“The Most Wonderful Chapter in the Bible: Groans and Glory”
The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
June 19, 2016
(VIDEO UNAVAILABLE )
Phil and I were the chaplains for Ferncliff Camp this past week. Children of all ages gathered in that beautiful spot to the west of Little Rock to swim and sing, to make s’mores, to grow closer to God, and to sweat. Yes, it was hot. I took over the duties for the day campers and led them each morning in a lesson from the book of Ruth. Early on in the week I was watching them for a while as they played. Soon I saw those 55 day campers lined up to play tug of war. I watched as they pulled and strained, as they groaned in their effort to pull that middle red flag toward their side. The teams were pretty evenly matched so it was hard work for them: one side would get momentum and then the other side would yank it back. It went on for a while.
And it made me think of our lives. So much of the time it feels like we are pulling and straining with the effort. We work and work to have a positive life, a joyful life. We make an effort so that others can have that too and then, just when we feel like we have gained some ground, we lose traction and the rope is tugged back again.
When things like the shooting in Orlando happen, there are all these reasons given that seem confusing and convoluted and never add up to a good enough reason anyway; it’s like the rope has been yanked and we’ve lost ground. When my father calls me and wants to talk about Malawi, it feels the same way. As you may know, he took me to that wonderful yet impoverished country a couple of years ago. They are not doing well there at all. So he calls me all the time and he asks me if I’ve been going to the informational websites. “Their harvest has failed,” he says to me. “They ate some of the food when it was still not ripe so now those resources are gone too. Have you been reading?” he asks. “Are you keeping up?” and I want to hang up on him. Because I haven’t been reading. I haven’t been keeping up. I have been praying but it all just feels like the rope has been yanked.
Each of us has felt it. It can come to us from news halfway around the world and it can come in the Sunday morning worship announcements when we hear that our beloved Bob Rogers has passed away. Our lives feel like a tug of war and, often, it seems like we are losing.
Paul talks about that here in Romans 8. He doesn’t mention a rope but he does mention us groaning. He says, in fact, that the whole creation is groaning. That it is straining toward a new life. And we are groaning too. We see suffering and we groan. We experience grief and we groan. We look around confused that THIS is the good world God created… and we groan. We groan in part because it is so difficult, this tug of hope and despair. And we groan precisely because we have glimpsed the glory that is to come and we are so far off it hurts.
Paul does not sugar coat how difficult this life is. He even describes how the Holy Spirit will groan for us when we are too weak to even pray; how the Spirit will intercede for us knowing that we can be too worn out to make the effort. Paul doesn’t sweep any of this under the rug. Our faith does not get us out of suffering. In fact, sometimes it puts us right into the middle of suffering.
So it is startling when he next writes, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” Really, Paul? ALL things? Shootings and starvation? Grief and genocide? Do they work for good? While these words have brought comfort to some, they have tormented many. When they are offered in a breezy manner to a grieving friend, they become an insult. When they are lifted up as the litmus test for faithfulness—i.e. if you love God enough you will only have “good working things” in your life; if that is not true, well, then, your faith must be lacking—then these words become a weapon.
I cannot fully know what Paul meant here and I don’t pretend to know the inner workings of his mind and heart but perhaps we should remember that the oldest manuscripts don’t read the line this way. The oldest manuscripts read, “In all things, God works for the good.” Well, now, that’s a little different, isn’t it? “In all things, God works for the good.” In all things, in new births, God is working for the good. In our deepest grief, God is working for the good. In senseless killings, God is there working for the good. When read this way, it changes the whole game.
So on the last day of camp this past week I had the campers do just that. I had them line up and begin their great tug of war stand off. After a minute or so of their straining and groaning, I had all of the counselors, all of the adults, move to one side of the rope. Then I had them pull again. They put in a good effort of course, that weakened side of the rope. They even kept it close for a while. But they could not stop the shift. They could not match the power of the other side. Which is just what Paul describes.
In the back and forth struggle of our lives, God is working for the good. In any given moment it may feel like we are losing ground but God is working for the good. The sides are not fairly matched at all and praise God for it! Can we see it all the time? Of course not! We get glimpses every now and then but we cannot always see it. But we can trust it. We can trust it because the one who made us and who has saved us and who has carried us this far can be trusted.
If he is, in all things working for the good, then we can trust that this tug of war match will not go on forever and it will not be lost. Which means, in the midst of this pulling and groaning, we are people of hope. And, as Paul writes, “hope in things that can always be seen is no hope at all.” In whatever struggle we face today, in whatever struggle our world faces today, God is pulling all of us toward the good. It is true. It is a promise he will keep. So have hope and wait expectantly. For the team sides are not fairly matched. No matter what, God will win. Amen.