I was sitting in my office chair the other day, listening to a studier take a break on the piano in the lounge beneath my office. The moment, with its music, was beautiful.
The context, of course, was finals week, and I knew how difficult it can be during finals week to make time for beauty. Many students have already gone home for the summer. Others are busily hauling their belongings down sidewalks and into the trunks of their parents’ waiting SUVs. In the midst of joy and revelry, it is the lot of a few to stay behind by themselves and study for exams late on the schedule.
Finals pose a unique dilemma for the student left behind: the exams are all consuming - until they’re not. One student I spoke to that afternoon had two exams in the next twenty-four hours, then nothing. Still, she found it hard to believe that the stress she was feeling just then would ever be over, much less in a single day, when she too would join the ranks of the joyous and begin busily hauling her belongings into the trunk of her parents’ waiting SUV.
The students already finished may have been momentarily less stressed, but the end of it all brings its own set of challenges: relocation, the uncertainty of summer jobs, graduation for some, transition to “the real world,” and - if nothing else - anticipation of the coming fall.
So it was with amusement and appreciation that I started reading the first line of the gospel lesson appointed for this Sunday, graduation weekend. “Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.’”
Lots of reasons to be troubled. Afraid. Uncertain. Jesus tells his friends to not let their hearts be troubled. Then he tells his friends why they should not be afraid: Jesus himself goes ahead to prepare their place.
It’s a gospel lesson frequently read at funerals, making it a fitting passage for the Sunday after finals week. But not just finals week. And not just death. Jesus’ words are for every moment in which we find ourselves aware of the limits of our sight. Moments in which we paradoxically see our blindness, recognizing that we don’t know how a given turn will unfold. And every time we find ourselves in this life afraid for what might (or might not) come next - the unknown - we remember Christ’s promise:“I’m going ahead. By the time that you get there, I’ve been there. Don’t be afraid.”
I was praying with colleagues on campus the other day, when one of them - himself not much older than a student (and, so, conspicuous in our group) - started praying.“Dear God, I’m praying with these leaders for students on this campus, and I’m realizing that it must have been at this very meeting, this very space, this same time of year, a few years ago, that the prayers we’re praying now were prayers prayed and heard for me. Before I knew you. And now I’m here. You are merciful. Father, I’m here because the others prayed like we’re praying now. Thank you.”
Everywhere, the reminder: by the time we will get there, Jesus will have been there.
With the reminder that God goes before us, we receive the assurance not that all will come out as we had hoped, but that nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We experience peace as we learn to measure our days by the love of this assurance.
You may remember how the singer songwriter Prince once legally changed his name to “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” If nothing is to separate us from the love of God, I wonder what other“things formerly known as impossible” the Gospel would call us to doubt. A good friend and priest once wrote, “Unless we are willing to doubt our doubts, our doubts are just excuses to avoid the implications of believing.”
The risen Christ goes ahead of us to prepare a place for us. Not just a reminder for students. A reminder for the Church in the face of an uncertain future, tempted toward despair; a hope for a world continuously perched on the precipice of its own disaster; an encouragement for parents who love the children whose lives they cannot predict and for the children of parents whose vulnerability comes as an unexpected surprise; a promise for all of those who risk themselves for others, not knowing the future possibilities of unexpected friendships. A reminder here, at the Episcopal House, as we continue our journey of reawakening and flourishing with students and the university community.
We do not know the future, but we do know the Way. We have come to believe, trust, and love the Way, the Truth, and the Life - yea, Christ himself. Indeed, we are here to receive him. Here is our hope. Here is life abundant. Here is our peace. O heart, don’t be troubled. Wherever you go, our God goes ahead.