Still in My Heart

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My new church home, First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia. Β The memory of New Millenium Church of Little Rock will remain a part of my life, still in my heart.

Yesterday marked a milestone for me. After being in Macon for almost two years, I joined the First Baptist Church of Christ. Why such a delay in finding a new church home? I have asked myself that question many times.

The delay wasn’t about the new church. I was attracted to that church instantly, and it is a good place for me to grow spiritually. My extreme hesitation was about my previous church, New Millennium Church in Little Rock.

Some of the most life-giving days of my ministry were spent serving with New Millennium as Minister of Worship.Β But there was much more about New Millennium that captured my heart. For you see, the grace-filled, loving people of New Millennium kept vigil with me during my very serious year of illness. They prayed me to health; they brought food for us every week; they brought communion to my living room when I was still too weak to move.

I grieved for almost two years after leaving my pastor, friend and colleague in ministry, Wendell Griffen. I grieved the loss of the people of New Millennium, and I simply could not open my heart to another congregation. It was most certainly an emotional attachment, a deeply spiritual attachment that I simply could not bear to replace.

The page did turn for me. I opened my heart to a new people on Sunday. They welcomed me with joy and love. But New Millennium will still be in my heart, probably forever.

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart . . .

– Philippians 1:3-7 New International Version (NIV)

Holy Ghosts

 

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“Holy Ghosts” Β Watercolor by Kathy Manis Findley

I’m not afraid of ghosts. While I was a hospital chaplain, I regularly visited a woman who was slowly recovering from a serious illness. During one of our visits, she shared with me this story.

When I pray at night, my daddy comes into the room. Now daddy has been dead for years, but still he sits with me, especially at night. I can’t really explain it, but here’s right here with me, talking to me, comforting me . . . like a holy ghost.

I think she explained it very well. I have heard similar stories from other patients, and I believe with them that the space between us and our departed loved ones is a thin veil, a sacred veil. I recently saw the following quote attributed to Reagan Courtney. “When the dead come to mind, they are like holy ghosts, as real as hope or faith, as tangible as trust and love.”

A few months ago, I painted a watercolor entitled “Holy Ghosts.” It was dedicated to those I have loved and lost, those who hover over me with abiding love, consolation and protection . . . my dearest friend, Ethel, my brother Pete, my grandmother, my Aunt Koula.

The painting is not meant to be scary or morbid. It is just the opposite for me. It represents the souls who hover over us for protection, those with whom we shared love and life. For you see, love does not end with death. Love is too powerful for that. And who says we cannot continue to experience love through the sacred veil that only slightly separates us from the holy ghosts that remain a part of our lives?

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

– Hebrews 12:1-2 NIV

Brutal Pruning

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The Chinese Tallow tree in my yard used to be covered with vibrant leaves and white berries. Fred pruned it this year . . . brutally. I’m concerned that it won’t survive the assault. And I will so miss the shade of my beautiful tree.

Time will tell. As the spring draws nearer, I will watch the tree with hope. The theory is that after severe pruning, the tree will come back fuller and stronger, with superior shape. I’m not convinced. But I will hang on to hope.

Pruning times are important for humans too. After we survive a spiritual pruning, we bear more fruit, better fruit. The Bible describes the process.

He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.

– John 15:2 NIV

I don’t like it much when I am enduring a pruning. It hurts. It feels like it is diminishing me. But I have learned, after enduring a few seasons of holy pruning, that I really do come back fuller and more vibrant.

I am hoping that this will also be true for my once-beautiful tree. I’ll keep you posted.

Safe in God’s Care

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There are times when I need to draw close to God and stay there. There are moments that define us, and sometimes they are seasons of despair when prayer is the only thing to do. I have been through those hard seasons many times and found a way to reach out to God. I wanted to stay there, near to God’s heart of compassion, near to God’s glory, safe under God’s sheltering wings.

Peter, James and John found themselves on a high mountain with Jesus. Glory filled the place and the story tells us that Jesus became “as bright as a flash of lightening.” They wanted to stay there. Wouldn’t you? Peter, James and John were in the glow of the glory of Jesus. Peter spoke up and said, “We need to stay here, Master. Let us put up three shelters for you, Moses and Elijah. Let’s just stay here on this holy mountain.”

The story begins with Jesus praying in private with his disciples. He asked them, β€œWho do the crowds say I am?”

They replied by telling Jesus that some people were saying he was John the Baptist; others were saying he was Elijah. Others were saying that Jesus was one of the prophets of long ago who had come back to life. But Jesus wanted them to answer the question, “Who do you say I am?”

As he often did, Peter answered for the group. β€œGod’s Messiah.”

Then Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone, predicting his imminent death and telling them that they would suffer as well. But then we get to the redeeming part of this story, the part that looks past the suffering and reveals the glory. Here is the Transfiguration text from the Gospel of Luke:

About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, β€œMaster, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three sheltersβ€”one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

– Luke 9:28-33 New International Version (NIV)

Without a doubt, the disciples of Jesus were about to enter one of those difficult life seasons. They would be tested to their limits, and would find themselves longing to draw close to Jesus once again and rest in that place of safety.

