As I write this, I’m sitting in the back of my uncle’s boat, a 43-foot Stephens Brothers wooden yacht, built in 1929, that I’ve been on for the last five days, meandering around the San Juan Islands with him. Last night, over a home-cooked (or would that be boat-cooked?) dinner of corn-on-the-cob, green beans, squash, and baked potatoes–and a couple glasses of red wine, of course–our conversation turned to the same small matters like God and the meaning of life that have been the topic-de-jour for dinner conversations on this trip.
This morning, as I drink my coffee–made with a french press–I’m watching the fog roll back from land and other boats pass a few feet behind me as they pull out of the harbor. It’s turning into a beautiful day, the rain that tapped out a rhythm on the roof of the boat throughout the night holding off for now, the sun peaking through the clouds. A light breeze is blowing, stirring the flags on the boats around me, and making the 65 degrees feel just a little bit cooler. Andrew Peterson’s new album, Resurrection Letters, Volume II, is playing on my laptop, and he just sang my favorite line on the album, the bridge of “All Things New”: Hold on to the promise / the stories are true / that Jesus makes all things new.
Yes. Yes. During those times when I believe, and the days in between when I want to believe, that’s what I hold on to. That the stories, somehow, incredibly, really are true. That in some way I can’t even begin to fathom, Jesus will make, and even now is making, all things new.
Over a dinner of seafood and pasta at a restaurant on a nearby island a couple days ago, my uncle asked me why I went to church. And none of the answers I gave him–that I like what my church does in the community, or for the friendships I’ve found there–answered his question satisfactorily, either to him or to myself. So the question has stayed on my mind. One of the books I’ve been reading on this trip is Frederick Buechner’s Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons. I’ve read and re-read a couple sermons a day, and in one sermon I read for the fourth or fifth time yesterday, “Let Jesus Show”, I found an answer to my uncle’s question, the reason why I go to church.
Buechner writes, ” ‘You will seek me,’ Jesus says, and no word he ever spoke hits closer to home. We seek for answers to our questions–questions about life and about death, questions about what is right and what is wrong, questions about the unspeakable things that go on in the world. We seek for strength, for peace, for a path through the forest. But Christians are people who maybe more than for anything else seek for Christ, and from the shabbiest little jerry-built meeting house in the middle of nowhere to the greatest cathedrals, all churches everywhere were erected by people like us in the wild hope that in them, if nowhere else, the one we seek might finally somehow be found.”
That’s why, every Sunday, I make my way to church, one in the morning and another one in the evening. Out of “the wild hope that . . . the one we seek might . . . be found.” And to be with others who are on the same journey, who are seeking the same thing, with more or less degrees of hopefulness and certainty. Others who believe the same wild stories. And in hopes that maybe, just maybe, Jesus will show in those churches.
Buechner’s sermon continues, “Let Jesus show in these churches we have built for him then–not just Jesus as we cut him down to size in our sermons and hymns and stained-glass windows, but Jesus as he sat there among his friends with wine on his breath and crumbs in his beard and his heart in his mouth as he spoke about his death and our ours in words that even the nine-year-old angel [in the church Christmas pageant] would have understood. ‘Let not your hearts be troubled,’ he said in the midst of his own terrible troubles. Take it easy. Take it easy. Take heart. ‘Believe in God,’ he said. ‘Believe also in me.’
Well, we are believers, you and I, that’s why we’re here–at least would-be believers, part-time believers, believers with our fingers crossed. Believing in him is not the same as believing things about him such as that he was born of a virgin and raised Lazarus from the dead. Instead, it is a matter of giving our heart to him, of come Hell or high water putting our money on him, the way a child believes in a mother or a father, the way a mother or a father believes in a child. ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Peter asked from where he was sitting, and Jesus answered, ‘I go to prepare a place for you … that where I am you may be also.’ Can we put our money on that? Are we children enough to hear with the ears of a child? Are we believers enough to believe what only a child can believe?”
Buechner closes his sermon, after describing himself as a “skeptical old believer, [a] believing old skeptic,” with this encouragement: “By believing against all odds and loving against all odds, that is how we are to let Jesus show in the world and to transform the world.”