A Holy Thread

Enlight137Years ago, I served The Providence Baptist Church of Little Rock as their pastor. In those days, 1992, I was the only ordained woman who was a Baptist pastor in the state. Because of the strong and vocal disapproval and disdain from Baptists in Arkansas, my ministry at Providence was a lonely nine years.

I had just experienced months of open animosity from the Arkansas Baptist State Convention as I went through a hard, hard ordination process. Threatening phone calls were just the tip of a very ugly iceberg. And I was hurt, almost broken, from the experience. But that story is a blog post in itself that I will save for another day.

I was given a rare gift, though, in the people of Providence โ€” a congregation of deep love and unwavering support. They were a courageous people, each having come to Providence from other Baptist churches to live out their faith. They took a risk to join Providence. Many convictions led them to do so, the role of women in the church, the inclusion of all persons, the re-visioning of the idea of โ€œBaptist,โ€ the desire to create a covenant with like-minded brothers and sisters, the quest to build a โ€œbeloved communityโ€ in our city.

I will always remember Ethel, one of our deacons and a dear mother-figure for me, who gave me constant encouragement. She would say to me almost weekly, โ€œTie a knot in the rope and hang on.โ€ One of the times she said that, I was experiencing a particularly difficult time. I responded that what she was calling a rope felt much more like a thread.

I often recall those years with a mixture of joy and pain. In those years, many of us were grieving the loss of the denomination that had long nurtured us. We mourned for the loss of our seminaries, our beloved professors scattered in a deliberate and abusive diaspora. We mourned the loss of our Foreign Mission Board and worried about our missionaries around the world and the people they ministered to in towns and villages, plains and forests.

What I can say is that the pain slowly faded and healing covered us. I can also say with firm certainty that there was always a thread to hold on to, a thread that represented hope. I am inspired by the writing of William Stafford, who must know something about the thread we grip so tightly.

Thereโ€™s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesnโ€™t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you canโ€™t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop timeโ€™s unfolding.
You donโ€™t ever let go of the thread.

– William Stafford, The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press: 1998), 42.

Oh, what a comfort it is to hold on to the thread that never changes, even as everything around us changes constantly. What a comfort it is to find that sacred thread and to hold it tightly through all manner of life tragedy. What a comfort it is to move through change, suffering, loss, the many threatening events of life, and to feel the holy thread in your hands . . . constant, unbreakable, given to us by a compassionate God who always knew that our pathway would be scattered with stumbling stones and ominous boulders.

Thanks be to God for the holy thread. Hold it tightly.

Raising Cain

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“The Resurrection of Lazarus.” Oil on canvas painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1896ย 

As someone born and raised in the south, I know a lot about โ€œpiddlinโ€™ around.โ€ I do it all the time, and when the dayโ€™s light comes to an end, I always wonder if I have done anything at all worthwhile.

Don’t get me wrong. I heartily approve of some piddlinโ€™ around in life. Especially holy piddlinโ€™ like getting quiet and getting in touch with God. Holy piddlin’ like sitting in silent contemplation can bring God close to me. Praying can take me to a special place for sensing Godโ€™s touch. Listening to sacred music opens my soul to the whisper of God.

Piddlinโ€™ can be a very life-giving pastime.ย On the other hand, some of us God followers long to change the world, to face off against oppression, to do justice, to end wars . . . to do something of eternal meaning.

Our problem is that changing the world can be a heavy burden that we simply cannot carry around for long. The secret, I think, is a balance between pensive spiritual moments with God and those once-in-a-while moments of sparkling mission and calling, those moments when we rise courageously above ourselves and almost see miracles. Truth is, it is not a common happening for us to find ourselves raising anyone from the dead or healing someone who is suffering illness.

It seems that the best we can do is to say to God, โ€œI offer you, God, my silent devotion. And I offer you my willingness to follow your highest calling and your most extraordinary mission, wherever it leads and whatever the cost. Hereโ€™s my heart. Do with my life as you will.โ€

I very much enjoy the writing of Annie Dillard, and she has written eloquently on this very subject. Here’s what she writes.

