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We’ll understand it better by and by

For now, Festival of Homiletics preacher says, we must be visionary people ‘more moved by our possibilities than our present realities’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Dr. Neichelle Guidry

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Neichelle Guidry opened a Festival of Homiletics worship service last week by singing a hymn she’s returned to often during the pandemic, “We’ll Understand It Better By and By”:

“When the morning comes/All the saints of God are gathered home/We’ll tell the story how we’ve overcome/For we’ll understand it better by and by.”

“I think of this song, and it’s hard to divorce the lyrics from the memory of mass choirs decked out in robes, rocking from side to side and singing those powerful words,” said Guidry, the Dean of Sisters Chapel and director of the Women in Spiritual Discernment of Ministry (WISDOM) Center at Spelman College in Atlanta.

“We the saints of God will gather in our eschatological home and we will tell the story of how we got there. It will be clear to us how we persevered and made it home to glory, how we endured trials and tribulations and made it over to eternal life on the other side, and why we were born at this time,” Guidry said. “The song talks about hope for the future, and it also speaks to a hope that can hold us in the present.”

Those lyrics make her think of her grandmother, who used to tell her granddaughter when “I was confused about anything, she always said this: ‘You’ll understand it better by and by. Just keep on living.’”

Paul is saying something similar in the text Guidry selected for her sermon, “A Visionary People,” heard by more than 800 people during the final day of the online festival. In 1 Cor. 13:12-13, Paul writes these familiar words: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

“We don’t see everything as we ought to, but we will,” Guidry said. “We will understand it better by and by.”

In the verses of 1 Cor. 13 preceding verse 12, “Paul laid out the case for love. He says we won’t understand it fully until completion comes,” Guidry said. “We need to live in a state of not knowing,” much like we have for the past 15 months, living in multiple pandemics. “For some time, we’ve become accustomed to ambiguity and confusion,” Guidry said, and our vision “is often obscured” by police violence, poverty and hunger, “continuous mass shootings with no legislative intervention in sight,” migrant families “held captive,” misogyny, patriarchy and domestic violence, among others.

“These are but some of our domestic narratives,” Guidry said. “They threaten our ability to hope and see and pray for a different future.”

“How are we supposed to hope,” Guidry asked, “if right here and right now some of us are literally choking on hopelessness?”

The tools of God “aren’t given to us merely to exist,” Guidry said. “These days are ours to claim, to create. It’s time to become visionary people more moved by our possibilities than by our present realities.”

It’s time “to become visionary people who can speak our dreams into existence and subvert the apathy that has become our norm,” Guidry said. “This text provides a roadmap to becoming a visionary people.”

The first step is to renew our faith, because “it gets hard to keep our vision when it’s obscured by bad news and hatred,” Guidry said. “We can’t get to a future if all this turmoil is the only thing we see.”

That renewal includes refreshing one’s spiritual sources, also known in Guidry’s tradition as the “spirit of Sankofa,” the symbol taken up by the Co-Moderators of the 224th General Assembly, the Rev. Gregory Bentley and Ruling Elder Elona Street-Stewart. “You may feel the world is crashing down around you, but it isn’t the first time,” Guidry said. “What happened back then did not break us or stop us from pressing through to the present. We are proof that God is not done yet.”

“Every now and then,” Guidry advised, “remind yourself that this is precisely when God does God’s best work. God is still doing new things. Can we not perceive it?

We must have hope in a vision. That was ingrained in Guidry at an early age, when preachers she heard “tapped into their sanctified imagination.” Guidry described sermon conclusions in which the preacher “had a full-on conversation with the characters in their text. They made their stories relatable … I loved it when the preacher would announce, ‘I can see in my sanctified imagination …’ As a child, that’s when I started paying attention. It was almost like the preacher was stepping back in time, stepping into the story and then coming back and reporting on it.”

Preachers must preach with that kind of sanctified imagination, Guidry said.

“Vision is the currency of this moment, and of the future,” Guidry said. “It’s the ability to look at the rubble and say, ‘This is not the end of the story.’”

Finally, we must work in love, Guidry said.

“The glorious truth is, we are already at work” creating the church of the future, Guidry said. “We have been preaching and praying, writing the books, teaching the classes, planting new churches and revitalizing existing ones. Now we get to cast the vision and bring it into the present.”

“Our visionary God,” Guidry said, “promised that the last shall be first, and that there shall be a time when we hunger and thirst no more, when God will wipe away every tear. Because we serve a visionary God, let us live our this visionary prayer,” quoting this ancient Irish prayer: “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart/Naught be all else to me, save that thou art/Thou my best thought, by day or by night/Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.”

“We are visionary people, and we serve a visionary God,” Guidry said. “We must get to work in love. This is God’s work for God’s people. Thanks be to God.”

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