I confess that this is an unapologetic promotion of our newly released book . . .
When God Whispered My Name!
Stories of Journey Told by Baptist Women Called to Ministry
Rev. Kathy Manis Findley and Dr. Kay Wilson Shurden, Editors
Let me tell you why I recommend this book, unapologetically.
In its pages, you will find not only my story, but also the poignant stories of eighteen women who were called to ministry, only to face challenges and obstacles along the way. Simply because they are women! These are diverse women, each one unique, and their journeys follow winding paths, uncharted and serendipitous.
You will be mesmerized by these heartfelt stories about how nineteen ministers each heard a Holy Whisper calling her to a life of ministry and compassionate service to others. Get your copy today at these links:
“There is power in a story well told, a sacredness that speaks to shared experiences, and draws us closer to God and to one another. When God Whispered My Name is full of such stories. Equal parts inspiring, sobering, and challenging, the stories of these women bear witness to the Good News that flourishes when one dares say yes to God’s call. This timely volume is sure to offer hope, encouragement, and community to women and men who are wrestling with that same mysterious call from God and those seeking to empower them.”
—Mandy McMichael Associate Director and J. David Slover Assistant Professor of Ministry Guidance Baylor University
If you know about labyrinths, you might get this. People often ask me what a labyrinth is or what it’s for. Truth is, you can’t fully understand a labyrinth by definition, nor by reading about it. You won’t get the significance of a labyrinth by what I write here, no matter how eloquent my writing may be. To know a labyrinth, you have to walk one, or trace the circuits of a finger labyrinth, or trace the path on a sand labyrinth and feel the sand under your fingers.
As a part of spiritual direction, many folk tell me that a labyrinth looks like a maze to them, and they fear they’ll get hopelessly lost, unable to make it out. That sounds a lot like life to me. Isn’t there always fear that we’ll get lost on this journey we call life? After we’ve made a few wrong turns in life, we are often fearful of living it. Afraid our wrong turns will end badly. Afraid we’ll get lost.
The truth of the labyrinth is that it is a clearly marked path that will lead you in—to the center—and then lead you out by the same path. Perhaps that’s why it has been called “the sacred path.”
If you know me or follow my blog, you already know that my life has been made up of many curves, turns, twists, dead ends and crossroads. At times, it has felt unnavigable, a dangerous and unpredictable journey. Yours has probably felt much the same. I have learned a few good lessons along the way, though, lessons that I hope will stick with me.
The one overarching lesson is that I can neither predict, nor control my path. The twists and turns will appear before me, and I will walk through them. The curves will seem treacherous at times, and I will lean into them hoping to stay firmly on the road. I will stop in my tracks at the dead ends and simply turn around and start over. The crossroads? Well, they have their own precariousness, danger. The crossroads demand a decision. The road I choose could make a world of difference, good or bad.
It’s enough to make life frightening! And it does. Life is frightening, especially for those of us who need to control our pathways. Here’s where the labyrinth offers me so much comfort. It is a pre-created path in and then out, and when I follow it’s path, I am reminded of one of the core beliefs of my faith: that God has laid out a path uniquely for me. Whether I follow it or not is another part of my faith. I get to make that decision.
When I walk a labyrinth or even trace its circular pathways with my finger, I am aware of a guiding hand, a Comforter beside me, and the peace of knowing the path was created for me. I feel Spirit winds and hear the holy voices of thousands of years of Wisdom whispering into my ear.
And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”
God’s love protects us from nothing! Yet… sustains us in everything!
I am intrigued by the words I read this morning in a community chat about God’s love. I’m not sure which part is more compelling to me: that ”God’s love protects us from nothing!” or that God’s love ”sustains us in everything.” The truth is I have experienced both in my life. I imagine you have as well. The circuitous journey we call life leads us through rocky paths, crises of every kind, dark and dense places that make us feel lost, daunting mountains to climb, roads we take that take us to dead ends, roads to nowhere.
