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Blessed Beginnings: A Reflection on Courage and Hope

By Dr. Kelly Johnson

"But you, Israel, my servant
Jacob, whom I have chosen, 
Offspring of Abraham my friend - 
You whom I have taken from the ends of the earth and summoned from its far-off places, you whom I have called my servant, whom I have chosen and will not cast off -
Fear not, I am with you
Be not dismayed, I am your God
I will strengthen you, and help you
And uphold you with my right hand of justice."
                                                                 Isaiah 41: 8-10 

It’s been a hard summer. If you’ll pardon my saying so, right at the beginning of a reflection that’s supposed to be about hope and courage, I think we’re in trouble.  It’s good to be together in this place, at such a moment. The stories that have been read and preached and sung for generations in this space are often about being in trouble. Who we are at this moment is not at all out of place here.

Our reading from Isaiah is thought to have been written while Israel was in exile in Babylon. Their homeland had been conquered, overrun by enemies. Most of those who survived were taken into captivity. The temple, God’s dwelling place with them, was desecrated and destroyed. So as the prophet is speaking to a people who are fragile. We could say they are traumatized, wounded by helplessness in the face of violence.  It’s a terrible moment for them. Who are they now?  Is there any point anymore?

And the prophet whose words we just heard tells them, “This is a good time to be alive. This is a good time for you to be here.”  The old story about the God who saved Israel from slavery in Egypt, who fed them in the wilderness, that story isn’t over. It’s still going on, he says, in this generation facing such loss. God says to them, “I have called you together. You are mine.” They’re in trouble, but being in trouble seems in scripture to be a particularly good moment for rediscovering who they are, which is to say whose they are. 

Right here, right now, this is a good time for us to be here, in something like that same way-- which is to say, it’s a terrible time. We live in a moment of constant, sometimes calculated, sometimes frenzied, seemingly unstoppable violence. 

  • violence to the planet, with changing patterns that are damaging the lives of humans and other creatures at an alarming rate;
  • violence of war and rumors of war around the world;
  • violence in our political culture;
  • violence among citizens, against immigrants and refugees, violence brandished as a mark of masculinity;
  • a fast, loud violence in speech;
  • And the long, quiet violence of low wages, poor access to healthcare, and underfunded schools.

None of this is distant from us here.  These past few months in Dayton, we have felt  this, some of us more personally, but I expect that all of us have been touched. People are in pain, including some of us right here, right now.

It’s a good time for us to be called by God to be a university community. This place exists for costly truthfulness, and a moment like this pushes us to face uncomfortable truths: we are mortal, frail bodies that can be hurt. We are creatures dependent on the earth and each other. We cannot keep ourselves and our children safe. For some of us, that’s not a new horror. For others, it comes as more of a shock.

It’s a time for facing some deep questions. Can human beings live together without violence? Given our mortality, what is the point of humanity anyway? Deep questions, even or maybe especially disturbing questions remind us of our calling as a university. It’s our privilege and our duty to try to answer those questions, here and now, as best we can, uncertain, shaken as we are.

Here’s what Isaiah is saying to us: This is a good time to be alive. This is a good time for us to be here.

The recognition of our mortality and the limits of what our expertise and accomplishments makes for a dangerous moment. This is a moment that could cause us to despair or to hide in some new illusions or to lash out in rage. But it doesn’t have to be that way because the deepest truth that such a moment invites us to recognize is this: God is with us.  This is a good time for us to be here.

Saying God is with us is no guarantee that we won’t suffer. It’s not a promise that we will get what we want, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we will be right and good. We are all of us fallible, damaged creatures.

“God is with us” means that God is not someplace above, away from tornadoes and refugees and white supremacists and thirty-two seconds of gunfire. The Christian story is that God, the source of all life, enters into the world and doesn't leave when it gets ugly. This is the triumph of the cross: God stays in love with humanity, even there, in defeat, brutality, helplessness.  Our violence and our suffering are now part of the story of what God has been and still is doing. So our good work for justice, for truth, in this terrible moment doesn’t have to be done in panic or despair or rage. The source of all life is in this with us.


