A Horribly Wonderful Year

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Art in foreground: “Horribly Wonderful” from The Land of Froud by Brian Froud, 1976.

Celebrating a five-year anniversary can be a fine excuse for a party! Definitely a five-year milestone can offer a chance to revisit and recall memories. My five-year anniversary is tonight, the night a phone call from my doctor ordered me to get to the ER. It was the night we learned that my kidneys had failed, just like that, out of nowhere, no notice. It was the night that end stage kidney disease turned my world upside down. It was the night that was the advent of a full year of hospital stays, biopsies, surgeries, physical and occupational therapy, loads of questions, very few answers and most of all, a very concerned and fatigued husband.

Fred was my rock, as he has always been. He slept next to me in that horrible excuse for a family bed. He kept vigil at the hospital day and night. When I was able to persuade him to go home to get some rest, he answered my phone calls in the middle of the night when I was sleepless, frightened or lonely.

“Are you up?” I would ask.

“I am now!” 

I don’t really think this anniversary calls for a party, but it does call for some reminiscing and remembering. So last night, Fred and I recalled the year I was so ill, that horribly wonderful year. Interestingly, we have two separate and differing sets of memories. He tells me that, most of that year, I was not aware of much, to the point of not even recognizing him. He tells me that I almost died during three separate critical events.

On my end, I remember none of that. I did lose time in that year, with confusion about losing days, even weeks, when I was unresponsive. I endured hundreds of needle sticks, maybe thousands since I am told my veins had collapsed. I received a port for hemodialysis that promptly caused me to nearly die of sepsis. I had a kidney biopsy that developed a painful bleed. I ate terrible food most of the time. I spent a lot of time in therapy learning to walk, write, identify colors and place square blocks in round holes.

Together we remember the love and care of my church, the family that constantly clamored for updates, the handful of good friends that were present, the food that the church brought to us every single week, and the nurses, angels in disguise.

I must say that, even to this day, I miss the sweet nurses that cared for me with great compassion. They were ever-present when I needed help and, during those long nights, they would often come in with a popsicle, sugar-free of course!

A final memory for today’s blog is the soft, fluffy afghan that my dear friend, Rev. Donna Rountree, brought me from her church. The Disciples of Christ church where my friend served as pastor barely knew me. I had preached there once. The congregation prayed for me, over the afghan, during a church service. Then Donna brought the afghan to the hospital, placed it on me, and told me that it was covered with the prayers of the people. What a special gift! What a special grace!

07CC221A-DFBC-4372-8E66-854CA41B0296When I think of that year, my description of it is “horribly wonderful.” Wonderful because, in the worst of times, God breaks in through the grace of a devoted husband, a caring family, an attentive nurse, a gentle phlebotomist, a close friend, a skilled physical therapist, a loving church family. 

So, yes, I took from that horrible year some wonderful memories, and that is what I can celebrate at this five-year milestone. And what’s more, I am here, still on this side of heaven and grateful for better health and life-saving dialysis. Pure grace!

Thanks be to God.

 

 

Find the Stillness

25BC8CF9-6462-4461-A6AE-1746BCFC9B73“I have calmed and quieted my soul.” Words from the Psalmist.

Sometimes we have to get out of the fray for a few minutes. We have to turn off the political rancor, close our eyes to the evil in the world, forget for just a moment that children have been taken from their parents at the southern border, shut out the images of refugee mothers with their children traveling miles to get to safe refuge, and finally, find the stillness that gives us strength.

Sometimes we have to leave the difficult stuff behind as we enter into a sacred place of communion with God. It is God, after all, who calls us to help those in need. So in the silence, God might just tell us how to do that.

How long has it been since you spent time in a quiet and calm place? Since you lingered in a place of holy, sacred beauty? Since you waited in silence hoping to know the healing that comes with stillness?

I must confess that I do not often calm my soul. Instead, I keep myself busy with life things. I get worked up over various injustices and, before I know it, I have spent hours signing petitions, writing my representatives in Congress, or composing opinion articles. But I never stop long enough to hear from God and, in listening, to discover how I should respond to the needs I see.

“I have calmed and quieted my soul,” the Psalmist tells us. And the Psalmist also instructs us to find the stillness: “Be still, and know that I am God.” 

It is such a brief thought, a simple injunction, and yet a part of Scripture that has been quoted again and again to instruct those of us who need to find stllness in our lives.

So what is it that we do that keeps us so busy? What is it that so thoroughly prevents us from stilling our souls? Have we determined that the busyness is worth the effort we give it? God calls us to acts of compassion and justice. God might also be calling us to stillness. 

