“I have wept at the sense of God’s presence, and I have wept longing for it.”
I read a story recently, one I’ve read many times before. This time I was caught by the opening two words. The first line of the story reads: “One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer—at three in the afternoon” (Acts 3:1). I’ve preached this story more times than I can remember, but I can’t ever recall those first two words jumping out at me like they did this time. “One day ...”
If you’ve read the story, you know what happened this one day. Peter and John are on their way to the temple. In fact, as the story opens, they are about to enter. A lame man is being carried to his usual begging spot in the shadow of the gate called Beautiful. Their paths cross. The man sees an opportunity about to slip away. Out goes his hand as they pass one another. Up goes his cry for money. Peter and John stop, turn, and look directly at him. And in seconds, this routine day, ruled by the ebb and flow of hours of prayer, by everyday habits lofty and low, by practices of piety and poverty, gets turned on its head. The lame man is up walkin’ and leapin’ and shoutin’ “Hallelujah!” Peter and John end up in the slammer. What a difference one day can make!
It got me thinking about the one days of my life. We all have them, days when something happens that alters the course of our lives. It may be a tragic event, an accident, or a random act of violence when we are in the wrong place at the wrong time. (As I write this, I am acutely aware of the news of a deadly school shooting at a community college in Oregon.)
Or it can be one day in a good way. We cross paths with someone, an unexpected opportunity presents itself, and we are in the right place at the right time.
The truth is, we never know what any day will bring. To wake up each morning is to turn to a new page of an unread script and step blindly into its story. We may think we know what a day holds for us, but in case you haven’t read the disclaimer, let me fill you in: all daily routines and plans are subject to change without notice.
The truth is, whatever one day may bring, be it good or bad, our aggregated days are destined to include both joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, loss and gain, because that’s how life is in this world.
So for me to believe that God superintends all of my days, no matter what they bring me—dancing shoes or a dark prison cell—takes faith. It takes faith because sometimes I am aware of God’s superintendence, and sometimes I am not. I have wept at the sense of God’s presence, and I have wept longing for it.
I know I am not alone.
Jack told me his story over breakfast. His birth mother was a young unwed farmhand. Later in life he discovered that he’d grown up in a borrowed home with a borrowed name. He married, had family, and became a teacher. Then, believing he was answering the call of God on his life, he traded his classroom for a pulpit and half the pay. One day he lost a grandchild, crushed beneath the wheels of a school bus. Another day he lost another, this time in a motorcycle accident. Our food grew cold as Jack described what it was like to carry on his pastoral work while God was nowhere to be found. We were both crying when he told me, “Steve, I preached the love of God through gritted teeth, my fists clenched tight behind my back.”
We have a friend whose body has been on a runaway roller-coaster for the past dozen years or more. Hope has been dangled in front of her, only to be yanked away. Diagnoses have been made and then discarded, treatments started and abandoned, prayers seemingly answered and then not. She and her husband have quit trying to answer the question, “Where is God in all of this?” People have assured them that God is present with them in their suffering. They see no evidence of Him. But their response of faith is this: “God’s not being present with us in our suffering does not mean that He is absent.” As uncomfortable as that statement feels, I understood it as soon as I heard it.
Five-year-old Emma spoke up in church this morning. Her grandma was hosting the service and had just finished giving thanks for God’s presence all around us.
“How can God be all around us?” Emma asked out loud. After Grandma did her best to explain omnipresence in “lay child’s” terms, Emma replied, “But I can’t see Him.”
And we all thought but did not say, “I know what you mean, Emma.”
In his book Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner refers to “the darkness of the world where God is of all missing persons the most missed.”1 And as uncomfortable as that statement feels, I understood it as soon as I read it.
That’s why we need to hear the Christmas story again and again. It tells us that a prolonged season of silence in Israel was shattered by the cry of a baby in a Bethlehem stable. It reminds us that no matter how dark the darkness, or how silent the silence, God is not absent. God spoke and “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). Immanuel—God with us.
So be courageous enough to light the candles. Stir up enough faith to sing the carols. And hold on to the hope that one day it will be worth it all.
1. Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1977), 56.