It’s hard to believe we’re nearly halfway through the summer. Now, I know that technically summer started on June 21, so we’re only three weeks in, but to me, summer runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, basically pool season. There’s this idea of the lazy days of a summer, and yet it seems like no matter what the season, there is always so much to be done, it just changes from one kind of busy to another.
Maybe this summer, with a change of pace and routine you’ve had a chance to have some lazy days, reading by the pool. Personally, I’ve been disappointed in the few books I’ve picked up this summer, so if you have some recommendations send them my way. But I have a friend who doesn’t take that sort of chance of being disappointed and reads the last chapter of a book first, no matter what. Now this seems just terribly wrong to me. A sin almost. I’m pretty sure it was the 11th commandment, thou shalt not read the last chapter first. But then Moses had to break it off the bottom of the stones so someone wouldn’t read it first. Why bother reading the book if you already know where you’re going to end up? Now some of you may be like this, you last chapter readers, and I’ll try not to judge, but you have to admit, it changes the experience when you know what is going to happen. It’s not the same as just taking it one page at a time–starting from the beginning and plugging your way to an unknown ending, not sure exactly where you’re headed.
A few months ago, someone asked, not me directly, but almost rhetorically in my presence, what’s the difference between a Christian and a good person. Now we could go down the road of talking about salvation and what that means, but I won’t. I’m going to leave that topic for Mark, after all, I’m just a stand in today. But I also think that wasn’t really what they were asking, about some end judgment. But I think the heart of the question was more about day to day life. What is the difference that someone would notice, here and now? Someone who doesn’t even believe in God, but seeks to do good, versus those of us who serve and give as a part of and a response to our faith. Do we even look any different to the casual observer? Act different? How might someone know if we’re a follower of Jesus, or simply a good person?
After all, there are so many opportunities to do good things, and Christians don’t have a corner on the market on all of them. According to the national center for charitable statistics, there are 1.5 million non-profits, each trying to do good just in the U.S. alone. There are no shortages of opportunities to fill our lives and our schedules with. No limit to the ways we can do good. But maybe there are too many choices? Research shows that the more choices we have, the worse we are at actually acting. On Amazon there are 1,161 kinds of toilet brushes to choose from. Now with the Whole Foods acquisition, soon you’ll have thousands of choices for cage free kale delivered right to your door by drone no less. They say with too many choices, too much time is spent weighing options or considering the myriad of possibilities and ultimately we make a worse decision out of fatigue or opt out entirely. Or maybe when there’s just too much that needs to be done, where do we begin? We could run ourselves ragged trying to do all the good things that could be done. It can almost seem overwhelming sometimes when faced with all the possibilities of things that need to get done, things that you’d like to get done, and good things that should be done.
How do we find meaning and purpose while being pulled in so many directions? And how do we maintain the perseverance to hope that it’s making a difference in an ocean of need?
There’s a fish that works for 24 hours a day for a week trying to accomplish something beautiful and meaningful, trying to change his little part of the world. If he stops for more than a few seconds, he’ll fall too far behind and the current will destroy all of his efforts before he can finish. Talk about having to “just keep swimming”. This fish is pretty boring looking, only about this big, and all he has to use are his fins, but he makes a pattern of mathematical perfection. Over the course of his non-stop week, he creates this:
A beautiful pattern, perfectly symmetrical, even decorated with shells on the edges. Now, truthfully, I’ve been scuba diving, and I would not have wanted to be the first diver to come across this. Like underwater crop circles. It’s a stunning new creation, out of what seemed like empty, mostly deserted ocean floor. But it’s interesting that he doesn’t just start at the beginning and keep plugging along, hoping he makes it back to the start to close the circle in time, hoping that the circle is symmetrical. Instead, the pattern is planned from the start and he’s able to move all around the design, adding detail, fixing, reinforcing, working out of a finished product that he already sees in his, admittedly, very small brain. Every movement is part of the final design. He knows all those little additions will transform the sand into something very different, something beautiful.
So what is the difference between a Christian and a good person, on a lived-out, average Monday kind of basis? I haven’t forgotten that question. Though I could see how it’s hard to imagine that has to do with a puffer fish. My dear husband recently told me, commenting on my absentmindedness in these last weeks of pregnancy, if I ever forget that I’m pregnant, just try to start a coherent conversation, it becomes very obvious to everyone. He’s sweet. But I hadn’t forgotten.
