Holy Ground

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

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

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

Indeed. Low ground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Icons of God’s Presence

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Photography by Sister Macrina Wiederkher

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

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

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

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

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

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

At Any Age

D543405F-29D8-492C-B48A-4BB0EC12CF72I asked my husband a rather strange question last night. It was about my recent preaching at First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon. This was how I posed the question to him:

“You have listened to me preach a gazillion times in past years when I was young. But now do I just seem like a little old lady in the pulpit?”

Apologies to all little old ladies who might very well preach as prophetically as ever in a similar situation! But back to my question, and my husband’s response.

“No! Not at all,” he said. “If anything, you seemed more confident and powerful than I have ever seen you.”

So much for my feelings of being inadequate just because I am now a retired senior adult who has not preached a sermon in a very long time. The truth is I agreed with my husband. I felt very confident within myself. I believed that I had received a holy and prophetic word from God, and was honored that God (and my pastor) chose me to speak that word. When I stood in the pulpit, I felt the memory and the wisdom of ministries past, all of them, and that recognition of God’s workings within me over the years filled me with assurance.

Still, we are used to prophets being young, like Jeremiah and John the Baptist. Prophets, after all, are given the mission of looking ahead. On the other hand, we think of elders as caretakers of the past. 

Pope Francis spoke about this in 2014 in his homily on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. In that homily, he asks us to see the mission of our elders as looking ahead to the future. And looking ahead to the future as persons who possess the wisdom of age. He gives us Simeon and Anna as our role models, naming them “senior citizen prophets.” And what role models they are! Among all the stories in Scripture, I have long been inspired and moved by the stories of Anna and Simeon.

In the story, this older woman and man have just met the new parents, Mary and Joseph, who were bringing their baby Jesus to the Temple. Pope Francis preached it with these words.

“It is a meeting between young people who are full of joy in observing the Law of the Lord, and the elderly who are filled with joy for the action of the Holy Spirit. It is a unique encounter between observance and prophecy, where young people are the observers and the elderly are prophetic!”

This is their story from the second chapter of Luke, verses 21-38:

And when eight days had passed, before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law, then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said,

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed — and a sword will pierce even your own soul — to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

— Luke 2: 21-38 (KJV, NASB)

Simeon, a righteous and devout man who was looking for the consolation of Israel, was graced by the Holy Spirit. And in that Spirit, he came into the temple, finally holding Jesus in his arms and blessing him. This was the moment Simeon had hoped for over many years. And after prophesying about the child Jesus, he blessed the parents and began Mary’s preparation for the pain she was destined to experience when her son was crucified.

And the Prophetess Anna, now advanced in age, was there “at that very moment” the Scripture says. Anna never left the temple and she served God “night and day with fasting and prayer.” She lifted up her prayers of thanks to God for this child. And on top of that she proclaimed the message of hope that this child had come! Glorious news it was to “all those who were looking for the redemption of Israel.”

The stories of Anna and Simeon give us a portrait of elderly citizens, full of life’s wisdom and the Holy Spirit, who prophetically present to the world Jesus as Messiah!

And their story is full of hope for us, too. Perhaps those of us who are “of a certain age” are truly senior citizen prophets. Perhaps the hope we need to hear is the hope that, at any age, God calls us to prophetic mission. At any age, God will use our voices to speak hope to a world in despair, a world waiting for the consolation that comes only from God’s Spirit.

Joy

102F7D81-F946-4E11-A42A-07566031DEABAs I often do, I found today, in my lengthy list of unread emails, a plethora of pleas to do something. Save the bees. Save the libraries. Save the children. Save the political candidate . . . and several other things that someone wants to save.  I care deeply about most of those things that need saving, like the libraries and the children and the bees. And I spend a fair amount of time worrying about them and praying for them to be saved.

But for this day, I am laser focused on saving myself, saving myself from the onslaught of various illnesses, from nature’s effects of aging, and mostly, from a life filled with worry where there should be joy.

Memories flood my mind with sweet, little songs from the past: “The joy of the Lord is my strength . . .”  (1)  “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart . . .” (2) Simple songs they were for us when as children we learned every word and took the melodies into our hearts to recall in the years to come.

