A SMALL BELL
November 15, 2015 by Laurie Chandler
It was a brilliant morning last summer, well into my through-paddle of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. The wind on the lake was just starting to give hints of getting serious, but I knew I could safely follow the shoreline and I was certainly well rested.
Janie and Paul Hartman had gathered me up the afternoon before, fed me ice cream and dinner, listened to my stories, and Janie had even walked this morning?s portage with me, walking stick in hand, through the village of Oquossoc. After weeks of travel, I had surely seen the goodness and the generosity of people. I had felt their prayers and their faith in me and their enthusiasm. It had swept me along as steadily as the wind and the rapids. But not long after Janie and Paul waved goodbye to me at the boat launch, I met a woman who wins the enthusiasm award of the summer.
Rangeley Lake is not a wilderness place, especially not in the heart of summer. There were families wobbling along in colorful kayaks, couples on docks drinking their coffee and reading the newspaper, and boats being readied for a day of play. As I paddled by one dock, I exchanged a cheery greeting with an older woman reading in a deck chair.
?How far have you come?? she asked.
I thought for a moment, trying to visualize the page in my yellow waterproof journal where the miles were slowly adding up. ?425 miles,? I said with a smile, thinking that was a nice round number and hopefully accurate.
Her face registered her shock and she wanted to hear all the details, as I held onto the corner of the bouncing aluminum dock. Well, I had left from the Adirondacks and, yes, that was really a month or so ago, and, yes, I was really going to paddle about 300 more miles, to Fort Kent, by myself for the most part, and, yes, with just the stuff in the canoe. Yes, I was sleeping outside in the wilderness alone and, yes, I did pull my boat and everything I had with me on those little wheels. After quite a conversation, we said our goodbyes and I began to paddle off. Suddenly, to my amazement, she started to cheer and shout words of encouragement into the wind. Can you imagine how great I felt? How empowered? I was ready to paddle into a gale if necessary.
That experience is a treasured memory, one that immediately came to mind as I read today?s scripture from the book of Hebrews. I knew what I wanted to share with you all this morning, what I wanted us to consider?the sheer power and the responsibility of encouragement, particularly within the context of our faith.
The book of Hebrews was written to encourage Jewish Christians, who would have been raised to follow all of the nuances of Jewish law. Scholars are not sure who wrote Hebrews, perhaps Barnabus or Apollos or Priscilla. But the author, whoever he or she was, often quoted the Hebrew scriptures to remind readers that God?s plan of grace had actually been foretold centuries before Jesus was born.
In today?s reading, the author begins with a reference to the actual sacrifices that were still being made in the temple. These sacrifices, though they were made over and over, could not do what Jesus had done. Verse 14 says, ?For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.? Here, and also in chapter 8 of Hebrews, we read these ancient words from the prophet Jeremiah, reminding believers of the new covenant which had now been fulfilled in Jesus:
?This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds;? ?and I will be their God, and they shall be my people;? ?I will be merciful toward their iniquities and will remember their sins no more.?
Jeremiah had promised that God would make a new covenant with the people of Israel based on grace, not a strict set of laws. How freeing this new and living way must have felt to those Jewish believers. They (and we) can be God?s people and discover God?s law within our hearts and minds, guiding us through this troubled world where each week brings new tragedies, needs, and challenges. With God?s help, we can begin to change from the inside out, trying our best to discover what God would have us do.
What would God have us do? Let?s turn to verses 24 and 25: ?And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.? Other translations of these verses challenge us to ?stir up love and good works? and to ?spur one another on.? To do all this stirring up and spurring on, we need to be willing to talk with one another about our faith and how we can apply it in our lives. Perhaps even go out on a limb to talk about something that takes courage.
