I was entering the seventh grade, a new kid in a new town at a new school, sitting in the junior high auditorium, enduring an orientation class, not knowing a soul. The only friends I had made that summer were sixth graders, and back in those dark ages, when I was a youngster, junior high ran seventh grade through ninth, so my newfound buddies could be of no help in showing me around. They had, however, fed me ghastly tales of how the ninth graders pummeled, harassed, and mercilessly stuffed seventh graders into lockers, though, as best they knew, no one had ever died from it. I remember sitting in that auditorium, wondering how to arrive at my first period class without being waylaid by bullies, wondering if I could even find my first period class, looking around for some husky kid with whom I could strike an alliance and finding instead, a gaggle of girls who obviously had been together since elementary school and who talked over, around and through me as if I was invisible. I resigned myself to an inevitably short life and violent death. In that anguished moment, I remember praying an earnest prayer to God for strength, not for the superhuman strength sufficient to defeat bullies, just the strength to make it through this one day. I remember finishing the prayer and finding to my amazement that my anxiety had been dissolved, replaced with a deep sense of peace, a peace of God that had engendered a sense of excitement, an impending sense of adventure. Everything would be alright. The bell rang, and the incoming seventh grade class of Cloverdale Junior High spilled out of a brief orientation session into the halls, trailed by one wary, bewildered kid who reflexively breathed three words to himself as he entered that surging human river: “Here we go.”
I spent ten years in Montgomery, Alabama, experiencing that decade of transition where one grows from a young kid into a young man. But I mark the beginning of my adolescence with that prayer and those three words of hope: “Here we go.” Indeed, they have remained a comforting touchstone, a fundamental motto, a reminder that I never face any unknown alone, for I live each day by the grace, strength, mercy, wisdom and love of God. Anytime I face the unknown I have come to say these words, “Here we go.” Before I entered into the sanctuary where I was to meet Melissa at the marriage altar, I whispered, “Here we go.” Before entering the delivery room to witness the birth of my children, I murmured, “Here we go.” The day I first walked into this church building as your pastor, I said, “Here we go.” The first time I rode an inner tube over Nantahala Falls I looked down at that raging, frothy water and whistled, “Whoo, here we go!” These three words take me back to that day when I was an anxious child scared of the unknown and God’s sustenance came to me in the form of a comforting peace and a delivering strength, a sustaining grace that has been sufficient for each day of existence. “Here we go!” I have come to know that whatever challenge I face, whatever anxiety grips me, whatever anguish holds me in thrall, I will not face it alone, for God’s peace and presence accompanies me. And having gained over my lifetime a profound sense of the trustworthiness of God, I suspect, that even in the face of the mystery of death, after I have whispered, “Melissa, I love you,” my last three words on earth will be the prayer, “Here we go.”
When Paul announced, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” he was conveying to the church in Rome and to all humanity the same theological assurance that I have gleaned in the words, “Here we go.” Certainly, on the surface, there seems to be no connection between the great apostle Paul and a scared, wary seventh grader on his first day in a new school, but the linkage is real. For Paul was a man cast adrift. Paul had had his entire world-view destroyed. Paul had spent his life believing that devotion to the Mosaic Law would lead him to God. Instead, he found that orienting his life to the Law of God had only engendered feelings of guilt and failure. Instead of bringing him into a peaceful relationship with God, devotion to the Law had filled him with a sense of profound inadequacy. Paul’s unrighteous life, however well-intentioned, juxtaposed against the purity of God’s righteousness, had only spawned a profound sense of dread and intensified his sense of estrangement from God. Paul recognized that he and all humanity lived under a sentence of death that we could not escape.
Paul, in the marrow of his being, was a theological scientist. He understood that all humanity lived in a state of estrangement, unable to span the gulf between themselves and their Creator. In our frailty and fallenness we were waging a war we could not win. We were trying to span the chasm between humanity and God, and we could not do it. But then Paul realized that the God of the universe through the ministry of Jesus Christ had been actively involved in the world building that bridge of reconciliation which humanity could not. God the Father through God the Son had spanned the chasm of estrangement between God and humanity that we could not span ourselves. God through the ministry of Christ has built a bridge of reconciliation between God and humanity, and all we have to do is walk across it. We have been “justified through faith,” by the righteousness of Christ. God accepts us! All we have to do is accept God’s acceptance! Paul was so thrilled by this knowledge that he almost cried out, “Eureka!” God through Christ had eliminated the alienation between God and humanity, rendering us righteous through the righteousness of Christ. And if we walk across that bridge of acceptance that God has made, then we can experience peace with God.
I think of that great genius Augustine, one of the most brilliant minds ever to grace this earth. Yet his brilliance did not bring him purity of character or clarity of understanding. While a seventeen year-old student of rhetoric, he impregnated his live-in lover, and they continued to live together for fourteen years, before Augustine broke off the relationship, ostensibly to marry another girl, whom he then jilted so he could live with another girlfriend instead. Meanwhile he studied every possible philosophy and religion and could articulate the principles of all of them, but he never knew what he truly believed. All the while he felt himself captive to sensuous desires, held in a slavery he could not escape. Then, one day, despairing over his seemingly inescapable weakness, Augustine was in a garden when heard a child’s voice as if from next door say, “Take up and read.” His mother’s Bible was handy, opened to Romans 13:13 which read, “Let us conduct ourselves becomingly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh . . .” Augustine suddenly realized that the God of the universe was not a concept to be debated but a Person of love with whom one could enter into profound relationship. Augustine came to cultivate a meaningful relationship with Christ and purified his life, ultimately concluding, “Thou has formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their peace in Thee.” Augustine would say of God, “Thou hast melted away my sin as if it were ice.” Here, three hundred years after Paul, was a man echoing the discovery that God is accessible and trustworthy. Through communion with Christ we can have peace with God!
