In the Hands of God


The day of my great revelation began – quite literally – in HELL.

It began when I awoke from a night of restless, sweaty doses of sleep to find myself stuffed, with three other college exchange students, in the backseat of a rusting taxi… still.

It began with the loud squawking of chickens and a vendor pounding on the dusty window, sliding plastic watches from China through the crack at the top of the pane.

It began on a day that did not feel like a new day, but rather the extension of the one before, which had been an extension of the week before it, and the month before that. Indeed, it had been almost six weeks that we’d been stuffed inside one taxi or another.

We’d left Sierra Leone when the army shut down our college bearing tear gas and guns. When rumors of a coup were in the air. We thought things might be better elsewhere in West Africa. But after being held against our will by a drugged man in Senegal, relieved of much of our money and a passport in Mali, and narrowly escaping imprisonment in Guinea, Sierra Leone was looking pretty good again… and we thought we’d head back there.

It began in yet another taxi park where the driver of our cab was sure he could find one more person to sandwich into the car. One more person on a circular journey from bad to what looked better, but usually turned out worse.

It began when I finally raised my drooping eyelids to look for some sign of where we were in time and space.  “6:10 a.m.” read the plastic watch dangling next to my head.

“HELL” read the sign outside the window.

Somewhere around 6:15 a.m., I realized that we were next to a dilapidated petrol station from which the “S” had fallen from the front of the company name. Yet it did not stop me from nudging Ellen, my travel companion, and pointing out to her: “Hey, we finally made it.”

But, of course, we hadn’t. Because when you think that the outlook cannot grow any bleaker… it can. Around 11 a.m. on the-day-that-began-in-hell, the taxi hissed, banged, and came to a sudden halt. All of us on-the-journey-from-bad-to-what-looked-better realized this definitely looked worse.

The driver popped the hood and started futzing around with whatever demons reside under there. I stood out on the dirt road, in the middle of a dense jungle and looked in both directions as far as the eye could see for another sign of human life. In the four hours or so since leaving the taxi park, we had not passed another car going in either direction. It could be hours…. Or it could be days before anyone found us. And, what if it were one of those days that stretched into a week into a month?

My mind began to run wild. None of our parents had any idea where in the world we were. Would the college in Sierra Leone even notice we were missing? Does the U.S. embassy come looking for people after a couple of months?

And then, like a bolt of lightning, it struck me. A revelation so simple that to say it out loud seems ridiculous were it not also so true. One of two things is going to happen, I realized: Either I am going to live through this… or I am going to die. And, if I believe in resurrection… it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference.

In that moment, something I had always known – at least theoretically in my head – I understood in my heart. And the world began to spin.

Either I am going to live through this… or I am going to die. And, if I believe in resurrection… all is still well.

Quite suddenly the road was not a road, but a clearing in the jungle that didn’t necessarily go anywhere but here. And here was so strangely beautiful. Sometimes mystics on the cusp of surrender see visions of other worlds. But, in that moment, I saw a vision of this one. There were trees great and varied in a hundred shades of green. And insects with transparent wings veined in gold. Birds with cobalt heads sang songs sweeter than caramel. The trill of an unusual frog rang like a telephone. And intertwined vines formed Jacob’s ladder rising into the hazy gray sky.

It would seem hell and heaven are not separated by a great chasm after all, but by a country so narrow that one can begin the day in one realm and make it for lunch in the other, traveling in a rusty cab at only 20 miles an hour.

Either I am going to live through this… or I am going to die. And, if I believe in resurrection… all is still well.

It was a personal revelation that changed my life, but I was not the first to have it, nor the first to be radically affected by it.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition, that privilege belongs to the Jews in the centuries immediately preceding Jesus.  In the centuries preceding this era, the Jewish people had not believed in a continuation of life after death. 

Either they lived through it … or they died… and it made a great deal of difference.  Theirs was a God that hated death and actively staved it off: A God who held back the hand poised to sacrifice Isaac. Who ended their slavery in Egypt Who rescued them from starvation in the desert. But theirs was a God who didn’t seem to say much about what happened when death did occur. Theirs was a god of the living and was uninvolved with the dead.