And so today, I recall them, realizing that whatever may come, I have joy in my heart, and most of all, that I am leaning into the truth that the joy of the Lord is my strength. These were good and positive lessons to learn as a child, with simple music as the teacher. So today, I remember the songs, singing them silently as I write. Singing them aloud would most surely disturb the household. So I keep silent.

It can be a dangerous thing to keep silence, for in those silent times, there can be a flood of memories, thoughts, recollections, and the sacred space so essential to the spiritual life. Today’s sacred space brings these words to my heart:

The Lord is my strength and my shield;
in him my heart trusts;
so I am helped, and my heart exults,
and with my song I give thanks to him.

— Psalm 28:7 (RSV)

You are being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might, so that you might patiently endure everything with joy.

— Colossians 1:11(ISV)

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

— Nehemiah 8:10 (NIV)

On top of my end stage kidney disease, debilitating fibromyalgia, diabetes, and an almost constant barrage of new diagnoses, I have one job really: to find ways of guarding the joy that makes its home in my heart, to patiently endure whatever comes with joy. I must trust that joy really is there in my heart. I must believe that joy is still a part of my faith. I must know that joy has been with me on my journey, every day, at every turn, over every mountain and through every valley.

I must guard my joy lovingly and persistently. And I must guard my heart, joy’s dwelling place. When new illnesses come along, new concerns, new challenges, new problems and new sorrows, perhaps the most important thing I can do is to guard my heart.

Along with the other passages of scripture that have entered my sacred soace today, there is another tiny scripture passage that has moved me over the years. The writer of the book of Proverbs begins chapter four with a list of life instructions, and for twenty-two verses, the writer admonishes the reader to be vigilant, to be careful, to hold on to instruction, to avoid the path of the wicked, etc. And then in verse 23, the writer of the everlasting wisdom of the Proverbs gives us one more tidbit of advice and advises us to pay attention to this one instruction, above all else.

Above all else, guard your heart,
for from it flow the wellsprings of life.

— Proverbs 4:23 

I am never 100% certain about the meaning of scripture passages, but this one feels very clear to me — guard your heart and the wellsprings of your life will flow from it. I think the wellsprings might be joy! Not such a simple message, is it, that we have “joy down in our hearts to stay.”

 

(1) The Joy of the Lord Is My Strength, written by Alliene Vale, ©️1971, Universal Music.

(2) Joy In My Heart, written by George William Cooke, 1925

Fault Lines and Faith

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Aerial photo of the San Andreas Fault in the Carrizo Plain,  http://www.geologyin.com.

Last week, we were inundated with media reports about President Donald J. Trump’s performance in his private meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. From the outset, voices cried out in protest that the President of the United States would even consider a meeting with the Russian dictator. Now we are working through what the U.S. president said or did not say during the meeting. In a sense, we are standing on the fault lines of our nation.

There is no shortage of criticism on the opinion that President Trump took sides. In fact, he took Vladimir Putin’s word over the findings of several American intelligence agencies that Russia interfered with the 2016 election. Alina Polyakova, an expert on Russia at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said this in a conference call with reporters.“It was telling that the U.S. president did not mention Ukraine or Crimea once. The U.S. president also didn’t mention U.S. sanctions and basically let the Russian president set the agenda on Syria and other items as well.”

Condemnation of this meeting was swift, sweeping and widespread. The Chicago Tribune reported a plethora of reactions: “Bizarre. Shameful. Disgraceful. And that’s just from the Republicans.” Disgraceful, embarrassing, incompetent, disturbing, unpatriotic . . . There are so many negative descriptors in the narrative about this meeting. People of faith stand on the fault line wondering if and how we should respond. 

Now, the shock has somewhat abated. People, Democrat and Republican, are making their way back to the comfort of normalcy. To be sure, some Democrats are wringing their hands a bit more than they did before the Trump/Putin meeting, but at the end of the day, everyone will settle down on top of whatever fault line is nearest to them. I cannot help but think of the words of Edwin Muir from his poem, The Transfiguration, “But the world rolled back into its place, and we are here. And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn, As if it had never stirred.”

