Sometimes it is hard to know how your life fits into the larger picture, whether what you do really matters.
One of the books that I read this summer was: Geraldine Brooks’ wonderful tale People of the Book.
People of the Book is a tale of history of a Passover Haggadah, which is a Jewish manuscript read by a family retelling the story of the Exodus. What makes this book so good is that it is a mystery. A modern day archivist finds within the pages of the ancient manuscript: an insect wing, a hair, a blood spot, a salt stain.
As the book unfolds you learn about how these things got there and the people who handled this precious work through the ages. Simple people, not famous. Some were tortured and killed during the Inquisition. One rescued the book from the hand of the Nazis. One was a Muslim who protected this Jewish manuscript. The characters were just doing what they did–living their lives sometimes of quiet desperation, sometimes of dizzying elation; taking risks, just trying to survive–as they persevered in protecting a manuscript without ever getting to see how it all turned out.
This book touched me deeply and I recommend it to you.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews seeks to encourage his audience both past and present to persevere in the midst of hard times; he reminds us the great narrative of which you and I are a part. I need to hear this now and again – that my life matters, that what I am doing has value; I may not see it – but that I am a part of an unfolding story; gives me hope.
Most of us know the story of the Jews passing through the Red Sea. And we have heard of David and Samuel and Sampson and maybe some of you know about Gideon and Barak (not Obama!).
How many of you have heard of Jepthah? His is a horrible story of allowing his only daughter to be sacrificed. How does that fit in to anything? Jepthah had no idea that his story would be part of the sacred literature. His nameless daughter made a mark. I find that redemptive.
And then the author of Hebrews lists nameless people who just tried to keep the faith. And some were triumphant: conquered kingdoms, and administered justice, and obtained promises, and shut the mouths of lions – did all these magnificent things.
But then there were others who for all their faithfulness – got the short end of the stick: they suffered, were imprisoned, stoned to death, and sawn in two (!). Some, who could afford no more than animal skins, were destitute, persecuted, tormented – they wandered in deserts and lived in holes.
These folks are commended for their faith – but they didn’t receive what was promised. That is sobering.
Faith doesn’t protect us from anything and success is really not dependent on your religiosity or how good a person you are. The homeless, those struggling with mental illness, the lost and lonely are just as precious and worthy and part of the story. To God they are as important as King David.
Faith is the conviction, the trust in things unseen; clinging to the hope that there is a larger picture, that life has worth and value. It is hard sometimes to believe that.
But those who marched in the Civil Rights era had their “eye on the prize.” We are still not there. Most of us won’t see the day of a post-racial community; but we catch a glimpse of it now and again – and we draw towards it, imperfectly.
I think of the young men and women who were shot and killed essentially for being black. Do their lives matter? But in Christ, we believe that they do matter and shouldn’t be forgotten.
I think of the Native Americans, and slaves – who suffered horribly–who are part of my story. Or the immigrants who risked everything to come to these shores. And those who persevered during the Depression. And an 18-year-old from a small town in Iowa killed on the beach of Iwo Jima.
Faith is about having a world view that no matter what our eyes behold – every life is connected to something grand… Yes, your life. And so it is good to read about those in the past and to realize that we who are alive this day, are just players in an unfolding narrative and our faith tells us that despite what we see God does care and one day all will be reconciled. This is what the Bible teaches, this is the ground of our being together.
There are a lot of ways to interpret our times. But I believe that in Jesus Christ, all stories wind and bind together. Every story is important. Your story, my story is part of a larger story that started long before us and will finish sometime in the unknown future; and we must find some pleasure that we are for our time part of something… that takes faith.
A little girl’s life who died of leukemia can have a much larger impact than a person who lived to be 90 who did nothing but complain about how unfair it all is.
The wee widow wifey in the Scottish highlands who lives a simple life and never misses church; the Haitian man with the large veins in his hands who every day sweeps his front steps; a husband who gently bathes his immobile and incontinent wife; a friend who visits – these are the heroes of Hebrews, part of the unfolding story.
These are inspiring tales – makes me want to pick up my pace, or at least not feel so sorry for myself.
We read: “since God has provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”
That is a great promise – you and I, us, we, are helping to perfect the world. We share our stories, our suffering, our gladness, our riches and our poverty together in community – we may not be successful, we may indeed face many a hardship where we wonder – what good can come of this…but we press on together.
And here is the great thing: we have a pioneer who has been through it, a perfecter who creates a way for us. We have a great cloud of witnesses; a great cheering section – of those who have lived and died, triumphed and suffered, lost and won – gave examples through their lives – both positive and negative examples – of what is important and finally of ultimate value.
This is why the author of Hebrews keeps telling us “Press on!” “Don’t give up!” “It ain’t over, till it’s over.” So brush off everything that is weighing you down and get in the race again; your race – it is your race, and no one else’s – but you have company – above you and beside you and you have the example of Jesus Christ before you – whose only focus was to live a life pleasing to God, having integrity in the present, loving others, taking risks that fooled the wise – living fully into his life – enduring even the cross, disregarding its shame.
So that you and I can press on in our lives, overcoming any sin, disregarding any shame, enduring anything – whether we are famous or just a cog in the wheel, no matter the burden – claim your life.
You and I are people of the book. So press on…and add to the unfolding story of God’s grace.