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The Raindrop That Falls To The Earth – By The Reverend Barkley Thompson

Episcopal seminarians are required to complete a summer of hospital chaplaincy.  It is on-the-job training of the most intense kind, and the lessons learned are sometimes surprising and unexpected.

The most surprising lesson I learned during that crucial summer, a lesson that has been reinforced in my near-decade of ordained ministry, regards the preoccupations of religious people who are faced with their own mortality.  My assumption was that most people’s anxieties and fears when approaching death would focus on what comes next.  Is heaven real?  Will loved ones be met there?  Is faith strong enough to take us to the other side?

To be sure, some ask these questions and some have these fears.  But not many.  Overwhelmingly, in my experience, the hearts and minds of those faced with their mortality are recollective rather than speculative.  Their concerns are not about the future but about the present and about the past.  What they seek is some assurance that the life they’ve lived—the life soon to end—is enduringly valuable, that when they die their life’s meaning won’t die with them.  People yearn to be assured that their lives mattered.  We are afraid that MacBeth’s words are true:

Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Does life signify nothing?  Does it have any enduring meaning?  In the end it is these questions, and not anxiety about our heavenly rest, that keep us up at night.  In response to life’s feared futility, the Prophet Isaiah speaks the word of God:

For as rain and snow fall from the heavens

and return not again, but water the earth, bringing forth life and giving growth, seed for sowing and bread for eating,

So is my word that goes forth from my mouth;

it will not return to me empty;

But will accomplish that which I have purposed, and succeed in that for which I sent it.

From our brief, momentary perspective, the raindrop falls to the ground and disappears into nothingness.  But the longer view—God’s view—sees the direct line between the raindrop and growing crops in the field, between the raindrop and the bread that nourishes the very lives of the ones who watch that same fallen drop absorbed into the soil.  God sees that the raindrop’s meaning is to nourish and participate in life far beyond itself.

Stay with me, because for Isaiah this is not mere bucolic poetry.  Isaiah writes to the people of Israel who have lived for seventy years in Babylonian exile, far from home.  Before the present generation was even born, their parents were ripped from everything they’d known and moved to an alien land.  Like raindrops absorbed into the ground, everything of meaning in life had disappeared, lost forever, a futile waste.

But Isaiah says that the horizon of God’s vision is greater than their own.  What was of value is not lost—is never lost—to God.  In him it is still germinating, still being made ready until that time when it will come to bloom in a future generation and God will lead the people out of Babylon and back into their homeland to discover anew what it means to be the People of God.

This is a drastically different way of conceiving value in our lives than the way we are most accustomed in the 21st Century.  Our meaning, God is telling us through Isaiah, is not to be found in what we can initiate and complete, in what we can earn and accomplish in a tidy, neat package in this brief life.  Our meaning—enduring meaning that forever outlasts us—is to be found in our participation in God’s long view and purpose for his world.  We are to do our part and trust, even if it seems small and futile, that God will cherish it always and carry it forward to full bloom in God’s good time.

To return to MacBeth’s image, we are to realize that though our lives in this world are but a scene in a drama, it is God’s drama, and our part adds to the plot in glorious ways we cannot imagine.

If we will, with God’s help, allow our perspective to be formed by God’s perspective, if we will let go of the meaning that seems so important now but will be exposed as so empty on our deathbeds, then those beds will eventually prove to be places of rest and comfort rather than anxiety.  As Isaiah promises, we will, near the end of this walk, recollect the meaning of our lives in joy, and we will know peace.  Most importantly, we will move on to the next life knowing that the lives we’ve lived are never lost and are enduringly valuable, because they have participated in God’s holy purpose.

St. John’s Episcopal Church is located at the corner of Jefferson Street and Elm Avenue.  Summer Sunday worship is at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., and 5 p.m.  Look St. John’s up on the web at 

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