God did not protect me from any of the real-life crises that came my way—abuse as a child, a serious eye disease in Africa, the loss of my youngest brother, the fire that almost destroyed our home, the kidney disease that almost killed me at least three times, the years of dialysis, the miraculous, but very hard, kidney transplant. I assume God kept watch over all of it, but God did not protect me from it. God did not spare me from the traumatic events that marked my life.
So I have to ask questions, honest questions, about how God’s love really affects my life. How do I experience God’s love? How do I sense it in my spirit? Do I really believe that God loves me, especially in my life’s dark times? Do I believe that God should spare me from every life danger?
In my experience, God’s love is elusive, intangible, difficult to hold onto. At times, I don’t sense it at all. At times there are no holy ”everlasting arms” holding me until my darkness turns to light. The only way I sense it at all is by faith, the faith that is ”the substance of all things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
To understand this love thing fully, I think I have to read the rest of that chapter in Hebrews, where we find a litany of what important Bible people did by faith. You may remember the list: “By faith, Abel; By faith, Moses; By faith, Jacob: By faith, Sarah: By faith, Rahab . . .” Many more are listed, each having done some great thing by faith. This chapter, though, presses hard on the things that can happen to the faithful ones. Listen to this part:
Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two,[l] they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised . . .
Oh, my! They did everything right. Their faith was commendable. Yet, they did not see the promise they expected, the great and good things that would come to them because they were faithful. In the end, did they hold on to their faith—without experiencing their reward? Without seeing God’s promise?
What do each of them—Moses, Abraham, Josua, Rahab and the rest— have to do with us? Was their faith like ours? Were their challenges and obstacles like ours? Did they feel void of God’s love like we sometimes feel? Without the promise the expected, did their faith still hold?
We can only speculate about all those questions. But we do not have to speculate about our own faith. We know it. We live with it—when it is strong and when it falters. Did our faith, and God’s love, protect me from every hurt and every harm? I have to answer, ”No.” Yet, the opposite statement—God sustains us in everything—has been real and true throughout my life, in sunshine and in shadow.
I have not known where I was going or where I would end up most of the time, but I kept walking even in my soul’s dark times. The journey has had its rough passages. The journey has most definitely lead me through the dark. Yet, I have also experienced the sunrise that always comes, day after day without fail. And as for God . . . well, God’s love has been present, covering me in the warmth of the love that would not let me go, not by sparing me every hard time, but by “sustaining me in everything.”
The beautiful sunrise image at the beginning of this post points me to the thought that God’s love is a little like the sunrise—a calming light, a gentle light, forever dependable. I have yet to experience even one day without a sunrise. The photo also graces me with the image of footsteps in the snow. Look at them. They are the footprints of someone walking alone, and in truth, we all walk our journeys alone. I imagine, though, that we also depend upon the invisible footprints of the God who leads us on the path.
If we see God’s holy footsteps at all, we see them by faith. That will always be true, that by faith, we ”see” the footsteps that go before us. Only by faith can we claim the ”evidence of things not seen.” So when all is said and done, I believe this to be true: God’s love protects us from nothing! Yet… sustains us in everything!
I believe it by faith.
I hope you can spend a few quiet moments listening to this beautiful choral arrangement. Pay close attention to the words. This is just one sentence among other words of assurance . . . I walk in footsteps of God’s love.
I see His footsteps in the way, And follow them through darkest night, Unafraid, I stumble not, In the glow of perfect light, I see.
I walk in footsteps of His love, And find His light leads on before, Then He gently turns to me, Softly whispers, “trust Me more, I walk.
Then as I follow in His way, My path ahead will brightly shine, For in His path of guiding light, I find His footsteps first, Then mine.
After about five years of co-teaching my Sunday School class, known as the Voices Class, I have had an insight, a rather critical insight. Teaching this class, in particular, has been a gift for me and possibly for the other class members. We have bonded in important and meaningful ways. Most importantly, we “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2) and most definitely, we weep with our sisters who have found themselves weeping along the journey. (Romans 12:15)
And what a journey it has been for our class. We began with a lovely Lenten study titled, “Praying with Your Pen,” which took us into the wonderful world of contemplative writing. Such a spiritual disciple leads into all manner of emotional and spiritual discovery, not all of which is positive. The study was emotionally and spiritually taxing at times, while being life-giving for us all.
