“Too Deep for Words”

Well, our family survived (I mean enjoyed!) another summer camping trip. The photo on the bulletin cover is from Port Crescent State Park in Michigan. The previous day, the water had been wind-tossed and white-capped. Now, in the early morning light and shadows, tiny quiet waves lapped at the shore. I noticed the raised lines in the sand, making visible the pattern of the water’s gentle movement throughout the night. It was a beautiful scene, and fleeting—soon to be erased by foot traffic and increasingly forceful waves. In these spidery sand ribbons, I find a metaphor for the work of God’s Spirit, as Paul describes it in Romans chapter 8.

Ah, Romans . . . I keep wondering: why am I torturing myself (and all of you and our guest preachers) by focusing on Paul’s letter to the Romans throughout this entire summer? Finding a life-sustaining word in this dense, repetitive prose has felt very much like taking our medicine, hasn’t it? And yet, I find the challenge has its rewards. I’ve tried to listen beneath and around Paul’s words to the spirit of his communication. Romans has come alive for me in a different way, at least here and there. And after all these weeks of laborious reading, at last we’ve come to today’s familiar and beloved verses. Whenever I hear this passage, Kathleen Norris’ poem echoes in my mind, particularly her brilliant description of Romans 8 as a “long crescendo.” Indeed, this chapter convinces me that Paul has a mystical and musical side. He’s seeking to communicate truths that, as he puts it, are “too deep for words.”

The eighth chapter of Romans begins with low groans of frustration over the tangled mess of sin, flesh and death that is one aspect of our human reality. Paul laments. It’s impossible for us, under our own strength alone, to consistently listen to the angels instead of the devils, as Sandy put it or, as Clyde explained, to resist the lure of the sarx so we can receive the gift of the soma. Thanks to both of you for offering such thoughtful and inspiring sermons on this difficult topic!

Today’s reading (from the second half of chapter 8) is where the volume and energy begins to increase. “The Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” We tend to think of prayer as something we do. Paul turns this idea upside down and inside out. Prayer, he says, is the work of God in us. We need not initiate the communication. Words are not required. We don’t have to know what we’re trying to say. The Spirit is always praying within us. All that is needed from us is a tiny nod of consent, a small bit of openness to the constancy and power of divine love. The evidence of the Spirit’s prayer within us is subtle—tiny waves on the beach. God is like a great lake moving in our lives with a persistence that is both gentle and massive. Over time, lines in the sand appear, making visible the marks of a transformation that’s hard to see. The Spirit never forces us, just nudges us toward freedom, toward alignment with the purposes of God. The Spirit makes possible our adoption into the body and family of Christ. “In Christ” we can do the good we could not do alone.

The next stretch of Paul’s crescendo can be puzzling and troubling. The idea “all things work together for good for those who love God” sounds nice until you think about it for a minute or two. It’s clearly false (and offensive) to suggest that only good things will happen to us if we love God or that the bad things that do happen to us are a punishment from God. And with all the talk of predestination, it could sound like Paul is saying that our paths are set out ahead of us and we have no choices.

Here’s how I read this section. A process of personal rebirth in Christ correlates with a global undertaking. God is at work in all things with loving purpose, healing a troubled world. The sighs of God’s Spirit inter-mingle with the groaning of the whole earth. Groaning and sighing together, God and the earth create a synergy, a symphony. The sounds of lamentation turn into the sounds of labor—the painful, yet joyful noise of a new creation being born. God, indeed, has a plan, not necessarily for individual lives, but for this larger process of change. God intends for those who participate “in Christ” to be the epicenter of a ripple that is spreading and growing.

In his autobiography, Congressman John Lewis tells a vivid story from his childhood. He was playing outside when a severe storm blew in. With all fifteen of his playmates, he rushed inside his aunt’s small house to take shelter. He writes:

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. None of us could. This storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky. With us inside it. That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands. Line up and hold hands, she said, and we did as we were told. Then she had us walk as a group toward the corner of the room that was rising. From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, the wind screaming outside, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof. Then we walked back in the other direction, as another end of the house began to lift. And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.[1]

We, too, are weathering some mighty storms. Vast encampments of people all over the cities have only a tent to call home. The pressure grows to deal with problems in the camps by clearing people out, scattering them into the shadows, and pretending they don’t exist. And the numbers of those without housing will surely grow when the Governor’s temporary stay on evictions expires. The Sheridan Story is predicting that 112,000 more Minnesota children will face food insecurity in coming months. In the face of these problems that demand deep structural change, we are mired in the fears of those who insist that the only way forward is violent enforcement of the status quo. Our systems of policing and incarceration make a mockery of justice and wholeness. The instability of a society living through a global pandemic newly uncovers the threat that white supremacy has always posed to our democracy.

Congressman Lewis went on to reflect on the way those children, with the guidance of his Aunt, handled that terrifying storm so many years ago. He recalls:

It has struck me more than once over those many years that our society is not unlike the children in that house, rocked again and again by the winds of one storm or another, the walls around us seeming at times as if they might fly apart. It seemed that way in the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement, when America itself felt as if it might burst at the seams—so much tension, so many storms. But the people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came together, and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest. And then another corner would lift, and we would go there.[2]

I believe Lewis’ story provides a model for us as people who follow Jesus, people who seek to live “in Christ.” Even as the storms rage, God gives courage, wisdom and creativity. God spurs us toward the posture of the crucified and risen Christ, the one who models self-giving love as a path to the cooperation with the Spirit’s vision of change. God guides us to gather and act in places where where our momentum will collectively make a difference. God opens the way for life-sustaining shifts to occur. Amid the pain of our groaning and the despair of our sighing, God conducts a symphony of renewal and re-birth.

The peak of the Romans crescendo is so often chosen for memorial services. As the chapter closes, Paul belts out his bedrock assurance: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Kathleen Norris reads the crescendo of Romans 8 from her grandmother’s weathered Bible. In so doing, Norris realizes that the evening breeze is one and the same with her grandmother’s light touch at the last, with the gift of her prayer scrawled in the Bible in yellowed handwriting. In the ever-present and powerful Spirit of God, we are one with the whole of creation. The “river in the tree/the stream in the grass/the ocean of blood” moves in each one of us. The Spirit intercedes for the whole world with sighs too deep for words. Like a great lake, the slow, gentle, persistent work of transformation goes on within us and around us. And in the end, love is all there is. Love is why we’re here. Love is who we are. Amen.

[1] John Lewis, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), xvi–xvii

[2] ibid.