Courage in a time of Trials

Silence. No one here but me. It has been like this all day. Preacher’s Cave, Tay Bay Beach, and the Devil’s Backbone – mine alone. I had come here because it was the only way I knew how to stand in solidarity with my fellow preachers back home in Pennsylvania; burdened today with the task of deciding whether to remove the credentials of the Rev. Frank Schaefer. It had not taken long. I actually knew what the answer had been before I could even make it up to the northernmost point of the island; before I even entered the cave. Rev. Frank Schaefer had been defrocked. Cast out of the Order of Elders. The Order whose members I had only a couple years ago, taken vows to support. Somehow I felt I still owed Rev. Shaefer my vow of support. But there was little left to do but pray.

When I arrived I walked first out to Tay Bay Beach, where the shipwrecked Eleutherian Adventurers had come ashore before finding refuge in the cave. I climbed up on the rocks and ate my lunch in the shadow of a deserted dingy, a shipwreck itself in miniature. Conch shells lay scattered over the volcanic rock, vulnerable as they revealed their pink interior which, along with the coral reefs, were responsible for the pink hue of the sand on this island. Some more beaten up than beautiful, their scars revealed that they had given up more of themselves than others to contribute to the beauty of this beach.

‘Careful’, I said to myself, knowing that the razor sharp rocks that I walked on cautiously would cut me to the bone if I had a single misstep. And then I did – oooooh wheeee – a little something to remember this place by.

As I looked out at the Devil’s Backbone, the dangerous reef that had taken so many ships over the years – and the Eleutherian Adventurers first of all – I marveled at the courage that kind of journey demanded. Courage.

Courage became the theme of my thoughts as I pondered and prayed, and I knew that courage was what would be demanded of us now.

Walking back up the path and into Preacher’s Cave, I did not have the words yet. So I took out my guitar and simply pleaded for God’s grace as I wandered the cave, strumming the chords of Amazing Grace to the rocks and the shadows and the shafts of light.

Finally, I put the guitar away, and climbing up into the naturally formed pulpit of Preacher’s Cave, I found a smooth place to sit.

And, here I sit, and I wonder – Where do we go from here?

A single solitary leaf floats down from the largest opening in the roof of Preacher’s Cave. The sand fleas surround me, but for the first time – almost eerily – not a single one bites me. Nearby I hear the waves crashing and the wind blowing through the large leaves of the sea grape trees. A bird calls out to another and then quietly awaits a reply. Apart from that, all is silence. All is darkness. All is light. That is the irony of Preacher’s Cave. It protects this space with an armor perforated by nature’s power to flood that which should be dark with light.

This is why the early settlers chose to keep returning to this place to worship. It is mysterious and ethereal. A place of darkness where the light rules. A place where shipwrecked freedom seekers came with sadness and left filled with hope. It is a place you come to, but not a place where you stay.

This is my tomb. My place of hope. Where death and despair and discouragement are overturned even at the moment when it seems least possible.

I believe something is changing, I believe it must. I believe the Spirit is moving and I am trying to figure out how to move and shift and sway and dance with her mysterious way.

I believe that I am changing, I believe I must. Courage is the path forward.

No one ever found freedom without courage. The Eleutherian Adventurers put their lives and futures at stake – and those of their children – to search for freedom. Mother Theresa, although she did not want it known, boldly pestered and pleaded with every church authority she could find until she was, after many years, given the church’s blessing to be released from the vows of her Order to begin her own Order. Harriet Tubman, whose feet traced the path North and South that I have traveled more times than I could count, had the kind of courage few of us can even imagine. She had the courage to risk her life not for her own freedom, but for the freedom of others. She understood that all of our freedom is bound up together, and no one is free if anyone is still in chains.

Today my Order lost another person of courage. Simple courage, not dramatic courage – the very simple act of saying and living who he really was. An act that, though simple, is rare. There are few of us who do not have a trial we avoid. Most of us know, if we are being honest, that we can no more agree with and keep every letter of the church law than we can agree with and keep every letter of the law that Jesus speaks of – the law he came not to abolish but to fulfill. The law that has been fulfilled, so that Christ might give us a new way of living.

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Where will we find the freedom to be, say, live who we truly and fully are? We will only find it through courage. The kind that makes your knees shake and your eyes water and your voice crack – the kind of courage, in other words, that emerges not from the lack of fear. As Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” Our current trial culture will either bring courage out in some, or drive it back into the shadows.

My skin has grown cold as the sun dips low. Cold like the water of Tay Bay Beach. Cold like the rocks that surround me in this nature made and human improved chancel of Preacher’s Cave. I reach up and touch the rock around my neck – my tomb, my cave in miniature – and say, as I always do, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is shifting sand.”

Where will we go from here? I am not sure, but the only way forward is on the solid rock and not the shifting sand. Speaking only for myself, the shifting sand has been the politics of the church; the desperate search for the survival of the institution; and the corruption of our youthful optimism as we identify those with leadership potential not in order to follow them in new directions, but in order to tell them how to lead us where we have already been. I have been an accomplice in all these things.

The solid rock, I have found in unexpected places. The comraderie and loyalty of my friend’s who occupied Delaware. The accurate spiritual wisdom of the prophets of James Cistern, Pauline and Maxine. The faithful perseverance of my friends at the Isaiah House, David and Rebekah. Like I child crossing a stream, I have used my discernment to spot the solid rocks and hopped from one to another to find my way. But as we grow up, courage demands that we find the ability to stand steady on our own rock and be a haven for others.

Where does courage come from? It comes from the confidence that we have honestly searched and struggled to know who we are and what we believe. True courage can only ever come from the confidence of convictions.

So we must summon up every ounce of courage we can find, from every dark space we have hidden it in. Bring it all forward to the center of the cave, and find out how much we have when we all come together. Then we will see where God will take this ship we call the church.

One man shipwrecked on an island is Robinson Crusoe; 50 shipwrecked are the Eleutherian Adventurers. One man shipwrecked on an island seeks only to survive; 50 shipwrecked are the first settlers of a new nation.

Courage that makes your knees shake; compassion that makes your heart ache; and a community that sees the walls break. That will be our way forward.

Preacher's Cave as seen from the pulpit
Preacher’s Cave as seen from the pulpit
The approach to Preacher's Cave
The approach to Preacher’s Cave
Spreading some Amazing Grace around the cave
Spreading some Amazing Grace around the cave
Conch shells on Tay Bay Beach, some more battered than others
Conch shells on Tay Bay Beach, some more battered than others
The guardian of Tay Bay Beach
The guardian of Tay Bay Beach
Shafts of light pierce the darkness in Preacher's Cave
Shafts of light pierce the darkness in Preacher’s Cave
A life preserver is one of many objects washed ashore at Tay Bay Beach
A life preserver is one of many objects washed ashore at Tay Bay Beach
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