December 04, 2022
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
I read an article some time back about Mary McLeod Bethune who realized a dream of starting a college for black students who might not otherwise have a chance to go to college. That school became what is known today as Bethune-Cookman University in Florida. She had a tradition of speaking at the graduation ceremonies each year and sending students into the world with these words, “Faith ought not be a puny thing. If you believe, have faith like a giant, and may God grant you not peace, but glory.” Not peace, but glory.
When you understand something of Dr. Bethune’s life you appreciate her words and her unusual understanding of glory. She was born in South Carolina in 1875, the daughter of parents who both had been slaves. Because she believed education would be a way out of working in the fields, she was able to attend a one-room segregated school. From there she attended the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and then returned to teach in her home state.
In 1938 she wrote, “If our people are to fight their way up out of bondage we must arm them with the sword and the shield and the buckler of pride—belief in themselves and their possibilities, based upon a sure knowledge of the achievements of the past."
Her Methodist faith and upbringing played a big roll in her determination. She wasn’t put off by the cost of starting a private school for African American students, or that others told her it couldn’t be done, or that it would be too hard for a woman her age. No, at 29 years old she started a school that continues to graduate students who go on to be top professionals and leaders in our country and world. And she credits her faith in God as the key.
In 1941 she wrote an essay titled, “Faith that Moved a Dump Heap,” which explains the origins of the school. The only land available to build the school was the former site of the town dump called “Hell’s Hole.” She raised the money by selling sweet potato pies and ice cream. She was passionate and persistent about the cause of education. But even, more, she was confident in what God wanted her to do.
Each year when she blessed students saying, “May God grant you not peace but glory, it was,” in the words of the article I read, “Bethune’s way of telling her students that the battles that matter and the causes that are worthy of our lives are rarely accomplished without difficulty, courage and sacrifice.”
Now this is a very different notion of glory. Last Sunday Pastor Jevon kicked off our series introducing us to one of the words used in the Old Testament for glory, shekinah. This word is often associated with the ways God’s presence is manifest. In the Old Testament shekkinah was associated with the mysterious cloud that would settle over the tabernacle symbolizing God’s presence dwelling with the people. And later it was used to describe the cloud in the temple in Jerusalem.
In the New Testament, the word for glory is doxa, from which we get our word Doxology. It means “praise.” It has the same understanding as shekinah…sort of. When angles greeted the shepherds announcing Jesus’ birth, it says “The glory of the Lord shone around them” implying it was bright, dazzling. When Jesus was transfigured before the disciples, a cloud surrounded them and Jesus appeared with Moses and Elijah. The Gospels describe the event as “dazzling bright,” “like the sun,” and “bright as a flash of lightening.” So glory has this beautiful, spectacular quality about it. But then consider also this statement about Jesus’ transfiguration, “They appeared in glory and were speaking about (Jesus’) exodus, which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:31)
Wait, what? His exodus? We know what that means, right? Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus about his crucifixion. That moment is associated with glory? That seems incongruent, doesn’t it? Yet, that is how glory is often used, especially in the Gospel of John where it repeatedly speaks of glory in such a way as Jesus did when he said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” That clearly is not describing a beautiful or dazzling moment but a difficult one, his crucifixion.
Even Paul referenced glory in such a way. In 2nd Corinthians chapter 4, Paul talks about being persecuted, afflicted, struck down for his faithful actions, but then says, “our slight, momentary affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory.” That is an interesting phrase Paul uses, “weight of glory.” It relates to the third word used for glory in the Bible, khabod. This word is part of a name in the Bible, a name we probably recognize better from its use in the story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod, as in Ichabod Crane. Ichabod means “without glory.” Khabod is another Hebrew word used for glory, that means “weight or heaviness.”
We will focus on khabod much more next Sunday, but I raise it now, because often we think of difficult, painful times as heavy ones. That’s often the way we speak when we are going through a tough time, we say, “This is just a heavy time right now.” Or, “I feel really heavy.” We even speak of carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders.
Why would the Bible use a word meaning “heavy” for glory? Because God’s greatest glory is sometimes revealed in the hardest experiences of life.
Last Sunday Pastor Jevon referenced the story of Moses asking to see God’s glory. He made that request at a very difficult time in his journey leading the Israelites. The complaints and criticisms of the people were becoming too much to bear. His own self-doubt about his leadership and not always feeling God’s presence was wearing him down. When life was heavy he asked for glory. And God said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you.”
