PSALM 124:1-8 / SECOND READING JAMES 5:13-20
Have you ever made a seriously “great escape” in your life? I guess it could be an escape from a place or a moment or even a person who you felt threatened by in some way. For me it was a bunch of trees. Yep, trees.
I was about 21 years old and my brother and I and a couple of other ne’er do wells of about the same age had gone up to my family’s property in Craig County on John’s Creek. Mom and Dad owned the land with 4 or 5 other families and it was a great resource for discovering the wildness of the great outdoors – and the wildness in one another from time to time.
We had some very memorable camp-outs up there while growing up – but those are stories for another time and place. On this particular day our little group had made the approximate one hour drive to harvest some firewood for my brother Jim’s house.
Upon arriving we made a quick survey of the land at the end of our long field that ran along some woods from the road down to the river and then up to the National Forest. It quickly became clear that the best trees to cut were on the far end along the river bank but this area would not be easily reached by our pickup truck.
But Our friend Bob came up with what seemed like a good idea. “Why don’t we drop those 3 big trees next to the riverbank and then section them into 10 or 12 foot lengths and tie them together and float them down the creek to the gradual bank where the truck is parked. Then we can drag them out with the chain and cut and load them up no problem.”
“Wow,” we all must have thought. “A real-life, log jamming, float down the river – just like they used to do it in the great northwest! GREAT idea Bob!” Bob was proud of both his ingenuity and the easy success he had in appealing to our manhood in order to undertake such a project. As evidence of this he later uttered one of the more memorable and classic lines from this adventurous time in our lives.
It was just after bringing down the second tree. Covered in sweat, leaf bits and sawdust he choked the chainsaw back just enough to get our attention, thumped his chest and yelled, “BIG RIVER . . . BIG TREES . . . BIG MEN!!” We howled with laughter at his hilariously boisterous and sarcastically confident statement – but my guess is at that time we felt all of those things at some level. Unfortunately, that swagger almost cost us (and me in particular) dearly.
Once the trees were dropped and sectioned we executed the plan just as Bob had suggested by first rolling the massive logs into the river and then floating and lashing them together. The resulting “raft” did indeed look rather “Huck Fin like” and our sense of both adventure and purpose grew.
Realizing that the raft would easily get out of our control our plan was to place one person on the front (me) and another on the back with two corresponding people holding the other end of our ropes on the shore so that we could guide our 3 plus ton log barge easily along. We only had about a 1/3 of a mile to float so what could possibly go wrong?
I soon found out.
About halfway to the stopping point was a small set of rapids – and as we approached I could feel the center log that I was sitting on begin to drag along the bottom. I shifted my weight but it was no use – whatever log I put more pressure on was dragging slightly. I began to ponder my next move when BANG – there was no time left to ponder anything.
The bottom of the raft caught hard on a rock below and came to a dead stop. The jolt threw me forward and I landed about two feet in front of the raft. The effect of my no longer being on the raft was that the log that had caught on the bottom now rose up level with the others such that the raft re-started its journey – straight toward me – and it was coming fast.
In fact, it was coming too fast. Before I knew it I could feel my legs beginning to be pinched between the bottom of the raft and the creek bed that was angling up towards the rapid behind me. I quickly glanced over at Bob who seemed to understand what was happening. He had already begun to make a herculean effort to hold the raft from its forward progress but it slowed it for no more than a second. The force of the water on the 3 plus tons of timber was simply too much. It wrenched the rope from his hand. I was on my own.
Time stopped. It really did. I can remember the look on Bob’s face and the pressure of those logs on my legs like it was yesterday. I knew – I mean I KNEW – that if I did not somehow successfully get them out from under that raft I was going to die. There was no” maybe” – it was certain. I had one chance and one chance only. I placed my palms against the oncoming barge and pressed hard and up as I wriggled and squirmed with everything I had to release the growing pressure.
By the grace of God – let me repeat that – BY THE GRACE OF GOD – the bottom of the sand and gravel creek-bed beneath me gave way just enough so that I could work one leg out and then push off with enough force to free the other. I scrambled back and out from under those logs and around the side faster than Hussein Bolt comes out of the blocks in the 100 meter dash.
