I’m sure you all remember the story of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White; about Charlotte the spider who saves the life of Wilbur the pig by weaving miraculous words into her web. It’s one of our all-time favorite children’s stories. Maybe you also know that E. B. White was a poet as well as a storyteller. One of his poems, also about a spider, is called “Natural History.” It goes like this:
The spider, dropping down from twig
Unwinds a thread of her devising,
A thin premeditated rig
To use in rising.
And all that journey down through space
In cool descent, and loyal-hearted
She builds a ladder to the place
From which she started.
Thus, I, gone forth, as spiders do,
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken strand to you,
For my returning.
I like that image. We go off into the world to do whatever it is we are destined to do, but always with an unseen thread attached to help us find our way home when the time comes; a silken strand for our returning. So often, we can get to thinking of ourselves as cut off, isolated and alone, especially lately, what with all our social distancing. But one of the great lessons of our faith is that, no matter how we may feel at times, we never actually are cut off, isolated or alone. God is always with us, always watching, always guiding, always there to pick us up and dust us off when we fall on our faces. We certainly do feel alone at times, but the deeper reality of our faith is that, in fact, we never really are.
The trick is to learn to trust it; to trust that there is some kind of “silken thread” connecting us to God. That kind of trust doesn’t just happen. It takes time, it takes practice, and it takes patience, to hold on to our faith, especially in those times when life seems to turn against us. But I hope you can believe me when I say that it is entirely possible to know and trust God; to know and trust that God is always with us and always has our best interests at heart, even when it might not feel like it. And when we do that, when we know and trust God, it gives our lives a freedom from fear and anxiety that, honestly, I don’t know how we would find otherwise.
White’s image of the silken thread reminds me of when I used to teach rock climbing to my Adventure campers. This was back in the early days of my ministry, when I was serving my church in Illinois. For years, I took senior high youth groups up to the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota for week-long summer camps. We would always stop for a day at a place called Palisade Head on the North Shore of Lake Superior, about two hours north of Duluth. Palisade Head is a popular rock-climbing cliff that drops almost vertically into Lake Superior. Unlike a lot of climbing walls, all of the climbs begin at the top. We would lower our campers down to the bottom of the cliff, and they would climb back up.
It was pretty interesting, let me tell you, taking a bunch of novice rock climbers, attaching a rope around their waists, lowering them backwards off a hundred-foot cliff. We had some very exciting moments; not dangerous you understand (not overly dangerous anyway) but very exciting. All these years later, I can still see Ben Roxworthy’s face as he leaned back out over the cliff, held there only by the rope I was holding. He looked over his shoulder, and then back at me. He said, “You’ve got a good hold of that rope, right?” I said, “Yeah, Ben. You can trust me, and you can trust the rope.” And then I smiled and said, “Just try not to think that I have your life in my hands.” He said, “Gee thanks.” And with that he backed himself right over the cliff and out of sight, while I played out the rope that he would use for his returning.
We had great fun on those trips. At the end of a week of canoeing, we’d go back to Palisade Head, after dark, and have a closing communion service together by moonlight. I would talk about the highlights of the time we had shared, and I would tell them that, even though we were about to go our separate ways, the connections we had made with each other, and the connections we had made with God, would always be there. We would always be bound together.
You remember that old song by Pete Seeger, “Oh, had I a golden thread, and needle so fine I would weave a magic strand of rainbow design, of rainbow design.” Seeger, like E.B. White, imagined silken threads binding people together “in hand, and heart and mind,” as the song goes. Maybe, just maybe, one of the positive outcomes of this time of crisis we’re all in, will be a much-needed reminder of the silken threads running through the world, binding us together in a common web and giving us lifelines to use for our returning. Maybe we’ll remember that deeper than all the divisions and antagonisms we’ve been so caught up in, we have a common humanity that binds us all together “in hand, and heart and mind.”
But, of course, that brings us back to trust. The biggest problem with trust is that is requires us to be vulnerable; and vulnerable is not something we especially like to be. You probably remember the phrase that Ronald Reagan was so fond of, “trust, but verify.” That is actually an old Russian proverb that Suzanne Massie, an American writer, taught to the president back in the eighties. Reagan used it often when talking about U.S. relations with the Soviet Union, especially regarding our stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Trust, but verify. Trust, but make sure your trust is justified. Trust, but make sure you’re trusting with your eyes open. It sounds perfectly reasonable doesn’t it, and for international relations, it probably is.
