It's been many years ago now, but I still remember the scene: Just a few days before I was to start my first-year classes at Vanderbilt Divinity School, my sister and I were riding in the car together, somewhere in rural, far-western Kentucky; and she said to me, in her characteristically blunt way, "Now, when you go to seminary, I want you to figure out all this God stuff and then tell me what you believe, and I'll believe that too."
Instinctively, I knew it didn't quite work that way. Each of us must work out our own faith "with fear and trembling," we read in Philippians. But I always did what my older sister told me to do, so I set off to Nashville burdened not only with figuring out my own credo of faith, but something that might work for her as well.
What I learned upon completion of that theological degree and a subsequent one, and now nearly 25 years in Christian ministry, it's one thing to study things of God, to analyze the Holy as if it were something that we could actually dissect and "figure out" like some scientific equation and quite another to be intentional about living daily in the presence of the Holy, what that practice looks like or feels like, and how that recognition, that attention to God's presence, can be a compelling reason to get up in the morning and a cause for rejoicing, even when joy is hard to find.
I have to be honest: Sometimes when I sit down to write a sermon or craft a devotion and find myself staring at the blank, white computer screen before me, there's this cynical voice in my head--perhaps it's the voice of reason, I don't know--that reminds me that I have absolutely nothing new or wise or intelligent to offer. It happens more often than any reasonable preacher should admit out loud, especially on national radio. But, really, what is there to say about love or hope or faith that has not already been said? How do you create a new clever spin on God, so that maybe this time, people will leap to their feet, energized for the cause of justice and righteousness in gratitude for a loving Creator who has made us in her Divine image and has given us all this? Where are the words? What is there to say?
And, then, just as there are those dire, doubtful moments, there are other times in which I am absolutely convinced that the messages of love and hope and faith we proclaim in the church, or better yet, proclaim as the church, are the most important words there are: that nothing will be able to separate you from the love of God; that God so loved the world; that there is no longer Jew or Greek, or slave or free, or male or female, or this or that, but all of us are one in Christ Jesus. Oh, surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. And at such moments, I begin to see in myself the words of Paul, that though I may see things dimly sometimes, from my own limited experience or perspective, that though I know truth only in part, someday...someday. And experiences like that inspire and sustain me. And I can feel it from the top of the tallest hair on my head to the bottom of my smallest toe, that faith, hope and love really do abide, and when we can find and form the vocabulary and muster the courage, speaking about such things really has the power to change us and to change the world. It does.
I'd like to say that my mountaintop experiences happen often in worship, but not always. Sometimes these fleeting moments of certitude happen when I least expect it, in places and circumstances many would think odd. But I'll take them when they come, and they do have a way of carrying me through the rough times till the next time I will feel the rush of that Holy Spirit.
"This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel," says the Lord: "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts."
This hopeful passage in Jeremiah is spoken at a time when one would hardly expect such a definitive assurance of God's abiding presence. The time is 587 BCE, or roughly 600 years before the birth of Jesus. The Babylonians have conquered the kingdom of Judah and by force removed from them the two clearest symbols that the Jewish people had of their God: the temple in Jerusalem, destroyed, and their king, Zedekiah, taken away in chains. This doesn't seem like the appropriate time to be speaking of the nearness of God.
Have you ever had one of those days, or weeks, or years, when it seems like nothing is going in your favor? It feels like everything is stacking up against you. Whoever said bad things happen in threes was right, except when they hit you by the dozens.
And then, right there smackdab in the middle of your misery, it never fails, there's that one fellow who walks up to you and says, smugly, "But God is always faithful," and you sort of want to smack him? Because, I'm sorry, it just doesn't feel like that right now. Well, that annoying guy--he has a name. It's Jeremiah.
What Jeremiah, the prophet, wanted his people to know and remember in one of their greatest moments of destitution is that God's faithfulness remains intact, even when how we've recognized God in the past doesn't necessarily jive with our current reality. Despite our unfaithfulness, our rebellion, our violence toward one another and creation, God has not and will not abandon us. That's how good our God really is.
If you listen carefully, though, Jeremiah doesn't say that God has already written this covenant on our hearts, but instead that is what God wants and intends to do. The days are surely coming, Jeremiah says. They're on their way. We're leaning into them. This is what God desires, and it would serve us well to start living this way, with God as a guest in our house, as a guest in our hearts.
"I will put my law within them," says the Lord. "I will write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest."
There are some who read this prophecy and wonder if God's gotten a bit tired of the whole free will thing, that maybe what God has in mind is some kind of computer chip implanted in our brains so that, finally, we will have no other choice but to be faithful and obedient to God's ways. After all, that law will be within us; it will be written on our hearts. We'll all know God, it sounds like, because we won't have any other choice.
I don't buy into that interpretation. Because what God wants and has always wanted is not to control us, but to be with us, to comfort and challenge and encourage us when we need it most. Isn't that the history of our God, who desires, above all else, relationship. And isn't that our story as well? Because during the roughest times, just when every reasonable expectation would have us abandoning the idea of God altogether--like you might have expected from the Israelites back in Jeremiah's day--it seems, somehow, we cling to God all the more closely. It's almost counter-intuitive, but that is the way it works.
On a few occasions I've had the chance to worship with congregations whose beloved buildings had recently burned down, sometimes it was by accident--a lightning strike or faulty wiring--but sometimes it was under crueler circumstances, like arson. And when I've been in those situations, gathered in an elementary school gymnasium or a neighboring church's basement, under a veil of great sadness and anxiety, I've always marveled at how the congregation's singing seems genuinely more robust, their praise for God even more earnest. "How is this possible?" I think to myself. It's as if God's love really is written within them--on their hearts, you might say--and not just on the cornerstone of some now-uninhabitable, burned-out building.
The great preacher Fred Craddock used to say that he had a habit of intentionally memorizing scripture or verses of favorite hymns or inspirational lines of great literature or poetry, so that when in the middle of a sleepless night or while sitting in the hospital waiting room or when pulling up the driveway of a friend who had suddenly passed away, he could pull out those reminders and repeat them to himself and, when necessary, share them with others. Not written on little slips of paper he carried in his pockets, but written in his memory, written on his heart.
That's how God wants it to be, just that close, that natural, that easy, as near to us as our next thought, as necessary to us as our next breath. God wants to be written within us.
The laws of God have been studied, interpreted and practiced, for generations and generations. The law reveals God's loving will for humankind and God's eternal covenant with all creation, and it is holy, precious, and beautiful.
And in the life of Jesus, we discover the lengths to which God will go to write this law, this love, on our hearts, a redeeming love that shows us how bold and selfless God's love can be, a crucified love that reveals the depth of pain God will endure to reach and save us, a resurrected love that cannot be swallowed up by any temporary setback or disappointment, not even death itself, an eternal love that knows no earthly or heavenly end.
We are not alone. We are never alone. For we have a God who comes to us in human form, who intervenes in the course of human history, who reveals to us a Presence that refuses to let us go.
That is what God is writing within you. God is writing that, right now, on your heart.