And I actually think it has a lot to do with the puffer fish. Some of you are agreeing with my husband about the coherent thing. The amount of work needed to create this aquatic work of art could simply be overwhelming. And why bother if it could get destroyed? The day to day frustrations of current and tide and enemies could be enough to make it seem like he should just take on a smaller project, not even begin. Or he could start trying to do something and gets so off course that he never ends up making a circle, completing the pattern and just expends his energy with no result. But instead, he has this picture in his head of how it’s all going to work out, how it’s going to turn out beautifully, and it provides this steadiness, this purpose that keeps him fixed on the task ahead. It’s not plugging around the circle, hoping to get back to where he started, there’s a starting point, an anchor point to the design, as any artist is familiar with, and every action he takes stems from there. For this perfect symmetry from such a little fish, he knows the end before he begins, and it shapes his every movement.
In Paul’s letter to the Hebrews from today’s reading, he talks about a hope that goes behind the curtain. It’s not the first time that Paul, or others in the Bible have mentioned a sort of veil or curtain. We hear of it in Isaiah, the promise that God will remove the veil that is over all people and will wipe away all tears. In the temple, there is a veil that separates the Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of God’s presence, from the rest of the temple, from where the people were. A reminder that there is a separation of sort. Paul reminds readers that Jesus has allowed us to see ourselves into the Holy of Holies, the trueness of God. You remember when Jesus died, it says the veil in the temple was torn in two. The veil was broken, now able to see through. The promise of resurrection for all creation, shown in Jesus is the glimpse behind the veil. It’s seeing the last chapter. So Paul says, We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain.
I love that phrase, an anchor of the soul. I think we all have moments or days where we really feel the need for an anchor. Whether it’s to do lists or doing good or just trying to stay afloat, the soul has an anchor point, and every movement stems from there. Paul’s phrase, behind the curtain, means we get to see the design, not in full, but enough. Enough not be blown off course by the storms, enough not to be discouraged by the currents or the sheer magnitude of all that needs fixing. Enough to see that it’s beautiful. Like the puffer fish can imagine the pattern in his head before he sets to work, moving each little shell intentionally, we have the picture of a new creation. We see the end promise, that it will all come together. The Christian hope then is that this work that we do on earth is part of a beautiful tapestry, designed and ultimately brought to fruition by God himself. Through God’s gift in Jesus, and the resurrection, we’ve seen behind the curtain to the final scene, we’ve read the last chapter, and the end is beautiful. Our work in the meantime is partnering with God in that grand design, not trying to do it all ourselves.
Now I know I said I’m typically against reading the last chapter. But a life of discipleship isn’t just reading a book, it’s being part of the story, and it seems like God actually wants us to know the last chapter already for the exact reason that it does change the experience. It provides an anchor point, knowing where it’s all going. Now we don’t know how all the story lines come together. But you know that they get there. We don’t know all the pieces, but we know that ultimately they fit. And that’s this gift of hope, seeing behind the veil to the end of the story, to resurrection, new creation, It’s hope that anchors us and shapes our movements and decisions.
Hope that steadies the soul… when it’s really hard to see how all these things comes together, when it feels like we’re drifting aimlessly through an ocean of could do’s and should do’s and to-do’s. The promise that it all works out for God’s good.
