Keeping The Faith

The following was sent to me by my friend Felton Floyd who lives in a beautiful place called Sugar Valley, Georgia. He holds an amateur radio license, and it was in that amateur radio world that this story originated:

“The older I get, the more I enjoy Saturday mornings. Perhaps it’s the quiet solitude that comes with being the first to rise, or maybe it’s the unbounded joy of not having to be at work. Either way, the first few hours of a Saturday morning are most enjoyable. A few weeks ago, I was shuffling toward the garage with a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and the morning paper in the other. What began as a typical Saturday morning turned into one of those lessons that life seems to hand you from time to time. I turned the dial up on my ham radio in order to listen to a Saturday morning conversation.

Along the way, I came across an older sounding chap, with a tremendous signal and a golden voice. He was telling whomever he was talking with something about ‘a thousand marbles.’ I was intrigued and stopped to listen to what he had to say.

“‘Well, Tom,’ he said, ‘It sure sounds like you’re busy with your job. I’m sure they pay you well but it’s a shame you have to be away from home and your family so much. Hard to believe a young fellow should have to work sixty or seventy hours a week to make ends meet. It’s too bad. But let me tell you something that has helped me keep my own priorities. You see, I sat down one day and did a little arithmetic. The average person lives about   seventy-five years. Now then, I multiplied seventy-five years times fifty-two weeks and I came up with 3900. That is the number of Saturdays that the average person has in their entire lifetime.

“‘It took me until I was fifty-five years old to think about all this in any detail and by that time I had lived through over 2800 Saturdays. I got to thinking that if I lived to be seventy-five, I only had about a thousand of them left to enjoy. So I went to a toy store and bought every single marble they had. I ended up having to visit three toy stores to round up a thousand marbles. I took them home and put them inside a large, clear plastic container right here in the shack next to my radio gear. Every Saturday since then, I have taken one marble out and thrown it away.

“‘I found that by watching the marbles diminish, it focused me more on the really important things in life. There’s nothing like watching your time here on this earth run out to help get your priorities straight. Now let me tell you one last thing before I sign-off with you and take my lovely wife out for breakfast. This morning, I took the very last marble out of the container. I figure that if I make it until next Saturday then I have been given a little extra time. And the one thing we can all use is a little more time. It was nice to meet you Tom, I hope you spend more time with your family, and I hope to meet you again here on the band.’

“You could have heard a pin drop on the band when this fellow signed off. I guess he gave us all a lot to think about. I had planned to work on the antenna that morning, and then I was going to meet up with some co-workers to finish a project. Instead, I went upstairs and woke my wife up with a kiss. ‘C’mon honey, I’m taking you and the kids to breakfast.’

“‘What brought this on?’ she asked with a smile. ‘Oh, nothing special, it’s just been a long time since we spent a Saturday together with the kids. And I need to stop and buy some marbles.’”

In the previous generation there were at least three great Southern-born prophets: Martin Luther King, Jr., Clarence Jordan, and Will Campbell. Campbell is the only one still living. He is nearing his 90th year, and is a self-proclaimed prickly, “bootleg preacher” from Mississippi with a Baptist ordination, a foul four-letter-word dropping mouth, and a love for Bourbon and country music that is just short of his love for Jesus.

Educated at Wake Forest, Tulane and Yale, he has been a pastor, chaplain, an executive with the National Council of Churches, and a writer. But he is most respected for his tireless work toward racial equality in the civil rights South, and his no-compromise, no pulled-punches attitude when it comes to the message of reconciliation.

“God is ready to forgive and restore all who will come,” he has preached for decades now. When asked how he would summarize his theology and his work, in Campbell’s iconoclastic style he answered, “We are all bastards; but God loves us anyway.”

This belief was put to the test during the racial violence and upheaval of the 1960s. One of Will’s best friends, a seminary student and Civil Rights worker named Jonathan Daniels, was shot and killed by an Alabama sheriff. The sheriff was acquitted by “a jury of his peers.”

Will retreated to Fairhope, Alabama, to grieve and rage, taking refuge at the home of friend P.D. East. East was an agnostic newspaper editor who wanted racial equality as well, but he was not an adherent to the Christian gospel. So while Will stalked around the house, angrily grieving Daniel’s death and the uncorrected injustice against him, P.D. confronted Campbell directly:

“Come on, Brother,” P.D. said. “Let’s talk about your definition of the gospel. Was Jonathan a bastard?” Will responded that he was sure that everyone is a sinner in one way or another, but that Jonathan was one of the sweetest, gentlest guys he had ever known.

