But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
With the above text, we began the opening session of the second Bishop Formation Event, which I am attending as part of my first Conference of Bishops at the Lutheran Center in Chicago.
The formation leader, Bishop Michael Girlinghouse of the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod, asked us after reading the words, “How do these verses speak to you?”
Each of the six of us new bishops then voiced our thoughts, and that led into sharing with the others some recollections of our respective installations and reflections on our first months in office. I was surprised, as I usually seem to be whenever I’m in the company of the people in this group, by the similarity of our reactions and our experiences. Although there is a uniqueness to each of our stories, the common themes that run through our narratives are rather striking – the joy, the hope, the festiveness of our separate celebrations. These memories serve to bond us even further. That sense of unity will also be a source of comfort and shelter to each of us in the days to come.
But the scripture verses above accomplish the same purpose. The words that leap off the page for me are four: created, formed, redeemed, and called.
In our moments of fear, in our moments of despair, in our moments of sorrow, these are helpful words to keep in mind. The one who created us, the one who formed us, the one who redeemed us, and the one who has called us, now tells us, “Do not fear!”
In this text, the Lord, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, goes on to tell us in specific detail that neither water nor fire will harm us; we shall not be overwhelmed, nor shall we be burned or consumed.
As humans we have a natural tendency to be afraid, to feel overwhelmed. It is in those challenging times that we can turn to these words for refuge and for strength. God is with us. That is God’s promise to us. Keep in mind that God does not say that the problems will necessarily go away, but rather that God will be alongside us as we go through them.
God makes that promise to each and every one of you. Keep these words in mind. Guard them in your heart. Take them with you wherever you go – on the job, in the doctor’s office, in the hospital, whenever tragedy strikes.
They are also words to remember in times of pleasure. For the same God who is with you in the sorrow is the same God who is with you in the celebration.
But they are especially reassuring in the low times. It is then when we should hear them loud and clear: “Do not fear. You are mine. I am with you. I am the Lord.”
I don’t know what lies ahead during my time in the office of bishop. But I do know of one thing – God will also be in this office with me. And for that I say, “Thanks be to God!”