We then studied a three-month series of biblical women who faced various hardships and later revisited that study for an additional seven weeks. As we followed the journeys of these biblical women, we found kindred spirits and grace for our own journeys. But the lives of the biblical women were harsh, harsh enough to bring up in us an examination of the harshness we have encountered. So this study was a difficult one as well.
Other Lenten and Advent studies through the years kept us in a contemplative, and often melancholy, space where we learned so much about ourselves, our faith and our relationship with God and with each other. We followed Christ Sophia for a while, as we considered the feminine nature of God, and as we followed her, we uncovered spiritual layers in us that have long been touched by Spirit Wisdom.
All of our studies along the way took us to tender places within, places where spiritual maturity occurs and faith deepens. A deepened faith, it seems, was especially important as we entered the pandemic that separated us from each other, at least physically. We adapted valiantly and immediately, and our class continued via virtual Zoom meetings. The meetings, that regularly lasted two hours or more, seemed to ensure our sanity as we navigated pandemic lifestyles that we certainly did not choose. Suddenly, the day to day living became harder, school more complicated, safety measures all-encompassing, family isolation straining. Figuring out this new way to live became draining beyond belief.
That, too, we navigated together, holding one another in the light, learning to find church in uncommon places and keeping each other gathered close, covered in the love each of us brought to our circle. Gathering close to each other was critically important as we lost friends, church members and close family members to this pandemic. Apart from the pandemic tragedies we watched, our class was brought low by other illness and deaths of persons close to us.
So a few weeks ago, my soul cried out, “Enough!” Then I asked myself, ”Where is our joy?” We’ve got the ‘weep with those who weep’ part, God. Can we just move on to the ‘rejoicing with those who rejoice’ part?”
Where is our joy? That’s the part of faith I cannot discern, because right now, it’s just too far away. Still, I asked myself the question.
And I answered myself immediately. It’s in our hymns! Our joy is in our singing.
So the Voices Class started a new study titled,
Singing Theology: Hymns & the Formation of Faith OurWorship, Hymnody and Theology
A delightful study it has been for us, as we explore how hymns express the theology of a particular Christian community or tradition. Searching deeply into one hymn each week, we have asked: how does the hymn’s theology shape and form our faith, our belief, our mission and our action? “As the church sings, so she believes,” writes Beth Bowers. We had discovered in this new study an informative, important—and fun—exploration of song!
Hymns We Have Studied Each Week . . .
Here is our joy, in the hymns we sing — in their rhythms and their melodies, their thoughts and words. Hymns express our faith, our longing, our petition, our awe, our need, our regret, our grief, our testimony, our theology, our conviction and the deepest joy of our hearts. May it always be so!
My life goes on in endless song Above earth´s lamentations, I hear the real, though far-off hymn That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife I hear its music ringing, It sounds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?
While though the tempest loudly roars, I hear the truth, it liveth. And though the darkness ’round me close, Songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm, While to that rock I´m clinging. Since love is lord of heaven and earth How can I keep from singing?
When tyrants tremble in their fear And hear their death knell ringing, When friends rejoice both far and near How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile Our thoughts to them are winging, When friends by shame are undefiled How can I keep from singing?
Songwriters: Eithne Ni Bhraonain / Nicky Ryan / Roma Ryan
My cousins visited this weekend for the first time in months, a needed visit for all of us. We laughed and played and enjoyed one another. We talked a lot, too, into the wee hours. We talked about sweet memories, of course, remembering so many good and fun times. We talked about old boyfriends and childhood disagreements and family idiosyncrasies.
I think we talked most about aging and the physical and emotional changes it brings. We lamented it, of course, and wished it away. We cursed it just a bit, and tried in vain to find ways around it. In the end, we agreed that we can’t get around it, but just have to go through it. Right through the middle of it until the pathway ends.
Right smack dab in the middle of dialogue about age spots, edema, muscle pain and a plethora of bodily ills, we stopped, suddenly realizing that there must be more to the aging process than physical symptoms. Where is life’s meaning when we draw nearer to life’s end? How do we grow old held by the same grace that held us when we were children, young adults, middle aged?
