Jennie Wilson, the evangelical hymn writer, wrote:
Time is filled with swift transition
Naught of earth unmoved can stand
Build your hope on things eternal
Hold to God’s unchanging hand.
Jennie Wilson was born on an Indiana farm in 1857 and spent her fifty-six years of life in a wheel chair due to a spinal disease. Her hymn was embraced by many in the difficult post Civil War years, including many emancipated slaves. For people who had lived their lives with constant vulnerability … poor farmers, share croppers and slaves, it was a fact of life that “Time is filled with swift transitions; with constant uncertainty. But for those for whom life had a predictable normalcy — who did not have to worry about life, what they would eat or drink or wear, or about their body, its safety and security — for the privileged of war states, especially the South, life was now filled with swift transitions. There was a “kinship of vulnerability” that many Americans of every class shared about material existence as never before.
The line “Naught of earth unmoved can stand” or no human is exempt from the frailty and uncertainty of life, now had meaning imposed upon Americans as never before. With the blood America’s sons still fresh in the battlefields and painfully etched in recent memories, “Naught of earth was unmoved”. Neither plantation owner, former slave, merchant, soldier or politician, northerner or southerner—all had to recognize how quickly life could change. And so Jennie Wilson’s hymn spoke a renewed and poignant truth, especially to people of Christian Faith: “Build your hope on things eternal (not your crops, mills, G.N.P., your military, class or political ideas alone—all fortunes which can quickly and unexpectedly change—but build your hope “on things eternal”), and Hold to God’s unchanging hand.”
Since September 11th Americans have found a kinship with many other Americans and many people around the world . Even as I speak many of us or those we know, face economic insecurity or tragedy either from unemployment, stock market, losses or failure of businesses. This Thanksgiving we grieve the life of economic certainty most of us took for granted only a few months ago. More Americans are concerned about the staples of life—food, clothing, shelter—and employment security than ever before. More are concerned about physical security, as individuals, families and as a nation. A mother with children and a husband whose business requires travel said to me recently, “you don’t know how I feel when those I love go off to work or school. Will I see them again? Will we become like Israel or Palestine or Ireland?” she asked.
But even now (after September 11th), our Lord Jesus is still asking us: “Is life not more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Are there things of more eternal value which undergird material needs?— Can we see the spiritual quality of love that we experience in marriages and family, a quality that is very much alive even for loved ones who because of death will not join you this year? Yet the love lives on. Is there eternal value in faith in God, which can be given away but which no power on earth can take away?
This holiday, we are afraid to fly. We are nervous of tall buildings and prominent public spaces. We would rather chance driving in our private motorized capsules, than use any form of public transportation shared with strangers. Our great stock markets are knee jerking to events in small dusty countries half way around the globe; employment is rising and prudent Americans are less willing to spend dispensable cash reserves.
And finally we are shocked that many in the world do not envy our opulent way of life; nor see us as beautiful or glamorous but as ugly and menacing…. a threat to their chosen way of life. These are attitudes from which no amount of bombing or sky marshals or national guard units can protect us. Yes, we are vulnerable, our economy is vulnerable and our way of life is vulnerable.
Yet, as people of faith—that is persons who believe that life is essentially and ultimately about more than material things, that life is about deeper values—that life is not simply what materially we make of it but it is about the grace of God in our lives. Things eternal include that sense of Divine presence and assurance that enables us to face the terror and uncertainty of life; strength to put one foot in front of the other in good times and bad; in good fortune and tragedy; and YES, even in shadow of death.
When I speak with Christian persons who have been refugees, or who live in countries where violence and political uncertainty is an assumed part of daily life, I am moved that most tell me it is their faith, their trust in God’s eternal presence, goodness and justice that gives them strength to live meaningfully daily. To overcome fear of oppressors and evil doers, to overcome the fear of uncertainty for them and those they love, to over come the tragic loss of loved ones, to overcome fear of their own death. One businessman from Africa said to me “life is always uncertain, your circumstance just makes it impossible for you to deny this truth. No matter where you live, life can only be truly lived with faith in God.”