"Oh my God, you alone can fill my heart.
Just a word in passing, dear friend, for I am rushed.
I had a lengthy discussion about our cher project with your dear sister. Now that I am free, this can be realized shortly if everything can be arranged.  Pray fervently for enlightenment by the Holy Spirit, so that we act only accordingly to the designs of God and according to his will, should we even have to give up our own preferences.  It is God whom we must seek, and whom we must please.
Let us repeat with St. paul, “Lord, what would you have me do?” or with Samuel, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”  he will surely allow his quiet voice to be heard.
Courage, for we shall not be working alone.  The Lord will be working with us; and with him, what can we not do?
Dear friend, please provide me with two yards of imitation gold lame braid, two fingers wide.  A thousand pardons for your trouble. Charles is getting over his cold. Farewell. All yours in Jesus Christ."
                                                                                                                                                                              Adele’s letter, June 28, 1815
                                                                                                                              

Blessed Adele was born into a time of political violence, during the French Revolution. When she wrote the letter we just heard, Napoleon had just been defeated at Waterloo. And when she says in that letter that she is now ‘free,’ she doesn’t mean that her troubles are over. What she means is that she is now free to get into trouble: she is about to give up her inheritance, her home, her security, to enter into poverty and a kind of service that was not considered suitable for well-bred ladies of the era.  She was in love with the God who stays with humanity, in our trouble. Her freedom is being able to get into that trouble with the God she loves.

Are you hearing this? These stories are telling us that this is a good time to be alive, precisely because we are discovering our weakness, our uncertainty, our need. The spiritual traditions of this place tell us God is in our trouble with us and is not overcome by it.  The story isn’t over.  We are fragile, and we’ll act boldly anyway, without despair.

In the letter you just heard, Adele ends asking for some wide ribbon of imitation gold lame braid. Apparently, she’s making vestments for the praise of God. In the midst of Napoleon’s downfall and her father’s death and her plans to overturn her life so that she can work among the poor, she’s taking time to make something beautiful, in praise of the One who stays with us in trouble.

That takes a kind of courage.  But Adele’s courage isn’t the kind that locks down, tightens up, builds a bullet-proof barrier to protect a fragile center. This is courage that has at its center warmth and joy.  Adele is walking into the world’s trouble open, trusting, hopeful, because God is already there. Courage that has the presence of the Beloved as its backbone can stay tender, open to the truth of its own weakness, and therefore gentle with the weakness of others. 

If we are newly aware of our vulnerability, if we are hurt and grieving, let’s pause to know that others, right here, are as well. This is a good time to lean on others and to be leaned on, to allow each other to see our humanity, our need and fear and anger, and to remember how good it is to care for one another. This is a time to discover the gifts we are to each other, in ways we didn’t know we could be when things felt easier to us. That’s a victory of God’s presence in the midst of our trouble.

The beginning of the year always has a buzz around it. It’s that feeling of being at the top of the roller coaster with a wild ride coming at us, and fast. We have tried to plan but we cannot script the year. For me, this year’s excitement is edged with more anxiety than usual. Friends, things are not going to get easier.

So I’m here to tell myself and to tell you: this is a good time to be alive. This is a good time for us to be right here, to be together, to be uncertain, to be fragile, not to be in control of our world, and to act boldly in love anyway. We are in trouble, and loving God will get us into more trouble.  That’s what it is to be a human creature in this broken world that is so loved by God.  That’s a good gift.

So let’s do a little active learning. Stand up and turn to someone near you, look into each other’s eyes, clasp hands if you aren’t shy, and tell each other: this is a good time for us to be here.

My dear UD family, the God who suffers with humanity, who speaks hope and forgiveness in the middle of pain and death, the God who gave Adele freedom to throw herself into the trouble of faith, that God is here with us. This is a good time for us to be here. Thanks be to God.

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