With all the chaos blowing about in the world—the swirling debris of discord, fear, hate, division, tumult all around us—we cannot help but try to drill down to the solid place of our foundation. When we shake in the chaos, swaying from side to side until we fear we may by pushed over, our soul speaks up to come to our aid. It’s simple really, to find our sure foundation, the solid rock of who we are and what we must do to stay upright—that means healthy in body, mind and spirit.
I think some of you are pray-ers and others sing until you feel safely grounded. Some of you meditate and others of you read Holy Scripture. Some write poetry or create art. Whatever you might do in your times of unsteadiness, remember that you do not have to repair everything in your life or turn yourself into a person of incomparable strength and courage. I know what you’re thinking! That these are terrifying evil days that require unparalleled faith and perseverance. True enough! I remember the terrifying parts every time I watch the news. And more than once in the past several years, I have thought of this text:
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
Ephesians 6:13 (NKJV)
That’s the way I learned that verse of scripture, but others have translated it differently, maybe better. The New International Reader’s Version perhaps speaks to us more simply and directly, and with the bold promise that we could be able to stand up to any evil day, any evil person.
So put on all of God’s armor. Evil days will come. But you will be able to stand up to anything. And after you have done everything you can, you will still be standing. —Ephesians 6:13 (NIRV)
I concur that I will still be standing, whatever comes. Too many things in my life have knocked me to the ground, and every time I have gotten up on my feet to try to live another day. I suspect you have had the same experience.We were able to stand, not because we had built up incomparable strength, but because Spirit was strength in us, beside us, before and behind us. You see, that was God’s plan all along. ”I will not leave you comfortless,” said Jesus, carrying out the precise plan of the Creator God. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Comforter, to be with you forever … the Spirit of truth.” (From John 14)
Just one more bit of wisdom for evil days! I have a notion that you and I do many things to protect ourselves from evil or chaos or betrayal or difficulty . … the list goes on and on. Every remedy helps a little. Every act of self-help or self-care helps a little. Some of it helps a lot. In my experience, everything I do to maintain my equilibrium and keep myself safe from chaos helps. But there is one word of advice that has stayed with me through the years, and it is this:
Above all else, guard your heart. For from it flows the wellspring of life.
That admonishment from Proverbs 4 is translated in many different ways—guard your heard with all diligence; with all vigilance; with utmost care; with all watchfulness; guard your heart above all else. I think we get the message clearly. And so I leave you with this blessing .…
As you journey through all manner of evil chaos, May you walk the road without fear, Knowing the deep peace of God’s grace, With the shadow of Christ walking ahead of you, With the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling in your soul, Withyour resolve firmly set to guard your heart with all watchfulness, So that you will know beyond any doubt that from your heart flows the wellspring of life. Amen
There are days! Don’t you have those troublesome days when feeling good about yourself seems impossible? I am guessing we all have those days, because there are just too darn many things about ourselves we don’t feel very good about. What are those things? you might ask.
“I missed that deadline.” “I was too irritable with the kids.” “I hate my hair.” “I have gained far too much weight.” “I have made a mess of my life.”
The list of what we don’t like, or even what we loathe, about ourselves can be a long one, and when we ponder such a list for very long, we can develop a skewed image of ourselves. Fortunately, many of us have been able to see that the person we really are can be measured on many levels, far more important levels than, say, appearance. Maturity helps, and aging has a way of putting all that negative ”stuff” about me in a box that I keep locked. And the key, well, I threw that key in a river!
What’s left is definitely a healthier perspective that allows me to look at myself in different ways and to make kinder conclusions. I have learned over decades that my image of myself is important, that I have to see my self with accepting eyes and that self-deprecating thoughts have the power to bring me to the edge of despondency.
. . . aging has a way of putting all that negative “stuff” about me in a box that I keep locked. And the key, well, I threw that key in a river!
Still those days come, bringing me a boatload of reasons to detest myself. There is a certain season of life in which self-flagellation is downright dangerous, wielding power over your life in very destructive ways. You’ll likely know it when you have reached that season of life — you know, the season when you can actually go out without make-up, wear a blouse two days in a row, love yourself for the whole person you are and wearing black support stockings in public, having convinced yourself that they really are stylish!
I don’t know about you, but I have to admit that I do have just a tad of trouble wearing support hose in public. That tells me that I need help, that I do not adequately value myself as a rule, that I still believe that my appearance defines me and that I need a shove to get to the point of loving who I am.
I don’t know about you, but I have to admit that I do have just a tad of trouble wearing support hose in public. That tells me that I need help, that I do not adequately value myself as a rule, that I still believe that my appearance defines me and that I need a shove to get to the point of loving who I am.
There is no better place to seek help with that than in the words of the psalmist in the 139th Psalm that say so much about how God created us and how God knows us inside and out. The Psalm tells us that we are ”fearfully and wonderfully made.” (v.14)
And then there are the inspiring words of artist and writer morgan harper nichols that so inspire me towards love, courage, audacity and the Light that runs wild within me, the Light that shines through my darkness and never goes out.
andperhaps whatmadeherbeautiful wasnotherappearance orwhatsheachieved butinher love and inhercourage, andheraudacity tobelieve no matter the darkness around her, Lightranwild withinher, andthatwastheway shecamealive, anditshowedup ineverything. — morgan harper nichols
May you have the strength to navigate those days when darkness threatens your light. May you love yourself and dig deep for the courage and audacity that frees you and lets the Light run wild within you!
Do you wonder sometimes where God is while people are being oppressed? I mean all kinds of oppression — racial injustice, human trafficking, violence and abuse, prison injustice, sexism, cissexism, classism, ableism, heterosexism. The list can go on and on, all the way down to specific stories about specific oppressed individuals. At that level, the down to earth level where we see a living person suffering, is the heartrending place. It’s the place where we find ourselves face to face and up-close with someone pouring out their story. It’s the place where we learn to talk less and listen more. It is for us an experience of holy listening with just one person.
Have you ever been in that kind of space listening to just one person? Have you ever been with a person suffering oppression who is freely sharing a heartbreaking story with you? I know that this kind of face to face encounter can be intimidating, even frightening. It can be beyond frustrating to listen to someone when you’re pretty sure you can’t do much to help.
There are at least two options for those of us who have a deep desire or calling to liberate those who are oppressed. We can offer what we have, even when we do not have a way to fix things. What do we have? Our presence, our emotional and spiritual support, our ability to advocate, housing assistance, financial assistance, employment assistance, safe shelter, understanding, constancy, presence, presence, presence . . .
The other option is to rail against a God who makes pronouncements about caring for oppressed people, yet seemingly does nothing to liberate them. This may not be our best option. Scripture reveals that God has a way of dealing with complaining people, and it is almost never a positive experience for the complainer. Moses comes to mind, and Miriam, and Job.
Poor, pitiful Job had a rough go of it and he wanted God to do some explaining and answer some questions. After all, he was a devout and faithful man, so why would God allow him to suffer so many losses? Right after Job is schooled by his three “friends” on several theological matters, including that he should never question God, God appears to Job out of a whirlwind. It was probably grand entrance, and then God basically says to him, ”I’ll ask the questions, buddy!”
Here’s a snippet of the long exchange between God and Job.
Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the whirlwind.
2 “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? 3 Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. 5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? 6 On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone— 7 while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?
— Job 38:1; 4-7 (NIV)
Job was oppressed. God was aware of it. God seemed unconcerned for too long, but there actually is a redeeming conclusion for Job. As the story goes in the last chapter of Job, God restored Job’s fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before. All of Job’s brothers and sisters, and everyone else he knew, went to his house for Sunday dinner and they consoled him for all the trouble he had been through. Then each one gave him a piece of silver and a gold ring. It worked out!
Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz’s sculpture, ‘Monument of Oppression’ depicts hands emerging desperately from behind bars.
“I can’t think of one single nation of the world that did not practise slavery, including among Indigenous people,” the sculptor says.
(Photo by Handout)
What does Job’s story say to us? What does it teach us about oppression? In my mind, in order to confront oppression and free persons from every yoke on a societal scale, we must first be aware that systemic oppression exists. It is stark reality! It darkens our world! Right now, approximately 40 million people are trapped in slavery in the world. One in four of these is a child. This shame that pervades and plagues the planet does not seem to disturb people very much. Unfortunately, it is in some people’s best interest to maintain the oppressive systems that benefit them, that is fill their pockets with wealth (which is the primary reason for trafficking human beings, for instance).
Systems of oppression are very large, very complex and very powerful. Ending oppression is way too big for us to tackle alone. After sincerely asking the all-powerful God to help us bring down these all-powerful oppressive systems, we can add our hands and feet to the holy project. Contact senators, representatives, governors, mayors. Urge them, persist with them to use their position to help break down injustice. Know what you’re talking about when you contact them by reading about the work the many of anti-oppression organizations that exist. Join in their work. Look for those resources at this link.
Finally, we must open our eyes to the people in our own communities who need our compassion, our concern, our caring presence and our advocacy on their behalf. It takes some creativity, some committment and compassion, a lot of courage and a covenant with our God of justice to change an unjust world. The outcome might just look something like what the prophet Isaiah described:
Is this not the fast that I choose: To release the bonds of wickedness, To undo the ropes of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free, And break every yoke?
7 Is it not to break your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him . . .
8 Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will spring up quickly; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; You will cry for help, and He will say, ‘Here I am. . .’
10 And if you offer yourself to the hungry And satisfy the need of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness, And your gloom will become like midday.
11 And the Lord will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.
12 Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; You will raise up the age-old foundations; And you will be called the repairers of the breach, The restorer of the streets in which to dwell.
— Isaiah 58 (NASB)
I don’t know about you, but I want to be among the ”repairers of the breach.” I don’t want to live in a situation where I “hope for light, but there is darkness.” (Isaiah 59:9) Instead, let me find myself looking far beyond the world’s darkness, looking to the Creator who demands justice, looking upward to claim the promise, ” . . . satisfy the need of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness, and your gloom will become like midday . . . And your light will break forth like the dawn.”
It’s true, isn’t it? Without the risk of going too far, stepping out of our comfort zone, we will probably never know just how far we can possibly go. But oh, the complete comfort of that comfort zone hems us in completely. We cannot move. We cannot take a step into new life. We cannot know what we might have accomplished. We cannot free ourselves from the bondage of fear.
I’ve been there and I have a notion you have, too. In fact, I can recall many times when I could not overcome my fear enough to take a risk. One time in particular has haunted me for almost 30 years. I wonder what my life would look like today if I had taken that particular risk — moving to a new state, to a new position, to a larger city, to a different house on a different street. That one single refusal to step out of my comfort zone has troubled me to this day.
Risk-taking is not easy. Change is difficult for some people, and some of us can convince ourselves to avoid change at any cost. Huge changes, even tiny changes, simply frighten those of us who have convinced ourselves that we are not risk-takers. Yet, I can think of so many persons who have decided that changing their lives — maybe even changing the world — is worth the risk. I will never forget one of my seminary professors whose words in a chapel sermon changed the course of my life.
Is what you’re doing worth giving your life for? Because every day you live, you are actually expending your life a little at a time doing whatever it is you’re doing.
– Dr. Paul Simmons
I left the chapel that day, walked across the campus to my office and resigned from my job, setting my sights on enrolling in classes to complete a Theology degree. A risk! A big risk that I was determined to take for two reasons: 1) I actually believed I could change the world; and 2) I was young, bold and unafraid. I’m not so young anymore, and the courage and boldness to change is small in me. It feels like being stuck, and I think it’s the first time in my life I have felt so thoroughly stuck. A brand new mantra for my life is this: “Stuck is more harmful to me than risk. I am not afraid to take a risk!”
Still, there is a part of me who longs to change the world, at least my corner of it. There is this alter ego inside me who actually believes she can change the world. That is the part of me that believes injustice can be conquered, wrongs can be righted, equality can be reality and liberation can emerge out of any form of bondage. Crazy? Probably, but I know of many kindred spirits who would be all-in on changing the world — Malala Yousafzai, Emma Gonzalez, Greta Thunberg, Crystal Echo Hawk, Amanda Gorman. Men are on the list of risk-takers, too. One in particular died in 2011 at age 56, but left behind a lasting legacy that was an example of what a human being is capable of doing.
The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
– Steve Jobs
I have given thought to those words, as well as something else Steve Jobs said when he was dying of pancreatic cancer: “Death is mankind’s best invention! I looked in the mirror every day wondering if what I am doing today is fun for me. If the answer was no for several consecutive days, then I have to change something!”
Yes, I am stuck right now, and for several days I have had to admit that what I am doing every day is not fun for me. Nor is it anything significant enough to change the world. So I do need to change something. I’m not sure what sort of change I need to make or how risky the change might be. STUCK! No matter what I decide to change — big risk or small risk — it won’t be easy. And I have to look into myself, into my soul, and ask myself if I am able to take a risk or even willing to take a risk. Truthfully, I know in the depths of my being that refusing to take a risk right now will leave me stuck, maybe even permanently stuck. I don’t like the sound of that. I don’t like the stark reality of that. Small risk or big risk — I know I need to change something in order to truly live!
Like the little goldfish in the small bowl, I’ll skip the bigger bowl and shoot for the ocean.
– Rev. Kathy Manis Findley
I used to be “one of the crazy ones,” always taking risks and most often taking big ones. The visual goldfish metaphor is one that described me well throughout my years. I was not one to leap from a small fishbowl to one that was a little larger. I was much more likely to take a brave, risky leap out of a fishbowl and into an ocean! Until now! Until aging and illness and displacement took its toll. I’m definitely not as young as I was in my former and more courageous days. I am not as physically well as I used to be, and I am not living in the town that was my home.
I am facing a three-headed enemy — age, health and displacement. In truth, this enemy does have enough power to keep me stuck, depressed and disheartened. At this moment, I don’t yet know what I plan to do about it, but I do know it will probably call for a leap, a risk, a change and maybe doing something a little crazy.
At this moment, I’m not up for crazy. I need a little contemplative time in my safe space to look deeper into my soul. I’m not at all sure what will come out of my time looking at soul things —maybe some extra peace or maybe renewed hope, new thinking, fresh courage, some sort of healing. Maybe even a little craziness that helps me consider some risky changes in my life. What I am sure of is that I do not enter my soul-searching space alone, for God has walked with me on every step of my journey. I cannot plan anything right now, but there is someone who watches over me who is making plans I cannot make.
‘For I know what I have planned for you,’ says the Lord. ‘I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope. When you call out to me and come to me in prayer, I will hear your prayers.’
Jeremiah 29:11-12 NET
I will take risks again someday. I will reclaim the “crazy” part of myself that was never afraid to risk going too far. I will embrace change, inevitable change, with more courage than I have at this moment. I will take another big risk one day soon that will remind me how far I can go and how high I can leap. Like the little goldfish in the small bowl, I’ll skip the bigger bowl and shoot for the ocean. Until I can do that, I’ll be in my sacred space with the One who has never left me and has never let me walk alone.
Stand fast therefore in the freedom by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. Galatians 5:1 (NKJV)
What is it about freedom that scares us? What is it about freedom that causes us to refuse to offer it to everyone? Are we afraid that giving freedom to another person or group of persons will diminish our own freedom? What does freedom really mean to persons who are oppressed and to those who live inside the throes of injustice?
I have written very little lately about justice and accountability, the two words most used to describe Derek Chauvin’s conviction. Ican’t help but mark this very moment on the “long arc that bends toward justice.” I feel compelled to call our attention to this week! Actually it’s last week now, but you get the idea. Let’s call it “the week of the verdict.”
The week of the verdict has come full circle from George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020 to the conviction of Derick Chauvin almost one year later on April 29, 2021. It was a week we will not forget. It brought up emotions in me and perhaps in most people. Most of what I felt mirrored the emotions I imagine George Floyd’s family feeling — happy, calm, relieved, conflicted, hopeful, determined, vindicated. I also felt sad and helpless because the conviction did not end murders of black and brown brothers and sisters. And I felt joyful and hopeful because perhaps this flashpoint in the long history of racial injustice will help us turn the corner and finally see in our communities the justice we long for.
How can that happen? How can we turn the corner and move away from oppressive systems and oppressive people? How do we do that when just minutes after the verdict and less than ten miles away, 16 year old Ma’Khia Bryant was shot and killed by police in Ohio? It happened in the shadow of “the week of the verdict.”
Perhaps for us this is the week of the verdict — the week when the verdict will be read on our failure to end the systemic racism in our communities! Isn’t it past time for us to stand up and stand strong and stand determined and woke? My friends, it is time! This moment in the history of injustice may well be the turning point we need to end racism!
I have said this many times: We cannot just reform injustice, we must transform it. The transformation that results in genuine, lasting justice must begin in the soul and in the heart where intentions are formed. I must lament injustice, confess my own complicity in it, repent of the white supremacy within me, own other forms of oppression and commit to the hard work of transforming injustice in my community and in my world. Only then will transformation happen in the systems that oppress people.
Only transformed people can love neighbors as Jesus loved us. My friend and sister blogger never fails to remind me to answer the ultimate question, “How then shall I live?”* She offers this scripture to us today.
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
1 John 3:16-17
She then reminded us that conditions in India are dire and the people languish.
In India, today the virus surges almost beyond control, hospitals are choked, people die in line waiting for a doctor. How can those of us rejoicing in vaccination, cautious travel, new gatherings, not ask how we can help?
How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
And that is the soul-critical question we must answer. How then shall we live when all around us people suffer every kind of calamity — every kind of violence, disaster, racism, discrimination, dehumanization? Every kind of heartache. How do we, in our suffering world, become the heart, hands and feet of Jesus?
Getting back to the lament of my own heart, that one thing that inspires my passion — transforming the injustice of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia and all forms of evil exclusion and oppression. Transforming injustice! Setting our faces toward the hope of Beloved Community! This one thing I know, the steps of Jesus would have led him to the “healing” of injustice in any form. On every day he walked on this earth, Jesus would be loving every person who was in need and he would be lamenting every injustice that caused harm.
How can we not lament? How can we not expend ourselves in the hard work of transforming injustice? How can we not care for, and pray for, and love our brothers and sisters who are in need? How can we refuse to work for the freedom of black and brown people, indigenous peoples, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants and asylum seekers, and to any person who is enslaved? How can we deny God’s desire for justice and peace?
How can we refuse freedom to black and brown people, indigenous peoples, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants and asylum seekers, and to any person who is enslaved? How can we deny them God’s peace?
— Rev. Kathy Manis Findley
I do not have the answer for how we might do this. But I do have some convictions about it, especially about racism and white supremacy. One of my convictions is that dismantling racism begins in me, in my soul. And eradicating white supremacy begins when I look seriously at my own white supremacy. For you see, as long as white supremacy looks to me like a white-draped person burning a cross, I will never acknowledge that white supremacy is in me. As long as white supremacy looks to me like a man I might see on TV news with a truck, a confederate flag, a rifle and a mission, I can easily distance myself. I am not that white person; I am a different white person that would never tolerate racism.
Am I? Am I that different white person? Or are there ways I contribute to an unjust society? Are there ways I fail to seek Beloved Community? Are there thoughts and feelings within me that diminish other persons, persons not like me? Am I complacent about injustice? Am I complicit? Am I reticent? Am I avoiding, looking the other way?
As long as white supremacy looks to me like a white-draped person burning a cross in someone’s yard, I will never see that white supremacy is in me. As long as white supremacy looks to me like a man I might see on TV news with a pick-up truck, a confederate flag, a rifle and a mission, I can easily distance myself. I am not that kind of white person! Or am I?
Rev. Kathy Manis Findley
Racial injustice may currently be the most visible form of oppression, but we must remember that many groups of people are oppressed. Many people long for freedom from oppression. Only when we “see” and “hear” all of their voices, will we be on the way to transforming injustice. I don’t know everything about oppression, and I don’t know exactly how to make a difference. I don’t really know how to join hands with my community and set about to transform injustice. I do know that I must begin with my own lament, for only lament can open my eyes to every manner of suffering and oppression.
So meet me on the mountain where we find the strength from God to persevere, and then descend with me to all the places where oppression enslaves people. Come with me to the people, and together, let us remove from them the yoke of bondage and offer them new freedom. And may Spirit Wind surround us with courage. Thanks be to God.
*”How then Shall We Live?” was the inspiring theme of the Alliance of Baptists Annual Gathering.
That’s the problem, isn’t it, that the Angel Gabriel departed from her!
It happens to us, too.
Our angel departs Leaves us Goes away Just when the deepest shadow of fear hovers over us.
Goes away Just when grief has shattered our hearts.
Goes away Just when our deep, deep life losses have left us disconsolate.
Our angel goes away. Just at the moment of our most profound impoverishment, Just at the moment when we know, beyond doubt, That we will never dream again.
As for the dreams we long held hidden in our hearts . . .
Well, those dreams disappeared!
The dreams we held so closely are not in us anymore Can not be dreamed anymore.
Suddenly, our angel left And we were no longer those who dream.
Yet, we moved headlong into Mary’s story and Elizabeth’s; Life growing in their wombs; Holy Life growing in their wombs. Both of them holding the dreams God gave them Both dreaming into an unknown and unknowable journey
As women often do.
And on that journey, as we follow these two dreaming women, we see it! The Star in the East! The Bethlehem Star sparkling in night sky!
Our angel left us But courage and hope still courses inside us.
We lift our gaze still and we see Bethlehem’s star
And the dark indigo sky sparkles Brilliance incarnate! Manifested before us in human form!
The Word Made Flesh who would never leave us like our angel did.
We follow that holy star Determined. Undaunted. Unrestrained.
Because we know what we hold deeply in our souls;
We know exactly who we are —
Those who dream!
We are those who dream!
Rev. Kathy Manis Findley, Advent 2020
In your sacred pauses during this Advent season, may you find peace, knowing all is calm. Listen to this music in your contemplative time.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. He has exalted me and, humbly, His servant I will be.
All generations, henceforth, shall call be blessed.
For He has done great things for me and holy is His name.
I will probably always remember those words penned by a lyricist whose name I cannot remember. (Apologies to John W. Peterson, Anna Laura Page, Ragan Courtney or whoever helped create this arrangement. I remember the tune and every word, but I can’t remember you.)
I have sung, in my short lifetime, dozens of versions of Mary’s song that we know from the Gospel of Luke. We often call it Mary’s Magnificat. I sang the version quoted above many, many years ago as a part of my church’s Advent music. I looked through the music in our first Advent choir rehearsal and immediately turned the pages to this one that was called “Mary’s Song.” I knew I would sing it since the churches we served seldom had willing sopranos.
As November and December moved along, I rehearsed Mary’s Song over and over again, not to enunciate all the lyrics clearly or to sing all the notes correctly. I sang it again and again because the act of getting into Mary’s skin brought me to tears every time I sang it. Tears were okay, but being unable to sing because I was weeping was not okay with me. And yet, I didn’t want to rehearse the emotion out of it. I wanted to “be” Mary for just those moments and I wanted the hearers in the sanctuary to emotionally connect with her.
In the end, I prayed and left it in God’s hands, because in the end, that’s what people of faith do. Today, as we do every year, we lit the Advent candle of joy — the pink candle, Mary’s candle — hoping that the sheer joy of her news to Elizabeth would ring true enough in us to bring us joy. How? “How can this be?” as Mary said to the angel.
I suppose that in these Advent days, in this particular year, many of us have asked “How?” How will we get through this bewildering time? How can joy fill us, enter into our souls and enliven our spirits, as we bury our loved ones? As we wait for word by phone about the person we love who is hospitalized? As we touch the hand of our grandmother through the window of her nursing home? As health care professionals become almost too weary to go on while people with the virus keep coming? As we know we will not see our family this Christmas — to keep them safe, to keep us safe?
How can we sing, this year, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior” — Mary’s magnificat? Joy is a hard thing this year, for 2020 has brought us grief upon grief, fear upon fear and uncertainty upon uncertainty. Yet, we have held one another close, even over Zoom, because together we have found strength to go on. Over the senseless racially motivated violence we saw on our televisions this year, we saw also a people languishing in a pandemic that took so much.
We saw politicians fighting each other over what some of them see as truth and others see as deliberate, hurtful lies. We saw children who wondered about where school would be and parents agonizing over hard decisions. We saw congregations gathering in parking lots and sanctuaries still, silent, without voices. We saw devastating unemployment and small businesses closing their doors. We saw medically vulnerable or immunosuppressed people locked in their homes. We saw people struggling to pay their bills — very poor people wanting and the very rich, as always, continuing their lavish lifestyles. We saw the rich continuing to oppress the poor, if not in their direct actions, then in their greed that, at least indirectly, deprives those among them who are poor.
The young girl Mary spoke about that, too, in the words of her Magnificat from the Gospel of Luke.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Luke 1:51-53 (NRSV)
The young girl we have called the Virgin Mary, the holy one that accepted the strange and frightening mission from God to bear God’s Son — this Mary is also the subversive one who called out the rich, the powerful and the proud. In her Magnificat? Oh yes, Mary said that God would scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, bring down the powerful from their thrones and send the rich away empty.
Subversive! Courageous! Defiant! Bold! Audacious! Wise! She was all those things when she spoke the kind of subversive truth no young girl in those days would have dared to speak. The miracle of it is that God chose a young girl who possessed the tenderness to nurture a newborn, the wisdom to raise him to live into his mission and the courage to help him stand in a world that would both adore him and hate him — worship him at a manger and then crucify him on a hill. Dr. Marcia Riggs described Mary’s Magnificat like this: “The song sows joy that is the seed of a social revolution.” Indeed!
This was the Mary of our pink candle, the Mary who would be submissive enough to agree to a holy life of chaos and the Mary whose inner strength enabled her to look up and watch her son die.
To be sure, her Magnificat has been read and sung in millions of voices, with thousands of tunes, in cathedral-like sanctuaries and in mud huts. The words have been translated into various versions of the Bible and composers have woven paraphrases of her words into hundreds of melodies and rhythms. Still to this day, one phrase remains . . .
Holy! Holy! Holy is His name.
May Mary’s joy find us on this day and in our own worlds — wherever we are, however we feel, whatever sadness we hold. Amen.
For your quiet, meditative time — one version of Mary’s song:
With your heart of compassion, your mind full of creative force, your spirit empowered with the rush of Spirit wind and fire!