I was free. I was alive. And it happened so fast that no one but Bob had even noticed.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we are here one second and gone the next. That’s how life works for all of us sooner or later. But I can tell you when that “sooner” comes so unexpectedly and convincingly, and one is then miraculously freed, the gratitude and thankfulness one feels – for the most simple of pleasures and joys (and even the struggles of life) is beyond description.
As I recall the wood we burned in my brother’s fireplace that year seemed just a little bit warmer and a little bit brighter.
Psalm 124 is all about escape – and acknowledging that it is ONLY by God’s grace and mercy that we are alive – that the enemies of this world have NOT swallowed us up, nor has the torrent of a flood (or anything it might carry!) gone over us and swept us away: So, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as prey to their teeth!” For, “We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped!”
The ancient Hebrews knew (just as we should know and acknowledge every day) that the only reason they were there at all is because of GOD! That indeed, “8Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth!” And with rituals, ceremonies and VERY INTENTIONAL celebrations they go about remembering, acknowledging and NEVER FORGETTING that it is HE who has saved us, rescued us and allowed us to ESCAPE the evil of this world.
This great image that the psalmist uses of a bird escaping a snare is not one we are very familiar with – we don’t hunt birds with snares so much these days. But try to imagine a piece of thin taught vine or wire that catches around a small animals neck and constricts ever tighter and tighter the more the animal fights against it. It’s very much an all or nothing thing – it either has you or it doesn’t. And once it does – well that’s pretty much it.
So somehow managing to slip out of such a noose – or just slipping out from underneath the crushing weight of 3 tons of logs – is a feeling that one does not soon if ever fully forget. And with it comes, I think, a certain freedom – IF indeed one remembers who is REALLY responsible their second chance. AND in response to that awareness, one offers prayers just like that of the Psalmist – filled with gratitude – and an unceasing desire to join our imperfect needs and desires to God’s Most Perfect Will and Providence. Listen to how James put sit in our second reading. JAMES 5:13-20:
13Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.
15The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.
17Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
19My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another,20you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
(The grass withers and the flower fades but the Word of the Lord endures forever.)
For James prayer is THE method by which we escape the worst that the world has to offer and align ourselves with God’s will – whatever that is. Does this mean it will always be answered as we desire? Of course, not! We see through a glass but dimly in this world – but we can completely rely on the fact that that doesn’t really matter – that God has ALL THINGS within His sight. And that indeed, many of the things we might seek as blessings are actually the LAST things we actually need! For only GOD knows the REAL truth of what we need, such that we can become who we were originally created to be. Why in the world won’t we trust Him with that?!
I will say it once again: “Everyone has a point of view. Only GOD has a view.”
And so “YES,” James says – we MUST stay at our prayers – for they keep us in right relationship with God – so that He may guide us, correct us and reorient us – and even work the occasional miracle when needed. Such responsive prayer is indeed, as Buechner says, the path upon which we must beat our way to God’s door – and by which he is able to beat His way back to ours . . . For God never ravishes (as in the old sense of the word “to carry off by force”) but rather only courts us according to our own willingness to seek Him.
James closes by saying, “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
The implication seems clear enough – that it is in the “rescuing” of others that our true calling in life comes – and by which a multitude of our own missteps and sins are covered. At first glance it sounds like there’s a bit of “works-righteousness” going on here. But perhaps what James is really saying is that it is only in this seeking to assist, to save, to love, TO BE THERE for others, that our OWN souls are transformed and ultimately “found.”
And therefore it’s not a question of “works” at all, but rather it’s the genuine living out of our lives for others that is the only thing that matters in the end – for both their sakes and ours.
So here’s the real news: We have all already been given the doorway through which to make our one and only “Great Escape” – which is, of course, the great escape from our selves . . . Our own fallen-ness, and the sin that separates us from God, who has made us in His very image and likeness – that we may might know Glory beyond our imagining.
And it comes no less as a gift, of course – as mercy – as sacrifice . . . As simple and yet meaningful as his prayer in the garden: “Your will Lord and not my own.” And as deep and complex as the questions he elicited from his persecutors: “What is truth?”
The only thing left to ask ourselves is whether we have the true humility required to recognize and receive such a gift. Or will the world ultimately overcome us?
When the moment comes – and it will come – drop all of your questions, and worries and long held assumptions – and walk right on out that door with him . . . and never look back.
It’s the only escape that will ever really matter.
– Stuart Revercomb