God Images

B33BBCE1-46BB-404E-8429-32535C46106FHow do you see God? What images of God do you see? How do you find God? Where do you find God?

Most of us have at least one image of God. It may be a vague image, but still, we have an image in our minds of a higher power. There are as many images of God as there are people. People have images of a “god” they may or may not know as a part of their spiritual journey. Some imagine God as a benevolent spirit, others as an omnipotent ruler. Some imagine God as as a father, others as a mother. Some imagine God as a protector, others as a punisher.

I remember a sermon I heard many years ago proclaimed by a passionate, animated African American preacher. “Tell me brother,” he preached with a lyrical chant. “Tell me brother, how do you find God? Tell me sister, how do you find God?”

And he repeated the questions again and again, building into a spirited crescendo, after which he said, “You find God when you get little enough that God can get big in you!”

And all the congregation responded with exuberant “Amens” and “Hallelujahs.”

I would surmise that the image of God held by that congregation, at least in that moment, was the image of an all-powerful, mighty Spirit just waiting to hear their praises and then responding with little miracles of answered prayer.

God images fill the world: there is the Creator God, the gentle shepherd, the God of vengeance, the God Most High, and from sacred music, the Mighty God, Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.*

But we must acknowledge a significant exception. Some people simply say that they do not believe in God at all, any God. No images. No spiritual need for God. Nothing. They call themselves atheists.

I have known people who profess to be atheists. By no means am I an authority on this, but in my years as a hospital chaplain, I have never known a dying patient — whether believer or atheist — fail to cry out to God. In my years as a trauma specialist, pastor and pastoral counselor, I have never known an atheist who is in the depths of trouble fail to cry out to God.

I do not say that every person who does not believe in God always reaches for God in times of trouble. I am simply saying that in my experience, people in the midst of pain, grief, fear or other kinds of chaos search for a God who, by the way, is always there.

I recently read an intriguing quote by Marcus J. Borg:

When somebody says to me, “I don’t believe in God,” my first response is, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.”

― Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary

What a wonderful response, to affirm a person’s choice of unbelief while opening the door for meaningful conversation. That response is so much more respectful than a response that 1) forces a person to listen to a treatise on the existence of God; and 2) insists that the person must immediately become a believer by following a series of simple steps.

In the last analysis, a person does not find God on our timetable or through our methods. A person will find God in his or her own way and, on the spiritual journey, will see very personal images of God. They will discover the timeless grace offered to us all: a presence of God that is is constant and never-ending.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.

— Psalm 139:7-10 (NKJV)

As for me, I hold on to the image of a constant and ever-present God. Of all the images I have of God, the God I find “on the wings of the morning” most comforts me. I see God in many ways and in many places . . .  in Scripture, in nature, in my spirit. How do you see God?

For all who have eyes to see, let them see . . . images of a God strong and true, powerful and gentle, loving and accepting. God images are most assuredly there for us, for those of us who believe in God and for those who do not.

 

* “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah

 

 

Moving Towards the Sunrise: An Essay on Immigration

F6C9AEAC-5F90-4F42-B0D9-FF50DDA7D60F.jpegI could decide to stand on this side wondering what life might hold on the other side. I can see the brilliant sunrise, perhaps a symbol for a bright new life for my children. I can see the tiny lights of dwellings or businesses. I’m not sure what they are but perhaps each tiny light is a warm welcome, a place of refuge, a safe haven.

I hold on tightly to the hands of my children, and now I look back and remember the violence, the fear, the drugs, the hopelessness for the future of my children. I consider going back, barricading my family in our tiny hovel and hoping for the best. It’s the life we know. It’s what we’re used to. But do I want my children to grow us “used to” violence and crime? Do I want then to be used to fear and hopelessness?

I decide to take a chance toward the sunrise and the tiny lights that will surely open their doors to a mother and her children. The land of the sunrise is called “the land of the free.” The land of the sunrise offers the wonderful promise of welcome . . .

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free . . . 

Give these, the homeless tempest tossed to me. 

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Yes, I resolve. We will go forward. Yes!

I make, in this very moment, the most significant and life-altering decision of our lives. I choose  hope! We will go!

With great fear in the depths of my spirit, I move us toward the sunrise. I hold tightly to my children and begin the hope-filled crossing. Holding them all close on a grueling hike, I can see that we have almost made it to the other side.

Now we are actually standing in the light of the sunrise. We have crossed. Those who are to welcome us are approaching. Finally, I have made the journey to new hope for my beautiful children. Thanks be to God for safe passage! 

The welcoming people come near. But they are loud, boisterous, frightening. I never expected this. Oh my God, they have ripped my children from me. The youngest is crying, pleading for me, struggling to get away. The others are screaming “no” as they try in vain to work themselves loose from the powerful arms of those who restrain them. But the grip on them is too strong. I cry out and plead that they will not harm my children. I fall into the dirt, sobbing as they take my children away. 

Dear God, what have I done?

May God have mercy on us all.

Around the Bend

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Photo by Steven Nawojczyk

I wonder sometimes what I might find around the bend. “Around the bend” is an apt metaphor for the twists and turns of life’s pathway. No matter how long I have traveled my journey, no matter how much life wisdom I have gained, I never, ever know what what’s around the bend.

The pathway before me can frighten, even while I strain to see as far as I can into what lies ahead. The bend is sharp most times, and the angle hides my view. As I age, fear on the journey looms large, for I am completely aware of the dangers I might encounter around the first bend, and the next, and all the bends that are ahead of me. And yet, I am constantly graced with flashes of hope and faith whispering that what is ahead of me could be even better than what I have left behind.

The beautiful photo above by Steven Nawojczyk is a gift of calm waters bending in a gentle flow at the foot of a mountain, lightened by the golden rays of the sun. The image makes me believe that whatever is around the bend is lovely, peaceful, comforting, safe. And that is exactly what God would want me to believe, and woukd want us all to believe. I cannot help but think of the Psalmist’s affirmation that God “leads me beside still waters.”

In so many comfort-filled passages, the Psalmist offers sure and certain comfort. Hear the Psalmist’s words . . .

Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge.

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
Surely I have a delightful inheritance.

I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
   Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure . . .

You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

— Psalm 16:1, 5-6, 8-9, 11 (NIV)

And hear the words of the Prophet Isaiah . . .

Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he, I am he who will sustain you. 
I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.  

— Isaiah 46:4 (NIV)

And so “around the bend” is not so frightening after all. In God — “who makes known the path of life” —  there is comfort, safety, protection, constancy, and even joy. Thanks be to God.

Freedom, Liberty, Justice, and the National Anthem

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Patriotism can be defined differently by different people. A plethora of actions and ceremonies cause a lump in the throat. For me, many ceremonies, sights and sounds can create a catch in my voice and a visceral emotional response. 

Singing “America the Beautiful” (1)

Watching the U.S. Navy Blue Angels paint the sky

Singing the song written by Irving Berlin in 1918, “God bless America, land that I love . . .” (2)

Hearing the stunningly beautiful words of Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor . . .” (3)

Singing the hymn known as the African American National Anthem:

Lift every voice and sing, 
‘Till earth and heaven ring, 
Ring with the harmonies of liberty . . . 
Stormy the road we trod, 
Bitter the chastening rod, 
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died . . .
Out from the gloomy past,
‘Till now we stand at last
Where the bright gleam of our bright star is cast . . . (4)

And finally, watching the flag billowing in the breeze while the melody of the National Anthem floods a football stadium . . . 

While National Football League players stand tall and sing as they gaze at the American flag; 

While other players place their hands over their hearts in an act of honor; 

While still others kneel because they long for America to be better.

The National Anthem should not be the focus of controversy. The American flag should not be a catalyst for divisiveness. Both are symbols of freedom and liberty that inspire deeply personal acts of patriotism. National symbols should never cause us to ostracize any individual whose patriotism looks different than our own. 

CNN’s Van Jones spoke definitively about what we know as the National Anthem controversy:

People who look like me have put blood in the ground, and put martyrs in the dirt for this country, to have it be liberty and justice for all… It is beyond insulting to have people lecture us about patriotism. (5)

   Van Jones on the NFL National Anthem controversy

Approaching the commemoration of Independence Day reminds me to look more intently to see the acts of patriotism all around me. It prompts me to ask myself what “liberty and justice for all” looks like in these troublesome days. It moves me be a more committed advocate for freedom in all its forms. 

