Joy

102F7D81-F946-4E11-A42A-07566031DEABAs I often do, I found today, in my lengthy list of unread emails, a plethora of pleas to do something. Save the bees. Save the libraries. Save the children. Save the political candidate . . . and several other things that someone wants to save.  I care deeply about most of those things that need saving, like the libraries and the children and the bees. And I spend a fair amount of time worrying about them and praying for them to be saved.

But for this day, I am laser focused on saving myself, saving myself from the onslaught of various illnesses, from nature’s effects of aging, and mostly, from a life filled with worry where there should be joy.

Memories flood my mind with sweet, little songs from the past: “The joy of the Lord is my strength . . .”  (1)  “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart . . .” (2) Simple songs they were for us when as children we learned every word and took the melodies into our hearts to recall in the years to come.

And so today, I recall them, realizing that whatever may come, I have joy in my heart, and most of all, that I am leaning into the truth that the joy of the Lord is my strength. These were good and positive lessons to learn as a child, with simple music as the teacher. So today, I remember the songs, singing them silently as I write. Singing them aloud would most surely disturb the household. So I keep silent.

It can be a dangerous thing to keep silence, for in those silent times, there can be a flood of memories, thoughts, recollections, and the sacred space so essential to the spiritual life. Today’s sacred space brings these words to my heart:

The Lord is my strength and my shield;
in him my heart trusts;
so I am helped, and my heart exults,
and with my song I give thanks to him.

— Psalm 28:7 (RSV)

You are being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might, so that you might patiently endure everything with joy.

— Colossians 1:11(ISV)

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

— Nehemiah 8:10 (NIV)

On top of my end stage kidney disease, debilitating fibromyalgia, diabetes, and an almost constant barrage of new diagnoses, I have one job really: to find ways of guarding the joy that makes its home in my heart, to patiently endure whatever comes with joy. I must trust that joy really is there in my heart. I must believe that joy is still a part of my faith. I must know that joy has been with me on my journey, every day, at every turn, over every mountain and through every valley.

I must guard my joy lovingly and persistently. And I must guard my heart, joy’s dwelling place. When new illnesses come along, new concerns, new challenges, new problems and new sorrows, perhaps the most important thing I can do is to guard my heart.

Along with the other passages of scripture that have entered my sacred soace today, there is another tiny scripture passage that has moved me over the years. The writer of the book of Proverbs begins chapter four with a list of life instructions, and for twenty-two verses, the writer admonishes the reader to be vigilant, to be careful, to hold on to instruction, to avoid the path of the wicked, etc. And then in verse 23, the writer of the everlasting wisdom of the Proverbs gives us one more tidbit of advice and advises us to pay attention to this one instruction, above all else.

Above all else, guard your heart,
for from it flow the wellsprings of life.

— Proverbs 4:23 

I am never 100% certain about the meaning of scripture passages, but this one feels very clear to me — guard your heart and the wellsprings of your life will flow from it. I think the wellsprings might be joy! Not such a simple message, is it, that we have “joy down in our hearts to stay.”

 

(1) The Joy of the Lord Is My Strength, written by Alliene Vale, ©️1971, Universal Music.

(2) Joy In My Heart, written by George William Cooke, 1925

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.

The Music of Family

068E7848-EFD1-44CD-94E5-EDB43AD57577I have come to believe that family is music, sometimes loud music, sometimes music almost inaudible. But it is music that I deeply cherish. So few things in life really matter. Family is one thing that does matter. It’s all about relationship and rootedness.

This week we lost First Lady Barbara Bush who lived a long and meaningful life for 92 years. During her lifetime, Barbara Bush — called “the enforcer” by her family —was famous for speaking her mind. One thing that was most dear to her was her love for family. This she reveals in her own words:

At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child or a parent. When all the dust is settled and all the crowds are gone, the things that matter are faith, family and friends.

In our retirement, my husband Fred and I somehow managed to move ten hours away from our son and grandchildren. I’m not sure exactly how we made such a decision, but we certainly live each day with the reality of it. We have missed the delight of watching our three-year-old grandson grow up. We deeply miss the sweet moments we used to spend with our granddaughter who is now almost nine. We hardly know our grandson by marriage. And we hold tightly to the memories we made spending childhood days with our oldest grandson who is now in college.

We can’t call those moments back. We can’t relive the days when our grandchildren were babies and toddlers. But we will have the memories always.

This weekend, our entire family visited us, with the exception of the oldest grandson. We had a grand time celebrating our three-year-old’s birthday, complete with streamers, balloons and a Spiderman cake. The laughter was infectious. The excitement was palpable. Our small house was full and loud, very loud! The popping of balloons was a highlight for the boys, and quite NOISY for those of us who are older. But all of it was the big, boisterous music of family, a celebration to be remembered.

All too soon, the visit ended, and Fred and I watched the car crammed with grandchildren pull out of our driveway and head toward Arkansas. The house was quiet again, so very quiet. The music of our life got much softer when they left, and for a brief moment, I thought about crying a little. But I thought better of it. It was a beautiful, sunny day. The visit had been a very special time of celebration. Our family was happy and healthy. No call for tears.

My choices are: 1) to be terribly sad that my children are far away; or 2) to celebrate their lives and the bond we share, a bond that transcends the miles that separate us.

So my blog advice for this day is to hold on tightly to the music that is family. Listen intently when it’s soft and quiet. Join the celebration when it’s raucous and loud. But always know in the depths of your soul that the melody will dwell in your heart of hearts forever. That’s what the music of family does.