There is always the temptation in life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for years on end… But I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous…more extravagant and bright. We are…raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

– Annie Dillard

I hope that you will find many of those sacred โ€œbe still, my soulโ€ moments with God. But I pray also that you will, along the way, have eyes wide open for those bright and extravagant miracle moments when it just might be possible to raise Cain or raise Lazarus.

Reach for the Stars

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We greet this year’s Independence Day still reaching for the stars. We also come to this day with a measure of confusion, disillusionment, and even fear. We have a president who is revered by some Americans and feared by most Americans. We feel concern when the president Tweets divisive messages. We feel concern about the ways he interacts with international leaders. We feel concern about health care. We feel concern about the loss of the freedoms we have enjoyed for centuries. We are concerned for our neighbors who have come to America as immigrants and who now face an uncertain future.

This Fourth of July we remember that eight immigrants signed the Declaration of Independence we celebrate today. We recall the words written on that historical document that was signedย on July 4, 1776:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

. . . And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

We are still the United States of America. We persist in loving our brothers and sisters and in cherishing the unity that goes far beyond our differences. Creating โ€œa more perfect unionโ€ remains our sacred calling though we know that mutually pledging our lives to each other requires constancy and dedication. It requires our willingness to accept one another and to honor each otherโ€™s differences. It requires offering mutual respect. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about the sheer work of human progress, work to which we must commit and recommit.

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable . . . Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.

– Martin Luther King, Jr. in Stride Toward Freedom, 1957

On this day that is a celebration of our independence, we know that we we cannot always determine the destiny of our country. We know that our freedom often feels precarious. We know that we cannot always be led by the president we prefer. But we also know that the citizens of this country will always reach for the stars as we labor for our nation’s honor, and in the end, will join hands and rise to meet a brighter future.

More than any time in recent history, America’s destiny is not of our own choosing. We did not seek nor did we provoke an assault on our freedom and our way of life . . . Yet the true measure of a people’s strength is how they rise. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars.

– President Josiah Bartlet, The West Wing

Reconciliation: The Heart’s Repentance

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The long and arduous presidential campaign left behind a fractured nation. The political parties displayed unprecedented enmity between Democrats and Republicans. The citizenry followed their lead, and the result was broken relationships among friends and even within families. My own family exchanged sharp and hurtful words during the campaign, words that continue to affect our relationships.

We have made enemies of other nations. Some among us have made enemies based on race, culture, gender, national identity, religious practice, sexual orientation. And we remain divided and hostile, with no apparent desire to reconcile.ย And yet, we desperately need true reconciliation.

The Biblical concept of reconciliation suggests the presence of spiritual, divine intervention that creates reconciliation in the hearts of those who are estranged. Reconciliation assumes there has been a breakdown in a relationship, but through the heartโ€™s repentance, there is a change from a state of enmity and fragmentation to one of harmony and fellowship.

It is going to require the heartโ€™s repentance to restore a climate of unity, mutual respect, love and peace. Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, offers these insightful thoughts about reconciliation.

Reconciliation isn’t just singing Kumbaya and everyone being nice. Reconciliation is about the hard work of working through our differences, maybe acknowledging them and not changing them, necessarily. Working through our differences, honestly and with integrity, and sometimes repenting of where our differences or my differences or yours has actually hurt relationship and not helped the human family.

Shall we just leave everything as it is? Shall we allow the distance to continue between us and those we have lost because of our differences? Shall we accept a fractured world and the divisiveness that now assails us? Or shall we instead commit ourselves to the holy work of reconciliation?

Our sacred calling is to restore peace within the human family, creating a world that can nurture our children and grandchildren, striving for genuine reconciliation among those from whom we are estranged, restoring peace and a community of love, transforming fractured and hurting humanity. This is what God implores us to do.

. . . This is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;ย that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

2 Corinthians 5:18-19

 

Pentecostal Power

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Art created by Jody Richards. The text is an adaptation by Satish Kumar of a mantra from the Hindu Upanishads and is commonly referred to as the “World Peace Prayer.”