As a Baptist for fifty years, I have been thoroughly immersed in the Biblical concept of soul freedom, an all-encompassing freedom that is, by the way, not just for Baptists. James Dunn provides one of the best descriptions of soul freedom

Soul freedom, all freedom and responsibility are God’s gifts to humanity. God created and endowed people to be free moral agents. Soul freedom and responsibility are not invented by government, or devised by social contract. All dignity and respect afforded persons comes from God as revealed in Scripture. (6) 

For me, a part of soul freedom allows me the right of expression — to worship as I wish, to honor my country as I wish, to exercise my freedom to be the person I was destined to be. I cherish the gift of such extravagant liberty and know full well that it is a tenuous and fragile freedom. That fragility is one cause for the unfortunate and unnecessary controversy surrounding the National Football League and the National Anthem.

My heritage compels me to advocate for the right of every person to express his or her patriotism as they choose. As a child of immigrant parents, I will forever honor the American flag and revere the National Anthem. I may do it as I sing. I may do it through my tears. I may stand proudly and face the waving American flag. I may kneel in solidarity. I may cry as I remember my grandmother’s frightening journey to this country with my infant mother. I may pay tribute in various ways, but I will do it in my own way. As should we all.

So let us move forward in freedom. Let us stand fast in the liberty (7) that has made us free. Let us persist in our resolve to demand justice for all humankind. And as we do, let us go forth boldly with freedom-words on our lips:

Oh, freedom! Oh, freedom! Oh, freedom over me! (8)

Sweet land of liberty . . . (9)

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free . . . 

Sweet justice, climb the mountain though your hands may be weary . . . (10)

Lift every voice and sing ‘till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty . . .

God bless America!

Amen.


(1) Lyrics by Katharine Lee Bates; music by Samuel A.Ward
(2) Irving Berlin, 1918
(3) Emma Lazarus, From the poem, “The New Colossus “ 1883; inscribed on a bronze plaque placed inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903
(4) James W. Johnson, 1871-1938; J. Rosamond Johnson, 1873-1954
(5) Van Jones on the NFL National Anthem controversy; https://cnn.it/2JxzD36
(6) Jamie’s M. Dunn, Soul Freedom: Universal Human Right in Soul Freedom: Baptist Battle Cry, James M. Dunn and Grady C. Cothen, Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2000.
(7) Galatians 5:1
(8) Traditional spiritual, arr. by Valeria A. Foster
(9) Samuel Francis Smith
(19) Jill Scott

Fighting with Demons, Wrestling with Angels

F01A76CE-6B4A-450D-B178-93665F765C71I am digging deep to find strength for the living of these days. Certainly, I am dealing with health issues and aging, enough to wrap a comforting cloak of depression around my self. I am deeply concerned about a dear family member who is working through sorrow. I am sad that people come to the abyss of life feeling that the only answer for them is to take their own lives.

My faith is filled with questions . . . How does faith really work? How can I place myself in God’s comforting presence? How do I pray, for myself, for my family and friends, for this nation, for the world? And most of all my question is simply “Why?”

I hear news reports that cause me sadness. I see photos of parentless immigrant children that break my heart. I hear the voices of individuals who still demean women. I watch senior adults in our nation trying to live without adequate healthcare. I share the shame of homeless veterans who placed their lives in harm’s way for this country. I hear the ringing of gunshots echoing from past school shootings, a sound in my spirit that I cannot silence.

I listen to the voices of young school children who say they are afraid to go to school, and Imsee their anxious parents who just want to hold their children close, far away from danger. And I hear the loud, clear and confident voices of teenagers marching to Washington to demand change. That is the best sound of all, one that should give us all hope.

And then there are the things I don’t see or hear — like the voices of congressional leaders that prefer comfortable complacency over uncomfortable confrontation. Where are their voices of reason? Where is their collective wisdom that could well ease some of our nation’s unease?

That’s it. I’m a bit down about it all. And the honest truth is this: my religious rituals don’t really help. My faith, held for so many years and through so much turbulence, is faltering. My prayers seem to float into the unknown, unheard and unanswered. My laments are in vain. I fight with the demons that tell me my faith will not hold and I wrestle with the angels that whisper, “There is yet a quiet hope that does hold you in holy, gentle hands.”

That’s what I bank on.

Often, I am comforted and inspired by the writing of Bishop Steven Charleston. In this brief writing, he eloquently expresses the difficultly in finding a way to faith.

I am a thinking being not a religious robot, 

And I often find my way to faith,

Finding the holy in questions,

Seeking the sacred in lament;

Wrestling with angels before the dawn finds me . . .

