You might have heard the well-loved tear-blessed story called “Footprints in the Sand” by Mary Stevenson.
One night a woman has a dream where she looks back at scenes from her life. She also sees two sets of footprints winding along the beach. Now I like to imagine that this woman has come to meet the LORD at some office in heaven and they’re looking at a split screen that shows her life on the left and the beach on the right. The two sets of footprints prove how God walked beside her.
But standing there, studying the footage, the woman notices a problem. During the most difficult events of her life, there’s only one set of footprints. Is it really possible that God abandoned her exactly when she needed the LORD the most? Imagine her dismay!
The Psalms remind us that God comes and finds us in the pit of death. All through this season, I’ve been writing cards to people with the words: “God will make a way out of no way.” Because I know the Holy Spirit really does this! And— I will tell you. Every time I write this, I hear the prayer under my breath: Come on God, please don’t prove me wrong.
Both things are true: I really believe God comes and saves us. And. I am not in charge of God. God does not always come to the rescue in the way that I’d choose. So when there’s a woman standing in the office of heaven asking the Author of Life, Hey! Where were you when I needed you? — Yeah. I think she’s right to demand an answer.
You and I know. There is real suffering in the world. Our own lives have been turned upside down by violence. Our own bodies have gotten broken. So have our hearts. You know someone who is hurting right now. You might be someone who is hurting right now. That’s the first thing.
The next thing is that our faith teaches us to lift our eyes to the hills, to lift our prayers to the heavens and know that God hears us. The LORD really does receive the prayers we send up. The Holy Spirit really does give a care.
If the first thing is the suffering on the ground and the next thing is the soaring promise of our prayer, in between, there is a vast expanse. As large as the wilderness. As unending as the journey on the beach. In between the struggle and the stars, there’s an immensity of distance reverberating with the prayers under our breath: Come on God, don’t let us down.
Friends, today we’re continuing the summer series: Why Church? In a world where going to church is no longer the normal thing to do, why choose to be part of a church? And there’s this. In the face of actual suffering in the world, what’s the Church even going to do about it… — Yeah. You’d be right to demand an answer.
The scripture that Bill read comes from one of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth. What happened was that recently, Paul and Timothy had been in trouble. Most likely, the two of them were being tortured in prison. Paul writes: “We were so unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself… We felt that we had received the sentence of death.”
Paul says this to the church right in his opening remarks! And here, Paul shines a light on the two sources of hope that got him through this hell. First, Paul shows us what it looks like to tie his faith to his prayers and toss them into heaven like it’s the grappling hook he’s going to use to climb out of the pit. He echoes the theme of the Psalms when he tells the church: You want to know what God is up to? It’s saving us! That’s what God does.
Paul writes: “We will not rely on ourselves but on God… God who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us. We have set our hope that God will rescue us again…” Because let’s face it, we’re going to wind up being tortured in prison again.
There’s the vivid suffering on the ground, there’s the hope of salvation from on high. That’s when the LORD our God comes down from heaven to save us from death.
It’s the same hope that brings a happy ending to the story of the woman confronting the LORD in that office in heaven:
On the worst day, why is there just one set of footprints!
Oh honey, says the Holy Spirit. That’s when I carried you.
God really does come to save. God really does make a way out of no way. Paul and Timothy are living proof! Now they want the church to know, our desperate prayers are not in vain, and that’s the first thing.
The second source of hope comes when Paul opens the box that he’s holding. This was my suffering, he tells us. I was the one chained up and beaten, but here, you get it. You can imagine what I endured just like I can imagine what Jesus was feeling. Suffering is never one person’s ordeal. At the heart of the Christian faith, is empathy. Your pain is our pain; my joy is our joy.
A few months ago, there was a meme going around the internet, and I’m sorry I don’t know the author. The gist of it is that we’re all in the same storm that is the pandemic, but we’re not all in the same boat. Some of us are sick with the virus; some are struggling with Zoom school; some of us have lost jobs… you get the idea.
If Paul were to see this post, I think he’d agree. We’re all in the same storm. We’re not all in the same boat. But then Paul would row up alongside you, and he’d say hold on, and pretty soon he’d be climbing aboard! Let me go with you, he’d say. There are sandwiches in the cooler.
In between the dirt on the earth and the stars in the heavens, in between the struggle and the soaring prayer, there’s a whole expanse. We know this whole holy wilderness between heaven and earth. And Paul knows. This wilderness is where the Church shows up.
Paul says, “We have set our hope that God will rescue us again, as you also join in helping us with your prayers.” God knows how we’re suffering, and it grieves him to his heart, and he wants to save us, and here’s the thing: So do you. Come on and go with us.
This is the right question. In the face of actual suffering in the world, what’s the Church even going to do?
Because you and I know. There are problems the Church cannot solve. We cannot undo a cancer diagnosis, or reverse a prison sentence, or go back in time before he ever picked up that gun… Sure we’re over here chipping away at systemic injustice, but you’re right to notice. There is evil we have not overcome. Right now there are still people being tortured and people doing the torturing. We haven’t solved that yet.
But if you want to know what it is that we’re doing, I can tell you. We’re taking to heart Paul’s invitation to deepen our empathy. You can count on Church of Peace to bring a meal to your house when the last thing you can do is cook. We’ll send cards to your grandson when he’s the one in prison. We’ll record hymns for your grandma to listen to when she’s the one in hospice. When you’re the one remembering what happened in the war, we’ll hold those stories sacred.
We will find you and go with you.
These days Church of Peace is beginning to arise after a long season of staying home and keeping our distance. In this time of creative possibility, let me offer this. I really believe. When our church goes and meets up with those who are struggling and comes alongside them, this is how we we will join God in bending the arc toward justice. This is how we will come back to life.
In between the violence in our neighborhood and the shining promise of the kingdom of heaven, there’s a whole expanse. But there’s not a whole expanse of nothing— there’s us!
We will meet you in the deep place of pain, and we’ll bring the prayers that soar to the stars. We will sit down beside you until your suffering is our suffering is Christ’s suffering, until Christ getting up from the dead, is us rising up, is you coming back to life!
Maybe one of our neighbors has a dream one night. In the dream, he’s standing with God in that office in heaven, they’re looking at the footage on the split screen. On one side, the man sees all the events of his life. On the other screen, he sees two sets of footprints on the beach.
But then the man notices… On the worst days, all the footprints disappear. So the man asks the LORD: When I needed you most, what happened? Why did we stop walking together?
That’s when God says, Oh honey, Look again. It’s not that our footprints are gone; it’s that the beach is a mess. See a crowd must have come through! Somebody built a fire, somebody had those glow bracelets, oh look, somebody had a guitar.
On the worst day, that’s when the whole Church showed up and wrapped you in love, and threw a party on the beach, and saved your life. That’s the Church for you.
May it be so.