On May 7, 2012 I was honoured to give the convocation address at the convocation of the Vancouver School of Theology. This is the text of that address which, since I am a preacher by trade, took the form of a sermon. My thanks to my friend Martin Cohen for his helpful translation of the Hebrew in Isaiah 40:27-31.
When Principal Stephen invited me to give the convocation address he said that the school is dealing with a very serious diagnosis which threatens its future. He said that this diagnosis will call for major intervention in hopes of survival. He said that perhaps my recent experience of receiving a terminal diagnosis and having a major medical intervention in hopes of extending my lifetime would provide a helpful lens through which to see things. It has been a year since the doctors discovered that I have multiple myeloma, a rare form of blood cancer, and amyloidosis, an even rarer disease that leads to organ failure. The bad news is that there is no known cure. The good news is that, due to advances in medical science, these diseases are becoming chronic and manageable. Let’s see - chronic, manageable, incurable. It sounds a lot like life. This is what it's like on the other side of a serious diagnosis: it’s a lot like life, only now everything is magnified - including the faith.
In the year since my diagnosis I have received an autologous stem cell transplant that put me on the sidelines for five months only to discover that the hoped for lengthy remission did not materialize. Then I began treatment with a front line chemotherapy drug. The drug effectively derailed the cancer but, alas, my body had a serious allergic reaction that landed me in St. Paul’s hospital in Holy Week. Two treatments tried. Two treatments failed. Later this week I begin a third line of treatment. People regularly tell me stories of others with my disease who have lived many healthy years. My own doctors hold out hope that things will go well for me. But I know what it is to hear a voice inside cry out: “My way is hidden from the LORD.”
It is just one contrary verse in the midst of Isaiah’s extraordinary and surprising explosion of hope that erupts after thirty-nine long chapters of ache and woe. After the woe there is a long pause. One hundred and sixty years long. And then second Isaiah sings “comfort, comfort my people says your God.” He calls on Jerusalem to get up to a high mountain as a “herald of good tidings”. It is the first mention of gospel - good tidings - in the Bible. Little wonder that Isaiah was known in the early church as the fifth gospel. The fortieth chapter of Isaiah is the voice of an Easter God speaking into a Good Friday world. It is beautiful and wondrous and the people of God do not believe it.
They say “My way is hidden from the LORD.” These are the believers, by the way. When I graduated from VST in 1980 I did not know how often I would hear this cry within the church. I had been thinking that the church is the home of believers, people who trust their future to God. My preaching often took faith for granted and went to work on action. I wanted to see this faith getting to work in the world. And I let the congregation know. But slowly they educated me, confessed to me, told me that their way was hidden from God. When they began to trust me they revealed their grief and their shame, their ache and their despair. They told me that they longed to believe - to trust - that God really does redeem and save, heal and reconcile. I realized that my preaching had been foolish. The issue wasn’t lack of desire to get working in God’s world. The issue was believing that it is God’s world, that God really is up to making new and saving lost souls and calling out a church that is the salt of the earth and the light of the world. So it won’t surprise me if this is also an issue in theological schools. Because, for all of its formidable education about the faith even a theological school can struggle to keep the faith. Even VST can know what it is to say “Our way is hidden from the LORD”.
Israel’s cry of being hidden from God leads Isaiah to make a bold claim. He bets that sustained energy for the future is not going to be self-generated. He says that the problem does not have to do with a lack of young people. Given the troubles we face “even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted.” Isaiah announces that the God of Abraham and Sarah, the One who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, does not faint or grow weary but, instead, gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. Isaiah seems to suggest that God does not get tired because God’s “understanding is unsearchable”. Or, at least, that is how the NRSV translates the Hebrew. But the word “cheiker” in Hebrew is better translated “boundary” rather than “unsearchable”. The verse proposes that God does not become fatigued because there is no boundary to what God knows. God’s knowledge knows no limits. Isaiah implies that our fatigue is not mainly physical. It is our hearts and souls and minds that tire because we cannot finally understand how things are or why they are. What exhausts us are the boundaries of our knowledge. Those boundaries are never more evident than in a theological school. For as much as we claim to know about God our truthful testimony must always admit that there is evermore that we do not know or understand.
Isaiah promises that there is an antidote to our fatigue. There is a source of energy to live fully within the limits of what we know and cannot know. He proposes that the energy to live richly in the midst of grief and ache, loss and anxiety does not come from having reserves of cash or plenty of smarts or good connections with the right people. Energy to live into the future comes from placing all your bets on God. “Those who hope in God”, says Isaiah, “shall renew their strength”. Well, actually the Hebrew word “yachalifu” doesn’t so much mean renew as it does “transfer”. Isaiah seems to be saying that those who place their trust in God acquire the ability to transfer God’s energy and strength from one to the other, to be each other’s support systems, one another’s bulwark’s against despair.
Which is, I suppose, why Stephen extended the invitation for me to speak to you all this evening. You who are graduating are beginning a new and promising chapter in your varied ministries and lives. The school is at a crucial moment in its story. I am about to embark on another round of treatment. We gather with our fair share of exhaustion and fatigue. My testimony from the other side of a cancer diagnosis encourages you. Your witness strengthens me. There is an exchange of energy which is the result of our mutual reliance upon God. We discover that in throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into God’s future - in trusting that the future is in God’s good hands - that God is the source of our energy for tomorrow.
This is the leap of faith that Isaiah prescribes to those who find their way hidden from God. It is as simple and as risky as trusting that the future is God’s. The future of the Vancouver School of Theology is God’s. The future for each of you who graduate this evening is God’s. The future for those of us who live with incurable illness is God’s. Once we trust that the future is God’s we discover that there is no reason to hold anything in reserve today. Fatigue will not be a problem. Energy for tomorrow will be supplied by the God who meets us there, the One who - even tonight, even here, even now - gives power to the faint and strength to the powerless. It is the gospel truth. Thank God. Thank God.