Holy Wondering

7CD31664-E73F-4B6B-B168-4291D78B28DBWandering may well be a spiritual discipline. Many years ago, young Annie Morgan sang about it as she wandered in the hills and hollows of Appalachia. . . “I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”*

Wondering while we wander makes wandering a spiritual act. It is not merely aimless meandering. Nor is it rolling on pointlessly as if there is really nowhere to go. It is not wandering around in circles because we are hopelessly lost. It is more like a contemplative journey of discovery. J.R.R. Tolkien observed a truth about wandering. He said, “Not all those who wander are lost.”

We wander, most certainly, but might there be a purpose in our wandering? Suppose our wandering becomes a joy to us. Suppose we learn and grow as we wander about. Suppose our wandering leads us to a deeper relationship with God. Suppose in our wandering we do some wondering, looking up into the sky for new light and sparkling new thoughts that change our lives forever.

So I wonder . . . How are the stars set in their places? Apart from the certainties of astronomy, of course.

I wonder . . . Why does the sun rise every day, and then set in a wondrously painted sky at dusk making way for the rising of a luminous moon? Apart from the scientific explanation, of course.

Wondering is not about science at all. It is about discovery of beauty in most unlikely places. Perhaps it is about practicing mindfulness atop a majestic mountaintop, or contemplating life on the edge of the sea, or meditating in a forest filled with all manner of living things. It is about the exploration of the heart to know its deepest desires and longings. It is about looking into the soul, and there finding both the intense pain and the tender healing that completes a life.

A well known Christmas carol, “I Wonder as I Wander”* was first sung by young Annie Morgan, a destitute girl in Appalachian North Carolina. At a Christian fundraising meeting, Annie stepped out on the edge of the platform and stood before a crowd of people. Although she wore rags, unwashed and in shreds, she stood proudly. It is said that she smiled as she sang, “smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song the people had never heard.”

I wonder as I wander out under the sky . . .

I imagine that Annie, a girl living in poverty, wondered about many things as she wandered through the Appalachian mountains. She probably wondered about the stars in the sky, the rising and setting of the sun, the brilliant moon that lit the path before her in the night. I imagine she wondered about God and about the ways God might be present with her. I imagine she wondered about herself and about what would become of her. Like her, we wander through this life, mostly alone.

As this is my very own blog, I can freely change tenses to say with great certainty that, as I have wandered through many years, I have grown by myself, but not alone. For as I wandered, I learned to wonder.

So I highly recommend wandering for the sole purpose of wondering. Our wondering might well reveal the longing in our hearts. Our wondering might lay bare the pain hidden in our souls, but also show us the balm of healing that dwells there. Our wondering might open up a place within us to hold God, all of God, more completely than ever before.

I don’t know about you, but I plan to do even more wandering. And on the journey, I will pour myself into some holy wondering. Who knows what I might discover!

 

* “I Wonder as I Wander” is a Christian folk hymn, typically performed as a Christmas carol, written by American folklorist and singer John Jacob Niles. The hymn has its origins in a song fragment collected by Niles on July 16, 1933.

While in the town of Murphy in Appalachian North Carolina, Niles attended a fundraising meeting held by group of evangelicals. In his unpublished autobiography, he wrote of hearing the song:

“A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform and began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins…. But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.”

The girl, named Annie Morgan, repeated the fragment seven times in exchange for a quarter per performance, and Niles left with “three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material. In various accounts of this story, Niles hears between one and three lines of the song.

Based on this fragment, Niles composed the version of “I Wonder as I Wander” that is known today . . . His composition was completed on October 4, 1933. Niles first performed the song on December 19, 1933, at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. It was originally published in Songs of the Hill Folk in 1934.

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“Are you upset, little friend?”

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Charles M. Schulz

These days, I find myself in the very center of worry and discontent. I feel vulnerable, out of place in a new place I never expected to make my home. The problem is, I think, that I have not really made this place my home, and that reality has left me unsettled. I left forever friends behind when we moved here. I think the reason for my worry, my occasional despondency, even my fear, is that I feel alone. I recalled this week the well-known lyrics of a Carole King song from the seventies.

When you’re down and troubled
And you need a helping hand
And nothing, nothing is going right
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night.