So after all the upheaval caused by the Helsinki meet-up, and after all the amped-up rhetoric of condemnation of the American president’s performance, it seems as if “the world rolled back into its place,” as if nothing has stirred. And yet, some people of faith feel an unease on this fault line, a vague sense that all is not as it should be, and wondering what all of this has to do with us. Most of us are do-ers, so inaction is difficult even when no clear action is before us. For good or ill, we are here in “the living of these days,” and there are indeed some clear actions we must take.

One set of effectual actions, as suggested by my friend, Ken Sehested, is to be prepared, to listen to media reports from a variety of sources, but to remember that we draw our bearings from “a larger horizon.” Ken writes this in a meditation entitled “We Must Be Prepared: A Brief Meditation for the Living of these Days.”

We must be prepared. Things are likely to get worse before they get better. We must listen to the news, from a variety of sources. But we must not draw our bearings from that news. Ours is a larger horizon.

It seems to me that all of our responses — whether being fully informed, shaping our opinions and convictions, advocating with members of Congress, or praying for our nation and our leaders — must emerge from that place called “a larger horizon.” 

And about the living of these days? These are the days we have, the good of them and the not so good. Certainly, we can feel hopeless when we hear disturbing headlines about any number of fault line issues. The narrative from the U.S. President clashes with the best direction from his own staff. The story of the private Helsinki meeting changes from hour to hour. Lawmakers are calling for recordings of the meeting. There is a palpable lack of trust within the Trump administration. 

In these days, we do feel threatened by fault lines, feeling them shifting underneath our feet. But along with the fault lines, we also have a living faith that guides us to create positive change, compels us to continue standing up for the marginalized people among us, strengthens us to labor for the good of our communities and our nation, and ennobles us to speak out for truth and justice.

Sitting Open-Handed Before God

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simone Campbell

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

Whole Again

23A0B57C-5487-4E6C-B48B-C45552916C23So many people have been broken. I join them in their brokenness, for I, too, have been broken. Not just once, but again and again. So I know how it feels to look down in the dust at my feet and see the shards of a broken spirit. I know the emotional response I have when I sit on the ground examining the broken shards, and I know how I despair of the daunting  task of putting the broken pieces back together.

I know the fear of doubting that I will even be able to put them together again. I know the terror of believing that my broken life will forever be broken. I know the suffocating feeling of having been broken beyond repair, without hope, without the faith I will need to repair my own brokenness.

And then, we look at our world, lamenting its groaning in so many ways and in so many places around the globe. Ours is a world that seems broken into pieces. I often find encouragement in the Jewish concept known as Tikkun Olam, a phrase found in the Mishnah that means to heal or repair the world. While Tikkun Olam is used today to define social action and the pursuit of social justice, the phrase has ancient roots with origins in classical rabbinic literature. It means so much more than examining broken pieces and finding a “glue” that might possibly put them back together.

Rabbi Yitzchak Luria* pondered the world’s brokenness and came to believe that, even before time, something must have gone terribly wrong with the world. As he continued to mull it over in his mind, he proclaimed that the world had shattered. He taught that we are anointed to repair a world which he defined as “all that is eternal,” insisting that “at the very core of reality is G-d’s shattered dream, waiting for us to pick up the pieces.”

Things break. The world breaks. Dreams break. We break. Such is the reality we know. And yes, we can become disconsolate as we take on the task of putting the pieces back together again. But there is a higher truth, a more noble calling than just putting together broken pieces. It is the calling to make things whole again, to make the world whole again, to make your spirit whole again.

In Scripture, we find many stories of persons being made whole. Each one looks like a miracle. Remember the story of the woman who had suffered for twelve years?

A woman, who was very ill for twelve years, came behind Jesus, and touched the hem of his garment: For she said within herself, “If I but touch his garment, I shall be whole.”

Jesus turned about, and when he saw her, he said, “Daughter, be of good comfort; your faith has made you whole.” And the woman was made whole from that hour.

