Encountering God's presence

Service of Remembrance meditation

by Stephen Tig Intagliata, campus pastor
March 12, 2008

Psalm 63:1-8,  Romans 5:1-5

In the psalm that was read, Psalm 63, David encounters God in the midst of a time of hopelessness and despair, a time he likens to being stranded in the a dry and weary land.

It is in this unlikely place, this desert of desolation and death, that David encounters God's presence and protection.  It is here where he is able to praise and glorify God.

In many ways, David's predicament described in this psalm is one we here at Bluffton can identify with as we have gone through this past year as we as a campus community have grieved the loss of Zach, David, Scott, Cody and Tyler.

It has often felt like a desert, where we have felt weary, tired and thirsty.  A place of lonely days and sleepless nights, especially for the families and members of the team, but also for many others who are close to the team.

But just like David, we have been surrounded by God's love and presence in the midst of our grief.  President Harder's words and the slideshow reminded us of the outpouring of prayers and cards, and support, tangible gestures of God's love shown to us by both friends and strangers.  They have brought us comfort and healing.

 Like David, we can praise God for the ways in which His arms have been wrapped around us through the expressions of love and care from so many.  

I am also reminded of the more familiar words of David in Psalm 23, where he finds strength and hope in the image of God as a shepherd who watches out for his flock:
though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me.

In Psalm 139, David takes it even a step further.  He says that even when we try to run away from God and hide, God still pursues us and find us. 
Where can I go from your spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there.
If I make my bed in Sheol--or the depths of hell--you are there

It's like someone trying to lose the police in a high-speed chase the black and white car is behind us all the way, and there's nothing we can do to shake them.

You know, it's a bit scary to think that there's no way we can escape from God, but at the same time isn t it comforting to know that no matter how hard we try to hide from God, and no matter how high or how thick a wall we try to build to get away from him, he can always find a way to get through to us and embrace us with His love?

David goes on to say,
If I say, surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night, even the darkness is not dark to you, the night is as bright as the day to you.

The song Shining Through sang, Shine on Us reminds us how God's light can penetrate into the darkest nights we face; as John says in his gospel,
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can not overcome it.

By the grace of God that light has fallen on us, and through the love that has come over us we have seen a glimpse of the light of God's face in the midst of the darkness of our grief. 

But maybe we still wonder what the future ahead of us will be like. We wonder how our grief over losing these young men will affect us during the rest of our life. We wonder what good can really come out of this great a loss.

The passage in Romans 5 that was read helps us here. It gives us a glimpse of hope into vision of how God can use times of suffering and grief to transform us, to shape who we become in the future.  

You see, as Christians, we believe not only that God is with us and provide for our needs in midst of our times of suffering and grief, but we also believe that God can bring new life out of death and loss. 

We believe that because the resurrection of Jesus is the defining story of the Christian faith.  It is a mystery that we cannot fully understand, but we can stand on the promise of its power to overcome the forces of evil and death in the world.  And we can stand on its power to bring healing out of brokenness and despair.

We believe in the power of the resurrection that has given new life, eternal life in heaven to Zach, David, Scott, Cody and Tyler.  And that same resurrection power can cause new life to rise out of the depths of our pain and our grief over losing them. 

Here in the Romans 5 passage, the apostle Paul shows us how God can redeem our suffering, how God can use the trials and tribulations of our life to cause us to experience new life in a way we never have before,

Paul describes how personal growth can rise up out of the ashes of despair and pain.  He says that:
Suffering can lead to perseverance
Perseverance can lead to the development of stronger character
And this new character leads to deeper hope, the kind of hope that is rooted in the expectation that God can bring good things out of even the greatest tragedies of life.

It's the expectation that God can use these times of trial to transform us into people who experience God's grace and love in new ways, people who live in deeper gratitude to God for his faithfulness and for the gifts he has given us.

