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.

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 Hands that Made the Stars

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Comfort in the magnificent Arkansas skies. Photography by Steven Nawojczyk.

As I write on this day, I am aware that many friends are in the throes of darkness and despair. Some are facing devastating medical diagnoses. Some are yearning to have a child and are going through difficult medical procedures. Some are grieving for a family member in trouble. Some are waiting with hope for a cure for a disease that is bringing them to their knees. Others are enduring harsh medical treatments, hoping their lives will be saved. Many of them are at the point of losing all hope.

It hurts me deeply every time I am at a loss for comforting words. A little part of my heart breaks because I know I cannot “do something” to ease the suffering. And so I search for my own comfort as I search for ways to hold my friends in the light. As always, I am led to Scripture, not for easy answers, miraculous cures, or an instant panacea. I peek into the Bible to find words that will lift up hope in the middle of dark days and darker nights.

Often the words I find point me to the skies, as if gazing into an expanse beyond imagination might open my eyes to a radiant and holy hope. In truth, the words of Scripture do point me to hope. 

From the Prophet Isaiah:

Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. O Jacob, how can you say the LORD does not see your troubles?

Have you never heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.

— Isaiah 40:26-29

From the Psalmist:

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers — the moon and the stars you have set in place — what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?

— Psalm 8:3-4

And so whoever you are, whatever pain you are carrying, know that the hands that made the stars are holding your heart.

My Lord Is Near Me All the Time

635D7269-16B0-4C30-8A96-05536FDFF587Magnificent power! On a ride through the Georgia countryside, I witnessed nature’s beauty in a thunderstorm. The sky lit up from one end of the horizon to the other and then enormous streaks of lightning flashed in astounding display. It took my breath away, not because of its danger, but because of its brilliance. I struggle to find words to describe it.

Here’s how to scientifically explain it. Within a thundercloud way up in the sky, many small bits of ice (frozen raindrops) bump into each other as they move around in the air. All of those collisions create an electric charge. After a while, the whole cloud fills up with electrical charges.

And so it was tonight. I do not always find spiritual significance in acts of nature, but this night I was overwhelmed with the idea of the absolute power of God’s creation. At the same time, I considered my close relationship with Jesus.

God, whose ultimate power can be beyond our human comprehension, visited us through his Son who walked among us on this earth. All of it dawned on me in the midst of a powerful, resplendent thunderstorm that reminded me of the eternal truth of a beautiful hymn, “My Lord Is Near Me All The Time.” *

In the lightning flash across the sky
His mighty pow’r I see,
And I know if He can reign on high,
His light can shine on me.

I’ve seen it in the lightning, heard it in the thunder,
And felt it in the rain;
My Lord is near me all the time, My Lord is near me all the time.

When the thunder shakes the mighty hills
And trembles ev’ry tree,
Then I know a God so great and strong
Can surely harbor me.

I’ve seen it in the lightning, heard it in the thunder,
And felt it in the rain;
My Lord is near me all the time, My Lord is near me all the time.

When refreshing showers cool the earth
And sweep across the sea,
Then His rainbow shines within my heart,
His nearness comforts me.

I’ve seen it in the lightning, heard it in the thunder,
And felt it in the rain;
My Lord is near me all the time, My Lord is near me all the time.

As a child my overprotective grandmother made sure that lightening would frighten me. It worked because of her very frightened demeanor at the first sign of a storm. I remember how she gathered my brothers and me close beside her on the sofa, wrapping her gentle arms around us. At every clap of thunder, she screamed.

But as an adult, I actually love thunderstorms. When thunder roars, I hear it as a reminder of God’s strength. When lightning flashes across the sky, I see it as a marvel of God’s power. When I feel showers of rain, I feel God’s presence in the provision of life-giving water. In all of it, I am grateful for the nearness of a relationship with Christ. It is abiding truth: my Lord really is near me all the time.

Amen.

To listen to the hymn, “My Lord Is Near Me All the Time” click on the video below:

 
* Georgia hymn writer, Barbara Fowler Gaultney (1935-1974), turned to writing hymns as a source of hope and an expression of her faith. In tenuous health throughout her life, Gaultney was educated in the Atlanta public schools and attended the University of Georgia. While a member of the First Baptist Church of Forest Park near the Atlanta airport, she penned both the words and music to “My Lord Is Near Me All the Time.” Her minister of music, Julian Wilson, assisted her in submitting it for publication. Her hymn was first published in the Baptist church music periodical, The Church Musician, April 1960. It then appeared in the 1975 Baptist Hymnal and has become a favorite of many congregations.  (Harry Eskew, https://gabaptistworshipmusic.org/my-lord-is-near-me-all-the-time/)

 

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