July 7, 2019: And then…by Rev. Beth Hayward (Selected passages from New Testament letters)

It’s possible that I’m the last generation who counts amongst her treasures the hand written letters from aunts and uncles and grandmas. I have a cousin who writes a letter a week to a different member of her extended family. I’ve managed to get myself on her roster and received my first installment a couple months ago. I relished in tales of knitting projects half, books on bedside tables, bike rides through snow covered Lethbridge streets. I have a stash of letters from over the years and I treasure each one. I love everything about letters; the way you can tell who it’s from just by the penmanship, the way the stamp is placed just so on the upper right hand corner, because obviously letter writing people are precise kinds of people. I love the wonder of knowing you are holding in your hands the paper that has been touched by the hands of the writer.  And then there’s the paper and oh fountain pens!  I’m sure if I had one of those I would become a letter writer! 

Did you know that twenty-two of the New Testament’s twenty-seven books are not books at all, they’re letters. There are no other religious traditions in which letters have become part of their sacred text. I don’t expect that their authors, most notably Paul, ever intended them to become part of scripture but there they are, sacred, holy words about ordinary things. Like the writer of 2 Timothy saying: “bring my scrolls especially the parchments.” I wonder what’s on those parchments? How could he have forgotten them? Are they really that important? And the cloak, did he forget it? or had he loaned it to Carpus? Did Carpus think it was a gift? Will he be surprised that the letter writer wants it back?

And in the letter to the church in Corinth Paul says, “I don’t remember who else I baptized.” Goodness, that sounds like me when I get behind in keeping my official church record books. But seriously, if you don’t remember who else you baptized you’ve gotta think it has something to do with the fact that you’ve baptized more people than you can count. Letters can reveal an awful lot when you take the time to read between the lines.

The best letters are like the best stories, they leave us wanting more, they draw us in and touch the hunger in our bellies. Letters are really stories, or fragments of stories, little bits of the story deemed important enough to write down by the letter writer. Yes the best letters are the ones so compelling that you are left with a half dozen stories to which you are saying “and then what happened?” only to have to wait weeks for the possibility of a continuing story.

When my girls were little, and teeth had been brushed and storybooks had put away, lights turned out save the nightlight in the corner, I’d sit on the floor between the two beds, precisely in the middle to avoid debate. Sometimes I’d sing to them but more often they’d want one last story, the kind where they got to participate through giving me the details: the name of the protagonist, a mode of transportation, a kind of food, a colour. And then I’d take their bits and weave them into a story, a bit like improv except I really had thought nothing about where this story would go. Sometimes I’d pause, for dramatic effect but more often I’d pause as I searched my mind for the requested species of reptile or mode of transportation. Inevitably when I paused one girl or other would pipe up – and then what happened? And then what happened?

I’ve recently learned that the Hebrew writers of the Old Testament had a knack for the art of and then, in story telling. I’ve learned it from a book I’m reading by Rachel Held Evans called Inspired. Hebrew biblical writers would add the conjunction, and, to a line, they’d give it a little extra vocalization… double the initial consonant of the word to which the and was attached and voila: the Biblical Hebrew ‘and then.’[1] “There was light and then God saw that the light was good and then there was evening and then there was morning and then and then and then before you know it you are standing with Moses on Mount Nebo at the end of Deuteronomy light years from when God first peered over the abyss.”

Held Evans said that as Christians we believe we live in the and then, after Jesus resurrection and before his return. We live inside an unfinished story, a story that always has an, and then to offer us, to call us forward. Resurrection people are never The End people we are always and then people.

I wonder if we can really believe that? Seems to me more often these days we think we know how the story ends, we know this story because we’ve either lived it before or the conclusion is so obvious everyone knows how it ends. I wonder if we settle sometimes for being The End people rather than and then people? Are stories in our lives for which imagining an and then is just too big of a stretch? I suppose I ask it in particular in relation to the author of the very book I’m speaking of. Rachel Held Evans she died in April. She was thirty-seven, died from an allergic reaction to a drug she took to help her with an every day infection. I think of her grieving husband and her children ages four and one. I think of those of you in this place who are walking through your own personal hell moments and I do pause and wonder are there some stories that are too painful for an and then? Are there some stories for which we really must resign our selves to the truth that this is THE END?