The problem though, is that trust and verify lean in two very different directions. Trusting is about faith. Verifying is about proof. Trusting is a willingness to give someone the benefit of the doubt. Verifying is about finding proof that your trust was, or will be, justified. I’m not suggesting we should simply trust blindly. I’ve never been a fan of blind faith. But what happens when we try to live by this motto of “trust but verify,” is that over time, we tend to lean more and more heavily on the verify side, and less and less on the trust side.
The article I found all this in, from Wikipedia, goes on to say this:
Following the 2013 Ghouta attacks, Secretary of State John Kerry told a news conference in Geneva that the United States and Russia had agreed on a framework to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons. [Kerry] said “President Reagan’s old adage about ‘trust but verify’ … is in need of an update. And we have committed here to a standard that says, ‘verify and verify’.” (Wikipedia: Trust, but Verify)
That’s the trajectory we’ve been on. Much of the world seems to be moving in the direction of less and less trust, less and less faith. As Paul Simon put it in one of his songs, “Faith is an island in the setting sun. Proof is the bottom line for everyone.”
But let me ask you. What happens when proof becomes the bottom line for everyone? We’re very clear about the possible consequences of trusting. It opens us up for people to take advantage of us. We’re very clear about that. But we don’t seem to be nearly so clear when it comes to the consequences of not trusting. Not trusting creates an environment of fear and anxiety. Not trusting causes us to be constantly looking over our shoulders, constantly waiting for the other shoe to fall, constantly on guard for the next violation, the next scam, the next disappointment. Not trusting eats away at our health and our peace of mind. And, not trusting is every bit as contagious as the Covid-19 virus we are currently fighting. The problem with “trust but verify” is that it presumes that trust alone cannot be trusted.
Now, as I said, that might be necessary and appropriate for international relations. But it does not serve us well as people of faith. The minute we bring a “trust but verify” attitude to God, we find ourselves on the lookout for proof that God deserves to be trusted, in our not so humble opinion. Think of the disciples that wanted Jesus to perform miracles so that they could know for certain that he was from God. As Pilot put it in that great line from Jesus Christ Superstar, “prove to me that you’re divine, change my water into wine. That’s all you need do and I’ll know it’s all true. Come on, king of the Jews.” The trouble is, when we go looking for proof that way, we generally find what we believed we were going to find before we went looking. We might want to trust, but we’re afraid to, and so we go looking for reassurance that our trust is justified.
When my daughter, Sarah, was growing up, I got to spend a lot of time thinking about trust and fear. As a little girl Sarah had a long list of things that made her afraid. So, often, at bedtime or in the middle of the night, Pam or I would sit in her room calming her fears, singing quiet songs, rocking her to sleep. Those are some of my favorite memories from her childhood. And we also had long conversations about faith. I told her that she could trust God to take care of her, even when she was afraid. She’s was always a very deep thinker, even as a young child. But I never really knew if our talks were having much of an impact on her until years later.
Like all of her class, Sarah received a Bible when she was confirmed; her first adult Bible. We made a big deal out of it. We bought her a special, zippered Bible cover and a special highlighter pencil that wouldn’t bleed through the thin pages. We wrapped it up, took her out to lunch and we gave it to her with a big flourish. Then, like most confirmation Bibles, it mostly sat on her shelf gathering dust. But one time, I happened to be in her room, and I noticed the Bible on her shelf. I took it down and, all by itself, it fell open to this morning’s psalm; psalm 16. “Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.” Sarah had highlighted the last verse: “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
Protect us, O God, for in you we take refuge. Bind us up in hand and heart and mind. Help us to build up our trust, knowing that we are connected to you by silken strands, and that nothing can ever separate us from your love. It takes time, it takes practice, and it takes patience, to build up our faith, especially in these times when life has seemed to turn against us. But I hope you can believe me when I say that it is entirely possible to know and trust the God who shows us the paths of life, and in whose presence there is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore.