In his Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John (Ch. 13-17), Jesus says to his disciples, “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also.” It is often assumed that this passage is referring to Jesus preparing a place for us after we die. I wouldn’t disagree with that, but I also believe it is more than that. I believe it is an affirmation that God by the power of the Spirit is always preceding us in this life. God is always opening doors and preparing our way, and creating new possibilities for us. It is John’s way of saying that none of us get anywhere solely on our own resources.
I was acutely aware of this the other day. I was officiating at a funeral of a 19 year old young man whom I had never met. Prior to the start of the service, I was standing in front of a large full-length mirror. As I looked at myself in my vestments, in my 30th year of ordained ministry, I found myself saying “How did this all happen?” How did a boy from Utah, not raised in the church, end up be a priest in the Episcopal Church? And how did I end up in this place waiting to officiate at a service of someone I don’t know, prepared to proclaim the Good News of God’s steadfast love even in the midst of a tragic death.”
As I reflected on this moment in front of the mirror, I realized that it was an awareness that my life truly belongs to another. I realized that the course of my life has been shaped by forces beyond my control. Yes, my choices have impacted the course of my life, but it is truly the height of ignorance and arrogance to think that I was somehow in control of this journey. There is just too much evidence to the contrary. I certainly didn’t plan to meet my wife; someone else brought her into my life. I didn’t go out and find all the significant mentors in my life; they just showed up out of nowhere. And what about my kids? I didn’t place an order the children I have; they arrived as the unique persons they are. Talk about unexpected gifts!
The only explanation I have for the course of my life is that God’s grace has preceded me, prepared a way. This isn’t to suggest that God has paved a way absent struggle and pain. God’s grace is not a guarantee that the worst won’t happen. But even when my mother was diagnosed with a severe mental illness, which lasted for 30 years, God prepared a way to sustain me and my family. Many others have had this same experience. For example, many people have experienced the pain of divorce. Not even God has made it possible for the marriage to endure. But then after much grief a new chapter arrives. A new person unexpectedly comes into the person’s life.
Jesus’ words are good news as we try to follow him. We are not left to our own resources. Jesus doesn’t say, “Good luck. I hope you make it.” Jesus says, “I am not only with you on this journey; I am a step or two ahead of you.” Thanks be to God for that.