Nine years ago September, Maureen and I arrived in Syracuse with our two daughters Chelesea and Kayleigh to begin our ministry here among you. The first few weeks after our arrival are but a blur. As with any move, there were the countless hours spent unpacking boxes as we settled into the rectory. Then there was the constant stream of new faces and names to learn. And all was embraced in the euphoria that comes with the business of settling into a new job and a new location.
Then, three weeks after my arrival was the annual, two night clergy conference. While in Boston, I always looked forward to the clergy conference. These conferences gathered over three hundred clergy from all over the diocese. I was close to many of the members of my fresh start group and those with whom I was ordained. Despite the long days of meetings and seminars, the Boston clergy conferences were times of celebration and camaraderie.
In Central New York, clergy conferences are a little different. That year was the last year the conference was held in the tired and deteriorating buildings of Thornfield. Getting there was a challenge. After reading the direction, I was convinced, I was being made part of a hazing rite in which meetings are held in remote locations. The test. . .to see if the neophyte can get there without getting lost or winding up in Canada. Thanks to Audrey Lunson, I found Thornfield with little problem. As I walked into the chapel, the reality of the move set in. There were no familiar faces, there were only what felt like a hand full of clergy present, and mostly much older. It was in that moment that I realized I wasn’t in Boston anymore, I was now hours away from extended family and friends, and somehow, I was now the rector of a congregation deeply in debt with what felt like no way out. I was, to say the least, feeling very much alone and isolated from all that was familiar, and very overwhelmed.
In this morning’s reading from Isaiah, the audience to whom Isaiah is speaking in many ways felt what I was feeling. The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, once the the centers of the great unified Davidic Kingdom lay in ruins under the foreign rule of Babylon. The proud people and Children of Israel were now dispersed throughout the empire as a way to keep all the countries of the empire unified and loyal to the emperor. It was a time of hopelessness and despair as the Children of Israel wondered if they had been abandoned by God or if they would ever be allowed to return to their homeland. As I put myself into this scene, I can almost hear people lamenting the familiar words of the Psalmist, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me and seem so far from my cry.”
It is in the midst of this time of spiritual hopelessness and desolation that words of divine comfort come to Isaiah, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name and you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you, for I am the Lord your God, the Holy one of Israel, your Savior.”
As I reflect on this portion of Israel’s story, I realize no matter who we are or how special we may feel our relationship with God may be, there are periods of desolation. In fact, my spiritual director will often ask me where I am in my journey; consolation or desolation. In the writings of the medieval mystics there is found the concept of the dark night of the soul. These are moments in every persons’ journey when suddenly it feels as if God is no longer present. In the published papers of Mother Theresa we learn that even she struggled with long periods of dark night.
I believe it is very difficult for us as modern people to endure periods of desolation in our lives. In a culture that emphasizes instant gratification, it is hard to believe there is a need to struggle with anything. After all, our media tells us there are very few problems or relationship issues that cannot be resolved in an hour or two. And, the pharmaceutical industry wants us to believe no matter what the issue, be it physical or emotional, there is a magic pill that can and will take care of the problem.
But journeying with God is different. Very little of our journey is about instant gratification. Our relationship with the divine is most often revealed over the long term and not in the short term. And those periods of desolation and darkness are the times when we are called to trust in that which we cannot see or feel.
As I hear the words of God telling the Children of Israel not to be afraid, I realize the message came at what was most likely one of the darkest points in the history of Israel. It is during this same time that Ezekial describes his vision of seeing the bones of the dead come back to life. The dead were a metaphor for Israel and his vision indicates how hopeless the Children of Israel understood their reality to be.
It seems that the word of God comes to us in our most desperate moments. . when we truly believe all is lost. I believe this is true because it is in our moments of total darkness, that we are most vulnerable and most able to hear the voice of God and experience God’s grace.
In the case of Isaiah, the Children of Israel are assured that despite their time of desolation and despair, God has not abandoned them, that Yahweh is still with them, and they are still very much loved by God. They are also told, no matter what trials or tribulations may befall them, God is constantly with them and all will work out.
As I think back to that first clergy conference here in Central New York, there was that moment of grace that came in the midst of my sense of feeling overwhelmed and alone. And no, it did not come in the form of a white robed prophet yelling from the mountain top. Instead, it came in the form of an afternoon meditation. I can’t remember what was said, but I can remember that the words came from our friend Renee Tembeckjian years before she considered ordination. Again, I cannot remember what she said, but her words connected and I realized I was not alone, and did not need to be afraid for God was truly with me and would continue journeying through the highs and lows that would inevitable come.
As I look back over our nearly nine and a half years together, there is no doubt we have shared some amazing and spirit filled moments when there was no doubt God was truly present and it felt as if nothing but smooth sailing was before us. And as with any relationship, there have been the dark moments as well, when frustration and hurt has washed over us. In those rare moments, when it has felt as if Maureen and I could not stay on here any longer, there have always been those moments of grace in the darkness that have told me that God is still in this. They have come in ways that one would expect, in an unexpected thank you note for something I hadn’t given a second thought to. Or, when someone walks into the office offering an idea that can move us forward. These moments of grace have come at the oddest of times as well. Like when sitting by the bed of one who is dying and you know this is the last time we will be together on this earth, and the words “love you” are shared. Yes, it has been in those moments of darkness and grief, that like the Children of Israel, I too have heard God say, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name and you are mine.” and known the darkness of the moment will pass.
As I reflect on this morning’s reading from Isaiah, I realize our journeys with God are rarely easy, that in every life there are moments of both elation and desolation. It is however in those moments of desolation, when we feel we are barely able to hold on to God that grace abounds as the voice of God tell us not to be afraid, for we are God’s, and God as always. . . will continue to journey with us.