A few years ago, I found myself grieving over a dream I had that didn t materialize. I was mired in disappointment, I wallowed in despair, I faced a significant identity crisis, and I became fearful about what my future would hold.  

I was grieving.  You see, grief is a part of everyday life because life is full of all kinds of losses. We grieve when we lose a job, or when a friendship ends, we grieve when a marriage breaks up,

We even grieve the loss of good health, and good looks.  (Some of us don t have much to grieve on this one!).

Of course, the death of a loved one is the deepest grief we can experience.

Anyway, in the midst of my struggle, I read something in a book by Catholic priest Ronald Rolheiser that gave renewed my spirit and gave me new hope for the future.

In the book, Rolheiser makes the distinction between two kinds of death terminal death and paschal death. 

Terminal death, he says, is a death that ends life and ends possibilities for new life.  It is a death that is the final word.

Paschal death is also a time where a something precious dies.  But here death doesn t have the final say, nor is it terminal, because in the wake of this death there is an opening to the possibility of receiving new life and a new spirit for the future.

The word paschal comes from the Hebrew word for Passover the Jewish festival celebrating the exodus of people of Israel from Egypt, and journey toward the promised land. It is the deliverance from a live of slavery and suffering into a new life filled with freedom, promise and hope.  The exodus experience was then and still continues to be the framing story of the Jewish people, the story that gives them hope to carry on in life, hope that new life can rise up out of pain and suffering.

For Christians, the word paschal also is another word for Easter, a parallel experience to Passover which is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.

Easter is the central story for Christians because it provides us with the hope we need in a world filled with disappointment, despair and death. The apostle Paul said, If Christ was not risen, your faith is in vain.

Easter is the paschal story that brings new life out of death, shines light into the darkness of our world and our lives.  It's reflected in the song we sang earlier, Nothing is lost on the breath of God--  nothing is lost, nothing happens in vain, everything and everyone can be redeemed and transformed by God.

I believe that Zach, David, Scott, Cody and Tyler are experiencing the reality of the paschal mystery of Christ.  Their death on earth has been transformed into new life in heaven.  They have been given a new spirit in their eternal home with God, a spirit which will never die.  It is a spirit that is experiencing complete joy and complete union with God and with all the saints who have gone before us.

In their life here on earth, these guys were like lights that shined rays of hope into our lives. God blessed us through them, by their love, their joy and their passion for life.  They left us an enduring legacy.  These five guys were young men who lived life to the fullest during their time on this earth.

I believe that even as we continue to grieve their loss, that God invites each one of us to enter into the paschal mystery,

God invites us to trust and believe that God is at work bringing the promise of new life and is slowly planting the seeds of a new spirit within us.

This new life is described beautifully in the song In the bulb there is a flower
In the cold and snow of winter, there's a spring that waits to be;
There's a song in every silence, there's a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me;
In our end is our beginning, in our doubt there is believing, in our death, a resurrection;
From the past will come a future, what it holds a mystery,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

So as we get ready to celebrate Easter next week, and as we face the future, let us be open to receive the new life that God is causing to grow in us a growth that shows itself in the fruit of perseverance, in the development of strong character, and in the deepening of hope in our lives.

And let us be open to receiving the new spirit that God's Holy Spirit is planting within us. 

Just as the sun and warmth this week is slowly melting the snow of winter, may this new spirit be a spirit that sows in us the seeds of the promise of new life.

May it be a spirit that gives us a new awareness of God's constant goodness and faithfulness. 

May it be a spirit that gives us the grace to live in gratitude to God for the gift of life and for all He has given us, never taking anything for granted.

May it be a spirit that gives us the passion and the courage to live life to the fullest, not wasting any opportunity to show love to those around us;

And may it be a spirit that gives us the faith to trust God in the present and for the future, knowing that death is not the final word, but holds the promise of resurrection and new beginnings.

May God bless each one of us and lead us into a future filled with new life and new hope.  AMEN.