One of my favorite hymns is Be Still, My Soul.* The author of this hymn, Katharina Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel, was born in Germany in 1697. Very little is known of her life though some hymnologists suggest that she may have become a Lutheran nun. Her hymn text appears at the time of German pietism, a movement led by Philipp Jacob Spener (1635-1705.) Although Spener was not a hymn writer himself, he inspired a revival in German hymnody characterized by faithfulness to Scripture, personal experience, and deep emotional expression. Katharina von Schlegel is thought to be the leading female hymn writer of this period.

To reach us, the hymn must, of course, be understandable in our own language, so it comes to us through a translation by Jane Borthwick (1813-1897), a member of the Free Church of Scotland.

Here are the moving words of the hymn:

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 heavenly, 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, though 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 sorrows and thy fears.
Be still, my soul; thy Jesus can repay
From His own fulness all He takes away.

Be still, my soul; the hour is hastening 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.

Author: Catharine Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel, 1752 – ?
Translated by: Jane Borthwick, 1855
Composer: Jean Sibelius, b. 1865, arr.
Tune: “Finlandia”

 

In the stillness, we find God’s comfort, presence, faithfulness, grace. And with that, we are able to go into a world of need with resolve, commitment, compassion and mission. The world waits for us. The people frightened and oppressed wait for us. The stillness prepares us for the task.

May God make it so. Amen.

*During your quiet time, you may wish to listen to the hymn, Be Still My Soul. You may do so at this link:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=cHNT6G9ZKik

God Images

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How do you see God? What image 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 power greater than ourselves. There are as many images of God as there are people.

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. Some imagine God as spirit, the holiest, gentlest spirit that comes to us in times of silence.

It is the Sacred Scripture that most influences our image of God. In the fragile pages of our Bibles, we find images that sustain us, inspire us and move us. And in those times of angst we all experience from time to time, we find God images that comfort us.

If I had to choose just one Scripture text to help me imagine God, perhaps to take with me through a difficult time, it would be Psalm 139.

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)

I cherish the image of God I find in this Psalm, the image of a God who is ever-present. Of all the ways I have envisioned God through the years, this one is most comforting to me.

So I wonder, how is it that you see God?

May your image of God one be one that is strong and true, powerful and gentle, constant and ever-present.

Monday’s Merry-go-Round

9BE03E1D-A1FC-4BE9-8BBD-7BCFAA9F6E03It’s one of those Mondays again, those days that just weigh on you a bit too heavily. You have to push yourself to start a new week. You feel that deep-down tiredness that overcomes you and you don’t even know why. Know the feeling?

Nothing has changed. You are still in your familiar schedule. You are still the same you that feels strong one minute and despairing the next. But you feel as if you’re on the proverbial merry-go-round that just keeps circling around the same life and all that’s in it. Round and round, again and again and again.

You might even feel down on yourself for not being “strong” enough to move joyfully through your life. All of this begs the question: Why are you so hard on yourself?

Maybe you should just take a moment for yourself.

Sit back.

Marvel at your life,
at the grief that softened you,
at the heartache that wisened you,
at the suffering that strengthened you.

Despite everything,
you still grow.

Be proud of this.

Today, I pray for you this prayer that has sustained so many through generations.

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, God may grant that you be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your heart through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

— Ephesians 3:16-19 New Revised Standard Version (Paraphrased)

 

 

 

Holy Ground

470DF6B9-F261-497E-8A59-58EABE4E7898My friend, Buddy Shurden, shared an experience he had while serving his first pastorate near Ethel. Mississippi. He tells of his frequent habit of calling on Early Steed to pray. He wrote that Mr. Early Steed always began his prayer the same way, every time. 

“Lord, we come to you one more time from this low ground of sin, shame and sorrow.”

Buddy Shurden reflects on the term Mr. Early used, “low ground,” and adds, “Oh! If Early could see us now.”

Indeed. Low ground.

We are standing in the wake of waves of violence . . .

Fifteen pipe bombs mailed to two former presidents, a former secretary of state, a news outlet, and others;

Eleven worshippers killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in Mr. Rogers’ real-life neighborhood;

Maurice Stallard, 69, and Vickie Jones, 67, killed in a Kroger in Jeffersontown, Kentucky.

