God’s Steadfast Love Endures Forever
July 28, 2019
Rev. Alice Fleming Townley
The website said the museum we spotted closed at 5:00pm, and it was 4:30pm. If we hurried, maybe we could skim through it. As we rushed into the Menno-Hoff Mennonite Museum in Shipshewana, we were greeted by a man with a long white beard and wire rim glasses. Our host welcomed and told us what we would see and do and just how long it would take.
We stepped across time and space with each room, into the manger where Jesus was born, to a courtyard in Zurich, Switzerland in 1525 where the Anabaptist faith began to emerge, down to a Dungeon where they were persecuted and martyred for their faith, aboard a 17th century sailing boat headed in search of religious freedom, and finally to America and to pictures of current day Mennonite, Amish and Hutterites. Although we differ, I found myself again moved by their commitment to live out their faith with an emphasis on simplicity, reconciliation, and faithfulness to their sense of God’s call upon their lives above all other authorities. Their narrative included good and devoted people who suffered. The Martyrs Mirror, a book of testimonies and stories first published in 1660, was long a beloved wedding gift and coffee table book for Mennonite and Amish families.
As we finished and I thanked our museum host, I also shared that we knew it past closing and we didn’t want to keep him from his home. He explained that as a volunteer, he lived upstairs. The guest book showed us as the only entry for the day. His heart wanted us to hear the testimony of his people.
As a historian, Kate Bowler researched the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel proclaims that if you follow God and act and pray in all the right ways, then God will reward you. In other words, good things happen to good people. This line of thinking, also known as the Royal Jerusalemite Theology, appears some in the Hebrew Bible, but it came crashing down when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Israelite people were exiled.
Kate visited mega churches with wealthy preachers and stood at altars to pray with people in wheelchairs. As a Mennonite from Canada, she found this all very fascinating, and very American. She viewed herself as a student of the theory, not a practitioner.
At age 35, she had a beloved husband who had been her high school sweetheart, a long-awaited baby, and a coveted position at Duke. One afternoon Kate got a call from the doctor’s office with test results showing she had stage IV cancer and needed to report to the hospital immediately. All she could say was, “But I have a son. I can’t end. This world can’t end. It has just begun.”[i] As she walked from the Duke Divinity School to the Duke Hospital it dawned on her that somehow, she had felt protected. The prosperity gospel she had absorbed became exposed and unraveled with one phone call.
In the three years since Kate Bowler learned she has incurable cancer she has endured more pain and trauma than she thought she could bear. She does NOT believe it was God’s plan that she got cancer. ‘Before’ was better. And she has learned there is no correlation between how hard she tries and the length of her life.
And Kate has drawn strength from remembering the book on her coffee table in her Mennonite home growing up, the one about the martyrs and those who were loving and faithful and who struggled.
And she has found in this life is so much love. She said she, “was floating on love and prayers of all those who hummed around like worker bees bringing socks and flowers and words of encouragement.”[ii] When they sat beside her, her own suffering began to feel like it had revealed to her the suffering of others.
I was entering a world of people just like me, people stumbling around in the debris of dreams they thought they were entitled to and plans they didn’t realize they had made. It was a feeling of being more connected, somehow, with other people, experiencing the same situation. . .
The world is jolted with beauty and tragedy. These opposites don’t cancel each other out. Life will break your heart and take everything. . . I believe that in the darkness, even there. There will be beauty and there will be love. And every now and then it will feel like more than enough.[iii]
Kate was not shielded from suffering. She did find companionship and comfort in the chaos.
And the Israelites in exile? By the rivers of Babylon, they wept, and they remembered, and they came to experience God’s presence even after everything else was lost. Around the fires, the exiled told stories about God’s essence, and human identity, and their relationships with each other and the land. They drew strength from remembering their origin and deliverance and call. This was their story. This was their song.
Psalm138 is a Psalm of thanksgiving to for God’s ‘steadfast love’ which in Hebrew is hesed. The concept appears some 245 times in the Hebrew Bible, 127 times in the book of Psalms. One Jewish scholar defines hesed as “a free-flowing love that knows no bounds.”[iv] Hesed is most closely connected conceptually with the covenant relationship between God and children of Israel. To Moses on Mt Sinai, God revealed Godself as the great I AM,
The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation . . .
And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped. [v]
The Psalmist sang, on the day I called, you answered me, you increased my ‘strength of soul.’ (138:3) The Psalmist sang, expanding the circle of praise from herself, to include the heavenly hosts, and earthly kings. The Psalmist declared that even in the midst of trouble, God’s steadfast love endures forever. (138:8) God’s strength sustains and love abides.
Kate has shared her initial experience in her book Everything Happens for A Reason: and Other Lies I’ve Loved. She was reviewed on the National Public Radio and The New York Times, and even our own church book club. As months turn into years, Kate says it was one thing for her to come to terms with dying, and another to figure out how to go on living now. She began to interview others also walking in the night. I have appreciated listening to her podcast, Everything Happens.[vi] She interviewed the US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams about caring for his wife with cancer and brother with an opioid addiction as he leads the effort to address these for our nation. She’s hosted famous preachers like Barbara Brown Taylor and Nadia Bolz Weber. She talked to Jayson Green, who lost his 2 year old son, about the language of grief. She’s reflected with BJ Miller, who had an accident that left him with serious physical disabilities. He had to learn how to be patient with limitations. Now he is a palliative care physician who works everyday to help people be comfortable and even learn to love limitations. She’s listened to the insights of a caregiver, Mark Lukach as he navigates caring for his beautiful wife in the psych ward and two small children. She’s wondered with author John Green about finding identity amid chronic illness and how love might save us all. I appreciate the rawness and resiliency I hear—even when there isn’t resolution. They are testimonies of abiding love and sustaining strength. Connecting with so many, across time and space, she receives and shares much hesed.
In a way, that’s what happens here at church, when we lean in and listen well to people of all ages and backgrounds—in the sanctuary, fellowship hall, classrooms, offices the parking lot, and even in aisles at Meijer. We hear and hold one another with our hearts. “The beautiful and tragic happen and they do not cancel each other out.” In holy listening, we become part of that hum, part of that flow of divine strength and love that has flowed through creation and incarnation and reformation and today and will into the future yet to be seen. This is our story. This is our song.
[i] Kate Bowler, “Everything Happens for A Reason’ and Other Lies I’ve Loved,” TedMed 2018, https://www.ted.com/talks/kate_bowler_everything_happens_for_a_reason_and_other_lies_i_ve_loved/transcript?language=en
[ii] Kate Bowler, “Everything Happens for A Reason’ and Other Lies I’ve Loved,” TedMed 2018, https://www.ted.com/talks/kate_bowler_everything_happens_for_a_reason_and_other_lies_i_ve_loved/transcript?language=en
[iii] Kate Bowler, “Everything Happens for A Reason’ and Other Lies I’ve Loved,” TedMed 2018, https://www.ted.com/talks/kate_bowler_everything_happens_for_a_reason_and_other_lies_i_ve_loved/transcript?language=en
[iv]Nancy deClaissé-Walford, “Commentary on Psalm 138:1-8,” August 24, 2014, The Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2124
[v] Exodus 34:6-8