P.D. persisted: “But was he a bastard? Now, that’s your word, not mine. That’s a pretty tough word. I know, ‘cause I am one; a real one. My mama wasn’t married to my daddy. Now, by God, you tell me right now, yes or no: Was Jonathan Daniel a bastard?” Will finally said, “Yes, Daniel was.”

P.D. East pulled his chair close to Will and just above a whisper asked, “Which one of those two bastards do you think God loves the most – Jonathan or that sheriff? Now, you’re the one who always told me about how simple the gospel is. Just answer the question: Which one of those two does God love the most?”

Here are Will Campbell’s words of response: “Suddenly, everything became clear. Everything. It was a revelation. I walked across the room and opened the blind, staring directly into the glare of the street light. And I began to whimper. But the crying was interspersed with laughter. It was a strange experience. I remember trying to sort out the sadness and the joy.

“Just what was I crying for, and what was I laughing for? Then this, too, became clear. I was laughing at myself, at twenty years of a ministry which had become, without my realizing it…an attempted negation of Jesus…a theology of law and order and of denying the faith I professed to hold. That sheriff was indeed as loved by God as Jonathan Daniel. And if loved, forgiven. And if forgiven, reconciled.

“P.D. came and stood beside me, handing me his half-empty beer. The lesson was over. Class dismissed. But I had one last thing I had to say to the teacher: ‘P.D…damned if you ain’t made a Christian out of me. And I’m not sure I can stand it.’”

This is the category-exploding, boundary-breaking, world-upturning gospel: God’s grace trumps everything. God’s love welcomes all who will come. God’s forgiveness is no “respecter of persons,” even those persons for whom we ourselves have little mercy. Yes, this is sometimes more than we can stand, but it is the no-compromise, no pulled-punches message of reconciliation.

Tony Campolo retells an incident involving William Sloane Coffin following the death of his son, Alexander. Alex, as he was called, was killed in a car accident in 1983 when he was only twenty-four years old. His father, William, who was a pastor, theologian, and chaplain at Yale University, was forced into coping with the emotional fallout. At Alex’s funeral, according to Campolo, the minister conducting the ceremony made a lame statement about the accident being part of God’s will. Coffin, one not afraid to state his opinion, stood to his feet and yelled, “The hell it was! It wasn’t God’s will at all! When my son died, God was the first one who cried.”

This was the Reformer Martin Luther’s response as well. He and his wife also buried a son, and in the aftermath his wife demanded of Luther: “Where was God when our son died?” And Luther responded, “The same place He was when his own Son died – weeping.”

Who among us have never pelted heaven with our questions and doubts: Where is God now? Why doesn’t he intervene? Why is he ignoring me? How could he let this happen to me? Why doesn’t God do something about the suffering in my life and my world? But I believe God is in the pain and the suffering. God has intervened, for in Jesus he knows what it is like to be found in the fashion of a man and subject himself to suffering. And every time you suffer, you will find him there, hurting again.

In your most bitter prayers and violent outbursts against heaven, Christ kneels beside you. When you cry, Jesus weeps with you. When confusion overwhelms and frustrates you, the Lord himself holds your hand and keeps you company. When you turn your head on the cross of suffering, you will see that it is the Galilean Rabbi who bleeds and suffers beside you. I cannot solve the problem of injustice in the world. Most times I cannot even understand it. And I don’t know why God allows/permits/causes/tolerates the things that happen in this world and in our lives. I have given up on that question altogether. I just know that he goes with us through it all.

I take comfort in the fact that Jesus never explained injustice and suffering, but he never avoided it. He embraced it and brought redemption from it. God may not always rescue us, may never explain things to us, but He always identifies with us and can never abandon us. For example, if later today you were to arrive at a terrible accident on the highway, you would have one of two options: First, you could take notes, measurements, pictures, break out your laptop and graph paper and begin re-enacting the scene, attempting to explain how this disaster occurred.

Or, second, you could start administering first-aid, putting hands of compassion and help on the bloodied bodies of those who are suffering. Those involved in the accident would certainly prefer the latter at that moment, and more times than not, that is what God gives us: Few explanations, but all the help and first-aid we need.

Returning to William Sloane Coffin; ten days after Alex’s death, Coffin delivered a sermon entitled “Eulogy for Alex” to his congregation at Riverside Church in New York City. It is one of the most tragically, beautiful things you will ever read. To his congregation, in the repercussion of his son’s death, he said: “In my intense grief I felt some of my fellow ministers were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply could not face…But what God gave me is what God gives to all of us: Minimum protection, and maximum support.”

Faith in God is not an insulator from tragedy or injustice. Following Christ or holding to faith does not guarantee a trouble-free life. Nor will having “more faith” lead to less difficulty in this unfair world. Faith is minimum protection from suffering, but thank God, it is maximum support.