We are standing on pretty low ground these days. There’s no doubt about that. Yet, even in grief, with memorial vigils going on around the nation, we can still hear the faint voice of Mr. Rogers singing, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

And that resonates with us as we watch neighbors grieving alongside neighbors, Muslim neighbors reaching out to help their Jewish neighbors at Tree of Life, and the news outlet that was targeted with multiple pipe bombs speaking the names of the victims and telling bits of their life stories.

Maybe it feels like low ground we’re standing on these days. But if we look around, and listen, and watch while genuine love is being shared between grieving brothers and sisters, and friends who are grieving with them, we have to admit that this ground we’re now standing on might just feel more like holy ground.

Weep with Those Who Weep

AD620082-4B5E-47C6-B2B0-0D553454614BWhat a caring and compassionate ministry it is to sit beside someone who is grieving and remind them of God’s grace. In recent days, I have wept for and with so many friends who are grieving for what they have lost because of the Florida hurricane. To be sure, there were losses in Georgia and in the Carolinas, but the devastation in and around Panama City was catastrophic.

Hordes of compassionate people traveled to Florida to help. They will clean up debris, repair or rebuild homes that sustained damage, do electrical work, provide help in the shelters, share their hearts and God’s heart, and stand beside families as they pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. Mostly, they will weep with people, and that’s what will help more than anything else.

Author Ann Weems paints a sparkling vision with her words that speak of the “godforsaken obscene quicksand of life.” But then she tells of a deafening alleluia arising from the souls of those who weep and from the souls of those who weep with them. From that weeping, Ann Weems tells us what will happen next. “If you watch,” she writes, you will see the hand of God putting the stars back in their skies one by one.”

I like to think that the caregivers who traveled to Florida did a lot of weeping with those who needed it and that they stayed near them long enough for them to “see the hand of God putting the stars back in their skies one by one.” When all is lost — when you learn that your loved one has died or you stand in a pile of rubble on the ground that used to be your home — seeing the hand of God putting the stars back in their skies would be for you a manifestation of pure and holy hope.

Without a doubt, Florida is experiencing “the godforsaken obscene quicksand of life.” Their memories of this devastating time will be cruel and long-lasting. They will remember better days, neighborhoods that once thrived, schools that were destroyed and friends who are trying their best to recover. But what grieving people will remember most is the care someone gave them and the loving compassion of strangers who became forever friends. I am reminded of the words of poet Khalil Gibran:

You may forget with whom you laughed, but you will never forget with whom you wept.

― Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.    Romans 12:15

Icons of God’s Presence

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Photography by Sister Macrina Wiederkher

“Sunrises anoint my soul. They are quiet prayers, icons of God’s presence.”

These are words written by my friend, Sister Macrina Wiederkher. Her words resonate with our times as we hold in the light our brothers and sisters in Florida. Their loss is immeasurable, and although we know that loss of home is not as tragic as loss of life, it is a deeply felt emptiness to lose your home and all its contents.

So many are in that heartbreaking place today, and when the night falls on this night, they will not know the safe security of home. We have only a small awareness of their heartache, but God is fully aware of all they have lost. God knows their grief and their fear, their uncertainty of the future. Sometimes all we can count on is that God knows our deepest sorrow and anoints our souls when we need it most. 

Our comfort is this: that after every storm, there is a calm. When ominous, dark clouds of destruction fill the skies, we can know with certainty that the sunrise will come.

B2904AA9-02C4-480E-B061-D174E9810346I believe my friend who tells us that sunrises anoint our souls . . . like icons of God’s presence.

And I believe it for all of the Florida folk who have lost so much.

Beyond the Sunset

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“The Beautiful Sunset of Lancashire” Photography by Martine Camlin

The song, “Beyond the Sunset” was recorded by Hank Williams, Bill and Gloria Gaither, Pat Boone, and other recording artists. But I remember the song as a beloved hymn of faith. It was an old fashioned hymn, to be sure, because the elderly church members sang it with deep emotion, every word tucked into their memories.

As a child in the church pew, I observed that, for many worshippers, this hymn is a testimony of their strong faith in eternal life. The comfort of music that sings of eternal life is powerful, touching even the most hardened hearts. So “Beyond the Sunset” lives in the hearts of worshippers as a thoroughly Christian hymn, not so much as a popular song. 

Beyond the sunset, O blissful morning,
When with our Saviour heav’n is begun.
Earth’s toiling ended, O glorious dawning;
Beyond the sunset when day is done.

Beyond the sunset, no clouds will gather,
No storms will threaten, No fears annoy;
O day of gladness, O day unending,
Beyond the sunset, Eternal Joy.

