There was a tragic, violent incident this past week at the Fowler Homes, our church related facility for the elderly in East Dallas. One resident inexplicably stabbed another resident to death. On Sunday afternoon Northway was scheduled to be the local congregation that brought the weekly chapel service to the shaken, grieving Fowler community. The message I brought was based on two texts – Psalm 139:7-12 and Romans 8:31-39 – and the old gospel hymn “The Solid Rock” which John sang before I preached. Because life is constantly being punctuated and punctured by acts of violence and tragedy, what I said to the Fowler community on Sunday afternoon is a message that needs to be spoken again and again to shocked and staggering people, especially to people of Christian faith.
I asked John to sing that hymn, “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand” not just because it’s one of my favorites, which it is, but because I wanted us to hear the words of its second stanza –
When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace.
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.
It’s been said that there are two different kinds of religion in the world (William James). There is a kind of religion that encourages its adherents to see the world through rose color glasses. Its “Great Commission” is: “Go into all the world and smile,” and its “Gospel” message is: “Don’t worry, be happy.” This kind of religion tells people that “God is in His heaven and so all is right with the world,” and it tries to produce people with souls of “sky blue tint” (78) who are “constitutionally incapable” (125) of seeing the world in any of its tragic brokenness.
As you would imagine, this kind of religion is very popular. It’s positive and optimistic, after all; it makes people feel good. It assures them that there’s nothing wrong, that everything is all right. And it works really well as long as that’s the case, so long as there is nothing wrong and when everything’s all right. But the minute any of that changes, this kind of religion wavers.
If you’ve been told that believing in God provides you with an exemption from sadness and suffering, then when sadness and suffering show up, it can only be regarded as some kind of failure. When trouble comes along, the people of this kind of religion think that they have either failed God by not having enough faith, or that God has failed them by not keeping His end of the bargain, to keep them safe and happy.
But there is another kind of religion that encourages its adherents to make their way through life with their eyes open wide. Instead of promising people that everything is going to be all sunshine and rainbows if you will just believe in God hard enough, this kind of religion tells people that believing in God will help you make sense of the world as it is, and will steel your resolve to try to endure it, even change it. Instead of offering people an escape from the troubles of the world, this kind of religion tries to produce people who strive to bear sadness and suffering meaningfully, even redemptively.
That hymn that John sang is an anthem of this second kind of religion, especially its second stanza. Take it line by line –
When darkness veils His lovely face…
There are versions of this hymn that change the words of this first line. “When darkness seems to hide His face,” is how you’ll sometimes see it, especially in modern hymnals, and this is how that first kind of religion that I talked about prefers it. Any darkness is only imagined. It just “seems to hide God’s face.” But the way the hymn was originally written fits better with that second kind of religion that I talked about, the kind that honestly faces the reality of this world and our lives. It recognizes that there really is darkness, and it admits that when it falls, it “veils God’s lovely face.” This is the crisis of faith that we naturally experience when there’s trouble. We wonder where God is when we hurt. The two great facts in the first line of the second stanza of this hymn are God and darkness. It denies the reality of neither, and the problem that it names so clearly is that when the darkness comes it “veils God’s lovely face.” It’s hard to see where God is and what God is doing when there’s trouble in our lives, or in our world. That’s what darkness does, it prevents us from seeing. And so the hymn tells us that when it gets dark –
I rest on His unchanging grace.
In 2 Corinthians 5:7 Paul told us that we walk by faith and not by sight. We forget this at our spiritual peril. When things go dark, when we can’t see, either we will have faith that God is still there, or we will give over to despair. In one of his books Brennan Manning repeated a story he said that he’d heard from a priest in the Bahamas –
A two-story house caught fire. The family – a father, a mother and several children – were on their way out when the smallest boy became terrified and ran back upstairs. Second later he appeared at a smoke-filled window. His father, outside, shouted to him: “Jump, son, jump! I’ll catch you.” But the boy cried: “But Daddy, I can’t see you.” “I know,” the father called back, “I know, but I can see you.” (Lion and Lamb 64)
When darkness veils God’s loving face and we can’t see Him, that’s when we have got “rest on His unchanging grace.” And what helps us do this is knowing that God is trustworthy. When the great Jewish Rabbi Abraham Heschel was asked what the most important word in the Bible was, he said that it’s the word “remember.” He explained that Biblical religion is a religion of knowing what God is going to do next because we remember what God has already done. And so the hymn says that –
In every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil.
There will be high and stormy gales. Neither this hymn nor the Scriptures would have us pretend that it was otherwise. Romans 8 is my favorite chapter in the Bible. And my favorite part of Romans chapter 8 is that section that was read here this afternoon just a moment ago as our Scripture lesson, verses 31 through 39. As a pastor I have read these words at more bedsides and gravesides than any other from the Bible. And in the quiet of my study, when I am overwhelmed by the suffering with which I must daily deal, it is to these verses from Romans chapter 8 that I find myself returning again and again. They are realistic. They don’t ask us to pretend that there are not high and stormy gales that will blow into our lives and our world. They expect trouble. They tell us that there will be tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword. They recognize that we face innumerable threats, seen and unseen, physical and spiritual, from above and from below. But in and through it all, this promise remains clear and sure: nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (8:39). This is the anchor that holds within the veil of darkness that hides God’s lovely face from us. The anchor was one of the very first symbols of Christianity. It was the early church’s symbol of hope. On the surface of the water when a storm is brewing all is chaos and fury; winds beating, rain falling, waves crashing. But beneath the surface of the water, on the ocean floor, everything is calm and secure, and that’s what an anchor tethers a boat to in a storm. When everything is crashing and churning above, the anchor holds the ship steady and secure. And so the hymn says “In every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil.”
We began our time together this afternoon by hearing the words of another hymn, an ancient Biblical hymn from the book of Psalms. Psalm 139 and Romans chapter 8 strike me as being a matched set; two texts, one from the Hebrew Scriptures and the other from the Christian Scriptures, that bear witness to the same Divine truth –
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
When the darkness comes, and it always comes, we have not been abandoned or forsaken. Even in the darkness, God is there. Nothing can separate us from His love.