— Bishop Steven Charleston

If we are honest, we will admit that we find the holy in our questioning and we stumble upon the sacred in our laments. Perhaps that is faith’s true path, not the easy path we expected. In the end of all things that bring despondency, we still find our way to faith. We find the holy again and again. We find the sacred over and over even through our laments. 

Faith begins to live in us while we are drowning in sorrow. No, we do not get to the very center of our faith by acting as religious robots. We get there when we stand courageously against our demons and wrestle with the angels that have the power to lift us from the depths.

Depression’s Heartbreaking Hold

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Depression’s Heartbreaking Hold

Depression wields a heartbreaking hold on those who suffer its relentless assault. It has a harsh clench, a grasp on one’s life that steals all traces of well-being. Men and women suffer depression’s attack. Young people are besieged by depression’s terror. Even the youngest among us suffer from that elusive sadness that a young child could never understand. Depression sometimes results in the most tragic of outcomes: suicide. Depression overwhelms people we know and care about, our children, our parents, our close friends, and the friends we know from afar.

Anthony Bourdain was such a friend to many. My husband and I loved watching Parts Unknown, just relaxing while Anthony Bourdain took us on exotic journeys near and far. He had a way of bursting into our living room through the television, grabbing our attention with his friendly swagger, and taking us along on an adventure in food and culture. We took for granted the delightful experiences he created for us, but now that he is gone, we are grieving as if he had been a best friend.

He had this special way of inviting us into his life experience. He was gifted in making us feel present with him in his current adventure. He took us to places we never dreamed of going, and made us see the possibility of eating foods we would not normally put even near our mouths. He expanded our wanderlust and our taste buds. He made us feel that we really knew him.

But we really did not know him, it seems. We did not know the depth of his emotional life, his bouts with depression, the dark place that he was obviously dealing with. Even his close friends and family did not expect that he would take his own life. But he did and, as his colleagues expressed, it will be a loss of creativity, talent, and the delightful quirkiness that would say, “Your body is not a temple; it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” (Anthony Bourdain)

We are left to wonder, though. Perhaps Anthony Bourdain did not always enjoy the ride. Mental health challenges can take all that one enjoys and twist all of it into something unrecognizable, something hurtful, something that steals one’s joy. It has been too much to take in, the deaths of Kate Spade and then, so soon, Anthony Bourdain, both apparent suicides. We cower at the thought of an epidemic that we are not prepared to control. Those who know tell us, again and again, that the interventions for mental health in this country are woefully inadequate. The current reality is that suicide rates rose steadily in nearly every state from 1999 to 2016, increasing 25 percent nationally, according to a report this past Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2016, there were more than twice as many suicides as homicides.

These are statistics that should cause us heartbreak, enough heartbreak to compel us to use our voices to advocate for more appropriate and effective mental health interventions in our nation. But the heartbreak gets more personal when we lose a friend, a bigger than life friend like Anthony Bordain. It appears that he, too, knew something about heartbreak. In his own words:

Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s OK. The journey changes you; it should change you . . . You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.

Anthony Bordain did leave something good behind, something that he showed us each week: how to open ourselves to other cultures, how to join strangers around tables of friendship, how to try new things and learn new things, how to enjoy food, drink and friends, and how to know yourself better because you stepped out of your comfort zone to know another person from another land.

He gets the last word, the last poignant word:

It’s been an adventure. We took some casualties over the years. Things got broken. Things got lost. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

 

 


How to Help a Loved One Who Is Severely Depressed

Don’t underestimate the power of showing up

You may not feel that your presence is wanted. But just being by the side of someone who is depressed, and reminding her that she is special to you, is important to ensuring that she does not feel alone, said Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine.

 

Don’t try to cheer him up or offer advice

Your friend has an enviable job and two lovely children. He’s still ridiculously handsome even though he hasn’t gone to the gym for six months. It’s tempting to want to remind him of all these good things. Not only is that unlikely to boost his mood, it could backfire by reinforcing his sense that you just don’t get it, said Megan Devine, a psychotherapist and the author of “It’s O.K. That You’re Not O.K.”

“Your job as a support person is not to cheer people up. It’s to acknowledge that it sucks right now, and their pain exists,” she said.

 

It’s O.K. to ask if she is having suicidal thoughts

Lots of people struggle with depression without ever considering suicide. But depression is often a factor. Although you may worry that asking, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” will insult someone you’re trying to help — or worse, encourage her to go in that direction — experts say the opposite is true.