— Matthew 9:20-22

Surely it was a miracle that this woman received. But for us, miracles are rare. We are burdened heavily by the brokenness, usually without the benefit of miracles. So what is it around you that is broken? What broken shards do you have before you? A broken relationship? A broken faith community? A broken dream? Is your city broken? Your nation? Your world? Or it it your own spirit that lies in broken pieces at your feet?

I cannot promise you a miracle. Even so, you must pick up the broken pieces and get started. You may get a little help from the people in your life. Then again, they may offer no help at all. But I do know that you have within yourself all the strength you need to take what is broken, put the pieces back together and find yourself whole again.

She is a beautiful piece of broken pottery, put back together by her own hands. And a critical world judges her cracks while missing the beauty of how she made herself whole again.

— J.M. Foster

The Japanese art of repairing broken pottery is called kintsugi. Repaired with pure gold, the Japanese art embraces the imperfections of the broken object. The flaws are seen as a unique part of the object’s history, which adds to its beauty. The glistening gold cracks are seen as very lovely features of the pottery, and Japanese artists say that the pottery is even stronger at the broken places. 

And so are we!

* https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3593030/jewish/Fallen-Sparks.htm

God Images

B33BBCE1-46BB-404E-8429-32535C46106FHow do you see God? What images of God do you see? How do you find God? Where do you find God?

Most of us have at least one image of God. It may be a vague image, but still, we have an image in our minds of a higher power. There are as many images of God as there are people. People have images of a “god” they may or may not know as a part of their spiritual journey. Some imagine God as a benevolent spirit, others as an omnipotent ruler. Some imagine God as as a father, others as a mother. Some imagine God as a protector, others as a punisher.

I remember a sermon I heard many years ago proclaimed by a passionate, animated African American preacher. “Tell me brother,” he preached with a lyrical chant. “Tell me brother, how do you find God? Tell me sister, how do you find God?”

And he repeated the questions again and again, building into a spirited crescendo, after which he said, “You find God when you get little enough that God can get big in you!”

And all the congregation responded with exuberant “Amens” and “Hallelujahs.”

I would surmise that the image of God held by that congregation, at least in that moment, was the image of an all-powerful, mighty Spirit just waiting to hear their praises and then responding with little miracles of answered prayer.

God images fill the world: there is the Creator God, the gentle shepherd, the God of vengeance, the God Most High, and from sacred music, the Mighty God, Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.*

But we must acknowledge a significant exception. Some people simply say that they do not believe in God at all, any God. No images. No spiritual need for God. Nothing. They call themselves atheists.

I have known people who profess to be atheists. By no means am I an authority on this, but in my years as a hospital chaplain, I have never known a dying patient — whether believer or atheist — fail to cry out to God. In my years as a trauma specialist, pastor and pastoral counselor, I have never known an atheist who is in the depths of trouble fail to cry out to God.

I do not say that every person who does not believe in God always reaches for God in times of trouble. I am simply saying that in my experience, people in the midst of pain, grief, fear or other kinds of chaos search for a God who, by the way, is always there.

I recently read an intriguing quote by Marcus J. Borg:

When somebody says to me, “I don’t believe in God,” my first response is, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.”

― Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary

What a wonderful response, to affirm a person’s choice of unbelief while opening the door for meaningful conversation. That response is so much more respectful than a response that 1) forces a person to listen to a treatise on the existence of God; and 2) insists that the person must immediately become a believer by following a series of simple steps.

In the last analysis, a person does not find God on our timetable or through our methods. A person will find God in his or her own way and, on the spiritual journey, will see very personal images of God. They will discover the timeless grace offered to us all: a presence of God that is is constant and never-ending.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.

— Psalm 139:7-10 (NKJV)

As for me, I hold on to the image of a constant and ever-present God. Of all the images I have of God, the God I find “on the wings of the morning” most comforts me. I see God in many ways and in many places . . .  in Scripture, in nature, in my spirit. How do you see God?

For all who have eyes to see, let them see . . . images of a God strong and true, powerful and gentle, loving and accepting. God images are most assuredly there for us, for those of us who believe in God and for those who do not.

