The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
February 11, 2018 – Transfiguration Sunday
“All the time God is good, and God is good all the time” – even at the very worst times.
Kate Bowler teaches history at Duke, is with her husband raising a young son, and is fighting for her life in a brutal war against stage 4 cancer.
Professor Bowler writes about how she has encountered the loving presence of God in her perhaps fatal trial and how His presence is proving to be more than enough, even should she soon die.
Her honest accounts of her trial have elicited responses from many quarters. One man wrote Bowler a letter about his being held hostage with his family, while tied up tight with strong ropes, and watching helplessly as the intruders pressed guns against his children’s heads and threatened to rape his wife and daughter. But in that hell, he says, he experienced the peace-giving presence of God – and then an inexplicable loosening of his ropes leading to the escape of his family from harm. He found another inexplicable thing that night: his neighbor swinging lifeless from the end of a rope tied around his neck.
The writer told Bowler he can’t understand why his family was spared and his neighbor was not. But he says he knows, if he knows anything, that God was there in the midst of all that terror and horror. He felt God’s bringing him a peace-giving awareness of His presence, and he senses the gift has changed him forever. He ended his letter to Bowler saying, “I have no idea how this works, but I wish it for you as you move forward.”
Bowler thinks that, though she may well be moving forward to death before she reaches 40, his wish for her is being fulfilled. She says that, in the midst of her trial, she is “soaking in a joy”. She writes, “The horror of cancer has made everything seem like it is painted in bright colors. I think the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so difficult.”
While Jesus’ life in heaven had been perfectly beautiful and utterly untroubled by difficulty, His life on earth was full of both intense beauty and intense difficulty.
Just after breaking the bad news to His disciples of His imminent suffering and execution, and just before beginning His resolute march to Calvary where it was all going to come to a head, Jesus climbed a high mountain where His majesty and magnificence flashed forth with a starburst of blazing, blinding beauty.
But Jesus’ bedazzling radiance of grandeur, on a mountain of transfiguration, was followed by an appalling descent into the darkness of death, on a hill of crucifixion. But both events belonged together as one revelation of the radiant glory of God’s love.
Of course, sometimes we have to descend into dark crevasses in order to fully see the radiant glory of God’s grace.
Three decades ago, near the summit of the 21,000’ high Peruvian mountain, Siula Grande, climber Joe Simpson’s safety line severed and he slid hundreds of feet down, on a broken leg, into a deep and dark crevasse. Unable because of his injury to climb up and out, Simpson had to make the counter-intuitive, seemingly suicidal choice to go lower into the crevasse – in the wild hope that further down there’d be a way out. With each fearful, careful slide down the mountainside deeper into the crevasse, Simpson had to fight down the fear that he’d never see day again but was consigning himself to a lingering, lonely death in the black bowels of the earth. But he held on to the possibility that edging away from the common sense path to light and life would bring him to salvation. As it turned out, Simpson’s insane choice was the right choice.
Jesus made a counterintuitive, seemingly suicidal choice to descend into the dark crevasse of suffering and God-forsakenness – though not because like Simpson He had no other choice, and not because like him He sought to save Himself. He did it to save the very people who threw Him into the darkness of His damnation.
To take up our cross, deny ourselves and follow Jesus is to defy our fear of the dark crevasses of this world into which we fall and to hope against hope that even in the worst of them God is there for us and will meet us with love, light, peace and salvation.
Kate Bowler has encountered Jesus in the dark crevasse of cancer; and others, in a similar “valley of the shadow of death”. They bear witness to God’s presence in such awful places, and to the fact that He is enough even when He doesn’t deliver them out of their distress but only stays with them in it. Kate Bowler doesn’t claim to see why she has fallen into her dark crevasse, but she has come to see who is there for her in it – and how soaking in the radiance of His love lifts a person up and sees them through.
There is an organization called the Near Death Experience Research Foundation. It has interviewed thousands of people who have had brushes with death – whether from a car accident, a life-threatening birth, an attempted suicide or something else – and many of those who almost died give the same odd account of a vivid experience of the presence of love.
Bowler tells her own story: “When I was sure I was going to die, I didn’t feel angry. I felt loved.
“In those first few days after my diagnosis, when I was in the hospital, I couldn’t see my son, and I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t say for certain that I would survive the year. But I felt as though I’d uncovered something like a secret about faith.”
Though you might have expected her to have felt abandoned by God, she felt, she said, as if she were “floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees, bringing notes and flowers and warm socks and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement. They…mirrored back to me the face of Jesus.” Bowler said they were the means by which God brought her into the peace-giving fellowship of those who are, as she puts it, “stumbling in the debris of dreams they thought they were entitled to” but finding their way into a sweet, intimate closeness with Christ.
The feeling doesn’t stay forever, and there’s no formula for how or when to get it back. It runs in and recedes like the ocean’s tides. It does not give proof of its reality; at best it gives only a tentative certainty. But it leaves a lasting imprint upon the soul. Bowler describes it as being somehow “marked” by God.
At every point in life, there is radiance amidst the darkness. Let us seek it, hang our hope on it, and bear witness to it to others. Let us pray.