One evening recently, I happened to find myself having fun and sharing food and fellowship with some friends from church. In fact, we were having so much fun sharing that the conversation took that dreaded turn into politics. But it couldn?t have happened with a better group of people, honestly, and I soon found myself taking the plunge of admitting that perhaps, I could be labeled by a different label that everyone else around the table. But it was good, really, even though I think I was hiding behind my lovely cloth napkin. We talked and listened and I went home with a lot to think about?most of all a question that I struggled with for a while.
Am I a Democrat or a Republican, really? And am I even well enough informed to have an answer? So I took an online quiz and listed important issues to see on which side I fell. And do you know what I discovered? I?m still not sure, but I know that it is most important that I am a Christian. One, hopefully, with God?s laws in my heart and mind.
Now, I doubt if the author of Hebrews was talking about Election Day 2016 as the Day that was approaching and I want us to think about much more than politics.
There are many ways that we can encourage each other to be better disciples, to be people who live with God?s law in our hearts and minds, to be people who look for God?s guidance in the crazy path of life.
First of all, let?s celebrate God?s promises in this new covenant. We are now people of a faithful God, with hearts sprinkled clean. That?s surely something to cheer about! When we are willing to share our own faith journeys, even the questions and the bends in the road, God can work in ways we might never dream of. Let?s not be scared to talk about important things with each other.
2 Corinthians 1:4 says that God comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. God comforts us, empowers us, and guides us. God can use our experiences to help others, just as I was so motivated and empowered when friends who had already through-paddled the trail really believed that I could do it.
Therefore, let?s get excited about each other?s faith journeys. Philippians 2:4 tells us ?Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.? Many of us are good at doing this?just in the last week, I know we have raked leaves and donated food, visited friends and given folks a ride. But as Christians we are also called to give encouragement in discipleship, particularly when we see someone trying to stretch, to grow, to do something awesome.
Finally, let?s commit to attending worship, gathering together, here in this community, where encouragement abounds. Last summer I discovered how much I missed being physically present in worship. ?I journeyed for weeks surrounded by the majesty of God?s creation. And I had bountiful time for reflection and prayer. But what I did not have was the depth of experience that comes from worshipping in the midst of a community. I missed conversations like the one that left me thinking at that dinner with my friends. And as we continue in this time of transition as a church, this gathering is ever more important.
Lately, I have been praying for Joey Feek, the wife of the country bluegrass duo, Joey and Rory. They have requested prayers for a miracle, yes, but also for peace with whatever comes. Married for 13 years, the couple has found musical fame while still staying grounded on their farm in Tennessee, becoming parents together a couple of years ago, and then receiving a devastating cancer diagnosis. Joey fought her cancer bravely, but recently entered hospice care at the age of 40. On the wall at the hospital where Joey received her treatments is a brass plaque with a story that Rory shared on his blog and with which I will close. It is called ?Two Horses.?
There are two horses in a field. From a distance, each horse looks like any other horse. But if you get a closer look you will notice something quite interesting?one of the horses is blind. His owner has chosen not to have him put down, but has made him a safe and comfortable barn to live in. This alone is pretty amazing. But if you stand nearby and listen, you will hear the sound of a bell. It is coming from a smaller horse in the field. Attached to the horse?s halter is a small, copper-colored bell. It lets the blind friend know where the other horse is, so he can follow. As you stand and watch these two friends you?ll see that the horse with the bell is always checking on the blind horse, and that the blind horse will listen for the bell and then slowly walk to where the other horse is, trusting he will not be led astray. When the horse with the bell returns to the shelter of the barn each evening, he will stop occasionally to look back, making sure that the blind friend isn?t too far behind to hear the bell.
(And I am still quoting)?Like the owners of these two horses, God does not throw us away just because we are not perfect. Or because we have problems or challenges. He watches over us and even brings others into our lives to help us when we are in need. Sometimes we are the blind horse, being guided by the little ringing bell of those who God places in our lives.
And at other times we are the guide horse, helping others to find their way. Good friends are like that. You may not always see them, but you know they are always there.
Please listen for my bell and I will listen for yours.?