I came across an intriguing word this morning in an NPR article. The word is Lastingness What an astounding word to ponder. Perhaps we should consider lastingness instead of aging. Various creative artists are the subjects of Nicholas Delbanco’s latest book, Lastingness: The Art of Old Age. Delbanco examines artists who either maintained or advanced their work past the age of 70 — from Claude Monet, to Giuseppe Verdi, to Georgia O’Keeffe. Because I am an artist, I was captivated by the idea of lastingness, especially when Delbanco told the story of Monet’s later years.
Delbanco writes that French impressionist Claude Monet — who painted well into his 80s, even after his vision was clouded by cataracts — created some of his most well-known works in the last decades of his life. After a long career as a renowned and financially successful artist, Monet retreated to the beloved gardens of his home in Giverny, 20 miles outside of Paris. His gardens became his artistic obsession. It was Monet’s failing eyesight that posed the greatest threat to his work. “He became more or less legally blind as we would describe it now,” Delbanco says. “So Monet compensated for, or focused on, the visible world in very different ways in his older age.” The works Monet created in his last years at Giverny are regarded as masterpieces.
In the last decades of his life, French impressionist painter Claude Monet focused much of his work on the water lilies in his garden at Giverny. He continued painting well into his 80s, even after his vision had been clouded by cataracts.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Monet’s exquisite impressionist paintings eventually ended because of his cataracts. The poet Lisel Mueller has captured Monet’s cataract story brilliantly, in “Monet Refuses the Operation.” As of 1919, the Monet was urged to have the cataracts attended to; in 1923 he had operations on his right eye, and glasses improved his eyesight — but only briefly, fitfully, and he had trouble distinguishing color. Mueller’s poem begins:
Doctor, you say there are no haloes around the streetlights in Paris and what I see is an aberration caused by old age, an affliction. I tell you it has taken me all my life to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels, to soften and blur and finally banish the edges you regret I don’t see, to learn that the line I called the horizon does not exist and sky and water, so long apart, are the same state of being . . .
I don’t know exactly what “lastingness” means, but I think it might mean seeing haloes glowing around street lights or the ”vision of gas lamps as angels.” I’m pretty sure it means learning to look at life as softened and blurred, banishing life’s sharp edges. Perhaps “lastingness” means that my writing or my art will have a lasting impact on the world. Maybe it means that I will pass on my wisdom to my grandchildren. Or that the child I helped recover from long-term sexual abuse will find happiness in her life. Perhaps “lastingness” means that my faith in God will carry me to the grace that is the end of life. That kind of “lastingness” brings a kind of peace to my aging, a grace that assures me that aging is much more than painful joints and aching muscles. “Lastingness” is holier than physical afflictions and I think it blurs and softens them until they are tolerable.
When I cannot find the right words, I can always count on Bishop Steven Charleston to write them.
I see more clearly, now that I am aging. Not with my eyesight, but with my soul. I see the fine detail of what I missed in younger years. I see the place of faith and forgiveness in my story. I see the possibilities of life in ways I never imagined. I was not blind in my youth, but my vision was limited to only a few seasons of seeing. Now I am an old man standing on a hill. I see more clearly. The universe stretches above me in infinite glory and the Earth spreads her shawl to wrap me in creation. Open the eyes of your spirit. Look out in wonder. See the fullness of the life you have received. See the promise of love walking in beauty before you.
Bishop Charleston’s words might just be the very best description of ”lastingness.” Maybe “lastingness” means that because I am aging, I now see not only with my eyesight, but with my soul. Maybe it means that now I can clearly see the fullness of the life I have received and the promise of lasting grace holding me close.
Even to your old age I will be the same, And even to your graying years I will bear you! I have done it, and I will carry you; And I will bear you and I will deliver you. — Isaiah 46:4 —
Sometimes some things don’t work! Like today as I am trying to insert the image for this post. It’s a watercolor painting I did a couple of years ago titled “Grays.” I don’t remember what was gray about that day or why I felt surrounded by gray, but I know that something was troubling about the day.