Now you may still have a hard time deciding what kind of toilet brush you’re going to get, or more importantly how do spend your time and energy with so many possibilities, but you can be sure that good is not wasted. That every little action, every shell that’s added, every ridge that’s made smooth, is part of the grand design. Scholar NT Wright talks about the hope that Christians have that the good we do will last into God’s new creation. The things that are beautiful and good will be part of the grand picture of resurrection and new life. He says, “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”
So the difference, perhaps, is knowing the story. Is acting not just to try to make today a little better, it’s acting from our hope that goodness, kindness and generosity are part of the final chapter. They’re the plot lines of the story that continue. Those actions, no matter small they seem, are adding a piece to the pattern of God’s new creation. The difference, as followers of Jesus, is having our lives hooked in to the eternal story of God’s relentless pursuit of us, of God’s promise of new creation. We do this by coming together to worship, to pray, to serve, to be in God’s word, weaving the threads of our stories into God’s great story, so we are deeply anchored, whatever currents may come. It’s prayer and worship and fellowship that help us hear the voice of God, so we know that we don’t have to do everything, but that we are called to do something. Maybe we hear from God that this particular thing is what I’m calling you to do, or that particular ministry is what I’ve been preparing you for, this is how I want you to step out, our reach out, or make time. This is where your gifts and your joy will bring great fruitfulness, not by doing everything, but by listening. Or maybe it’s God saying in this season, it’s ok to say no, or to let that go. It’s purposeful engagement, at the direction of the one we follow, drawing strength from that anchor of the soul. Not working aimlessly just hoping to make a difference, but being nudged on what moves to make, because we’re connected to the one who knows the whole beautiful design.
I was recently on a boat that was looking to anchor. There were literally dozens of buoys anchored to the bottom in the area, as it was a very popular snorkeling area. But you could look as far as the horizon and not see a single one. They were almost invisible until you literally came right up upon one. Now the captain had coordinates of all these buoys to find the one we were looking for, but you could have drifted right by, been just a little off course, and not seen it at all. But instead, we were able to hook in to this buoy, this anchor, and tether ourselves to solid ground, even in great depth.
But as I said, you almost wouldn’t know it was there, even if you were looking. Now there are millions of buoys floating as signals of an anchor point in all the world’s oceans. I tried to find out how many, but apparently that is a number that can’t be found. You can find out how many toilet brushes are on amazon, but apparently some things are still a mystery even to google.
But when you think of “buoy” as a verb, it means to keep afloat.
Just a few weeks ago, my aunt died rather suddenly. Her young adult son and another one of my aunts were in the ICU waiting room, coming to terms with the fact that the outcome for his mom and her sister was not going to be a good one. I’m sure it was clear to others, not the details, but the general idea of what they were facing in those moments, but the two of them didn’t notice anyone else was in the waiting room, they really thought they were alone. Then, as they were getting up to leave, they were approached by 2 people who had been in there with them, who had seen the pain they were facing, and these people, who knew almost nothing about my aunt and my cousin with whom they were sharing a waiting room, they asked if they could pray with them. It didn’t make everything ok, and yet to hear them tell the story, somehow, it did. It brought peace in the midst of a storm. They didn’t even know these people were there with them, until they needed something to hold onto. Perfect strangers reaching out in a moment of need, keeping them afloat, when they felt they were sinking.
To my aunt and cousin as they share the story of that moment, those visitors were angels. Maybe they were, I’m not in a position to say, or maybe they were just people, because they could have been just people. But I think I know why they describe them as angels. It was a transcendent moment, one of those where those strangers lifted the veil for them, when they couldn’t see past the tears and reminded them about the end of the story. They connected them, in a time when it felt like they were drifting or drowning, straight to God, gave them an anchor once again. Through their faithful steadiness of the soul, these strangers, were able to be the buoy that pops up out of nowhere, to keep others afloat, at a time when it felt like there was nothing to hold on to. In Jesus we have this gift, this hope, of seeing behind the veil, and even in moments of great pain, to see that the end really is beautiful.
Now I can’t tell you how many buoys there are in the world. But I have a better idea of how many of us are here today. And how many of our neighbors are worshipping at their own churches, and how many followers of Jesus are worshipping around the world. Buoys, ready to help someone hook into the story of all creation, tethering someone’s heart back to the one who created them, and who holds all the broken pieces.
Like buoys, signal points, floating on the ocean, a reminder that we’ve heard the ending already. That we have the ability to reach out at the direction of the one who holds us steady, because we have this hope that anchors the soul. And that the prayer, the kind note, the hours of service, these things matter in the little moments of every day and yet they also are the things that lift the veil for someone else. Hope that that gives us courage to reach out reminding someone, maybe even a stranger, that they are not drifting or drowning but held fast by God. That even the frayed edges of their lives will be woven into a grand story. We have this hope, as an anchor for the soul; the everlasting promise that the last chapter is indeed beautiful.