   3 January 2021

Happy are they who dwell in your house!

Happy are the people whose strength is in you!

Those who go through a desolate valley will find it a place of springs… 

No good thing will the Lord withhold from those who walk with integrity…

Last Sunday after the service as I was leaving to go home Fr. Carey caught me.  He asked if I would be kind enough to bring the message this morning. Of course, I would be happy to. So Monday morning  I was scratching my head wondering what to say.  I received an e-mail from my daughter. She is a doctor in Conway associated with Conway Regional Hospital. She sent me a copy of a Christmas e-mail which the CEO of Conway Regional, Matthew Troup, sent to the staff of that hospital. It is an outstanding message and I want to share parts of it with you this morning.

“…When COVID first hit our stream of conscious it was called the “Novel Coronavirus.” It was invisible, came out of China, and entirely new to us…

“Reflections on COVID years from now will no doubt refer to a wake of devastation – friends and family hospitalized or deceased, businesses closed, and jobs lost. But the real story of COVID isn’t its devastation, it has been its revelation. What does COVID reveal in each of us?...

“C.S. Lewis was a British Theologian who, among other things, wrote the Narnia series, fought in World War I and lived through the birth of the Atomic age. In the 1950’s the world lived in terror of what was then the undeniable reality (to them anyway); that nuclear annihilation was pending at any moment. In an essay titled ‘In an Atomic Age,’ Lewis points out that threats to our health and well-being are as old as humanity itself:

 

“ ‘ If not disease, then invaders, or accidents, or incurable sickness. The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we’re going to be destroyed, let that destruction, when it comes, find us doing sensible and human things like praying, working, teaching, reading and listening to music. Not huddled together like frightened sheep. They may dominate our bodies, but they need not dominate our minds.’ “

“So much of the public focus on COVID has revolved around the negative.

“If we are being honest, sometimes our culture looks more like frightened sheep who are dominated by fear rather than a determined will to overcome…

“As I write, we’ve vaccinated several hundred of our staff, physicians, and first responders from within our community. Many see this as the beginning of the end of COVID – an end to our 10-month battle, having to wear masks and socially distance. We are all too ready to get this behind us and end suffering – a perfectly good and reasonable emotion to feel.

“At its fundamental level, one can have two very basic perspectives on suffering: 1) end it at all costs so that I can enjoy this life as much as possible, or 2) ponder the question of how God is using my current suffering to renew, refine, or restore me. One path is a here and now focus, the other points to a higher calling and purpose. One is limited to self, the other offers an eternal perspective…

“Appreciating the grand context of story puts us in a position to respond to challenges of life differently, they add meaning to what would be random and meaningless. A baby is born in a manger some 2,000+ years ago to relative nobody’s. Take that event in context and suddenly the story becomes much more interesting and telling: God’s people are longing for a Messiah to save them from the oppressive Roman Empire and yet they instead discover God’s mercy and self-sacrificial love instead. The world is saved, albeit in a far different manner than the Jewish people thought, and is to the benefit of Jews and Gentiles alike.

“COVID came to Conway and what did it reveal? …. I had the opportunity to round on our COVID units yesterday. I saw a staff who have stepped up and adapted to numerous challenges. Yes, they are tired, yes, they all want this to end and feel for patients alone in bed – these are normal things for any of us to feel. Yet, I’ve heard many say over the past 10 months, “I can’t imagine being anywhere else.” They know the importance and context that places them in this hospital at this time…”This is the moment for which we were made." (Esther 4:14) 

 

“I can’t imagine being anywhere else.” “This is the moment for which we have been made.”

In truth these words describe each one of us whether we would say or hope that we seek to dwell in God’s house and who find our strength in God or whether we find ourselves in a world of random happenstance and we don’t have a clue.

And yet we all have experienced it – the time – or the times -that something needed to be done – a sick child needed to be set up with – a neighbor needed some help – a friend needed a hand – and we pitched in. Why did we do it? There was something in us that told us we needed to do this. And sometimes as we did help, we wondered why am I doing this or “never again” but when it was over, we thought to ourselves I’m glad I helped – I feel good about it.

There are some who would say we do it for praise, to get a “thank you.” Yet if we are really honest with ourselves, we didn’t really think about it that much – we just saw a need and just did it. Maybe there is something to this business about being made in the image of God.

Monday I read an article in the Wall Street Journal that was sort of interesting: “The Grandparents Who Stepped Up in 2020.” The first sentence began: “Four years ago, when pregnant with twins, Kristin Rising unsuccessfully begged her parents to move close to help. When they came for a visit this summer, she didn’t have to say a word. [Quoting Mrs. Rising]” I was really at a low, exhausted. ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this state, Her Philadelphia day care [had] closed during the pandemic. “I honestly think my mom just took a look me when she got here and said, ‘Oh my God. We need to move here. My daughter is going to be crushed by this.’ “The article continued: “Overwhelmed by precarious school and child-care arrangements, working parents are turning to their own mothers and fathers for relief like never before. Grandparents are often transforming their lives to help.”

