Persisting with God

Enlight63

When spring arrives, I remember the anniversary of my ordination to the ministry. March 22nd . . . this year marked 25 years since that memorable day. I arrived at that ordination service held at a Baptist church in El Paso, Texas, battered and bruised. The path to ordination in the Baptist church was, in those days, a grueling experience. My home church in Little Rock, Arkansas, had tormented me for several months, adamant about their refusal to ordain a woman.

Nevertheless, I persisted. It was the first life experience that taught me that, in order to live out my fondest dreams, I had to learn to persist. It was a good lesson actually, one that I had to embrace. Yes, I was hurt by my church, by the people closest to me. My prayer was, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” That had to be my constant and sincere prayer so that I could genuinely forgive those who had hurt me and follow God into meaningful ministry.

God led me to hospital chaplaincy, to ministry as the pastor of a Presbyterian church, to founding a nonprofit organization that served victims of violence and abuse and to the pastorate of a Baptist church where I served for nine years.

So, yes, I did learn to persist and to follow God into unlikely places of service. Most importantly, God persisted . . . walking with me, guiding me, ennobling me to ministry.

The Bible reveals a God of infinite persistence, a God who never gives up on us. There are, of course, many portraits of God throughout the Bible, but my vision is of a God of extravagant grace, patience, and persistence. And for that I am eternally grateful.

Happy Ordination Anniversary to me . . . persisting with God for 25 years.

A Winding Path

Enlight62

I simply cannot see what’s up ahead. I know that the path is a winding one. I know that the path is strewn with rocks and a few obstacles along the way. I know that the trees provide shade on the journey. I know, most surely of all, that the path winds on into places that remain unknown to me. That could cause fear and a reluctance to walk forward.

I have known such fear at times. I have gazed at the path before me and have welcomed the kind of fear that stops the journey. I have trembled, deeply in my soul, because the path was formidable . . . a winding, crooked path that stretched before me farther than I could see. I have never known the destination, only the fear and the path.

JosΓ© N. Harris has written about this kind of fear. He writes of a remedy, in fact.

When you find your path, you must ignore fear. You need to have the courage to risk mistakes. But once you are on that road… run, run, run, and don’t stop until you’ve reached its end.

– JosΓ© N. Harris, MI VIDA: A Story of Faith, Hope and Love

That’s wise counsel. I must ignore the fear and bravely walk my path in faith, faith in the God that placed my path before me in the first place. The truth is that God has a long history of faithfulness, a long history of guiding folk on their journeys and protecting them on the pathways they were traveling. And that’s good enough for me!

Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the wilderness. By day the pillar of cloud did not cease to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take.

– Nehemiah 9:19 NIV

Remember Me

Enlight59

Aging brings up many questions about life, the past, the future. I think all of us wonder if we will be remembered. Will our accomplishments live on? Will anyone remember us? Did we change the world in any significant way? Will we leave any kind of legacy?

As always, Bishop Steven Charleston shares wise and wonderful insight.

Not many of us will be remembered for what we have done, though we may have accomplished a lot. Institutions change, communities move on, new faces appear, priorities shift, different challenges present themselves. As important as we once were, we fade into the mist. What remains is not what we have built, but who we have inspired. The lives we touched will go on. The minds we opened, the hearts we cherished, the spirits we set free: it is in relationship that our names are remembered. It is in how well we shared our love that we transcend thoughtless time and live on in ways unchanging.

– Bishop Steven Charleston

When I take stock of my life’s accomplishments, I am pleased with myself and proud of what I have built. But it is so very true, as Bishop Charleston says, that all of us fade into the mist and what we have built falls into decay as new things emerge.

So will we “live on in ways unchanging?” I think we will. I also believe that if we are remembered at all, it will be by the people we have inspired, the lives we have touched, the hearts we have cherished that cherished us in return. And that’s the very best way to be remembered.

She Gave Me Wings!