Ah! Women, with your steady and sturdy will that stands straight and tall and moves into the fray — any fray that harms others, devalues human beings, threatens all of God’s created order, brandishes violence and acts against God’s divine desires!
Ah! Women! Silenced, dismissed, diminished from ages past to this very day!
Ah! Women, now you will summon your courage and move forward with hope and grit! Now — in these unfathomable days of pandemic and protest — you will enter the fray in ways only you can. You will enter the fray bringing with you a transformative power for righting wrongs. You will inter the fray bringing your womanwisdom and the insight that is inside you, given by Spirit!
Ah! Women! Daughters of God,
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, and your daughters shall rise up and find their own voices, dreaming dreams and seeing visions . . . In these days, even on my female slaves, I will pour out my Spirit.
— From the Prophet Joel 2:28-29 NRSV (a feminist paraphrase)
Ah! Women! As you go forth, never forget when you enter any holy fray God has placed before you, that you do not go alone. From the wisdom of Maya Angelou:
Whenever you go forth into a new project, task or vision, remember that you do not go alone. Behind you is Harriet Tubman In front of you is Sojourner Truth. Beside you is Fannie Lou Hamer and next to you is your grandmother.
Fill in the names of your own revered women, and know that you are going forward with the power of other people.
Ah! Women! Perhaps, like Esther, God has called you for such a time as this!
Ah! Women! In you, there is hope and grit! In you, there is unbridled courage! In you, there is transformation of every wrong!!
May God continue to empower your spirit, steel your heart and grace the sound of your own voice! Amen. A*women.
Hear this choral music and contemplate the calling of God:
Rev. Kathy Manis Findley The Hard Way Forward A sermon preached in virtual worship for New Millennium Church Little Rock, Arkansas October 11, 2020 Scripture: Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106 (selected verses)
Have you ever come to a point in your life when you had to take the hard way forward? You had no other choices! In fact, the phrase “the hard way forward” paints a an unvarnished picture of these tumultuous days, and the paints on the artist’s brush are dark and foreboding.
What a journey 2020 has been! I have often called it a journey of lament — a journey that has forced us to be in places we never wanted to be and to see things we never wanted to see.
We look around and watch people in shock and dismay — disillusioned and despondent. So many have been personally touched, even ravaged, by the deadly coronavirus, while others are overcome with fear of it. We have witnessed evil, racist assaults; watched police brutality and murder on our television screens; we have grieved over wildfires that threaten to swallow up forests, animals, homes and lives; and over it all we have felt contempt for the reprehensible leadership of an incompetent, insensitive, egocentric, self-serving president. I think it’s safe to assume that many people in this broken nation feel hopeless and heartbroken.
I often ask: God, are you still leading us on this hard journey?Or have you forsaken us? Do you have some kind of plan we do not yet see?
These months for so many people have definitely been a hard way forward. As we try to put one foot in front of the other on this journey, perhaps we can imagine ourselves walking with the people of Israel.
So let us listen and hear the Word of God in Holy Scripture
From Exodus, Chapter 32, (selected verses):
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said,“Come, make us gods who shall go before us.”
“As for this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”
So the people took off the gold rings and gave them to Aaron. He took the gold, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and the people said,
“These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before the calf and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.”They rose early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices; and they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose up to carouse. [my word choice]
(Now the scene changes locations.)
The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people have acted perversely . . . they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it. I have seen how stiff-necked these people are. Now leave me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”
But Moses implored the Lord, and said,“O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.
And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
And from Psalm 106 (selected verses):
O give thanks to the LORD . . . for God’s steadfast love endures forever. Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have acted wickedly. They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God who had done great things in Egypt, wondrous works in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.
Therefore he said he would destroy them — had not Moses stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath.
This is the word of God for the people of God.
The story of the Israelites reminds us that our kindred sojourners also traveled some rough paths. The text gives a glimpse of just one snippet of their journey. We see the Israelites on their wilderness pilgrimage, complaining, as they often did — and as we often do.
Apparently, Moses who had just received the ten commandments, stayed on Mount Horeb for a long time, patiently listening as God engaged him in a presentation of all manner of laws, rules and instructions. It took awhile — 40 days and forty nights, a very long time. And the Israelites started complaining about it to the one Moses left in charge — Aaron.
What has become of Moses?
What would he eat on that mountain, anyway?
This Moses, that brought us out here in this mess — where is he?
And then their fateful request to Aaron:
You are the one who is here with us now — make us something we can see. Make us something that will lead us forward, and we will follow it.
Now you probably remember that the Israelites had complained before:
Why did you bring us out of Egypt? To kill us with thirst? Why have you led us into this forsaken, dangerous wilderness? To kill us with hunger?
Their complaints may sound a bit like our own complaining during the terrible months of pandemic, racial unrest, political rancor, and all manner of upheaval.
Hey God! Are you planning to obliterate this coronavirus, or not?
Are you still with us, God, or not?
Have you brought us to this season for some purpose?
Like the Israelites, we sometimes lose sight of our leader — the God that would give us the courage to move. We are left as a wandering, unsettled people that simply cannot see our way forward.
As Wendell asked in last Sunday’s sermon, “Shouldn’t God do something?”
Shouldn’t a God of enduring, everlasting love do something?
Now remember — we are in good company with several holy bible people. The prophet Isaiah, for one, who asked:
“How long, O Lord And God actually replied to him:
Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the land is desolate and ravaged, until the land is utterly forsaken.