Like today! No, it’s definitely not gray outdoors. No gray skies above while the sun is shining brightly. Yet, I feel the “gray” closing in on me today, and for the past few days. News of the world’s hurt certainly has something to do about it. I can’t bear to hear of the spike in Covid cases, the danger of the Delta variant, exhausted health care providers gasping for relief, maltreated children at the overcrowded migrant center in Fort Bliss, Texas. I can hardly bear to hear another report about my friend who is very ill or about another friend I spoke to this morning who lost two love ones this week.
It feels gray in me right now. I think the gray feeling has a lot to do with the chat I had with my nephrologist at Mayo Clinic this week. He was beyond concerned about our current pandemic situation for his transplant patients. Of course, I am one of those patients. He was adamant that we immunosuppressed patients must begin isolating again immediately.
So again, the outlook for me is bleak. Not only am I one of his patients who are on high doses of immunosuppressant medications, but also I am one of the people for whom vaccines are not very effective. So while the general vaccinated public is around 90% protected from the virus, we are 50% (or less) protected. My doctor ordered an antibody test and, sure enough, it revealed that I have zero antibodies, which means I am not protected from Covid and that I can infect others.
I think that means retreating again from public gatherings — from stores, from groups of friends, from medical offices, from church. The time I was so looking forward to — seeing my grandchildren — is now a more distant possibility. All of that looks pretty darn gray to me!
I know in the depths of my soul that there are no simple answers for the gray times, the times when I am disconsolate and despondent. I know that I cannot change every adverse circumstance of my life. I know, too, that we cannot always change our soul’s response to those difficult circumstances. Sometimes, the “gray” of despondency simply has its way in me, and I cannot pull myself up and out. Sometimes I feel as if I am in a desert wilderness, and although streams of water may be there, I do not find them.
In such times, I have found that my ability to hold on to my very self comes directly from the Spirit, who is my sure and certain comforter. And I have learned that, while Holy Scripture and contemplative space do not always mysteriously rescue me or magically change my circumstance, I receive the peace and strength I need to live.
Jesus said to them: “I must leave you, butI will ask God, and our Mother snd Father God will give you another Comforter. This Comforter will stay with you forever. She is the Spirit, who reveals all that is true and real about God. . . . So when I go, you will not be left all alone . . . I leave my peace with you. I give my peace to you. So do not let your hearts be troubled. And do not be afraid.”
John 14:1, 16-18, 27 (my translation)
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
May you find that Spirit wind is moving gently within your spirit, and may God be the strength of your heart forever. Amen
It’s part of human nature to sometimes want to hold on to the past, cling to the “good old days” and resist the change that moves us forward. Especially when days past were very, very good and prospects for the future are less good!
I, for one, find myself clinging to the past with all my might, looking at my past life as a full and exciting one and viewing my present as being a bit of an empty wilderness. I chalk it up to aging and retirement, but this sense of emptiness, sadness, is really more than that. I think it’s more about my ability to accept myself for who I am, who I will become in the future and, most of all, what I truly need in order to be at peace with myself and my world.
Our worlds change all the time, and change brings with it the question all of us must answer: Who are you in relation to this world you are now in? If before retirement I was a nonprofit executive and an advocate for victims of violence and abuse, who am I in retirement? When I no longer have to adapt to the leadership roles I used to be a part of, what “self” might I discover in these days of new things? When I no longer have to adapt to the role of pastor, what “self” might I find myself to be when there is no congregation to care for?
According to Isaiah, my go-to Prophet, God advises us not to remember “the former things” or “the things of old.” Instead God apparently makes a provocative statement and asks an even more provocative question:
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth.
Do you not perceive it?
Isaiah 43:18 NRSV
I definitely had not perceived it, that new thing! In fact, I have been languishing about losing my “former things” for the last six years, not able to make the most of my present and certainly unable to envision a bright future. It might surprise even those who know me best how deeply disconsolate I have felt at times. Six years of languishing is not a good way to live. I made a gallant effort to make the best of it, but these six years took a toll on me in most every way — physically, emotionally and spiritually. My closest friends have ridden out this storm with me, so they know what I’ve been dealing with in clinging so closely to my good past and not being able to live into a good present.