Reflecting on this story Ruth Haley Barton says, “God’s goodness is his greatest glory and it is what we most need.” (Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, p161) When we are bearing heavy things, especially things that are the result doing what is loving, good and right, we need God’s goodness to bear us up, because some of God’s greatest glory is experienced through the hardest times. And when we experience God’s presence in such times the load is lightened.
Sometimes what we need is not peace, but glory.
When life is heavy upon us it is so easy for our prayer to become, “Lord, take this heaviness away. Bring me to a place of glory that is dazzling.” But to remove the heaviness may be to remove the glory. Perhaps our prayer should be: “Lord, help me see your glory in this place where I am.”
Is that a prayer that would help anyone today? Maybe you are serving as a caretaker for someone; having to focus not on your needs but the needs of another, and its hard. It is heavy. But there is glory in that.
Maybe your work is hard. You are a teacher, a health care professional, a public servant and life is just hard at the moment. Much is expected. The physical rewards are reduced. But your work is helping people. There is glory in it.
Maybe you are trying to provide for your family and it just feels uphill all the time. It seems there is more against you than for you, but what you are doing is providing hope. You want it to be easier, but there is glory in what you do.
Sometimes what we need is not peace, but glory.
This is the message of Christmas. Christ was born not in a place of worldly glory, not in a palace, not in a shiny cradle, but in a stable. I know we glamourize it today. We have tenderized the stable into a sweet place, but the first readers of scripture would have gotten the message. A stable isn’t glorious. This will be a savior who brings glory to places that don’t appear dazzling.
Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest searching for peace in the glorious places he thought would bring that, teaching at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard. But it didn’t. In fact, he was miserable at Harvard feeling like he wasn’t accepted by the faculty. So he accepted an invitation to visit L’Arche in France, communities for handicapped people, some quite severely. This led to the transformative peace he was looking for. Not in an easy place, but a hard place, at least hard by worldly standards. In a place where many people couldn’t care for themselves and needed the assistance and, in some cases, the full time attention of others, he found peace. This led to his acceptance to be the priest of the L’Arche community in Toronto called Daybreak. He kept a journal of his journey and it was published as a book called The Road to Daybreak.
In one journal entry he writes about glory. He distinguishes God’s glory from human glory. Human glory he says is often based on human approval that leads to competition. So he asks:
How then do we come to see and receive God’s glory? In his Gospel, John shows that God chose to reveal his glory to us in humiliation. This is the good, but also disturbing news. God, in his infinite wisdom, chose to reveal his divinity to us not through competition but through compassion, that is, through suffering with us…This is the deepest reason for living in solidarity with poor, oppressed and handicapped people. They are the ones through whom God’s glory can manifest itself to us.
Nouwen found that these people at Daybreak revealed God’s glory to him. That’s where he found the glory he was looking for—those he came to serve. Its easy to believe that when we serve the poor we are somehow bringing glory to others, making their lives a little more glorious because they don’t have what we do. But the truth is, they have things we don’t, and we serve in missions because of what we need to receive, that these we care for become sources of glory to us.
About the time Henri Nouwen wrote those words I went to my first church in the mountains in NC. One woman in the church lived at the base of Cold Mountain. I was told she had a severely handicapped daughter. I regret I can’t remember the woman’s full name. Everyone just called her Aunt Nell.
I spent many afternoons at her home. Years before I came there she and her husband found out their new daughter would most likely not live beyond a week after birth, so they brought her home to care for her until she died. They held her, sang to her, fed her, changed her diaper but she didn’t die after a week. She didn’t die after a year. She didn’t die after a decade. When I was there she was 37 years old, still bed ridden, needing to be spoon fed and having her diaper changed. The only sounds she could make were grunts and groans.
Aunt Nell would roll her bed to whatever room in the house where she was working, which was usually the kitchen. While she cooked she sang to her daughter. Every now and then she would walk over and kiss her forehead, and say, “How’s my sweetheart doing? You know momma loves you.”
Everyday this went on for 37 years. And I would leave every visit thinking, “How hard that must be.” But I never dared to say that to her, because I know she would have scolded me. She would have probably said, “Hard? Hard? Don’t be silly.”
And I would leave that house every time wondering how does she do it? I believe somewhere along the way she prayed, “Lord, give me not peace, but glory.”
Lord, there are times in all of our lives when what we need is your glory. Some of us may be in that place right now. Life is heavy. We feel like we can’t bear up. We want a glory that gets us away from our problems, but what we really need is for you to show us your glory in the heaviness. Don’t remove our challenge, just help us see your glory in the challenge and know that You will help us to keep going, and your goodness will not fail us. Show us your glory. Amen.