20 September 2008

I will be with you; I will not fail or forsake you. Be strong and courageous

Being strong and courageous for God and for those we love … a fresco from Mount Athos (Photograph © Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The students are back at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute or the Church of Ireland Theological College. Since Thursday, the students for Non-Stipendiary Ministry (NSM) have been taking part in their summer school – although the “summer” description appears a little unrealistic at this late stage. The other students, working on the B.Th. programme, return tomorrow (Sunday) afternoon.

As I went into the chapel on Thursday evening for a Service of the Word with the returning NSM students, I felt my black eye and wounded knee – the result of a fall on the street in the dark on Monday night – reflected how I have been feeling inside about many important parts of my life for the last few weeks.

And then, unexpectedly, I was asked to read the Old Testament lesson, Joshua 1: 1-9. It was very difficult, with many of the broken and fallen wounds of the past few weeks, to find myself reading this passage, with words that kept leaping out at me:

“… Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised …

“No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life …

“I will be with you; I will not fail or forsake you. Be strong and courageous …

“Only be strong and very courageous … so that you may be successful wherever you go …

“… you shall make your way your way prosperous and then be successful.

“… Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

I have always been confident that God is truly guiding the soles of my feet and my soul as I move forward, always been confident that God has promises for me that will be realised and fulfilled, even when I don’t know what they are, even when I turn away from them, avoid them, or delay along the way, even when in my own sinful and broken way I find myself hurting others and being exposed to my own brokenness and sinfulness.

I have always been confident that God is with me and will not fail or forsake me.

With promises like that, it has been easy through most of my life to be strong and courageous … but did I need to hear that three times, repeated again and again? It’s easy for me to be strong and courageous. It’s far, far more difficult for me to face up to my weaknesses, and to deal with the sorrow and the heartbreak that I have caused or had to live with.

I’ve never asked God to make me prosperous and successful … prosperity and success can be welcomed as gifts from God, but I feel they are not something to expect, to pray for or to be ambitious for. There are much, much more important, deeply-seated values, hopes and wishes that are so difficult, that are so, so difficult to live up to or at times to live with. And as I read that passage I found myself wanting to, needing to say sorry for my selfishness, my self-centredness, my self-interested priorities.

I know God is with me as I continue to step into the future, although there are times I fear I damage what is good and beautiful in the present. I’m not frightened by God’s plans, but I am dismayed by own weakness and ability to hurt those I love.

And yet, as I faced those thoughts I took hope and courage from the words of the great American author and theologian, Frederick Buechner, who wrote: “I suspect that it is by entering that deep place inside us where our secrets are kept that we come perhaps closer than we do anywhere else to the One who, whether we realize it or not, is of all our secrets the most telling and the most precious we have to tell.”

My knees are weak ... my flesh is dried up

On Friday evening, the set psalms at Evensong were Psalms 108 and 109. As we moved into the chapel for Evensong, I decided it was better not to read both psalms, indeed, that it was better just to read the latter part of Psalm 109, verses 20 to 30.

In my reflection or meditation, I joked about my present physical discomfort and the words verse 23, where the psalmist says: “My knees are weak through fasting and my flesh is dried up and wasted.”

But I also pointed out that this is one of the most difficult psalms we can ever find ourselves being asked to use in Church. I don’t know what anyone would wish on their worst enemies. But who could ever ask people to pray that wicked rulers be set above our enemies (verse 5), no matter how bad they have been to us, that their prayers should be counted as sin (verse 6), that their children be fatherless and wives left as widows (verse 8), that their children wander to beg bread in desolate places (verse 9), without compassion (verse 11) or that – in this economic climate – their creditors seize all they have (verse 10)?

And yet, when we are angry and distressed, when we are filled with rage and resentment, when we find it most difficult to forgive, then we must find the means and the words to be honest with God – even if those words are uttered only in the silent caverns and deep recesses of our hearts.

Dean Billy Beare of Lismore once said at a clergy gathering in Kilkenny: “Who said you can’t dump everything on God?” If we limit or restrict God’s ability to hear and to respond to our pain and distress, God stops being God for us. And all that pain, all that distress, has already been borne by God in Christ on the Cross.

And so I continue to ask God to search out those deep caverns of my heart and my soul that I want no-one else to discover or enter, to heal where I hurt and to bring healing to those I hurt and love, that I may be strong and courageous, that I may not be frightened or dismayed, and that I may continue to live and grow in the confidence that the Lord my God is with me (and with you dear reader) wherever we go.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute

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