Monday Morning, November 24, 2008
When Forrest Gump turns to a stranger on a bus-stop bench and utters his now immortal line, “My momma always said, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get,’” he not only points to the seeming randomness of life, he suggests an unmistakable sweetness in it all. Maybe that’s why his words get quoted so often. There’s a lesson in his box-of-candy metaphor.
In the case of Forrest, the sweetness hardly meant the absence of tragedy or hardship. The character of first the novel and then the movie wanders through life with no apparent purpose or intentionality. And yet, Forrest Gump stumbles into the vortex of historic and life-altering events one right after another. War, sickness, and disappointment are mixed in with success, influence and friendship. But always surprise. Forrest takes them all like one more Sees Candy served up in a brown wax paper cup.
Sometime in October, our church launched a month-long project that included the spiritual disciplines of fasting and prayer. It happened in the context of a global vision for ministry and outreach that inspired even the most jaded of believers. We felt that we had heard something from God; that we knew something about his heart for a needy world and our role in making a difference. It spanned out from our local neighborhoods to folks on the other end of the globe. But our leaders felt that before we lit the fuse on an ambitious capital campaign to fund the vision, we needed to stop long enough to listen. So we were taught from the Scriptures about the real world practice of fasting and prayer. We were challenged to map out a personal plan and to be open to divine prompting on both an individual and corporate level.
That was over a month ago. It’s striking to look back now and see what happened. The outcome is not what we anticipated.
As I sat in a darkened room for prayer last night, I jotted down four powerful unanticipated events in my journal that came out of that month of fasting and prayer. The first jolt came from a public announcement that the capital campaign would be postponed. In an open meeting that followed corporate worship, it was also announced that a top pastoral staff member was released from his duties along with another member of his team. “Inappropriate behavior” was the cause. No financial improprieties, we were told. But everyone understood. Grief and disappointment filled the room. Tears and sadness. Brokenness. Such violations of trust are serious. But grace flowed, too. Purification is hard. None cast stones.
So all of those well-laid visionary plans are up for grabs. What was meant to solidify support around the cause became the catalyst of a new awareness of our own need. We all left the meeting in the solemnity of introspection. “Search my heart…” became the byword.
About the same time, news hit the headlines that the economic crisis in this country was far more profound than anyone understood. Financial institutions were on the verge of total collapse. Without a nearly trillion dollar bail-out by the federal government, high level officials predicted dire consequences, the likes of which the nation hasn’t seen since the prolonged depression of the nineteen-thirties. The stock market began its precipitous slide. I was on an elite golf course that day with my three brothers and as the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged, we tried to keep the golf ball on the fairway. None of us did very well that day.
The praying and fasting continued through the month. Last Saturday, I wrote a note to a long time friend who is campus pastor at Westmont College. The day before, I heard him on a kind of conference call describe the terrible fires in Montecito that took several structures on the prestigious, upscale campus, leaving some fifteen faculty and staff without homes. As I wrote, the smell of fire came through my window here in Southern California. It signaled the dreadful start of the Yorba Linda fires that took over one hundred homes right here in the hills surrounding our house.
So we gathered for worship this weekend in the aftermath of the fires. Our plan to fast and pray around a global vision has taken a new turn. We had set aside time to listen; to voluntarily impose a modest sacrifice on ourselves; to align our lives with those who for centuries have come before with a hunger to know God, to feel his heartbeat, to look through his eyes, to consider the needs of the world around us as he must consider it, and almost as through he stood ready to answer, we caught a profound, undeniable look. We will never be the same.
As we prayed, an election brought a paradigm shift in national leadership. The greatest economy in the world we thought invincible has proven to be as fragile as a dry tinder bush on a Southern California hillside. It became abundantly clear: our personal moral choices matter. Homes behind iron gates, surrounded by pools and fountains and gardens and elegant entryways can be reduced to ashes in a flash. None of these outcomes were on anyone’s prayer list. We asked God to speak. He did. Call it coincidental. That will be your word. Not mine.
Our Sunday morning service was divided into three parts. And without introduction, an unnamed artist took to the canvass. She created three corresponding images – a second painted over the first and the third then over the second. As Matthew spoke, she produced a series that step by step, told a story.
The first image – a little cozy village nestled in a verdant valley, surrounded by green hills under a blue sky. Pleasant. Inviting. After a song and some scripture from Matthew, the artist took to the scene for a second round this time with black paint; it covered up the lovely cottages in the valley with dramatic intent; then reds and yellows sprang from the charcoal as flames licked the green hillsides and reached for the sky and then smoke, thick and gray covered the blue and as she painted the scene, our pastor enumerated the damage, the homes lost, the schools damaged, the businesses destroyed, the fire equipment and firefighters and emergency crew and the acres scorched. Our artist stroked the canvas with blacks and reds and gray and the village disappeared. Taken by fire. Art can move us deeply. It did me. The music. The color. The biblical text. The mounting, devastating statistics.
And then, after another interlude of worship, the artist returned for a third time to the same canvass. Now, the charcoal at the base became soil. And out of the ash, the sturdy trunk of a tree emerged. And as the great oak reached for the sky, branching out over the scene like a covering of life, green leaves and blossoms appeared; the reds and oranges and yellows transformed from hungry flames to flower pedals; bougainvillea, daisies, poppies and the sky to blue.
And on this Monday morning, as we leaders all anticipate time around the table with the people we love in Thanksgiving to the God who gives perfect gifts, there is sweetness, even in the presence of deep loss, that brings us together in a bond of peace that knows no end. It is real. It is good.
No matter what you are facing on what just may be for you a bleak Monday, listen to songwriter Matt Redman:Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death Your perfect love is casting out fear And even when I’m caught in the middle of the storms of this life I won’t turn back I know You are near In every high and every low Oh no, You never let go Lord, You never let go of me
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008
Lyrics by Matt Redman “You Never Let Go”