Not so reassuring!
The Psalm singer asked, too, in Psalm 94.
How much longer will the wicked be glad? How much longer, Lord? How much longer will criminals boast about their crimes?
They crush your people, Lord; they oppress those who belong to you. They kill widows and orphans, and murder the strangers who live in our land.
Who stood up for me against the wicked? Who took my side against evil?
If God hadn’t been there for me, I never would have made it. The minute I said, “I’m slipping, I’m falling! Your love, God, took hold and held me fast.”
Like those holy bible people, we ask — in our impatience and fear — “How long, O Lord?
And even as we ask, we have a wee inkling that God’s love is still holding us in safe arms of grace. George Matheson was a Scottish clergyman and theologian who lived in the late 1800’s. He was blind by the age of 18. Matheson wrote something quite profound about God’s love — the text of the hymn, “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.” The hymn text formed in his mind during a “dark night of the soul” he experienced, a deeply emotional and spiritual crisis. He tells us about it in his own words.
My hymn was composed in the manse on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882. Something happened to me which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life . . . the whole work was completed in five minutes, and it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this one came like a dayspring from on high.
In a time of emotional anguish, God’s creative grace rose up in George Matheson and he wrote about the kind of divine love that would never let him go. I think we owe Rev. George for reminding us about God’s unwavering love. The hymn text is most assuredly Gospel Good News that people throughout the centuries have desperately needed to remember
As you and I walk this journey, we need to know that God’s love will hold us fast, but sometimes we don’t know it. Like George Matheson, we could use a visit from the Dayspring from on high!
In truth, we need assurance — that no matter how hard the way forward, God’s love will not let us go.Threatened by a deadly virus, God’s love will not let us go.In our most disconsolate moments, God’s love will not let us go.When we courageously stand up to denounce racism, white supremacy, police violence and all manner of evil that surrounds us, God’s stubborn love will never let us go!
But that kind of love also places before us a holy mission undergirded with the foundational principle that evil cannot be reformed, it must be transformed — transformed within us before it can be transformed in the world, and transformed in the way described by Dr. King:
Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strengthto fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.
You might be wondering what any of this has to do with the Israelites and their golden calf, or the psalm singer who sang something about God’s steadfast love enduring forever, or the idea that someone might possibly stand in the breach for us.
My friends, each of us are traveling through these days with at least some fear and anxiety. It is a hard way forward, and as some clever people have said, “The light at the end of the tunnel is probably a freight train!”
Still, we are inheritors of the hope and grit of so many others who have journeyed hard roads before us — walking, marching, sometimes crawling — at times standing tall, at other times falling face-down in the dust of a hard rocky ground.We have navigated perilous roads and turbulent waters in this season. Yet we walk on, just as those who walked before us and who walk beside us.
I recently saw a news report about a little girl walking with her family among crowds of protesters. She stops at a makeshift memorial to George Floyd. As she pauses there, we can read the sign she carries — a hand printed cardboard sign that says:
My daddy plays with me. My daddy reads to me. My daddy tucks me in at night. Please don’t kill my daddy.
The little girl walks on with her family.
Tamika Palmer walks on too, tears flowing freely. Tamika Palmer, Breonna’s mother, vows she will never stop walking forward towards justice for the daughter she lost.
It strengthens us to remember those who walked before us in years past and those who walk with us today who are those sparkling examples of hope and grit: Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Oscar Romero, Fannie Lou Hamer, Prathia Hall, Greta Thunberg, Rev Dr. William J. Barber, II, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr., Dorothy Day, Bishop Michael Curry, Nelson Mandela, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Jr,. US Representative John Lewis, Rev. Pastor Judge Wendell Griffen and countless others whose names we revere, as well as so many whose names we do not even know.
Walking, marching, protesting, advocating, praying, writing, speaking, weeping — throughout centuries and to this very time. Compelled by prevailing, persisting injustice, they walk on — we walk on —taking the hard way forward.
So having eavesdropped on a people constructing a golden calf to worship, will we allow their story to call our attention to our own idols? Those idols we have made for ourselves out of our own Egyptian gold?“Idols” might just be the next sermon point, if I used sermon points!
It’s tempting to mistake our own creations for our God. It’s tempting to shape our self-made idols into an image that soothes our anxiety, feeds our anger and our egos, and convinces us it will demolish whatever is evil around us. I don’t know about you, but I can get obsessed at times. My tasks, my work, my advocacy sometimes rise up out of my obsessions. I don’t like that, but have to admit the truth.
So I have to ask myself: Is my work to dismantle injustice part of God’s call and my holy mission, or have I made it my idol?
Whatever that thing is that we have made from Egypt’s gold is not our god. That thing we idolize may symbolize strength and power. It may personify bravery. It may embody rebellion or protest.But as close as we draw to it and place it at the center of our lives, we must understand that it will not lead us to transformation, just as the Israelites’ golden calf could have never led them to the land of promise.
Instead it will shackle us in our impatience, audacity and self-importance. It will shackle us because of our insistence on following our own way instead of God’s way.
Here is another honest confession:It is tempting for me to let hate become my idol, to allow my desire for retribution to goad me into facing off against injustice with hate. But God’s way is always love.
Is it possible that our idol is our hate for people, people who may actually deserve it like white supremacists, neo-Nazis, violent police officers, men wielding projectiles and tear gas, corrupt politicians and leaders? Do we rise up against such people with hate as our weapon, while all the time, God calls us to love our enemies!