 

With joy and exuberance, we used to sing an old Gospel hymn, our voices echoing through the rafters of the church house: “Lord, send the old time power, the Pentecostal power . . . that sinners be converted and Thy name glorified.”

That was our mission: that sinners be converted and that God’s name would be glorified. Over the years, we may well have lost some of our evangelical zeal. We may have developed differing views about what it means to glorify God. It’s a sign of the times, I suppose, times that are rife with the fear of terrorism, war, and the destruction of our way of life.

Some Christian leaders seem to believe that glorifying God in these days means advocating for a ruthless national counter-terrorism policy. In a 2004 interview, Rev. Jerry Falwell recommended that we โ€œblow them [terrorists] away in the name of the Lord.โ€ (CNN 10.24.04) I cannot fathom that such a view is inspired by the One we know as the Prince of Peace. I cannot imagine that Pentecostal power means power against persons and nations we have defined as our enemies.

One of the most genuine truth-tellers of my generation is my good friend Ken Sehested. He never tires of speaking prophetically about all things related to peace and justice. These are his words from an article entitled “The Things that Make for Peace” published at prayerandpolitiks.org.

People of the Way remain committed to a peculiar allegiance and a distinctive conviction: that all violence, of every sort, is a form of evangelism for the Devil . . . We make this profession of our faith even knowing that we ourselves are not immune from the lust for vengeance. As Cรฉsar Chรกvez, the great practitioner of nonviolent struggle for justice, said: โ€œI am a violent man learning to be nonviolent.โ€

The meek are getting ready. And they welcome the company of any with eyes to see and ears to hear Christโ€™s arising, arousing, and disruptive invitation to join Pentecostโ€™s Resurrection Movement. Now, as much as ever, we are in a โ€œfear notโ€ moment. Wait a weekโ€”Pentecostal power, with its assault on earthโ€™s beleaguered condition and seemingly endless walls of hostility, is coming. Babelโ€™s confused tongues, nationalist claims, conflicting cultures, and racial enmity are being reversed. Lord, send the old-time powโ€™r. [*]

Yes, God. Send the old-time power that inspired us to wage peace, to condemn injustice, to love our enemies. Meet us inside the breezes of Pentecost where Holy Spirit wind and Pentecostal fire will descend upon us once again.ย Grant us the courage to use our power to condemn hostile power, to live into our covenant, and to return to our first love and highest calling: “that sinners be converted and Thy name glorified.”

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

– I Corinthians 12:13, NASB
[*] From the hymnโ€™s refrain, โ€œPentecostal Power,โ€ by Charles H. Gabriel.

Covenant and Grace

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Recently I experienced a perceived misunderstanding with a close family member. It was mostly in my mind and I was hesitant to bring it up and talk through it. But this was a cherished relationship and I knew I had to do everything possible to preserve it. The end result was a loving and understanding conversation that led to genuine growth in our relationship.

We speak often of the word “relationship.” Less often, we use the word “covenant,” but that’s the term God urges us to live into. Hear these words about covenant written by Henri Nouwen.

When God makes a covenant with us, God says: “I will love you with an everlasting love. I will be faithful to you, even when you run away from me, reject me, or betray me.” In our society we don’t speak much about covenants; we speak about contracts. When we make a contract with a person, we say: “I will fulfill my part as long as you fulfill yours. When you don’t live up to your promises, I no longer have to live up to mine.” Contracts are often broken because the partners are unwilling or unable to be faithful to their terms.

But God didn’t make a contract with us; God made a covenant with us, and God wants our relationships with one another to reflect that covenant. That’s why marriage, friendship, life in community are all ways to give visibility to God’s faithfulness in our lives together.

– Henri Nouwen

That is so true. Covenant is not a contract. Covenant is deeper than a relationship. Covenant is grace. If I had considered my relationship with my family member a covenant, our interaction might have been clearer, more intentional, more committed, and filled with more grace.

So I intend to work on creating covenant relationships in my life. It’s God’s best way. It’s the way of grace.