I think of my late friend and mentor Frank Tupper, who died a few months ago. I think of Frank, as he came to realize that despite his fervent prayers and hopes, his young wife was going to die of cancer. Frank experienced a horrible recurring nightmare, that of being chased on a dark beach by a terrifying face marked by lidless eyes and a horrific mouth out of which spewed maniacal laughter. Run though he might, he could not escape this hideous face and knew that he was being pursued by the reality of Chaos, a malevolent force of destructive energy threatening to destroy his world – a force that in fact did destroy his world, when his beloved wife died. In his despair Frank turned to the only source of solace that he could, the crucified Christ, the crucified Christ who embraced coarse fishermen, prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors and con men, indeed, who accepted every sort of human being and clasped them to his bosom, the crucified Christ who cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Only the crucified Christ, who embodied the suffering love of God, was able to draw Frank out of his despair and into a place of peace that gave him the strength to continue to be a mentor and a professor and a father and a witness and example unto us all. Through his experience of the crucified Christ he was able to experience and communicate the peace of God.
My friends, I am trying to accentuate the Biblical truth that the God of the universe is actively engaged in human history and is intimately involved in our lives. Even though we face the unknown, even when the future seems bleak and we are flush with anxiety, or in the thrall of anguish, we are not alone. The God of this universe calls us into communion with the divine, so that even as life imposes suffering upon us, our suffering produces endurance and our endurance produces character and our character produces hope and our hope does not disappoint us. We do not walk into the unknown alone. Even in these uncharted times we can experience peace with God. For if we walk life’s journey in communion with God, our journey is never without purpose. If we abide in Christ, our journey is always filled with meaning, and always moves us toward understanding and allows us to experience peace with our Creator, which engenders peace with ourselves and thus empowers us to experience peace with others.
Every year I speak to our incoming deacons, using words of wisdom gleaned from Thomas a Kempis’ devotional classic, The Imitation of Christ, particularly the section entitled, “Lovers of the Cross Are Few.” Thomas a Kempis’ knew a thing or two about spiritual maturity, and he observed that we must first have peace with God before we can experience peace within ourselves and then are able to experience peace with others. We cannot give peace to others until we have peace within ourselves and we cannot have peace within ourselves unless we first experience peace with God. The truth is, many of us live in an uneasy truce with a host of people. We are always around people who make us uncomfortable. We view the world differently than they do, have a totally different perspective on life. So we feel uncomfortable in their presence, and they feel uncomfortable in ours. But when we can experience the peace of God that allows us to accept our own fallibility, our own inadequacy, our own fallenness, our own insecurities, then we gain the ability to accept the fallibility, the inadequacy, the fallenness and insecurity of others. When we experience the peace of God, we then experience peace within ourselves, even the darkest corners of our soul and psyche, and thus we can live peaceably with those who see the world so differently.
In our younger days Melissa and I would annually take the children of our Charlotte church up to Apple Tree Group Camp for four days of camp, and one of the highlights of the trip would be a long hike through the wilderness. We would have to navigate our way through brush and bugs and around snakes and yellow jackets (useless creatures), would have to deal with blisters and fatigue and even asthma attacks. But as I would walk those miles with those children, the great question in my mind was, ‘Would they be able to develop a faith that empowered them to grow in character, so that they can make right choices, or gain the resilience to learn from wrong choices? Would they develop a communion with God that would provide them spiritual nurture throughout their lives?’ And so, as we walked along that long trail amidst the majesty of those North Carolina mountains, I would sing to them old hymns of faith, such words as, “Come we that love the Lord and let our joys be known. Join in a song of sweet accord, join in a song of sweet accord, and thus surround the throne, and thus surround the throne. Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God, but children of the heavenly king, but children of the heavenly king, may sing their joys abroad, may sing their joys abroad. We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion. We’re marching upward to Zion, Zion, the beautiful city of God.” I wanted those young people to understand that we did not walk aimlessly; rather, we walked with a purpose, to grow in communion with the living God and move ever forward toward his Kingdom.
About twenty years ago, a young woman heard me preach a version of this message – the only other time I have ever preached it. She had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. She decided to make this sermon the touchstone of her attitude, and before every session of chemotherapy she would say the words, “Here we go.” Before every doctor’s visit, she would whisper, “Here we go.” She said that every time she uttered that phrase it conveyed to her a sense of divine peace. And when she emerged from her battle freed from her cancer, that phrase remained the foundation of her faith. Here we go! She knew that whatever she faced in the future, whatever unknown she must confront, she would not do it alone. For the God of peace would be with her. So, too, as we move forward into uncharted territory, may we know that our suffering produces endurance and our endurance produces character and our character produces hope and our hope does not disappoint us, for it is grounded in Jesus Christ. And so, whatever future we face individually and as the people of God, we enter with confidence. We do not walk alone. For God is with us. Here we go!