The Rev. Rachel G. Hackenberg is an author, speaker, and ordained minister. Her new book, "Sacred Pause: A Creative Retreat for the Word-weary Christian," invites readers to savor familiar words of faith and thereby meet The Word afresh. Click here to read more about Rav. Hackenberg's writings.
I invite you to pause for a moment and breathe deeply. Relax your shoulders. Wiggle your toes. Test (and check) the busyness that is rattling around your brain. Tune in for a moment to your spirit.
How is your spirit? How is your living of these days? What stress did you check at the door when you came to church this morning, or did you bring it with you? What joy (or what chore) waits for you after worship? How present are you in this space?
How would you characterize your soul’s well-being? I don’t mean “What is the state of your soul for the afterlife,” because I trust that God’s grace will meet us fully there. I mean, “What is the state of your spirit – your inward self – in the mornings when you first wake, in the midday when time moves slowly, through the nights when you settle down to rest?”
I ask because the scripture readings this morning all point toward a spiritual healthiness (rolling pastures, miraculous healing, soaring praises), a state of blessedness and satisfaction that is inconsistent with the state of the world, inconsistent with the daily news, inconsistent with the bitter and vitriolic relationships between nations and groups, inconsistent even with our personal lives and our daily routines. The scripture readings paint a rosy picture of life and faith that we (or at least I) don’t perfectly embody or experience. In that juxtaposition between scripture and daily life, in that contrast between green pastures and modern war zones, between the new life that is breathed into Tabitha and the exhaustion that prompts you to hit the snooze button most mornings, it’s worth asking within that space: How are you? How is your spirit navigating its way between the assurance of God’s comfort and the tensions that demand your energy each day?
Consider your spirit through the lens of each scripture reading:
- Do you find yourself able to rest in joy as though strolling the good & right paths of Psalm 23 with a cool brook bubbling nearby… or do you find yourself pacing those same paths, frustrated by the journey?
- Is your trust in God’s voice unquestioning like sheep that follow a shepherd … or do you join those who asked Jesus in John 10, “Why do you keep us in suspense? How long must we wait for your assurance?”
- Do you have a gift for praising God without ceasing like the angels in Revelation 7 … or is your spirit struggling to sing, too choked up by the realities of pain and violence to loosen your voice in a song of praise?
- Do your heart and life overflow with care for others? Are you a kindred spirit to Tabitha from Acts 9 whose selfless support of others was the demonstration of her faith … or are you weary from your own need, longing for rest and reprieve and renewal?
And if all of this morning’s scripture readings tell stories of spiritual satisfaction, let’s pause on Acts 9 for a moment to see that blessedness in greater detail. The story of Tabitha is filled with beautiful examples of all that we Christians say we value in the life of faith:
- The commitment of Tabitha to charity and good works.
- Her faithfulness as a disciple of Jesus.
- The tender love of the Christian community in Joppa who washed her with care after she died.
- The solidarity they showed for their dear friend by sending for Peter, asking for a miracle in the midst of a heart-breaking situation.
This is how Christians should live, individually and collectively. This is what our faith should look like: good works that speak louder to the world than our words, care in community to hold and sustain a friend through the very shadows of death.
That said, maybe it reveals something about the state of my spirit that I read the story of Tabitha, of her faithful labor, of her resuscitation and I think, “Would you please just let this tired woman sleep? She has worked herself sick but still you panic when she lays down for even a moment’s rest.”
In my own context of working with ministers and churches – I’m tempted to wonder, “Why couldn’t they let Tabitha go? When she died, why didn’t someone else among that community of Christians step up to set the example of serving others? Did they think that no one else could possibly lead them as Tabitha did? Did no one else know how to make and mend clothing?”
Even if the Christians in Joppa had allowed Tabitha to rest in peace, Acts 9 would still be a story of strong community and life-renewing love. We have a complete set of readings that together tell a story of the kind of faith that lives with deep confidence and peaceful satisfaction … and I simply want to offer the possibility that this confidence and satisfaction may not be how you’re doing. At the very least, it may not be the complete picture of how you’re doing, because God’s comfort does not guarantee that we will never encounter strain or stress, hardship or heartbreak in this life. Our spirits – our everyday lives – are constantly navigating green pastures and the compost pile, the banquet table and the crowd of enemies, blissful praise and sorrowful blues, satisfaction and anxiety, confidence and severe doubt, busyness and fatigue, and life and death.
While we may not feel completely at peace or at ease in that navigation, what we know and cling to is that Christ meets us in both. And not just meets us in both, but actively invites us to see and engage both to:
- See clearly the world’s pain and to know the hope of healing;
- See death and to hold onto the possibilities of life;
- Experience a great ordeal and sing a song of thanksgiving;
- See honestly, for example, the violence of words in this current political season and to know how to listen for the Shepherd’s words of guidance;
- See the wars of nation and wealth and religion, and to know that it matters how you get up each day and show love to your neighbor who irritates you for leaving their trash cans on the street corner too long.
Christ invites us to root our spirits in an imagination that the world does not have. If your spirit is tired today, if your spirit is discouraged by the big picture of the world or by the daily minutiae in your own life, if your spirit is crying out to God for answers or weeping with pain that won’t ease, then it may seem that imagination is far off. But listen: The task of imagining something new is not your task. Your faith and your own inventiveness do not bear the burden of inspiring and generating something entirely new – that is God’s task. God’s imagination alone can look at death and see a way to new life, uproot evil and plant with a transformative blessing, hold a child’s cries, and create a day when there are no more tears.
God’s work is of holy imagination. Ours is the work of getting up and living into it.
- God has already imagined life – so we must live every breath of it. The world doesn’t need us to faint with exhaustion; it needs us to run with joy.
- God has already imagined love – we must live the fullest extent of it. The world doesn’t need our cynicism; it needs our hospitality.
- God has already imagined peace – we must extend it with every word, by every action. The world doesn’t need our biases; the world needs our self-examination and confession.
- God has already imagined goodness and mercy following you, surrounding you, undergirding you, dogging you – you must rest confidently within it and set aside the doubts that would try to tell you that you don’t deserve it. The world does not need your stress; it needs your compassion.
If there are days when you feel too weary to show compassion, let the community surround you and nourish you back to life.
If there are days when you can’t get up, know that Christ sits with you where you are.
When doubt and disbelief seem to consume you, let a friend hold your hand as a reminder that you can never be snatched away from God’s hand.
Should the shadows of death surround you, trust Jesus to plant soft green grasses beneath your feet.
In those seasons when you lose your voice and your joy and your song, believe that the angels carry on the chorus until you can join in again, singing:
“Salvation belongs to God alone! Yes – salvation and glory
and wisdom and honor and power and might
be to God forever and ever,
for in the shadow of God’s throne we are sheltered,
in the sight of God’s glory there is no more hunger or thirst,
by the Lamb who is the Shepherd, we are led step by step to living water
and God will wipe every tear from every eye.”
May God’s imagination not be lost on us, and may our spirits be comforted and confident in the knowledge of it. Amen.