IMG_5006

She made broken look beautiful and strong look invincible.Β She walked with the universe on her shoulders and made it look like a pair of wings.

This quote makes me remember Ethel, one of my most cherished friends. Ethel was my hero. She inspired me to dream and always held hope high so that I could see it. She walked beside me during difficult days and challenged me to stay the course. “Tie a knot in the rope and hang on,” she would often say. And when I would fall into the dust, despondent and exhausted, Ethel gave me wings.

Most people knew Ethel as someone’s wife, someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother, because she always loved them more than she loved herself. She always used her energy to raise them up, to push them forward, to champion their hopes.

To me, Ethel was my dearest and most loyal friend, almost like a mother. I could not be despondent for very long around Ethel. She wouldn’t allow it. I could not be broken and stay that way. Ethel would gently pick up the pieces and help me find beauty in my brokenness.

Ethel was the matriarch of Providence Baptist Church of Little Rock, a new church start, and the first Baptist church in Arkansas to call a woman as pastor. I was that pastor. I moved into that ministry position after a grueling ordination process that lasted for almost a year and ended in my home church refusing to ordain a woman. Their refusal to work with me toward ordination was a devastating blow.

But Ethel was certain that ordination would come in time, at the right time. She quoted this verse from Habakkuk, one of her favorites, every time my resolve faltered and I was ready to give up.

For the vision is yet for the appointed time;
It hastens toward the goal and it will not fail.
Though it tarries, wait for it;
For it will certainly come, it will not delay.

– Habakkuk 2:3

Although Habakkuk was surely not writing about the denied ordination of a Baptist woman, his words rang true to Ethel and were encouraging to me. Together, Ethel and I “hastened toward the goal” that did not fail. We waited for it and it did come, seemingly out of nowhere.

On a Sunday evening, I received a phone call from the pastor of a church in El Paso Texas, who was the former Executive Secretary of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. After a brief getting-to-know-you conversation in which he told me that he had become acquainted with my ministry through a colleague who happened to be my hospital chaplaincy mentor, he stunned me with these words.

“Our church voted this morning to ordain you.”

“But you don’t even know me,” I said, shocked, taken aback and just a little confused.

Oh, but we know you very well. We have talked about you for weeks in our church. We know you are a chaplain. We know where you went to seminary. We know you can preach and even sing. We know you were a Southern Baptist Foreign missionary to Uganda. And if you were appointed a missionary by our Foreign Mission Board, you are qualified to be ordained so that you can continue your ministry.

I could barely respond. I knew only that I needed to think.

“Let me think about this for a few days and send you some information about me.”

And so I sent them a copy of my life story so they could be sure, even if I was not. Ethel said, “‘Though it tarries, wait for it; For it will certainly come, it will not delay.’ Now let’s pack up and go to El Paso.”

Thirteen friends, members of Providence, traveled to El Paso. My family drove 953.4 miles, and I was ordained in El Paso, Texas on April 29, 1992 by a church I did not know that became my community over a weekend.

Ethel left this world many years ago, much too soon. But she is still my hero and I miss her terribly. Does she watch over me? Is she, as some people like to think, an angel of God with a pair of wings? I’m not at all sure of that, but I know one thing. Every time things get hard, I hear her words, “Tie a knot in the rope and hang on.”

She gave me wings!

Me, God, and So Many “Why” Questions

Enlight47

After living for over 67 years — much of that time as a Christian and a Christian minister and chaplain — one would think that I had worked through all the “why” questions about God. I’ve had Holy moments holding vigil at the bedside of dying patients in the hospital. I’ve had miracle moments watching a grieving mother pray her brain-dead son back to life. I have experienced questioning moments standing before a God I could not understand.

Why do young children get sick and die? Why does disease ravage a body? Why do people have to suffer? Why are there starving children in the world? Why?

Do I worship a God who cares about that? And if God does care about all those tragedies, then why . . . you know the rest of that question.

