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The Rev. Dr. Joanna Adams The Rev. Dr. Joanna Adams

The Rev. Dr. Joanna Adams is a retired Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor serving as Interim Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA. 

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Presbyterian Church (USA)

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Higher Ground


As Through a Glass, Darkly

1 Corinthians 13:12-13

June 14, 1998

"For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

And now faith, hope and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love."

A religious master from another religious tradition has written, "The whole of wisdom is to be found in two statements the Bible makes. 'I am what I am,' and 'Be still and know that I am God.'"

The master's respect for these two passages attests to the indispensability of the plain truth they tell. God is God, and we are not. Beyond all human tendencies to exalt ourselves, there is divine majesty beyond all assumptions about our own power to shape destiny, there is divine freedom. Behind all human claims about how vast is our knowledge, there is divine mystery.

I believe experience teaches these three things. First, there is deep meaning at the heart of human existence, the nature of which we glimpse most fully in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Secondly, if we are human, there will always be more to learn than we now know. Thirdly, there is always more going on in any given situation than we can see.

Episcopalian priest, John Claypool, tells a story from ancient China that makes this last point compellingly:

There was a farmer who owned only one horse. He depended on the horse for everything; to pull the plow, to draw the wagon. One day a bee stung the horse, and in fright the horse ran away into the mountains. The farmer searched for him but couldn't find him. His neighbors said, "We are really sorry about your bad luck in losing your horse." But the old farmer shrugged and said, "Bad luck, good luck -- who is to say?"

A week later his horse came back, accompanied by twelve wild horses, which he had obviously encountered, and the old farmer was able to corral all these fine animals. News spread throughout the village, and his neighbors came and said, "Congratulations on this bonanza out of the sky." To which the old man once again shrugged and said, "Good luck, bad luck -- who is to say?"

The only son of the farmer decided to make the most of this good fortune, so he started to break the wild horses so they could be sold and put to work in the fields. But as he attempted to do this, he got thrown from one of the horses, and his leg was broken in three places. When word of this accident spread through the village, again the neighbors came saying, "We are sorry about the bad luck of your son getting hurt." The old man shrugged and said, "Bad luck, good luck -- who is to say?"

Two weeks later a war broke out among the provinces in China. The army came through conscripting every able-bodied male under fifty. Because the son was injured, he did not have to go, and it turned out to save his life, for everyone in the village who was drafted was killed in the battle.

There is always more going on in any situation than we can see. Final judgment on the value of any event must be left to God. Because from where we sit, we are in no position to say.

There is a wonderfully vivid story from the Christian tradition that makes the point compellingly as well. It is the crisis-filled story of the sons of Jacob -- Joseph and his brothers who sold him into slavery. You remember how it was that Joseph had evoked his brothers' jealousy and they threw him in a pit and then sold him into slavery. He was taken from Canaan to Egypt, and interpreted the Pharaoh's dreams and won Pharaoh's favor and was given a position of power and authority. His brothers came to Egypt asking for food because there was a terrible famine in their homeland. Later, after the death of Jacob, the brothers, awash with regret, fell down before Joseph, the great leader of Egypt, and wept saying, "We are here as your slaves." But Joseph said, "Am I in the place of God? Though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as God is doing today." Think about it. If his brothers had not sold him into slavery, his family -- indeed, the Hebrew people -- might have perished.

Who is to say how a thing will ultimately turn out, and what effect, through the grace of God, even terrible events can have upon the future?

Think about your own life. The job that you lost. The engagement that was broken. The college application that was rejected. The journey of your life takes a different set of turns from what you had expected. But who is to say that the life you did not live would have been better than the life you are living.?

The American movie-going public was enchanted last year with the Australian pianist whose anguished early life was depicted in the movie "Shine." The son of a tyrannical father who both nurtured his son's extraordinary gifts and crushed his spirit. David Helfgott spent ten years of his young adulthood in mental institutions, gave up playing the piano entirely, until, one rainy night after his hospitalization ended, he wandered into a piano bar in Perth and was welcomed by strangers. Ever since, he has been able to manage his illness and to play the piano with exceptional skill and spirit. He once, said a reporter, "Been through hell, been through hell -- lucky to be alive -- keep smiling---keep smiling now." He even claims to enjoy riding in the traffic. "There is a pattern in the traffic," he said with delight, and "if you understand that, you can concentrate and relax. It is very important to enjoy the journey."

And so it is with life itself. There is a pattern in the events of our intersecting lives that we cannot fully see, a providence at work in apparently random happenings. The whole of wisdom is found in this simple insight, and when we can accept it, we can relax a little and enjoy the journey, letting go of those things over which we have no control, trusting that in all things God is working for good. That is not to say that God is the author of evil, illness, or misfortune. It is to say that through the power of God, out of bad things good can come. Even the dark threads of death can be woven into the fabric of divine grace and redemption. If the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord tells us anything, they tell us that.

I am taken with a contemporary translation of the 13th chapter of I Corinthians done by a spiritual theologian named Eugene Peterson. "We do not yet see things clearly. We are squinting in a fog, peering through the mist, but it will not be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright. We will see it all then, see as clearly as God sees us, knowing God as directly as God knows us. But for right now, until that completeness comes, we have three things to do. Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly."

Often couples ask me to read I Corinthians 13 at their weddings. I never try to talk them out of it, though I am aware that the ears of many of their guests have been numbed by its rich meaning by familiarity. Some of them nod off and begin to snore. I remember a fellow who yawned such a wide yawn while I was reading I Corinthians 13 that I was able to count every single filling in his head.

But there is great majesty and meaning in these words: "If I speak with the tongues of mortals and angels, but have not love, I am but a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. When I was a child, I spoke as a child; but when I became an adult, I put away childish ways, for now, we see in a glass darkly, but then we will see face to face. And now faith, hope and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love."

I like Paul's conclusion that love is of the most valuable gift the Holy Spirit can give. I like considering the possibility that at least the bride and groom will stay tuned in long enough to get to the "through the glass darkly" part. I want to remind them especially on their wedding day that there is more going on in the events of their lives than either of them can see.

Last year I went to an exhibit of the works of the great 20th-century artist, Henri Matisse. No one, especially Matisse himself, could have foreseen the direction his art took as he left behind the somber, subdued styles and tones of 19th-century art and moved toward the bold brilliance that crowned his career and began a whole new era in artistic creation. Matisse considered his masterpiece to be a Christian chapel in southern Italy, that he designed, built and furnished. He became involved in the project because of a woman who at one time had been his nurse when he was ill. Years later, she joined the Dominican order of nuns and was asked to work on the chapel. When she realized she did not know how to design a chapel, she asked Matisse for his help, and he gave that project his whole heart and energy. According to his own notes, Matisse hoped that everything in the chapel would "create a spiritual space where thought is clarified, and feeling itself is lightened."

I am wondering if the wisdom we have heard today can create a spiritual space for us in which our thoughts can be clarified and feelings lightened. We can build our lives out of the relief that comes from knowing that God is God and we do not have to be.

I close with the words that were found on a piece of paper in the pocket of a Confederate soldier over a hundred years ago, and though they have been commandeered by politicians and sentimentalists in recent years, I believe that they contain great wisdom:

"I asked God for strength, that I might achieve; I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey. I asked for health, that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things. I asked for riches, that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise. I asked for power, that I might have praise; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God. I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life; I was given life that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing that I asked for -- but everything that I had hoped for."

What an amazing thing: the things we do not know.


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