 

* “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah

 

 

Around the Bend

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Photo by Steven Nawojczyk

I wonder sometimes what I might find around the bend. “Around the bend” is an apt metaphor for the twists and turns of life’s pathway. No matter how long I have traveled my journey, no matter how much life wisdom I have gained, I never, ever know what what’s around the bend.

The pathway before me can frighten, even while I strain to see as far as I can into what lies ahead. The bend is sharp most times, and the angle hides my view. As I age, fear on the journey looms large, for I am completely aware of the dangers I might encounter around the first bend, and the next, and all the bends that are ahead of me. And yet, I am constantly graced with flashes of hope and faith whispering that what is ahead of me could be even better than what I have left behind.

The beautiful photo above by Steven Nawojczyk is a gift of calm waters bending in a gentle flow at the foot of a mountain, lightened by the golden rays of the sun. The image makes me believe that whatever is around the bend is lovely, peaceful, comforting, safe. And that is exactly what God would want me to believe, and woukd want us all to believe. I cannot help but think of the Psalmist’s affirmation that God “leads me beside still waters.”

In so many comfort-filled passages, the Psalmist offers sure and certain comfort. Hear the Psalmist’s words . . .

Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge.

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
Surely I have a delightful inheritance.

I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
   Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure . . .

You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

— Psalm 16:1, 5-6, 8-9, 11 (NIV)

And hear the words of the Prophet Isaiah . . .

Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he, I am he who will sustain you. 
I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.  

— Isaiah 46:4 (NIV)

And so “around the bend” is not so frightening after all. In God — “who makes known the path of life” —  there is comfort, safety, protection, constancy, and even joy. Thanks be to God.

“Feeling the Spray of Jordan”

 

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Crossing the Jordan River. Photo by Siiri Bigalke/ICSD.

As a hospital chaplain, I kept vigil at the bedside of many persons who were preparing themselves to die. For me, being present with a person who is approaching death is, without equal, the most sacred and holy privilege of a minister’s life. Yet, I found it difficult at times to keep myself emotionally and spiritually healthy. During my darkest times, one phrase of the beloved hymn, “Softly and Tenderly” washed over me: “Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming.” With those words, the hymn text gives us a striking image of death.

Each of us has images of death. Every person has uniquely personal ideas about death. Some meet death with fear. Others who come near to death, whether their own or someone else’s, feel anger. Some have a sense of doom, while others are filled with a comforting calm. Always through the years, I heard the phrase, “crossing the Jordan,” most definitely a preacher’s expression meant to celebrate a life well-lived while standing at the end of life, the edge of the Jordan.

Rev. Gardner Taylor was one of those preachers who proclaimed death as a celebration of life and a joyous passing into eternity. An American preacher noted for his eloquence, Taylor was known as “the dean of American preaching.” Today my professor/preacher brother, who is always sending me something to read or listen to, sent me a stunning piece of Gardner Taylor’s preaching. The sermon was from the 1976 Lyman Beecher Lectures.

Gardner Taylor shared about one of his beloved deacons who was on his deathbed. The deacon expressed the wish that he could hear Taylor preach one more time. Reflecting on that experience, Taylor inspired those attending the lecture with the following message of eternal Christian hope. As my brother wrote, “It may be the most poetically beautiful thirty seconds of preaching I have ever encountered.”

Indeed, it is . . . so full of abiding Christian hope. This is what he preached:

Now, no preacher has of himself or herself anything of real significance to say to anyone who is within the view of the swelling of Jordan. But there is a Gospel, and you are privileged to be summoned to declare it. It can stand people on their feet for the living of their days. And, also – what a privilege almost too precious to be mentioned – it may be that the gospel which you preach will then steady some poor pilgrims as they come to where the bridgeless river is and some of them, feeling the spray of Jordan misting in the face, might thank God, as they cross the river, that he made you a preacher.

As for me, I do expect to feel “the spray of Jordan,” and as I cross the river for the last time, I will most humbly thank God that he made me a preacher.

That is the secret of greeting death for us all, I think, being able to stand — with a steady heart and a calm spirit — and give thanks to God for what he made you. You might very well feel “the spray of Jordan” as a mist on your face.

Thanks be to God.