The hard way forward is the way of higher ground that invites us to turn away from the idols created by our lesser angels and walk forward in the persistent love that will never let us go.
The hard way forward knows the pain of fear and doubt, but still chooses to follow cloud and fire through the desert-landscape and on to freedom.The hard way forward is to live into God’s abiding, never-ending love.
For you see, seekers of justice who marched the hard way before us faced firehoses and dogs because they longed for holy transformation and because they trusted that God’s love would not let them go. Seekers of justice protesting in the streets of Louisville and in other cities in these hard days face tear gas, police brutality, violent government intervention because they long for holy transformation and because their faith whispers to them, “God’s love will not let you go.”
You and I, in whatever ways we are dismantling injustice, MUST take the hard way forward — facing censure, criticism, indifference, ridicule, disrespect, even violence, because we long for holy transformation and because deep-down, we believe in our hearts that God’s love will never let us go.
That hard way forward is the path to transforming injustice! Doing the same things we’ve done the same way we’ve done them might bring some manner of reform. But we must not settle for reformation. We must set our eyes on transformation.
One last caveat: the change we seek may never be realized even if we are brave enough to take the hard way forward, because the saved up baggage we carry weighs us down — the anger we hold on to, the hatred we feel, the impatience that makes us volatile, the fear that besets us, the hostility we refuse to let go of. Isn’t it time for you and me to kneel before God, confess our sins and accept the healing grace that wipes away our tears and transforms us into a new creation?
Kneeling at the altar of repentance, we will stand up straight and tall and brave — and most importantly, forgiven — and we will take the hard way forward, knowing in our souls that we cannot just act to reform evil, we must resolve to transform it.
So let us bravely and confidently take the hard way forward, knowing that God is standing in the breach on our behalf and that the Dayspring from on high visits us, giving light when we walk through the darkness and the shadow of death, and guiding our feet into the way of peace.
Let us take the hard way forward, proclaiming from the depths of our being that no matter how dark and difficult and long the journey is, God’s love will never let us go. Amen.
I invite you now to spend a few moments of reflection and prayer as you listen to a benediction of choral music in the video below. May you listen in the music for the whisper of God, for Christ’s blessing of grace, for the brush of Spirit wings.
And as you leave this time of holy worship, persevering on the hard way forward,may the God of love go with you and fill you with gentle peace through every tribulation,so that your soul may rise up in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Are we brave enough to imagine beyond the boundaries of “the real” and then do the hard work of sculpting reality from our dreams?
I read a wonderful article this morning written by Madisyn Taylor, who wrote about being in a fog. I related immediately, having just taken my immunosuppressant medications that create all manner of “foggy-ness” for me. Tayler defined it as a feeling of being “muddled and unfocused, unsure of which way to turn.” I resonate with that definition, but beyond the physical fogginess of my mind, I experience an occasional fogginess of spirit. Know what I’m talking about? I would guess you do, since all of us fall into a spirit-fog once in a while.
A fog can feel downright eerie. It isn’t straightforward like darkness, yet we may feel like we can’t see where we’re going or where we’ve come from. We feel fear, as real as our fear of the darkness, afraid that if we move, we might run into something hidden in the mists that surround us. If we’re brave enough to move at all, we move slowly, feeling our way and keeping our eyes open for shapes emerging from the eerie haze.
Maybe being brave is what spirit fogginess is about. Spirit-fog is, of course, is a season of involuntary inactivity (perhaps even precipitated by coronavirus isolation). Although you and I much prefer to be able to see where we are going and move unwaveringly in that direction, maybe we can encourage our spirits to see that being in a fog often brings gifts to us — gifts of stillness, of doing absolutely nothing, a respite from forward inertia, a time to gather up our “brave” to move with forward inertia, even moments of finding for our spirits the Spirit of Comfort and Peace. We might find in the mists of fog the sacred pause that our spirit needs — the kind of sacred pause that creates resilience in us, and perseverance, and whatever we need to be brave.
In the fog, we really do need to be brave. When we are hidden in the mist, we may look within and find that the source of our fogginess is inside us — perhaps an emotional issue that needs tending before we can safely move ahead with steady resolve. The fog that engulfs us may simply be teaching us important lessons about how to continue moving forward even if we have been brought to a standstill by circumstances of life.
If we’re brave, we do not have to wait for the fog to lift. If we’re brave enough, we can center ourselves in the haze, wait for guidance and then move — move on into the unknown places on the journey. I have been a long-time fan of the song “Brave” sung by Sara Bareilles, written by Sara Bareilles and Jack Antonoff. “Brave” is on her 2013 album, “The Blessed Unrest.” The song hits me hard with these words, “sometimes the shadow wins.” I know that to be the hard truth, but I also latch onto the rest of this song’s message: I can be brave! I often think that this section of the lyrics calls out directly to me — calling me, urging me on, encouraging me to “show everyone how big my brave is.”
I wanna see you be brave
Everybody’s been there, everybody’s been stared down By the enemy Fallen for the fear and done some disappearing
Bow down to the mighty Don’t run, stop holding your tongue
Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live Maybe one of these days you can let the light in
Show me how big your brave is
Say what you wanna say And let the words fall out Honestly
I wanna see you be brave
Spend a few minutes enjoying this Sara Bereilles song and immerse yourself in the thought of how amazingly brave you are.