Beyond the sunset, Oh, glad reunion,
With our dear loved ones who’ve gone before,
In that fair homeland we’ll know no parting,
Beyond the sunset, forever more.

— Blanche Kerr Brock / Virgil P. Brock

Christian hope for many devout believers is that they will see the glorious sunset ahead, and that when they get beyond the sunset, life’s earthly toil will end, joy will be eternal, and that they will reunited with loved ones gone before.

What a comforting, lovely message!

Rhythms

E9BB2F49-CFC4-4F5C-AB91-3DDC3A588333This morning I’m watching the sea, comforting waves that roll onto the shoreline one after another. The sound is hypnotic and very healing. The sea has a rhythm, an unending rhythm all its own. The weather affects the tides, of course, but the sea’s rhythm continues day after day, year after year. I can count on it to be there always, surging on to the shore with a bit of white foam at the end. And one more thing: nothing disturbs the sea’s rhythm. Not swimmers who frolic at the water’s edge. Not gulls that sweep down to get their fishy breakfast. Not dolphins that occasionally rise majestically above the water. Not boats that float by.

People have rhythms, too, almost as predictable. It’s what comforts us during turbulent times, that rhythm, because we know down deep that after our personal storm, our rhythm will still be there. What is it that can disturb our rhythms? Illness, loss of a significant other, problems in a relationship, worries about children. You name it. Our rhythms can go haywire for a time, but always to return to the predictable rhythms that make up life.

When Jesus was crucified, those around him lost their rhythm. Mary Magdalene, the other Mary and Salome, no doubt were gripped in their heart of hearts with grief and confusion. Mary the mother of Jesus kept vigil at the cross, mourning the senseless death of her son. But most quickly of all the disciples, the women gathered themselves and reclaimed their rhythm. The women at the tomb saw Jesus alive and they ran from the tomb to tell the others about the astounding miracle. 

Their personal stories after the resurrection move on through history, giving us the example of strength in turmoil. Do we hear from them again? Oh yes, for centuries we have told their stories to our children and grandchildren. Painters have captured them in stunning frescoes. Iconographers have captured them in icons from which worshippers through the ages have seen the sacred light. After the resurrection, we may not hear much from the women in the pages of the Bible. But the history of our faith venerates them, and has done so for generations.

The message? It’s a rather simple one, really. Just count on the rhythm of your life to continue, because it will, and it continues until the moment you take your last earthly breath. That’s a comfort.

Sitting Open-Handed Before God

71184739-B4D2-4F2F-897E-1EAD2C2A56EAWhat is it like to sit open-handed before God? To abide with a compassionate God who knows the grief we are carrying? To sit in the glowing presence of a God who, not only knows the deep angst of our nation, but who can also transform it?

Yes, many of us are grieving the current state of our nation. We see our nation’s pain, just as we see the pain of the world. Yet, we who are Christ-followers live with great advantage in this pain-filled world. Yes, we grieve the divisions in our nation and lament at the ways we seem to have lost our compass of compassion, mercy and justice. We feed those who already have abundant sources of food. We provide health care to those who can afford their own. We hold open the voting entrances for those who can get there with the proper credentials. But for the people who hunger, the families that are homeless, the elderly, the children incarcerated at our borders, the prisoners, the helpless, the marginalized . . .  well, for them, we offer prayers, if we think of them at all.

So what is our great advantage? It is that our faith can carry us into spiritual realms where hope is large and dreams are possible. It is that we enjoy access to spiritual community with an accessible God. It is the spiritual luxury of quiet contemplation that opens our hearts to the whispers of God. And yes, I did say whispers of God, for it is almost always a quiet voice that beckons us into a world of turmoil. It is a quiet God-Voice that rekindles our compassionate hearts, speaks to us through the noise of discord in our nation, and shows us the good path we must follow.

We need not despair or cry out in anger or disgust. We need not attack those who seem to be wrecking our country. We need not hate those with whom we disagree. We have the great advantage of only this life task: to be silent before God, to sit in God’s presence open-handed, to pray, to listen, to seek, and then to go.

Sister of Social Service Simone Campbell, famously known as “the nun on the bus,” offers us a glimpse into one of the ways we can live as people of faith in a fractured nation. 

Finding a way to not vilify or divide into “them” and “us” in today’s federal politics goes against . . . current custom. . . . So my contemplative practice is to attempt to sit open-handed and listen to the “wee small voice” that sometimes whispers ideas and ways forward.

Simone Campbell

Thanks be to God for the quiet whisper that guides us on the path ahead, the God-Voice that ordains us to heal our nation and comfort our world.