“It’s important to know you can’t trigger suicidal thinking just by asking about it,”  said Allen Doederlein, the executive vice president of external affairs at the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. If the answer is yes, it’s crucial that you calmly ask when and how; it’s much easier to help prevent a friend from hurting herself if you know the specifics.

 

Take any mention of death seriously

Even when a person with depression casually mentions death or suicide, it’s important to ask follow-up questions. If the answers don’t leave you feeling confident that a depressed person is safe, experts advised involving a professional as soon as possible. If this person is seeing a psychiatrist or therapist, get him or her on the phone. If that’s not an option, have the person you’re worried about call a suicide prevention line, such as a 1-800-273-TALK, or take her to the hospital emergency room; say aloud that this is what one does when a loved one’s life is in danger.

 

Make getting to that first appointment as easy as possible

You alone cannot fix this problem, no matter how patient and loving you are. A severely depressed friend needs professional assistance from a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker or another medical professional. What you can do is to try to make getting to that first appointment as easy as possible. That might mean sitting next to your friend as he calls to make the appointment, finding counseling that he can afford, or even going with him that first time, if you’re comfortable with it.

 

Take care of yourself and set boundaries

When the thoughtful and kind people we’ve loved for years are depressed, they may also become uncharacteristically mean and self-centered. It’s exhausting, painful and hard to know how to respond when they pick fights or send nasty texts. Just because someone is depressed is not a reason to let their abusive behavior slide. Set clear boundaries with straightforward language such as, “It sounds like you’re in a lot of pain right now. But you can’t call me names.”

Boundaries about how much you can help and how much time you can give are important. Although you want to be present with your friend, set boundaries that keep you healthy and stick to them.

 

Remember, people do recover from depression

It can be hard when you’re in the middle of the storm with a depressed friend to remember that there was a time before, and hopefully a time after, this miserable state. It is important to remind yourself — and the person you’re trying to help — that people do emerge from depression. Because they do. 

(From a New York Times article, “What to Do When a Loved One Is Severely Depressed” by Heather Murphy, June 7, 2018, http://tiny.cc/yqyiuy)

 

A helpful website providing many resources for help:

https://www.speakingofsuicide.com/resources/

 

Recommended Reading:

4D1432A6-EA0F-47EB-B111-A35D095D42DARethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning, February 14, 2012, by Eric Maisel.

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Why Smart People Hurt: A Guide for the Bright, the Sensitive and the Creative by Eric Maisel, https://www.amazon.com/Why-Smart-People-Hurt-Sensitive/dp/1573246263/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_14_t_2?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=72HYRNBE90SYMTN8PMY7

 

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Mindfulness for Kids: Create a Happier Life for Your Kids by Reducing Stress, Anxiety and Depression, November 27, 2017 by Jasmine Warren.

Available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Jasmine-Warren/e/B0788M6G2R/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1

“Feeling the Spray of Jordan”

 

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Crossing the Jordan River. Photo by Siiri Bigalke/ICSD.

As a hospital chaplain, I kept vigil at the bedside of many persons who were preparing themselves to die. For me, being present with a person who is approaching death is, without equal, the most sacred and holy privilege of a minister’s life. Yet, I found it difficult at times to keep myself emotionally and spiritually healthy. During my darkest times, one phrase of the beloved hymn, “Softly and Tenderly” washed over me: “Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming.” With those words, the hymn text gives us a striking image of death.

Each of us has images of death. Every person has uniquely personal ideas about death. Some meet death with fear. Others who come near to death, whether their own or someone else’s, feel anger. Some have a sense of doom, while others are filled with a comforting calm. Always through the years, I heard the phrase, “crossing the Jordan,” most definitely a preacher’s expression meant to celebrate a life well-lived while standing at the end of life, the edge of the Jordan.

Rev. Gardner Taylor was one of those preachers who proclaimed death as a celebration of life and a joyous passing into eternity. An American preacher noted for his eloquence, Taylor was known as “the dean of American preaching.” Today my professor/preacher brother, who is always sending me something to read or listen to, sent me a stunning piece of Gardner Taylor’s preaching. The sermon was from the 1976 Lyman Beecher Lectures.