And what is this “new thing” that God speaks of? What does the way through the wilderness take me and where are the winding, refreshing rivers in the desert?
Two weeks ago, one of those close friends gave me a passage of scripture printed on a piece of paper. I received it in quite a serendipitous way. Neither of us chose the passage (Isaiah 43:18-19). It ended up with me in a very random manner. But as it spoke of former things, old things and new things, it got my attention so completely that I pondered it several times a day for a week or so. I didn’t obsess over it or look up its context or attempt to exegete it. I simply pondered it in my heart in the quiet times.
This scripture is truly a lovely God-promise, filled with a gentle, healing grace. I appreciated it for that. I also appreciated it because its words gave me the gift of sacred pause. And in the sacred pauses it gave me, I realized that the crux of this matter is not not how I react to change or how I survive it. What I discovered is that this is not about what I can do or should do when my world changes. It’s about who I am when my world changes.
With that in mind, maybe every time my world changes, I will still be the person of deep faith that I have always been. Maybe I will greet “the new things” with gratefulness, knowing that God has made before me a way in the wilderness and has provided cool, rolling rivers in the desert. And even when my soul longs for days gone by, perhaps I will know that I will see God’s light on the path ahead of me, even in the dark, even through the wilderness, even as I feel the inevitable sorrow of letting go of all the former things I so deeply cherished. Even then, I will know that I do not walk alone.
Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.
Joel 2:28 NRSV
Because I am an ordained Baptist minister, I followed a path that made hearing the whispers of God necessary. I heard God whisper to me on many a dark day. So I am fairly certain about it when I do hear the whisper of God. Only that kind of holy whisper could cause one to face off about ordination with a patriarchal system. But truth be told, I did accept that face-off almost forty years ago. And I persisted through a long season of unkind challenges and lengthy treatises about all the reasons a woman could not be ordained.
In the end, I was ordained. I am deeply grateful to have experienced a rich and varied ministry through those years, including serving as pastor of two churches. I preached every Sunday, realsermons. You might say — borrowing the words of the prophet Joel — that I “prophesied.”
Oh, my! God whispered. I followed. It’s just that simple.
The truth is that throughout my life, I have heard the whispers of God many times. God’s whispers were just for my hearing, sometimes to comfort me, sometimes to gently correct my steps, sometimes to encourage me, sometimes to lift my spirits, sometimes to show me a vision and sometimes to call me to a mission, like prophesying or preaching.
I have learned a very important life lesson: that when I am grieving, confused, sorrowful, hurt, betrayed, beaten down . . . God’s whispers give me hope. When I am disheartened, God’s whispers touch me with healing. When mourning has stolen my songs, God’s whispers move me to sing again.
I am reminded of the inspiring words of Rev. Dr. Prathia Laura Ann Hall (1940-2002), an undersung leader in both the civil rights movement, womanist thought, social justice and African American theology. These are her words:
Out there in the brush arbors, the wilderness, and the woods, the God of our ancestors, the God we had known on the other side of the waters met us and whispered words in our ears, and stirred a song in our souls . . .
Right now, I am in “the wilderness and the woods.” In other words, I am in a shaky place. I need that quiet, familiar, sacred sound of God whispering in my ear. I wonder if maybe you, too, need to hear that sacred whisper that can make all the difference. Wherever you are, however you feel, in whatever place you are in your life, in whatever way you experience God, I pray that you will listen closely for the holy whispers you need to hear.
“A soul in transit.” What does that phrase even mean? It sounds a bit ominous to me, like something bad couched in flowery language. Maybe like words of a poem that make little sense because they point to something otherworldly. Perhaps it means something related to a soul that lives, gets old, and dies — in transit from birth to death and beyond. Pondering!
I’m not up for those thoughts right now, because I am in the troubling place of feeling old sometimes. It’s something like aging anxiety, I think. Feeling old should not be so surprising to me since I really am kind of old. But sometimes I feel old in a bad way, the way that sends negative thoughts through my mind. Thoughts like . . .