So what does it really mean to pray? What’s my role in it? What’s God’s role in it? What can I expect from a sincere fervent prayer lifted up to a caring God?

Sylvia Plath wrote, “I talk to God, but the sky is empty.”

I can identify with that feeling. I know the frustration of praying to a silent God, hoping for an answer, hoping my faith will be enough. Obviously, I have found no answers to the hundreds of “why” questions. I do not know how God works with me. I do not know if my prayers will be answered. I do know that I can live with all the “whys” by the hardest, by faith.

I recently observed several months in the life of a 23 year old woman who battled cystic fibrosis since she was two years old. Eleven months ago, she received a life-giving double lung transplant. On March 17, she died after her body rejected the new, healthy lungs. The thing is, almost 50,000 people prayed for her through it all. They prayed day and night, asking God to heal her. After she died, a friend posted the above image to her Facebook page.

I cannot say I understand God’s ways, why one person is restored to health and another is not. Fortunately faith does not have to understand. Faith just endures through it all. So what is prayer all about? What are the answers to all this “why” questions? I do not know. I do not have to know.

Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.

― Mahatma Gandhi

It’s all about the soul, I think. Taking hits, experiencing grief and pain, deep down human sorrow . . . the soul is where the questions live. One of my favorite hymns expresses this so well.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heav’nly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hast’ning on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

– Katharina A. von Schlegel, pub.1752
translation by Jane L. Borthwick, pub.1855

Please take a few minutes to enjoy this hymn at the following link:

When I Die: An Epitaph

 

IMG_4963

When I die, give what’s left of me away
to children and old men that wait to die.

And if you need to cry,
cry for your brother walking the street beside you.

And when you need me, put your arms around anyone
and give them what you need to give me.

I want to leave you something,
something better than words or sounds.

Look for me in the people I have known or loved,
and if you cannot give me away,
at least let me live in your eyes and not in your mind.

You can love me best by letting hands touch hands,
and by letting go of children that need to be free.

Love doesn’t die, people do.
So when all that’s left of me is love,
give me away.

– Epitaph By Merrit Malloy

In celebration of the life of Elizabeth Scott Hankins . . . Libby

June 16, 1993 – March 17, 2017

 

Prayers in the Night

Design

Remembering Libby Scott Hankins and Celebrating Her Life

Libby died at noon on March 17 at age 23 after a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis. Diagnosed with the disease at age 2, she lived a full and productive life. She was just months from graduating with a degree in special education from the University of West Alabama, where she was homecoming queen and captain of the cheerleading squad.

Libby had a double lung transplant last year, but had to return to Duke University Medical Center in February. On February 25, Libby was moved to ICU because of AMR-antibody mediated rejection. Her body fought against the rejection and the many serious complications she was experiencing until March 17 when she lost her battle against cystic fibrosis.

In her final weeks, more than 50,000 people prayed and kept vigil for her day and night. Those people are now continuing their prayers for Libby’s grieving family and friends, believing that “God heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 14)

On Wednesday, the celebration of her life will be held at the stadium in Gordo, Alabama. Her mother and father will likely re-experience their loss. When night falls, their minds may be flooded with memories. Mourning might well overcome them in the darkness of the night. Those 50,000 friends will keep watch as they did during Libby’s final struggle. They will fervently pray for her parents through the night, all night,Β until the light of morning.

This prayer is for Libby’s family:

Keep watch, dear Lord,
with those who watch or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.

Tend the sick, Lord Christ;
give rest to the weary,
soothe the suffering,
give grace to those who mourn;
and all for your love’s sake.

Amen

Welcome, Spring!

IMG_4953

Welcome, Spring! We greet you joyfully on your first day and, as always, we’re glad to see you in the tiny buds on the trees and in the almost opened blossoms on the bushes. You remind us of new beginnings and fresh starts. You bring us new hope for resurrection. You call out to us to run barefoot in the greening meadows. You show us natureΒ waking up.