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running to see you again;
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah.
You’ve got a friend.

If the sky above you
Should turn dark and full of clouds
And that old north wind should begin to blow;
Keep your head together
And call my name out loud, yeah
Soon I’ll be knocking upon your door . . .

It is a frightening state of being facing worry or illness or aging or loneliness, finding yourself disconsolate at times, and alone, without a loyal friend. But we have a mystical, magical force that leads us through the dark nights of the soul every time, without fail. I’ll name it faith.

A dear friend who just faced some devastating news reminded me of a deep-down, rock-solid truth about faith when she wrote, “My faith is bigger than my fear.” And that’s how we live a life filled with times of worry, aloneness, days of grief, fear, and sometimes mourning that engulfs us hard and long.

No person escapes such times, for they are an inevitable part of life. So we meet hard times face-to-face, up close, and we survive. We are, as the Bible says, “troubled on every hand, yet not distressed; perplexed, but not in despair . . . cast down, but not destroyed,” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)

To be sure, we are left with scars of the soul and spirit. Yet we live on, knowing that after times of despondency, we are stronger than we were before. There is no deeper consolation than the words of Scripture proclaimed by the Prophet Isaiah.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.

— Isaiah 43:2

I hang on Isaiah’s words, and I have rested onthem so many times when sadness overwhelmed me and fear had its way. These Isaiah words are enough, more than enough for my disconsolate times.

But then I happened upon just the right message of consolation for me in this particular time of my life. And I found it in a most unlikely place. It’s a delightful little message of real and true comfort that speaks so sweetly to me, and perhaps to all of us who need a friend and an extra boost of encouragement in a time of worry.

Are you upset little friend? Have you been lying awake worrying? Well, don’t worry . . . I’m here. The flood waters will recede, the famine will end, the sun will shine tomorrow, and I will always be here to take care of you.

― Charles M. Schulz

Amen.

Out of Africa: White Supremacy and the Church’s Silence

D4B59064-1AD6-4121-B934-261EB10546E6I invite you to read “Out of Africa: White supremacy and the Church’s silence,” a provocative opinion piece by our guest blogger, Dr. Bill J. Leonard. Many thanks to Dr. Leonard for prompting us to more fully commemorate the day honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If you are willing to challenge yourself, these words will shed the light you need to do so.

Out of Africa: White supremacy and the Church’s silence

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Dr. Bill J. Leonard

OPINION | BILL LEONARD | JANUARY 15, 2018

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled [Caucasian?] masses, yearning to breathe free.”

Three days before the 2018 Martin Luther King Jr. memorial observances, and in the 50th year after Dr. King’s assassination, the plague of racism in America continued, even as white supremacy, long lingering just below the surface, reasserted itself with a vengeance.

On Jan. 12, the president of the United States, at a White House meeting on immigration, allegedly asked why “all these people from shithole countries,” specifically Haiti and Africa, should be admitted to the U.S. He was also said to have wondered aloud why the U.S. could not secure more immigrants from countries like Norway (83 percent Caucasian). Confirmation of his remarks vary from those in attendance. Some confirm the alleged statements; others deny them. Somebody’s lying.

The mere report of the comments was immediately celebrated across the country’s white supremacist network, much as when Trump affirmed “good people on both sides” in last year’s violent neo-Nazi-led demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va. White nationalist Richard Spencer chastised Trump’s defenders for suggesting the statements were related to law or economics, since they were actually “all about race.” Spencer was, of course, delighted. The Neo-Nazi blog, the Daily Stormer, hailed the President’s words as “encouraging and refreshing” since they indicated that “Trump is more or less on the same page as us” regarding “race and immigration.” In America, 2018, white supremacy is now apparently “refreshing.”

Dallas Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress defended the president, noting that “apart from the vocabulary attributed to him,” Trump’s comments were “right on target” with his presidential responsibility “to place the interests of our nation above the needs of other countries.” That’s unlike Christians’ “biblical responsibility” to “place the needs of others” above themselves. (Racism’s OK; it’s vulgar language that’s the problem.)