I can’t do much anymore, I don’t feel well most of the time, my joints hurt, or even, I may die soon.
It is not helpful for my soul to entertain such thoughts, even though some of them are downright truth. Pondering! You have probably heard that “getting old is not for sissies.” It holds some truth, I imagine, for those of us who have come face to face with normal aging, aging that feels not so normal at all. But what about the great juxtaposition? What about the positive exercise that puts thoughts side by side so that we can see what is life-giving instead of what is troubling? For instance . . .
I am old. — I am wise.
I feel weak. — My spirit is strong and still vibrant.
My back aches when I exert myself. — I can still move.
So much for pondering juxtaposed thoughts. They may not be all that helpful, although re-imagining so that we recognize what is spirited and sparkling about ourselves can be very helpful. Still my words on this subject are pretty empty. I think I need assurance from someone else’s words, and I can’t help but turn to a very wise and insightful spiritual guide, Bishop Steven Charleston, whose thoughts are captivating, enlightening and filled with wisdom. And on top of that, the wise bishop is the one who offered up the phrase, “a soul in transit” in the first place.
We will not grow old, not in spirit. In mind and body, yes, we will age as all things age, all making the pilgrimage through time to find the place of sources. But in our spirit, no, we will not grow old. The child that was us will run forever through the fields. The dreams we spun from the fine wool of cloud watching will forever lead us to the next wonder that awaits us. The love we knew, so quiet, so life giving, will always be there to lift us up and hold us close. The spirit of life is eternal. It does not diminish. It does not forget. It does not alter. The spirit within us is the sum total of our sacred experience. It is what we were sent here to be and to do. Our spirit, a soul in transit, has a life outside of time. It will not grow old because it is on loan from a source more ancient than time itself.
Bishop Steven Charleston
Still pondering! I see more clearly that the “soul in transit” has “a life outside of time.” Eternal! That is what our faith has taught us for generations, for ages, always. But it is a truth that we can barely fathom, much less find comfort in. It’s not so easy to accept a truth that ultimately represents death, even if it includes that timeless and stunning place that is called eternity. The introductory words of 1 Peter give us a most glorious glimpse of eternity, a living hope.
May grace and peace be yours in abundance. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
— 1 Peter 1: 2-5 NRSV
Pondering still as I ask, “what does it all mean for me, the words, the images?” I feel much like the Psalmist who said, “my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.” (Psalm 131:1) And yet, I do search and struggle with the thought of aging, of what it means for me and of what comes next. I hear the words:
“. . . in our spirit, no, we will not grow old. The child that was us will run forever through the fields. The dreams we spun from the fine wool of cloud watching will forever lead us to the next wonder that awaits us. The love we knew, so quiet, so life giving, will always be there to lift us up and hold us close. The spirit of life is eternal. It does not diminish. It does not forget. It does not alter. The spirit within us is the sum total of our sacred experience.”
I hear the words, and the spirit of me understands, even if my mind does not. When I write, I ponder deeply. In my pondering this day, I am compelled to admit that I definitely feel the sting of aging. I am very human, after all! But I can usually move from anxiety to a good kind of awareness. That good awareness shows me that it is comforting to hold on tightly to the thought that the spirit is eternal, that my spirit is eternal. Dwelling on aging isolates me, but knowing in my heart that my spirit is eternal is a grace-gift that sets me free to really live.
I know from experience that pondering can be hurtful, leading me through all kinds of unpleasant scenarios. But sacred pondering, the kind that allows one’s faith to sit with a problem until it seems acceptable, can open the mind and heart to the eternal and empower us to see the plans for good that God has for us, “a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
So, after a time of sacred pondering, I am blessed with a fresh awareness. I can see more clearly God’s truth that my spirit will remain with my grandchildren, always. My spirit will hold on to the sweet love I have known. My spirit will immerse itself in the beauty of nature that has always been present. My spirit will run through the fields like a young person, and through the forests, it will love the trees I have always loved.
My body will do what bodies do, but my spirit will not die and will not grow old!