September 11th has forced us as Americans to acknowledge this truth where before we may have feigned to claim self sufficiency. We now know we are not secure, we can not make our selves secure as individuals or as a nation. We now know we are not completely different than people in Ireland, Israel or Palestine, or Somalia or elsewhere. We are pregnable, vincible and vulnerable and we must learn to live with this psychological and emotional reality.
But given this reality, as people of Christian Faith, we must give thanks for the eternal ground of strength to cope, adjust, to live without despair. That ground is our spirituality—what we believe about God, through our encounters with the Holy presence of God; And what we believe about the very essence of our own being. Are you simply electrodes, hormones, flesh and bones? Or do we sense that there is something about us that is not confined to time, touch and material form? Is there a God we can sense, with whom we can commune. Who strengthens us, comforts us and walks with us in trial and rejoicing? Whom we can sense in the wonders of creation? Whom we can know in personal prayer, worship and sacrament? Who can save us from despair, but also the same evil seed of sin that caused terrorists to destroy and employer victims to act with blind and bloody revenge. Make us love our enemies. Too often, as Christians, religion has been celebrated as words, music and rituals we adore but long have ceased to believe.
Yes, we give thanks to God because we do have such a great abundance in this country of food, clothing and material wealth. We are a blessed nation. Thomas L. Freedman, in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, wrote that if one were to design the most economically, politically and geographically secure country in the world it would America. 1. an ideally competitive geographic position …that is both an Atlantic and a Pacific power…a diverse, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic population that had a natural connection to all continents of the globe, but bound together by one language, the most honest legal and regulatory environment in the world, and a thriving entrepreneurial economic philosophy.” p368, 369. This is to say nothing of our military might.
Even as we fight back, to build a new economy, to bring the purveyors of terror to justice, to regain our confidence to live a “normal” life again, as Christians we must use this time of vulnerability to heed the ancient but eternal and living words of Jesus. To find the eternal power of our faith in a living Lord.
… Do not worry, saying what, ‘What will we eat?’ or “What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles (those who do not share your religious convictions) who strive for these material things; and who build life only on money, status, things, and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
(The Beatitudes teach us that humility, peacemaking, justice, moral courage and faith in God—these are the things of God’s Kingdom which no earthly power can take away). More than food, clothing, trust funds, we must be certain that we and our children have and prize these gifts of
the kingdom above all else. Remember them today at the table. Take time to recount, invite your children to recount, and give thanks for the spiritual blessings and values of life.
Furthermore, to embrace the things of God’s kingdom—the riches of the Christian Faith—is to believe deeply in our hearts that life is more than material security, that we are more than body, more than the breath of life itself…that we are ultimately in God’s hand. As St. Paul wrote: “Whether we live or die we are the Lord’s”. [Romans 14:8]. To live or die without that hope is a tragedy for Christians, for this is our security!! In another letter in which St. Paul was writing to the Christians at Corinth he wrote: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” [I Corinthians 15:19]. In other words, if we only see Jesus as a good luck charm, the god of our success, well-being and prosperity…a source of philosophy and value for this life, but have no spiritual trust that we are soul and that we have spiritual strength to cope with life’s tragedies; that we have in Christian hope that life lost in tragedy is not lost to God…if we do not have this, then why be a Christian?
But what a wondrous faith we have for which to give thanks. A great religion that gives us courage and comfort in this life and hope for the life to come. For truth be told, whether living in Washington, New York, Afghanistan, Belfast or somewhere in the middle-east, the mystery of life and living is the same.
“[Our times] are filled with swift transitions
and naught of earth (rich, poor, American, Afghan, Christian or Muslim) –
naught of earth can stand unmoved.
So build your hopes no things eternal
Hold to God’s unchanging hand.”