Gardner Taylor shared about one of his beloved deacons who was on his deathbed. The deacon expressed the wish that he could hear Taylor preach one more time. Reflecting on that experience, Taylor inspired those attending the lecture with the following message of eternal Christian hope. As my brother wrote, “It may be the most poetically beautiful thirty seconds of preaching I have ever encountered.”

Indeed, it is . . . so full of abiding Christian hope. This is what he preached:

Now, no preacher has of himself or herself anything of real significance to say to anyone who is within the view of the swelling of Jordan. But there is a Gospel, and you are privileged to be summoned to declare it. It can stand people on their feet for the living of their days. And, also – what a privilege almost too precious to be mentioned – it may be that the gospel which you preach will then steady some poor pilgrims as they come to where the bridgeless river is and some of them, feeling the spray of Jordan misting in the face, might thank God, as they cross the river, that he made you a preacher.

As for me, I do expect to feel “the spray of Jordan,” and as I cross the river for the last time, I will most humbly thank God that he made me a preacher.

That is the secret of greeting death for us all, I think, being able to stand — with a steady heart and a calm spirit — and give thanks to God for what he made you. You might very well feel “the spray of Jordan” as a mist on your face.

Thanks be to God.

The Hands that Made the Stars

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Comfort in the magnificent Arkansas skies. Photography by Steven Nawojczyk.

As I write on this day, I am aware that many friends are in the throes of darkness and despair. Some are facing devastating medical diagnoses. Some are yearning to have a child and are going through difficult medical procedures. Some are grieving for a family member in trouble. Some are waiting with hope for a cure for a disease that is bringing them to their knees. Others are enduring harsh medical treatments, hoping their lives will be saved. Many of them are at the point of losing all hope.

It hurts me deeply every time I am at a loss for comforting words. A little part of my heart breaks because I know I cannot “do something” to ease the suffering. And so I search for my own comfort as I search for ways to hold my friends in the light. As always, I am led to Scripture, not for easy answers, miraculous cures, or an instant panacea. I peek into the Bible to find words that will lift up hope in the middle of dark days and darker nights.

Often the words I find point me to the skies, as if gazing into an expanse beyond imagination might open my eyes to a radiant and holy hope. In truth, the words of Scripture do point me to hope. 

From the Prophet Isaiah:

Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. O Jacob, how can you say the LORD does not see your troubles?

Have you never heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.

— Isaiah 40:26-29

From the Psalmist:

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers — the moon and the stars you have set in place — what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?

— Psalm 8:3-4

And so whoever you are, whatever pain you are carrying, know that the hands that made the stars are holding your heart.

Robert F. Kennedy: A Tribute

3DBDB3DF-6217-4BB9-8558-F5C4BF3F3CC3It was called the greatest speech ever written — April 4, 1968.

A predominantly black crowd gathered in the streets of Indianapolis. They had had not yet heard the devastating news of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. It was Robert F. Kennedy who brought them the pain-filled news in a brief announcement. And then he shared the unending pain he felt, but seldom mentioned publicly, of his brother’s death in Dallas. He pleaded with the crowd to “return home, to say a prayer . . . for understanding and compassion . . . to make gentle the life of the world.” 

They did go home, and Indianapolis was one of the few American cities that did not burn that night. 

When we contemplate today’s headlines, some of us can hear Robert Kennedy’s voice and imagine him speaking out in our country — on the madness of gun violence, on the shame of police brutality, on the need for compassion in welcoming immigrants and refugees, on the moral necessity to seek peace instead of war, and on the divisiveness of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and all other challenges to our quest for unity. His way of communicating with others — personally or in crowds of people — was calming and inspiring.

When he spoke, he often called for peace and unity:

Surely we can learn, at least, to bind up the wounds among us and become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.

— Robert F. Kennedy

Clearly, Robert F. Kennedy was loved by the everyday people of this nation — the factory and farm workers, the coal miners and the steel workers, the teachers and the doctors, the people who lived in the most modest neighborhoods as well as the people in the mansions on the hilltops. Why such an appeal? It could well be because his life and leadership were forged in the civil rights battles he faced as attorney general and in his own harrowing introspection after his brother’s assassination on November 22, 1963. 

Less than five years after losing his brother, “as he lay shot and bleeding on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, he looked up and asked: “Is everybody OK?”

