After leaving my wife at the bus station today in Concord, NH, the drive back to the camp where I’m speaking has me thinking about change. My youngest daughter will soon be arriving home from a summer in Rwanda, changed utterly. In a few short months both she and my wife will graduate from Seattle Pacific University, and this will mark the end of college careers (at the very least, for the time being) for our whole family. Change. The church I lead is moving into a new season in a few short weeks, one in which we’re casting vision that we pray will strengthen our focus on being a healthy community that represents Christ heart with clarity. This too will call for change.
Meanwhile, all around us, our culture and world are changing: markets, marriages, housing prices, droughts, wars, the state of our own human bodies – nothing is static. I ponder that soon the young adults who have served so faithfully these past 9 weeks for Home Improvement Ministries will be scattering. Bonded for a season, they’ll go their own ways on Friday, as will I, each of us heading into a future that will undoubtedly offer unforeseen joys and sorrows.
This changing world. It sometimes feels like we’re on a journey without a map because we’ve no idea what will be around the next corner. It’s enough to make some people numb themselves with coping mechanisms ranging from too much shopping to too much drink, or food, or sleep, or work. Of course, all this robs us of the present moment, imprisoning us in fear and anxiety even more.
I’m thinking of all this, not just generically, but particularly, with marriages strained to the breaking point, babies that are critically ill, layoff notices that have just been received. I park the car back at camp and walk through the dripping trees, still heavy with the morning’s rains. Then it hits me:
The smell of smoke. I see it, coming out the chimney of the rec room, where campers are slapping ping pong balls around whle they wait for the waterfront to open. I realize that if you’re a firefighter, or have fought in a war, smoke evokes a different set of emotions. But for me, smoke is tied, almost exclusively to goodness. It was at a campfire in 7th grade, that my heart melted in an encounter with Christ. It was around the campfire at our mountain chalet that some of the richest nights of conversation in my life unfolded. It was by the fireplace, with a real fire, that I ate a meal prepared by my mom way back in 1978 for my friend named Donna, who’d gone to Yosemite with me for the day to play in the snow. That meal, laced with smoke from the fire, set the wheels in motion for that friend to become my lifelong companion. We built a fire on our honeymoon. We read by the fire on snowy nights, both in the San Juan Islands when we lived there, and in the mountains.
For me, smoke is the smell of grace, a reminder both of God’s goodness and presence.
The world has all the marks of hell at times. And yet the Psalmist has the audacity to write, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the erth should change and though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea, thought its waters roar and foam, though the mountains quake at its swelling pride….the Lord of hosts is with us!
Or, as Julian of Norwich said: “All’s well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”, which is simply her way of saying that God’s working things out, that history’s moving in the right direction. Sometimes it doesn’t appear to be true – but then we smell the smoke, or glimpse whatever sign of grace God gives us for the day (there are many). When it hits us fully we say with the Psalmist: “We will not fear – because God is our stronghold”
It will be 80 tomorrow here in New Hampshire. The smell of smoke will be gone. But I’ve tasted it today, and named it, and rejoiced in it. And tomorrow, I’ll push my sweatshirt into my face and inhale, while I say, “Thank you” to God.
We thank you that in a world marked by instability and uncertainty, there is One who is sure. We’ve not always looked to You, seeking instead to navigate the waters of change through out wits, or religion, or strong coffee. None of these have worked. We need just what you offer, to “cease striving and know that you are God”. Quiet our hearts, and attune our senses to the language of grace so that when your speaking, we’ll hear, and turn, and be healed.
In your unchanging and life giving name…. amen.
What signs of grace speak to you? A song? The smell of bacon cooking? The musty smell of a cabin by a lake? Please share…