You are our proof that we survived another winter. Now we can feel the sun’s warmth instead of frigid winds. We can sing our songs in soft spring rains instead of in winter storms.

I love the following narrative that is such a lovely description of Spring.

Meanwhile, spring came, and with it the outpourings of Nature. The hills were soon splashed with wild flowers; the grass became an altogether new and richer shade of green; and the air became scented with fresh and surprising smells — of jasmine, honeysuckle, and lavender.

― Dalai Lama XIV, Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama

So we are waiting with great anticipation for all the special things you bring us — brilliant cherry blossoms, a fresh crop of spring grass, verdant fronds of fern, blooming azaleas, tulips and daffodils, blossoms of yellow, pink and purple. And bugs, lots of bugs, more bugs than we really want.

Even so, we really do welcome you. Thanks for leading us gently into summer’s heat. We need that.

There Will Be Miracles

Enlight42
The Lenten journey always reminds me of wandering through a wilderness. Today, I thought about the Exodus story that details a part of the journey of the Israelites. The story tells how the Israelite community traveled from place to place as the Lord commanded. When they camped at Rephidim, they found no water, so, of course, they complained to Moses.

An exasperated Moses cried out to the Lord, β€œWhat am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

Of course they were. It was so much easier to blame Moses than to take responsibility for their own decision to make this journey. I am well acquainted with the tendency to blame other people or other circumstances for my own mistakes and missteps. And like the Israelites, I have often been exasperated enough to cry out as they did: β€œIs the Lord among us or not?”

As always, God showed up to help Moses with this dilemma.

The Lord answered Moses, β€œGo out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink. (From Exodus 17)

Moses did just that and obeyed a God who provided the miracle. Water spewed out of Horeb’s rock and the people drank the miracle water until they thirsted no more. They would see God’s miracles again. They would witness the glory of the Lord again, and again.

But the journey continued, the wilderness was barren, the way was long. The people would complain again. They would sin, even as they witnessed life-changing events. They would be very human.

Just as we are. So take heart as you travel your Lenten journey. There will be dry, wilderness patches. But there will also be miracles. Keep your eyes open for them. You’ll be grateful that you did.

Silence and Solace

Enlight34

Sometimes all of us need a way to escape the ordinary day. Sometimes we need silence and solace. Sometimes we need the shimmering colors of a forest and the scents that waft through the trees. Sometimes we just need to leave behind all the concerns that hold us in bonds.

I imagine that my place of solace is in a forest. It’s only my imagination, mind you, because I never ever enter a forest. It’s a shame really, because I think I would be nurtured and comforted in a forest. I think I would find inner renewal and refreshment. I think that in a forest, I might very well hear God in the whispers of the branches.

Regrettably, I can only imagine. I will probably never make my way into a forest. Too many, bugs, poisonous plants, and creatures. Still I imagine spending some quiet time in a forest. I recently read a piece written by Ishmael Beah that said “The branches of the trees looked as if they were holding hands and bowing their heads in prayer.”

His words confirm that perhaps the forest is a place I really do need to visit, and maybe even to hold hands with the trees and bow my head in prayer. It would be a lovely escape, a life-giving escape. It would be a place that would call to me to forget the things that worry me and hold me fast.

Patricia Anne McKillip is a creative author of fantasy and science fiction novels. One of her novels, Winter Rose, expresses the way I feel about the notion of an escape into silence and solace. This is what she wrote:

I did not want to think about people. I wanted the trees, the scents and colors, the shifting shadows of the wood, which spoke a language I understood. I wished I could simply disappear in it, live like a bird or a fox through the winter, and leave the things I had glimpsed to resolve themselves without me.

I’m off to find a forest. Before spring breaks through, I just might find silence and solace in the whispering branches of the towering, bare trees. I might even hear God.