Amid debates over the veracity of witnesses to the White House event, the fact remains that the dogmas of white supremacy lie at the center of America’s long night of racism, in politics, social structures, and racial stereotypes. At this moment in history, how can American Christians, themselves deeply divided over scripture, doctrine, sexuality, abortion, and other culture war accoutrements, foster a common compulsion to speak out against white supremacist fiction before it gains an even stronger implicit or explicit influence?

Even if President Trump did not use vulgar words to highlight his views on immigration, did he in fact wistfully promote a 21st century America where Aryans (remember the history of that word?) are preferred to immigrants of color? Surely it is time to break the silence, not simply because of those shameful remarks, but because they are part of a larger litany of racial dog whistles from Trump’s birther campaign, to attacks on a “Mexican” judge and a Gold Star Muslim family, to the infamous Charlottesville slurs.

We have many reasons to break the silence: First, because white supremacy itself is an inherently evil yet an enduring vision of the nature of humanity, and must be resisted for that fact alone. It has polluted our national psyche long enough!

Second, we break the silence on this matter because we hear again Dr. King’s words from that Birmingham jail: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Third, we Aryan Christians cannot be silent because it’s our racial ancestors who first planted the banner of racism in our laws, our institutions (churches included), and in our hearts. And some among us still won’t let it go. We need to get “saved” from it.

Fourth, we speak out now because American churches, at least many of them, remained silent for too long. Indeed, Trump’s only a symptom; we scapegoat him at our peril. When his remarks hit the fan, I returned to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, a book that has taught me, shamed me, blessed me, and broken me for decades. Baldwin writes: “It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible) must first divorce him[her]self from all the prohibitions, crimes and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has had any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” (Whatever God is, it damn sure isn’t white supremacy.)

Mercer University professor Robert Nash illustrates Baldwin’s point in a superb essay entitled, “Peculiarly Chosen: Anglo-Saxon Supremacy and Baptist Missions in the South,” documenting that ecclesiastical collusion with the case of James Franklin Love, corresponding secretary of the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1915-1928. Nash notes that Love “was profoundly influenced by the concept of Anglo-Saxon supremacy … that white races possessed a superior intellect, religion, and civilization.”

Love’s mission strategy focused on evangelization of Europe since white Christians could more readily convert the darker races. He wrote: “Let us not forget that to the white man God gave the instinct and talent to disseminate His ideals among other people and that he did not, to the same degree, give this instinct and talent to the yellow, brown or black race. The white race only has the genius to introduce Christianity into all lands and among all people.” (In 2017, the Southern Baptist Convention went on record condemning white supremacy then and now. It’s about time.)

Finally, we break the silence, confronting white supremacy and its accompanying racism at this moment because we will neither deny nor sully the African heritage of our African-American sisters and brothers, who as W.E.B. Dubois wrote, “would not bleach … [their] Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism,” since they know “that Negro blood has a message for the world.”

On what would have been his 89th birthday, Dr. King retains his prophetic voice for black and white alike, declaring from his jail cell then and now: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men [women] willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”

Today, we read again Matthew’s haunting assessment of the Holy Family’s immigration from Herod’s not-so-holy-land:

“Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

Sweet Jesus, Egypt’s in Africa! Amen”

 

Bill J. Leonard is the James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies, Professor of Church History, School of Divinity, Wake Forest University.

 

 

 

Even There!

D2954ADE-75B4-4134-8B99-77B434376264Today, my pastor reminded me of a cherished truth, that we are not just loved by God, we are also known by God. Today’s scripture, Psalm 139, is indeed a precious gift. The Psalmist assures us that God knows when we sit down, when we lie down, and when we rise up.

The Psalmist declares that God knows our every thought. God knows our path. God knows our ways and the words we will speak, even before we speak them. The miracle? God truly and thoroughly knows us — every flaw, every bad habit, every unkind action. And God loves us anyway.

But for me, even more comforting than that grace-filled promise, is the truth beginning in verse seven, that God is with me when I feel alone. In the past few weeks, in fact, I have felt very much alone, far away from my child and grandchildren, far away from close friends, living in a new place that does not yet feel like home.

I am blessed with a loving husband of 48 years, my very best friend. We enjoy each other. We love being together day in and day out. We live in a lovely place in a pleasant neighborhood. But we are not really home.