The article gave several examples including the story of another doctor who went ahead and retired, partly to help with his two small grandchildren. “now he spends four mornings a week pushing a double stroller to a local park, He misses his former colleagues, his patients and the mental stimulation of practicing medicine…But taking on the role of caregiver has been deeply fulfilling…’I feel like I’m needed…It’s as important to me as it is to the kids.”

We have gone through a year full of politics. And that is probably one of the reasons that we are glad 2020 is over.  Which is probably why 2016 also was not a good year for many people as well. 2016 is also the year “Hillbilly Elegy” by J. D. Vance came out. Some of you have probably read it. A movie based on the book has come out.

I’m slow in a lot of things so only recently did I get a copy of Vance’s book. I read several descriptions about it – a writer from the New York Times – “A compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion….” or a writer from the Washington Post – “Vance writes poignantly and personally about the many problems afflicting the white working class, including the decaying social structure: divorce, domestic violence, declining church attendance, and so on…”

I read the book anyway.

It is his story of growing up in a dysfunctional home. His experiences growing up reminded me of some of the stories I had heard from the inmates who participated in a prison ministry in which I have been involved. I live in rural Pulaski County. I pass homes daily in which I suspect such stories are not uncommon.

Vance made it out. He graduated from High School, He joined and served in the Marine Corps. He went to Ohio State. And finally, he went to Yale Law School. Today he’s married with two children. His book has sold over 2,000,000 copies. He made it out.

He credits that to his grandmother. He describes her in his book as a very colorful woman, a very plain speaking, strong woman, yet one with a great heart. She is portrayed by Glenn Close in the movie version of the book. I’m anxious to see it.

As some of you may know a friend and I have some horses. I’m getting a little too old to do much riding but I love seeing them, being around them. So, in these days as we watch more TV than usual I watch horse related shows. The other morning, I was watching a re-run of the National Finals Rodeo. One of the events is saddle bronc riding. The trick is to stay on a bucking horse for 8 seconds. Doesn’t sound like a long time. And to tell you the truth I was also thinking about what I would say to you this morning as I hadn’t finished this sermon. I was watching this guy riding this bucking horse. It was a fierce horse. He would buck so high it almost looked like he was going to start flying. But the cowboy stayed on, he made it to the 8 seconds and then the horse threw him. The cowboy got up slowly, sort of dusted himself off, then slowly limped off …

I thought to myself what a great story to close a message with – the cowboy gets up, dusts himself off, walks off, and he’s done what he needs to do.

The vaccine is real – a major miracle and blessing in itself – the boy’s life which seemed destined to never amount to much because of drugs and alcohol and hopelessness graduated from Yale Law School and has a family and a clear path to a successful life, the grandparents are pitching in and helping their families, the nurses and doctors and staff of the hospitals are on duty with devotion and dedication …

Except we are still on the bucking horse.

Except all of us are still on the bucking horse. We’ve not made it to the 8 seconds. It’s not over. We are a long way off from being through with this pandemic.

The perceptive and thoughtful hospital administrator that I quoted earlier said there are two ways to understand and deal with suffering. The first he said is just end it at all costs so we can get back to enjoying this life as much as possible. Get through it and get back to “normal” life  as soon as possible.

The second approach is to ask ourselves how is God using our present suffering to renew, refine, and restore us?

So, what do we do?

Well, if we follow the first approach we’ll just holler and scream at each other. We’re pretty good at that. Then we’ll blame so and so for this and then we will blame so and so for that. And we’ll be where we are now – and we still won’t have made it to the 8 seconds.

We have some good examples for following the second approach. J. D. Vance’s grandmother is a good example. Over her lifetime she loved and supported her grandson, encouraged him to be all that he could be, was there for him in difficult times. The grandparents in the story “The grandparents who stepped up in 2020” did in fact step up. And they are all better for it. Sometimes I read those stories in the Sports section of the local newspaper when a college signs up an outstanding high school athlete. I notice who is in the picture of the young athlete at his signing – many times there is a grandmother. Here at St. Luke’s I’ve noticed that some of the young people who assist in our services have been encouraged by their parents – and grandparents.

Our Gospel reading from Matthew today is not one of the more dramatic readings from the Gospel. We do not see the Wise Men for example, except only as they exit: “After the wise men had left…” Yet something very important is happening. An angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to take the child and his mother to Egypt. Then again, an angel appears in another dream to Joseph and tells him that it is safe to return, but to the region of Galilee. God was is at work in those days.

I think God is at work these days. I think the fact that we have a vaccine so quickly and it is already being administered to some speaks to his presence and inspiration. However, I think there are enough bureaucrats and politicians in the mix to account for whatever snafus and glitches have occurred in the distribution and administration of the vaccine.

But we will make it through.

With God’s help we will make it through.

And when we are on the other side – when we’ve all made it to the 8 seconds, I think we will say, “I can’t imagine being anywhere else. This is the moment for which we were made.” 

Amen.

Richard Robertson

 

 

 

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