When it comes to the story of the climate crisis, there are many days I lean towards a story with The End rather than a story that poses the curiosity of a child and then… It’s really hard work to be and then people.

But if, as Evans says, our story is unfinished, we are part of a bigger story. And this means that we share our story with the spirit that hovered over creation, with prophets living and dead, with ordinary people with ordinary struggles and joys. She insisted that: “the stories we tell with our life, aren’t meaningless absurdities, tragic in their brevity, but rather subplots of a grander narrative, every moment charged with significance, as we contribute our own riffs. Soliloquies, and plot twists, to the larger epic.”[2]  She names it as the Holy Spirit coaxing us always with and then and then and then.

If our faith is to be a living faith it needs to be an and then sort of faith. And we come here in part to immerse ourselves in the story of Jesus’ life death and resurrection, a story that insists beyond all reason, beyond the odds that the story ‘aint over yet and that the Holy Spirit isn’t done with you.

One of the stories people tell about this place is the way tears come, especially and particularly from those who have shown up in your early days here. You may have found your way here after researching the right church to fit your particular need or align with your values. But really you come with that ache in your belly for more, that longing in your heart for connection, deep real connection, the wondering in your mind about whether it really is possible to reconcile your hopes and dreams with your grief and regrets.

When the tears flow, I wonder if it is a sign that the heart has been softened just enough for that thin place to open? Are the tears an indication that the Holy Spirit is in fact descending on you, flowing through you?  

These songs you’ve requested today, or maybe you missed the call out but you know what your songs are. Songs touch our souls and enliven our hearts. Maybe it takes you back through the melody or lyrics to the first time that song entered your soul and your heart had let down it’s defenses, either because grief left you stripped of all defenses, or because a life transition left you poised on the edge of what was and what was to be, tipping decidedly toward what was to be. Or maybe the words entered your soul just gently, gradually, over time like a warm blanket on an August night.

We need to tell our story, we need to ingest it and belt it out in song. We need it to feed our souls because there is a lot going down right now and there are a lot of stories being told. There are stories of bad people who need to be kept back with walls and guns, stories of hopelessness, stories of this is as good as it gets, stories of you get what you deserve, stories about how the strongest and richest and most cunning will always win.                  

And we don’t need to construct the entirety of a new story, in fact Jesus already did that for us, already wrote a new story with his life where we see and know that every time we come to a closed door or a dead end story, it is not the full picture just a thread. And we need to keep looking for the threads, for the fragments of letters no matter how ordinary they seem that point us to a different story an and then story.

Whether the songs today are your songs or not, perhaps allow them to take you to your songs, or better yet see if there is a phrase that draws you down, deep into the heart of the Holy Spirit that you might be surprised at what is to come. We’ll never walk on water if we’re not prepared to drown. Spirit will take you into places that you’ve never been before, and that’s okay!

When we follow the thread of and then we find ourselves in places we’ve never been before, opening doors to worlds outside the lines. And we see and we know that life is about a resurrection life and it will never declare like a good fairy tale – THE END no a resurrection life will always come to the end of the story and say and then… and then… and then.

We don’t need to wait until we have fountain pens, or just the right paper, we don’t need wait until we’ve formed our thoughts just so, before adding our bit to the writing of the Holy Spirit. You have something to offer to the unfolding, not over yet story of your life AND the story of this hurting world. Don’t wait for it to be perfectly formed. Come to this place and when a word or a melody takes hold in your heart, breaks open a portal from which the tears begin to flow, maybe see it as an invitation to add your line to the song, to practice living into and then, to listen for all the stories that insist this is the end and to add another perspective,

And then, step into the next chapter without a clue as to how this will all turn out, unsure if it could be okay and just know that the bigger story has your back, is holding you, sustaining you, like a pile of treasured letters in a box under your bed. And you just might remember the times that wounds have been turned to blessing and water to wine, and that may be enough to remind you to live like you believe it’s true. Amen

[1] Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again. Nelson Books, California, 2018. 216 This paragraph comes from Hel Evans book where she is drawing on the research of Gregory Mobley.

[2] ibid