So from the place I find myself these days, I find great comfort in hearing the Psalmist speaking, maybe even singing, about God’s abiding presence. In this part of the Psalm, one of the most meaningful scripture passages of my faith journey, I find the promise of God’s presence with me. The message calms my soul and consoles my heart.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
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 shall Your hand lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.

— Psalm 139:7-9 (NKJV)

Wherever I go, even there God’s Spirit is with me. Wherever I am, even there God is with me. Even there!

Thanks be to God for the gift of presence.

Only Love Can Drive Out Hate

010B6CB7-43B5-47B7-B92B-C87DF5750866It was almost shameful that President Trump on January 12th signed a proclamation honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In all honesty, I cringe at his signing of this proclamation. I cringe because the president honors Dr. King while dishonoring Dr. King’s legacy.

I can imagine that Dr. King’s words echoed through the Oval Office during the signing, in a whisper heard only by persons of love and good will.

If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

We’ve learned to fly the air like birds, we’ve learned to swim the seas like fish, and yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters…”

― Martin Luther King, Jr.

I cringe because I heard the words that the president said about “shithole countries.”

Why do we want all these people from Africa here? They’re shithole countries … We should have more people from Norway.

– Donald J. Trump

In his remarks, Mr. Trump, who has vowed to clamp down on illegal immigration, also questioned the need for Haitians in the United States.

Instantly, many Democrats and some Republican lawmakers called out the president. Republican United States Representative Mia Love, a daughter of Haitian immigrants, said the comments were “unkind, divisive, elitist, and fly in the face of our nation’s values,” and she called forTrump to apologize to the American people and to the countries he denigrated.

Another Republican Representative, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who was born in Cuba and whose south Florida district includes many Haitian immigrants, said: “Language like that shouldn’t be heard in locker rooms and it shouldn’t be heard in the White House.”

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said the president’s comment “smacks of blatant racism, the most odious and insidious racism masquerading poorly as immigration policy.”

A wave of international outrage also grew against the president’s vulgar language as the president of Ghana, President Nana Akufo-Addo, said that he would “not accept such insults, even from a leader of a friendly country, no matter how powerful.”

The Ghanian president tweeted an unflinching defense of the African continent — and of Haiti and El Salvador, countries that Trump also mentioned in the Thursday meeting with a group of senators at the White House.

In addition to Ghana, the government of Botswana said Trump’s language is “reprehensible and racist,” and said it has summoned the U.S. ambassador to clarify what he meant.

Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, said in a statement that it was “shocking” and that “Africa and the black race merit the respect and consideration of all.” His West African nation has long been praised by the United States as an example of a stable democracy.

The African Union, which is made up of 55 member states, also spoke against Trump’s remarks.”Given the historical reality of how many Africans arrived in the United States as slaves, this statement flies in the face of all accepted behavior and practice,” said spokeswoman Ebba Kalondo.

Paul Altidor, Haiti’s ambassador to the U.S., called Trump’s comments “regrettable” and based on “clichés and stereotypes rather than actual fact.” He also noted the insensitivity of its timing, coming the same week as the eighth anniversary of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people.

El Salvador’s government on Friday sent a formal letter of protest to the United States over the “harsh terms detrimental to the dignity of El Salvador and other countries.”

A spokesperson representing the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned President Trump’s “shocking and shameful” comment, saying: “I’m sorry, but there’s no other word one can use but racist.”

On January 13th, The Washington Post published an article by Karen Tumulty that calls out President Trump’s misunderstanding of this nation’s immigration history.

There is far more to the latest controversy surrounding President Trump than the vulgar and implicitly racist language he used to draw a distinction between desirable and undesirable immigrants. Trump’s choice of words also revealed a deeper and more substantive truth about how the president views — and misunderstands — America’s unique relationship with its immigrants.

Trump’s words, with their racial connotations, also suggest he wants to return to what has come to be regarded as one of the more shameful and xenophobic periods of immigration policy.

In 1924, a set of laws was passed that set quotas limiting the number of people admitted to this country based on where they came from, with a goal of preserving the United States’ ethnic homogeneity.

“The premise of national origin quotas was that some countries produce good immigrants, others produce bad immigrants,” said NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten, author of the 2015 book “A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story.”

