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Feb. 1, 2017:  Tracing the Rainbow

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When I was 26 years of age (and living in the UK), before we had children, my wife and I decided to quit the rat race. We sold our first apartment in London and moved to the country. I had Devonshire roots so we found ourselves a thatched village in the heartland of North Devonshire and purchased the house of our dreams—an elegant Georgian residence (it said that in the real estate particulars) with six bedrooms, all of them defined by their own period color scheme. It had a west wing and an east wing and a room for storing apples from the espalier fruit trees that adorned the Italianate walled garden. We did a lot of entertaining in those days. I would like to say that it was because we were incredibly hospitable people but in reality it was “Come and see how big our new house is!” All by itself this house said, “The people who live here have made it!” But actually that was not true. Neither the bedrooms in their many splendid colors nor the west wing nor the east wing could disguise the fact that I had this deep and unsettling conviction that there was something missing. If I could have told you what that might have been it could have helped, but in all the mystery there remained an ache. There was a quiet sort of despair within me that was only temporarily distracted by the next grand interior decoration project or the next big vacation.

When we had exhausted the list of all the people we could possibly think of to come and visit us in our big house, it dawned on us that we should probably get to know some people who lived locally and so, as a last resort, we went to the local parish church on a Sunday morning. The church was cold and dark and there were more draughts than people. My wife sat down and was immediately told that she was sitting in someone else’s pew. Given the few parishioners, the probability of us sitting in someone else’s seat was not high but we apologized profusely and moved to another open pew. There was a curious smell of mildew and wood polish that stayed on your clothes for hours after you had left the building but there was also a small group of people who would (although I did not know it at the time) become good friends. They were not the only people in the church but there was something about these particular people that stood out. I was intrigued by and drawn to them all at the same time. They invited us for meals. They were interested in us. One of them asked me, referring to my revered career as an attorney, “But how can you do that as a job if you honestly don’t find it fulfilling?” and I thought “because it pays the bills on my lovely big house… what a dumb question.” Just occasionally they would say something like, “Have you prayed about that?”—which of course we hadn’t—and they always spoke about Jesus like they knew Him personally. I decided that I liked them sufficiently that I was not going to hold that against them.

The hymn books in the church were so old they should have been in the British Museum. The publication date on the inside cover read 1870, which, I speculated, was also the number of species of dust termite that lived within the pages of these bad-tempered old hymn books. Deep amongst the micro-organisms that inhabited these ancient books there was one very old hymn that I developed a soft spot for. It had quite a pretty tune and there was one line in about the third verse that really grabbed my attention: “O joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to Thee, I trace the rainbow through the rain, and feel the promise is not vain: that morn shall tearless be.”

I was clueless to explain why but whenever I sang this hymn my throat tightened and my eyes filled. Other hymns from this primordial collection were filled with bewildering words like “consubstantial” or else they exhorted you to raise the “Trisagion ever and aye” which was kind of fun to sing but difficult to apply in the home or the workplace. But I knew what a rainbow was and the idea of looking out onto a stormy horizon and tracing one with your finger through the rain was at least a possibility.

A little while later, my new friend Richard (the new Rector at the church) asked us if we would like to be part of a group that was going to explore the Christian faith during Lent. I did not know very much about Lent or the Christian faith but it turned out that the small group of people who intrigued me were also going to be there and, as they had been so kind and welcoming to us, Elena and I thought that we would go along and encourage them. Unbelievably, the Lent course had the same effect upon me as the strange rainbow hymn. When the course came to an end, we learned that a weekly Bible study group was going to start and I heard myself volunteer that we would host the group at our big house. Not only was my wife really mad at me at that surprise offer, but I had to go out and buy a Bible. Soon I found that I was counting down the days until the next Bible study group. Sometimes I even read ahead. One morning I said to Elena, “If Jesus is real and if He is who He says He is, that really does change everything.”

I can’t quite tell you when but sometime later, the aching inside me stopped. Suddenly there was a new love, a new purpose and a peace in God’s mercy over me. Suddenly my life did not feel like such a waste. Very simply, the love of God had come searching for me in the goodness of a community of His people. Through their patient love, I discovered that Jesus knew my name, offered me scandalous grace and unfathomable love, and had a plan for my life.

Two thousand years ago, out in the fresh air, vast crowds pushed in around Jesus to hear Him teach what we have come to call “The Sermon on the Mount.” The account in chapters 5-7 of the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t note anyone very special in the throng; it was a nameless, disposable crowd of hopeless, spiritually-hungry people. Yet Jesus looked out upon them and saw something that nobody else had seen. He told them, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). He was looking at His church. He still feels exactly the same way. That small group of friends taught me that together, in God, we can change our world—within us and around us. We can beat back the darkness and be the light. Each one of us has something vital, something precious to contribute. Jesus’ resurrection let loose a revolution—an uprising of hope so strong that for two thousand years, people have understood that however tragic their circumstances, however appalling their transgressions, however bleak the immediate outlook, however beleaguered the Church, the love and mercy of Jesus cannot be overcome.

The world is watching and it is not sure whether the Church is dead or alive. One moment it is trumpeting our obituary; the next moment it comes back to the body to give it a poke to see if it can get any response. My experience is that the Church is very much alive and that rumors of renewal are not unfounded. The Gospel still works and the people of God have still got it in them. Together, we can help one another to trace the rainbow through the rain, and know His promise is not in vain.