Death remained a mystery.

Because they understood the human person more as an animated body than an incarnated spirit, they could not imagine an un-embodied existence.  That was a Greek thing. One might live in memory, so long as descendants existed. But, otherwise, there was only Sheol - the antithesis of life, the shadowy void of nothingness.

At the same time, though, theirs was a God of Justice. A God who set things right. And, ever so slowly, the ramifications of this conviction began to transform Jewish thought on death. If God were a God of Justice, then death must be the just punishment for the peoples’ sin.  But sometimes there were persons who were righteous… and they still suffered and they still died. And where was the justice in that?

The day of their great revelation began on a journey from Babylonian exile to what looked better, but only turned out worse. They’d repented from their sin, reorganized their society, rebuilt their temple – but still did not know freedom.

It began when their temple was consecrated to a foreign god, when the diet they held as sacred was demeaned. It began when their observation of the Law of Life became the cause of their deaths.

The easiest answer would have been to let go of their conviction in God’s justice.  Many cultures viewed their gods as arbitrary, viewed life as hopelessly unfair.  But, our ancestors in faith did not let go.  Rather they believed the more difficult: That even in misery, when things seems irreparably unjust, when even the righteous die, there must be something more to God’s justice.  There must be a justice that extends beyond death.  A way that God redeems even the dead. A life beyond what we can see.  And in the end, all will still be set right. All is still well.

This is the conviction that undergirds the reading from Wisdom that we read so often at funerals and, again, this year on the Day of All Souls on November 2:

Wis 3:1-9

The souls of the just are in the hand of God,
    and no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
    and their passing away was thought an affliction
    and their going forth from us, utter destruction.
But they are in peace.
For if before men, indeed, they be punished,
    yet is their hope full of immortality;
chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed,
    because God tried them
    and found them worthy of himself.
As gold in the furnace, he proved them,
    and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.
In the time of their visitation they shall shine,
    and shall dart about as sparks through stubble;
they shall judge nations and rule over peoples,
    and the Lord shall be their King forever.
Those who trust in him shall understand truth,
    and the faithful shall abide with him in love:
because grace and mercy are with his holy ones,
    and his care is with his elect.

The hope of our first century BCE ancestors has proved to be a dangerous hope. When over the centuries the final justice of God became too separated from this world, it often produced a passivity in which people would accept their current oppression because it would be remedied in the world to come.  When over the centuries the description of God’s final justice took on the details of a paradise, it inspired suicidal bravado, even fundamentalist terrorism.

But, while it made some foolish, it kept many faithful.  At the juncture of time and eternity, it gave the ability to live freely, to choose rightly, to see clearly, to cling loosely, to confront crisis without fear.  And gave to the Judeo-Christian tradition, its very first martyrs – including from the book of Maccabees, the story of Eleazor, the Jewish mother, and her seven sons.  For before we believed in resurrection, scripture gives scant evidence of the courage needed to stare death in the eye and still choose it.

We mark among these martyrs our very own Lord, who took the revelation of the centuries immediately preceding him as his own and walked, in full freedom toward Jerusalem. A pilgrim on the journey toward what looked-better-but-would-likely-turn-out-worse. Recognizing that either he was going to live through this, or he was going to die. But that – even if it were the latter - God’s justice would prevail.

And, he saw all would be well.

And, he saw the grass of the field.

And, he saw the lilies clothed like Solomon-in-glory.

And, he saw the blue-black feathers of the raven.

To the caramel songs of sparrows,

He saw a valley of darkness with a hundred shades of green.


The above is based on a preaching that I did for All Souls Day twenty years ago at Aquinas Institute of Theology.  Geez, how time flies.  But reading it in light of the last weeks (and year), I decided to lean into it again…. in print.  I now think it might have been a little long and complicated to preach from the pulpit, so for this year, I want to share what is pretty much the same message in a simpler, shorter form here.  Please feel free to share this posting or the preaching with whoever in your life you think might find it meaningful in this season of letting go.