Mary Austin relates a story told by pastor and theologian Jennifer Bailey. (https://revgalblogpals.org/2017/02/21/narrative-lectionary-glory-then-guts-luke-928-45/). In a time of deep distress, Jennifer recalls the depth of her pain. This is how she describes her experience:

I folded into myself: my arms wrapped tightly around my knees and found their rest on my heaving chest . . . As I opened my mouth to cry out to God, as I often do in moments of hopelessness, no sound emerged…Rocking back and forth on the cool linoleum floor, I finally uttered the only words that I could find, β€œI don’t feel safe. I don’t feel safe.”

Like a gust of wind, I could suddenly feel the soulful presence of my ancestors surround me, holding me and bearing witness to my pain. Then I heard my mama’s spirit whisper gently, gently in my ear, β€œBaby, we ain’t never been safe”.

Jesus proclaimed the hard truth that there is no safety for those who follow him. Yet we live on, knowing that sometimes seasons of pain will engulf us. But also knowing that we are safe in God’s care, that God is faithful and present with us always.

Yes, sometimes I need to draw close to God and stay there. I hope I’ll have the wisdom and the will to stay there long enough.

Seeing the Dawn

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What do you do when your dreams have died, when you realize that what you hoped for and dreamed for just isn’t going to happen? Sitting with the shards of broken dreams is not a good place to be. We are, deep inside of ourselves, dreamers that look toward a bright future filled with hope. We plan. We set goals. We dream. And we keep on dreaming.

The problem is that sometimes the world around us disrespects dreamers. “It’s impossible. It can’t be done. That’s a futile dream.” The voices of discouragement are incessant. Sherwood Anderson wrote:

β€œYou must try to forget all you have learned,” said the old man. “You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices.”

Haven’t we all experienced it? The roaring of the voices that tell us our dreams are not possible? The voices that insist our dreams have died? Of course, we have heard those voices. But we have dreamed on, longing to realize our “impossible dream.”

We who are dreamers envision a better world. We look into the dawn of realized dreams. We hold fast to our dreams, hearing through the years the echo of the words of Langston Hughes.

Hold onto dreams
For if dreams die
Life is like a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

– Langston Hughes

So keep on dreaming. Cling tightly to your dreams. Ignore the voices that discourage you. Find your most excellent way by moonlight. And always remember that, because you are a dreamer, you really do see the dawn before the rest of the world.

Will Never Perish

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“Oscar Arnulfo Romero – My Hero” Β  Β β–ͺ️ Β  Art Β by Curtis Narimatsu

Martyrs of the faith never perish. Their work lives on, inspiring others to sacrificial service. For centuries, God has graced us with men and women of courage whose lives stand before us as examples of faith. One such example is the late Γ“scar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador. Although he spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture, he was assassinated on March 24, 1980, while offering Mass in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence in San Salvador.

Archbishop Romero inspired Christians around the world with his commitment to the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized β€” those whom Jesus described as the β€˜least of these.’ Archbishop Romero’s stirring words from his last sermon capture the essence of his ministry and continue to inspire us all:

Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ will live like the grain of wheat that dies. It only apparently dies. If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies . . . We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us.

On May 23rd, 2015, thirty-five years after his assassination, Γ“scar Romero was beatified in the capital city, San Salvador. At least 250,000 people filled the streets for the ceremony which was the last step before Archbishop Romero is declared a saint. But let us look back on his life. In 1980, the soon-to-be-assassinated Archbishop promised history that life, not death, would have the last word.

“I do not believe in death without resurrection,” he said. “If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.”

On each anniversary of his death, the people march through the streets carrying that promise printed on thousands of banners. But his murder was a savage warning. Even some who attended Romero’s funeral were shot in front of the cathedral by army sharpshooters. To this day no investigation has revealed Romero’s killers. What endures is Romero’s promise.

Days before his murder he said this to a reporter, “You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.”

In these days of peril, may we all heed the words of Pope Francis, “Let us be moved by the Holy Spirit in order to be courageous in finding new ways to proclaim the Gospel.”

Courageous faith that works on behalf of those who are poor will never perish. Lives dedicated to standing against injustice will never perish. God’s holy church, though it is made up of imperfect humans like you and me, will never perish. Thanks be to God.

 

Of Sacred Worth

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Jesus said that we are worth more than many sparrows. Perhaps he knew that knowing our worth would elude us. It truly is difficult to recognize our worth. It is even more difficult to recognize our sacred worth and to know that God deeply values the persons we are.

In 1904, songwriter Civilla Martin went to visit a bedridden friend in Elmira, New York. Mrs. Martin asked the woman if she ever got discouraged because of her physical condition. Her friend quickly responded: “Mrs. Martin, how can I be discouraged when my heavenly Father watches over each little sparrow and I know He loves and cares for me?”

On her journey back home, Mrs. Martin completed the writing of this new hymn text:

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come, why should my heart be lonely and long for Heaven and home, when Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me…

“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear, and resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears; though by the path He leadeth but one step I may see: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me…

Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise, when songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies, I draw still closer to Him; from care He sets me free; His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me…

The words of that hymn ring true for me as I recall the many times I have needed God’s protection and care. Based on several scriptures, this hymn and the scripture that inspired it has comforted many people in need over the years.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

– Matthew 10:29-31 New International Version (NIV)

I invite you to listen to the Mississippi Mass Children’s Choir singing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” at this link:
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v1MPFyVek-U

As you listen, meditate on the truth that you are a person of sacred worth to God.