 

 

 

How Do You Live When You Know What’s Coming?

ABD2C8E4-5AA9-49EC-B771-A85BCDFBBD90How do you live when you know what’s coming? Jesus might have asked himself that question when the crowds were shouting “Hosanna!” and making a big deal of the fact that he was riding into town on a donkey. The Gospel of Mark tells the story well.

Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.

Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

— Mark 11:8-11 New International Version

So how do you live when you know what’s coming? Jesus went to the temple as was his custom and then set off to Bethany with his disciples. He knew what was coming, yet he did nothing very earth shattering. He sent his disciples into the city to prepare for for the Passover meal they would share. They ate the meal together, Jesus told then they would all desert him, and each one declared that they would never do such a thing.

They did. But life went on as life does. The Gospel then continues the sorrow-filled story as Jesus goes on with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane.

. . . And Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.”

He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated.
And said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.”

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him.

He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.

Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.”

So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him.

Then they laid hands on him and arrested him.

— Mark 14:33-46 New Internation Versioned

So now life is earth shattering for Jesus. How do you live when you know what’s coming?

Right now in deep Lent, this is a question we probably should ask. I don’t know about you, but as for me, I know what’s coming, at least some of what’s coming. There’s aging and illness, separation from children and grandchildren, the inevitable loss of loved ones, waning energy and more loss of independence. It happens to persons of a certain age. What’s coming for me includes things that are not so positive.So how do I live when I know what’s coming?

The preacher in me wants to offer a religious platitude that minimizes the troubling reality and lifts up abiding hope. The preacher in me wants to proclaim with a great deal of passion that all will be well. The preacher in me wants to declare that whatever happens to me, God will be glorified.

How do I live when I know what’s coming?

Right smack dab through the middle of it! Living strong in the face of fear. Holding tightly to hope. Summoning my inner courage. Standing steady through the winds of change, depending on the inner resilience that has always sustained me. That’s how I live in the days I have left in this world.

But, by the way, there really is a religious word that upholds and sustains me. The preacher in me is still alive and well, so I can proclaim with great certainty the comforting truth I find in my favorite passage of scripture

You have searched me, O God,
and you know me. You know whenI sit down and when I rise;

You perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways . .

You hem me in behind and before, you protect me, and you lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful, too lofty for me to comprehend.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, 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 guide me and your right hand will hold me fast.

— Psalm 139:1-10 New International Version (paraphrased)

With that sacred promise and with the strength that has grown in me over many years, I really do know how to live when I know what’s coming. Thanks be to God.

Baffled

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Art by David Hoffrichter Illustrations

At times, I am baffled by retirement and aging. It’s one of those “wonder-what-to-do-with-myself” times that is a part of life. Like so many people, I allowed my work to define me. On the other side of a life of ministry, there is a great deal of grief and loss, and mostly bewilderment. I constantly ask myself the question I should have answered decades ago: “Who am I?”

It is definitely true of me that I no longer know what to do. Oh, I keep myself busy enough with trivial pursuits. I cook. I write. I paint. I garden. I do crafty things. But none of those pursuits are engaging enough to help me redefine myself as a person who has passed her years of full time work and ministry.

Certainly, many people say that once you are a minister you never lose your ordination, your gifts, your calling and your mission. But I wonder what that really means. There is no preaching or worship planning going on in my world these days, no hospital ministry, no funerals and no weddings to officiate. If my mission and calling is for life, what does that mean in terms of day to day living?

I have to admit that, though I am busy doing “stuff,” I no longer know what to do with myself. Fortunately, I recently found a smidgen of comfort in these words written by Wendell Berry.

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

— ‘The Real Work’ by Wendell Berry, from Collected Poems, 1987.

So when all is said and done, perhaps it’s okay to be baffled. Maybe I can become that “impeded stream” and make a bit of music, filling these baffling days with singing. Just maybe, the writer of Ephesians had some very good advice for a person in my state of baffle-ment.

. . . be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

— Ephesians 5:18-20 New International Version (NIV)

Struggle and Wonder

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Aging, they say, is not for sissies. The person who coined that statement must have known about the many ways getting older would take its toll. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, our lives change,

We have at least two ways to live through these days that bring aging’s challenges. We can languish under the weight of life, fighting through every day to maintain our elusive youth. Or we can live deeply, embracing the sweetness and the sorrow, and savoring the memories that have brought us to this time in our lives. We can hold on tightly to the “small bagful of stars” that make our every moment a wonder.

Bishop Steven Charleston speaks great wisdom, describing a “place of struggle and wonder.”

We do not have long to linger in this place of struggle and wonder, surrounded by the clamoring throng, or sitting silently beneath the moon. We have only a measure of moments, a small bagful of stars, to spend here among the laughter and sighs, before the days of our counting are complete. Let each one, each day, each moment be lived then, as if it was the only hour creation will ever know, lived in as deeply as love will allow, lived in for all of its sweetness and sorrow. We do not have long to linger, but we have forever to remember.

Struggle and wonder, sweetness and sorrow . . . inextricably joined, woven together to create the tapestry of our lives. And so we grasp the struggle and cling tightly to the wonder. We welcome the sweetness, knowing full well that the sorrow is a necessary emotion of a life well lived.

We have forever to remember the struggle and wonder that swaddled us, abided with us, made its home within us, and fashioned our wondrous lives.

And this is God’s good news for us.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face struggles of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

James 1:2-4