The Point of No Return
“The Point of No Return” Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Old Cambridge Baptist Church
September 29, 2013
Last week, we had some friends over for dinner. As we sat outside enjoying the nice weather, one of our friends, a city boy, said: “What on earth is that obnoxious sound? That bug, it’s so loud!” It was a cicada. You know, the ones that sound like sandpaper or castanets. My friend said he would rather hear the sirens of a city than that loud bug.
I disagree. I love the sound of the cicadas, because it is the soundtrack of my childhood summer in the south. Sometimes in the summer I go outside at night just to listen to the cicadas. And often, as they sing their rickety song all around me, I lean my head back and look up at the night sky: the big dipper dangling just over the horizon, and the flat, yellow disk of the moon staring through the trees.
On such a night, I can close my eyes against the sheltering sky and the hum and rattle of the insects transports me back, until I am standing on the edge of the porch of a dark cabin. At first, the only sound is that of the insects, then suddenly the beam of a flashlight cuts across the night and lights up the porch. The fifteen or twenty girls gathered on our porch suddenly sing: “Day is done…”, our voices high and thin against the symphony of insects. Then the flashlight swings toward the rustic cabin next to ours and all the girls who stand on that porch sing: “Gone the sun,” One by one, the light signals each cabin to sing a line of Taps. And then we all fall silent, shuffling in the dark back through the cabin door, banging our shins against the metal edges of our bunk beds, climbing under the sheets, where we said as poet Dylan Thomas put it: “a few words to the close and holy darkness” and then slept. Those end of day rituals at Camp Viewmont- in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia- will always stay with me, as will the bowls we filled with peanut butter and jelly on KP duty and the talent shows and the afternoon swims and the visits to the camp store. The rattle and hum of the summer insects bring it all back. As I stood in darkness each night, the rough cabin boards squeaking beneath my sneakers, I would have a moment of intense fear. The sky was so vast and dark, I felt so small and lost and so patently homesick. But then came the sense that alongside the vast sense of uncertainty and distance was the inexplicable closeness of God.
The week at church Camp always took me into that dark, mysterious night where I could smell God if I could not actually see God, and where I felt the faint brush of holy fingertips across my brow before I slept. And in the summer heat, in that deep, unconscious place of youth, I began to sense the shape of faith. We spent the whole week talking about Jesus, studying the bible, hearing stories about the brave missionary, Lottie Moon, and her adventures in China, being urged to make a decision for Christ. We were taught that faith was a verb. But those mysterious day end rituals pointed to deeper truths about that life of faith: that in many ways faith is as mysterious and inaccessible as the insects we could hear but not see, and that the unseen God was as far away as the stars and as close as my next breath.
What is faith? I wondered when I was ten and I still wonder at fifty-seven. What is faith? And what have I learned about faith? Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, but not yet in full view. And the unseen is all around us. I look at the bold moon that crawls across the sky and I see another time and place, I see Sarah and Abraham sitting in the doorway of their tent, awaiting a cool breeze, their fingers barely touching, the lines in their faces softened by the moonlight. Inside the tent, their son stirs in sleep, cries out in a dream. Abraham wonders if Isaac still dreams of their journey to the mountain: if he sees the glint of the knife in the hard sunlight that shone everywhere but revealed nothing of his father’s intent that day. Abraham wonders what faith really is, what God really requires, how he will ever really know for sure. But for a moment, everything seems clearer in the moonlight: even the soft shadows of his own ambivalence look natural and acceptable to him. The doubt and uncertainty are equally at home beside that sure sense of God’s presence; a presence hovering as close as the brush of Sarah’s hand.
The journey of faith, as Abraham and Sarah discovered, and as each of us has also discovered, sometimes means that we find ourselves on paths that we had not planned to take. We strike out, hopeful to taste the essence of God only to find that we are on a road that is not to be found in our Atlas of the World. The only thing we know for sure is our hunger for much, much more than what we see.
What is faith?
A few years ago, at my college reunion, I sat in the chapel listening to Allen Page share his story of faith. He was one of my religion professors. He told of how he expected his life to go. How he married his high school sweetheart and life was good and his career was meaningful and fulfilling and he had faith abundant in God. And then his brother was diagnosed with cancer, and he died a slow, hard death. And not long after that, Allen and his high school sweetheart were divorced. Nothing turned out as he had planned. His faith shook and trembled. But he stood before us and calmly said: “But I know that wherever the path leads, God is with me. Even if I don’t feel it, even if I can’t see concrete evidence, I know.” He said that sometimes faith is acting like you believe even when you don’t feel like it. Faith is going forward into the uncertainty of your life with eyes wide open, expectant, looking for God.
I talked to Allen afterwards, telling him how much he had challenged and prodded me when I was a student, how he taught me how to think about God. I remember one day in class we were having a discussion about what life after death would be like. He said: “Maybe we will be a memory in the mind of God.” It was a new and terrifying thought, shaking the foundations of my faith. I have been given such neat, tidy, predictable views of life after death. I didn’t know about this memory in the mind of God stuff. I felt that same sinking fear in the pit of my stomach as I had felt in the darkness on the church camp porch. But it made me think, and forced me to reach deeper, to question, stretch, grow, and expand my relationship with God.
I shared with Allen the memory of that day in class. “Do you even remember saying such a thing in class,” I wondered aloud? He smiled, and said, you know, I had that phrase put on my parent’s tombstone when they died.” Whether we will exist as a memory in the mind of God after death, or live in a glorious mansion, either way it is a mystery. I thought about Allen’s words in light of what he had said about knowing God was there no matter what.
What are these strange stirrings in our hearts, these questions and fears and desires that provoke us and set us hankering after God? Where do they lead us? And what do we do about them? Sarah and Abraham wondered, I sat in religion class in college and wondered, I stood on a dark cabin in the mountains of Virginia and wondered, I still wonder. And it comes to me, now and again, a like the flash of a star across a summer sky: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for. It is what enables us to look up at the vast and starlit sky, facing the fearful, awesome questions of life and death.
Faith is what enabled Abraham to count the stars and believe his descendants would outnumber them. It is what enables us to bury those we love and know in our hearts that death is not the final say. It is what helps us face the bad diagnosis and the failing health. Faith is knowing that we can not be certain, but we can keep our eyes wide open. Faith is what carries us safely past the point of no return. Faith is what helps us to get up and face another day, to grieve the death, to mourn the loss, to pick up the shattered pieces, to know that God is fully present in the sultry darkness that closes in around us. Faith is what enables a cabin full of scared, homesick little ten year old girls to sing out in the night, their voices as high and strident as the insects hidden in the trees: “Day is done, gone the sun, from the lake, from the hills, from the sky, all is well, safely rest, God is nigh.” Amen.