— Robert Morris Shrum, Director and Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics, UNiversity of Southern California

The books and films on Robert F. Kennedy’s life are so compelling that even persons who were not yet born then can grasp why millions flocked to rail sides as his funeral train traveled ever so slowly from New York to Washington, DC. In the midst of a nation’s despondency at losing the third great American leader, the train carrying his body was a kind of defiant last rally, a tribute not only to who he had been, but to what might have been. His daughter described that day.

A train carried his body from New York City to the nation’s capital. Crowds lined the train tracks, and waved, and cried. That train ride was supposed to be three hours, and instead it turned out to be almost seven hours. Two million people came out.  African Americans in Baltimore singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Nobody organized this; it was spontaneous.

— Robert F. Kennedy’s daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

As always, we have the opportunity to grow and learn on the other side of tragic loss. We would do well to listen carefully to the plea spoken so many years ago by Robert F. Kennedy to the people grieving the death of Dr. King.

Say a prayer . . . for understanding and compassion . . . to make gentle the life of the world.

Let’s do that, right in the face of today’s angst over so many ills and wrongs. Let’s “say a prayer . . . to make gentle the life of the world.”

Amen

 

My Lord Is Near Me All the Time

635D7269-16B0-4C30-8A96-05536FDFF587Magnificent power! On a ride through the Georgia countryside, I witnessed nature’s beauty in a thunderstorm. The sky lit up from one end of the horizon to the other and then enormous streaks of lightning flashed in astounding display. It took my breath away, not because of its danger, but because of its brilliance. I struggle to find words to describe it.

Here’s how to scientifically explain it. Within a thundercloud way up in the sky, many small bits of ice (frozen raindrops) bump into each other as they move around in the air. All of those collisions create an electric charge. After a while, the whole cloud fills up with electrical charges.

And so it was tonight. I do not always find spiritual significance in acts of nature, but this night I was overwhelmed with the idea of the absolute power of God’s creation. At the same time, I considered my close relationship with Jesus.

God, whose ultimate power can be beyond our human comprehension, visited us through his Son who walked among us on this earth. All of it dawned on me in the midst of a powerful, resplendent thunderstorm that reminded me of the eternal truth of a beautiful hymn, “My Lord Is Near Me All The Time.” *

In the lightning flash across the sky
His mighty pow’r I see,
And I know if He can reign on high,
His light can shine on me.

I’ve seen it in the lightning, heard it in the thunder,
And felt it in the rain;
My Lord is near me all the time, My Lord is near me all the time.

When the thunder shakes the mighty hills
And trembles ev’ry tree,
Then I know a God so great and strong
Can surely harbor me.

I’ve seen it in the lightning, heard it in the thunder,
And felt it in the rain;
My Lord is near me all the time, My Lord is near me all the time.

When refreshing showers cool the earth
And sweep across the sea,
Then His rainbow shines within my heart,
His nearness comforts me.

I’ve seen it in the lightning, heard it in the thunder,
And felt it in the rain;
My Lord is near me all the time, My Lord is near me all the time.

As a child my overprotective grandmother made sure that lightening would frighten me. It worked because of her very frightened demeanor at the first sign of a storm. I remember how she gathered my brothers and me close beside her on the sofa, wrapping her gentle arms around us. At every clap of thunder, she screamed.

But as an adult, I actually love thunderstorms. When thunder roars, I hear it as a reminder of God’s strength. When lightning flashes across the sky, I see it as a marvel of God’s power. When I feel showers of rain, I feel God’s presence in the provision of life-giving water. In all of it, I am grateful for the nearness of a relationship with Christ. It is abiding truth: my Lord really is near me all the time.

Amen.

To listen to the hymn, “My Lord Is Near Me All the Time” click on the video below:

 
* Georgia hymn writer, Barbara Fowler Gaultney (1935-1974), turned to writing hymns as a source of hope and an expression of her faith. In tenuous health throughout her life, Gaultney was educated in the Atlanta public schools and attended the University of Georgia. While a member of the First Baptist Church of Forest Park near the Atlanta airport, she penned both the words and music to “My Lord Is Near Me All the Time.” Her minister of music, Julian Wilson, assisted her in submitting it for publication. Her hymn was first published in the Baptist church music periodical, The Church Musician, April 1960. It then appeared in the 1975 Baptist Hymnal and has become a favorite of many congregations.  (Harry Eskew, https://gabaptistworshipmusic.org/my-lord-is-near-me-all-the-time/)

 

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