The Strong Signs of Justice

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Signs of injustice are ever before us. In these times, we look for any sign at all that justice will prevail. But there is despair enough to go around. The presidential election has led to protests on every hand, persons fearing that they will lose their freedom, undocumented students who were born here fearing deportation, seniors fearing that they will lose their social security, African Americans fearing that new “law and order” policies will result in even more unjust incarceration. People are in fear for many reasons.

All of us long to see compassion and common sense restored. We cling to hope that what we are seeing now is not the end of the story. We want to see justice for every person. And we ask ourselves if there is anything at all we can do. Is there something we must do?

Answers are hard to come by. We almost want to wring our hands and give up. But there is still the light of hope within us and we cannot give in to despair. During these unsettled times, I find hope in the words of Bishop Steven Charleston.

We are not done yet, you and me, and all of us who are crazy enough to keep believing. It will take a lot more than what we have seen so far to break our hold on hope. We will not rest, we will not quit, we will not be quiet until we see the strong signs of justice secure once more around us, until we see compassion and common sense restored. No, we are not done yet, because every day there are more of us, more believers of every kind and culture, rising up, standing up, and walking side by side. The wind is at our back, we are moving forward, and we have only just begun.

It is true. We are not done yet. We will persist. We will persevere. We will stand firmly until we again see the strong signs of Justice secure once more. May God walk beside us as we move forward into hope.

Sanctuary

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Churches vow to offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants: At least 450 churches are prepared to act as Trump-era “Underground Railroad”

Sanctuary . . .Β A sanctuary, in its original meaning, is a sacred place. By the use of sanctuaries as safe havens, the term has come to be used for any place of refuge. For people of faith who are providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, a sanctuary is indeed a holy place, sacred and inviolable.

Jeanette Vizguerra is a Mexican mother seeking to avoid deportation. As she held her 6-year-old daughter, Zuri, she spoke during a news conference in a Denver church where she and her children have taken refuge. But when Jeanette Vizguerra walked into that Colorado church, she also walked into the forefront of a possible clash between Donald Trump and many sanctuary churches across the country.

Vizguerra has lived in the U.S. since 1997 with four children, three of them born here. She was due to check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Instead, she took sanctuary inside the First Unitarian Society of Denver.

“I did not make this decision lightly,” Vizguerra said through an interpreter. “I was thinking about it for weeks. But I think that I made the right decision in coming here instead of going to the immigration office.”

The pastor of the church, Rev. Mike Morran, said, “It is our position as a people of faith that this is sacred and faithful work. We know Jeanette. We know her to be an honorable human being.”

But critics say the church is violating the law. While it has been for years federal policy not to do immigration enforcement in churches and other “sensitive locations,” such as schools, unless absolutely necessary, today that may be a lapsed policy.

“President Obama’s administration thought it was prudent to avoid rounding people up in places like hospitals or churches,” says Richard Garnett, director of the program on Church, State and Society at the University of Notre Dame Law School.

But Garnett says if the new administration changes that policy, it could set up a conflict between President Trump’s push for tougher enforcement of immigration laws and his administration’s support for religious freedom.

“Sanctuary works,” says Seth Kaper-Dale, pastor of the Reformed Church of Highland Park in New Jersey. “I can tell you from our own experience that all nine people who lived here have kept their families together, have been able to raise their children, have been able to go back to their jobs. Is sanctuary brutally hard? Yes. But it is a tool that we will use if we’re forced by a brutal regime to use it.”

Sanctuary churches across this country are living out their convictions because of their faith in a welcoming God. The government will, no doubt, enforce immigration law. The Church will live into the law of God . . .

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

– Leviticus 19:33-34 New International Version (NIV)

The invitation from God’s people proclaims, “In the name of God, come! You are welcome in this holy place of refuge.”

 
(Information about Jeanette Vizguerra is from David Zalubowski/AP.)

Faith Restored

 

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Sometimes life has so assailed us that We cannot take another step. At such times, our faith shrinks and we can only manage to crawl out of that place of pain. Yet, it may well be that the times when we can barely crawl become the times of the most meaningful spiritual growth.

We cannot move forward on our own strength. We cannot get ourselves out of darkness and back into God’s light. We cannot rest in the faith that has always sustained us. We cannot feel hope. We cannot believe for ourselves.

I have been in such a place a time or two, fearing that I would never again be restored to my faith. I have been in a place where I felt I could not believe anymore. But I have heard some words that reminded me of my faith. They are strengthening words that I once heard from one of my seminary professors, Dr. Frank Tupper.

“When you can’t believe for yourself anymore, crawl to the edge of the Garden of Gethsemane and let Jesus believe the rest of the way for you.”

Thank you, Dr. Tupper. And thank you to the ever-abiding God who waits with us in hard times, for as long as it takes, until our faith is restored.