In my normal outings, I frequently ride with my husband past the Magnolia Court Motel. It’s the one with a gas station in its courtyard where a pool used to be back in the 50s. It’s not a place you would want to stay on your vacation. In fact, I doubt anyone goes there for a vacation. Still, it’s always at capacity, because people live there. It’s not in the safest part of town. Magnolia Court itself is not safe. I know that because TV news frequently reports that homicides happen there.
For the past five years, I have seen a dingy, old, light brown car in front of the last unit of Magnolia Court, closest to the street. The same brown car, day or night, is in its parking space. I don’t think the car ever moves and I have wondered if it needs repairs. I assumed that the owner of the brown car didn’t have a job, because the car never moved. I hoped, though, that the owner of the brown car worked an 11 to 7 shift somewhere. I wouldn’t have known that, because I would never go past Magnolia Court at that time of night. Not in that neighborhood!
For five years, I never once mentioned that car to my husband. For five years, I silently looked at the dingy brown car and wondered who was in the motel room. Who was he or she? I always thought it would be a male, so let’s go with that. Why is he living there? Does he have a job? Is he young or old? Does he need food? Is he ill or disabled? Does he have friends or family? What does his room look like? Is it decent or dirty? How does he feel about his life? Does he know about Jesus and God? Is he okay?
My next thought was, “I would never go up to his door at Magnolia Court, knock on it and ask him if he’s okay or if he needs anything or if he knows about Jesus.” Just as quickly, my thoughts switch from the man (or woman) with the dingy brown car at the Magnolia Court to these hard questions . . . What could I do, as a Christian, to see if this man needed help? How could I help? What would I do? And what do the answers to those questions say about my faith?
I don’t know, of course, but I imagine that in a similar situation, Jesus might have gone straight to the inn and checked on the people. Finding out how they were doing might have led him to heal one, encourage another, give another a basket of food or do all the blessing-kind-of-things Jesus always did.
Last week, we drove by Magnolia Court. The dingy brown car was not parked in its place. I looked around the Court to see if he had changed rooms, but the car was not there. I felt my heart quicken and my mind rushing through scenarios of what might have happened to the man in the end room of Magnolia Court. I was sad. Guilty. After about ten minutes, I managed to move on with my day and not think too much about the man.
Today, we again passed by Magnolia Court, twice! The car was gone. The man was probably gone too. I never saw him. I never checked on him. Why would I? Who would do that sort of thing in the violent, unsafe world we live in?
I don’t want to be trite about things like faith, but honestly, I really did wonder “What would Jesus do?”
“WWJD” might be an old, overused, trendy slogan, but for me this is just being concerned about a man I never saw.
I don’t have any idea what Jesus would do, but I suspect he may have done lots of things, including something similar to what he did with the tables of the money changers. You see, turning over those tables was about doing what is just and right. Jesus might have turned over some tables or lamps or nasty mattresses at Magnolia Court Motel, because it is a place of violence, drugs, and all manner of things that harm people.
I felt my heart quicken and my mind rushing through scenarios of what might have happened to the man in the end room of Magnolia Court. I was sad. Guilty.
Kathy Manis Findley
I have to wonder now, probably will always wonder, what became of the car at Magnolia Court and, more importantly, what became of the man who lived in a room at Magnolia Court Motel. As far as I can tell, he never left his room until the day he left. My thoughts of him over five years of trying to eavesdrop on his life yielded nothing for him. For me, it became an examination of just exactly what kind of faith I have and in what ways am I willing to go out into a world of need where God’s people live in shadows like Magnolia Court. It became a self-examination that prompted me to ask myself, “What do you intend to actually do when you proclaim yourself as a Jesus follower?”
So this is not a morality tale to urge you to examine your faith. It is for me. I am the one who needs to examine my faith, to ask what Jesus would do and then to admit what I will or won’t do. As for the old, dingy, brown car and the man who owns it . . . well, I did do one thing that Jesus would do. I blessed the man I never knew, whispering under my breath as we passed by this morning, “May God go with you and give you peace.”
This is one of my favorite Christian songs. It brings me to tears every time I hear it, especially on the day of my ordination in 1992. As the words were sung that day in a duet by my husband and best friend, my heart sang, “Here I am, Lord.”