“There were actually ‘scientific’ studies purporting to categorize countries according to the quality and characteristics of their people, and the quotas were devised in part on the basis of the testimony of ‘expert’ opinion,” Gjelten said.

There are so many voices of reason, voices that cry out for dignity, respect, unity and love, speaking out against the president of the United States. So it is with sadness and shame that I celebrate the day of remembrance for Dr. King. On his day in 2018, I hear more intensely all that he taught us about so many things, and I hear what he shared with us most profoundly — the power of love.

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. So when Jesus says “Love your enemies,” he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition.

― Martin Luther King, Jr., from Strength to Love

This week, I heard a provocative statement: that hate speech is not about who Donald Trump is. Rather, it is about who we are. The statement opened up some questions for me:

How do I respond? What does it mean for me to stand with those who are marginalized?

Is it not my responsibility to stand up to persons in seats of power when they promote hate, racism, xenophobia, exclusion and hostility?”

Will I set my face towards love and my heart towards the world as it is seen through the eyes of Jesus? Is it not up to me to be a part of creating — in our nation and in our world — a “beloved community?”

For “hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” Was

Despair

192EA03D-9DFB-4D4A-BB22-A481D2086FCDDespair has its way at times. It sneaks into my spirit and dwells there for a while, Although despair is thoroughly unwelcome and unwanted, it has a way of making a home in me at times. It has its way. It does its damage. It enslaves me with a devastating kind of bondage. It forces me into an uneasy and oppressive place.

Despair’s most damaging legacy is fear. These days are, for me at least, days of fear. I watch the current president and listen to his words in horror. He speaks with hostility. He gives welcome to divisiveness, racism, misogyny and disrespect. His words are often divisive, rude and insensitive. He uses his power to build an unsettled nation. I despair for the nation, and I despair for a world filled with violence, war, hunger, poverty, and natural disasters born of climate change.

My faith tells me that there is a remedy for despair, that fear can be conquered, and that peace might be restored in me. The poetry of Wendell Berry is a beautiful reminder.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.

I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.

For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

— From Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things“

When despair casts its damaging spell within me, my faith still holds. They are waiting for me, always, the peace that is a balm for grief and despair, the presence of still waters and the stars sparkling in my night sky. This otherworldly beauty causes me to rest in the arms of faith and to recall the many times of despair in my life that served only to make me stronger and more resilient.

Thanks be to God.

Looking into the Sky

C6F419F0-5C81-4A26-B890-76C7BCD762FCFor Christians around the world, the end of the Christmas holiday occurs on Epiphany, the 12th Day of Christmas. It commemorates how a star led the Magi, or the three kings or wise men, to the baby Jesus. Epiphany is about finding Jesus — again — in a fresh new way, looking into the light that has the power to change our lives.

In his homily on Friday before Epiphany, Pope Francis called on the faithful to be like the Magi, who, he said, continued to look at the sky, took risks and set out bearing gifts for Christ.

If we want to find Jesus, we have to overcome our fear of taking risks, our self-satisfaction and our indolent refusal to ask anything more of life. We need to take risks simply to meet a child. Those risks are immensely worth the effort, since in finding that child, in discovering his tenderness and love, we rediscover ourselves.

Looking into the sky and taking risks is a way of life for women. We have found the need to look up, above the hurts of our lives. We have looked into the sky to escape misogyny, discrimination, disrespect and abuse. We have looked into the sky to search the heavens for hope when we have felt only despair.

It has not been for us just a flighty inclination to retreat from unpleasant realities through fantasy. Instead our sky gazing has been a way to pour our souls into the kind of change that makes life worth living. We have dreamed improbable dreams. We have been wise. We have been brave and persistent. We have taken risks and defied whatever was holding us hostage. We have been determined emboldened and empowered.  We have been inspired and ennobled. We have changed our world.

Like the three Wise Men, we journeyed, wise women in search of the child that would more fully empower us. Our desire and longing led us, like a fire burning within, until we found the flaming star in the night sky. And there we found Jesus —  again. So we celebrated. We rejoiced, because Jesus wanted for us a new day, a new life of respect and well-being and inspiration and hope. That is epiphany. Amen.