It’s the Gospel Truth!

8832BB06-FEB5-4DAA-A86D-F8C351B53CA6I was born and raised in the South and spent most of my life in the Bible Belt. In the Bible Belt, one can hear many sayings, expressions and idioms. One of the idioms I seemed to hear continually over the years was, “It’s the Gospel truth!” Always as an exclamation. 

I learned that in life there is truth and there is Gospel truth. I learned that we need both. For instance, in my life at this moment, there is the truth that I am afraid. And there is also the Gospel truth that God watches over me through my fear. 

Sitting on the cusp between daily dialysis and the possibility of a kidney transplant, I entertain varied thoughts and feel disparate emotions. One of them is definitely fear. Thankfully, I feel relatively well physically on most days, but my body never lets me forget that I’m sick. People who know say that a transplant would change my life, that I have become so used to being ill that I don’t know what feeling really well is like. I don’t know about that.

What I do know is that the idea of a transplant is both frightening and enlivening. I also know that it may or may not happen. So I tamp down my emotions, tuck away my fear and basically try not to think about it. Where I am these days is in the place of; 1) not knowing and 2) knowing that God knows. 

As I contemplated this today, I remembered a Gospel song I used to sing back in the day. I have not thought of the song in years, but today its melody ran through my mind over and over. Many well-known musicians have sung it, but the voice I remember most clearly is the voice of Mahalia Jackson.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw still closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me . . .

In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus is sending his disciples out into the world. The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 10, begins with these words: 

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. 

In the rest of the chapter, Matthew tells us that Jesus gives his disciples many instructions as he sends them out. Most importantly, he instructs them not to fear. 

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.  And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.  (Matthew10:29-31 NIV)

Transplant or dialysis for the rest of my life? I don’t know which it will be, and that’s the Gospel truth! I do know that I am afraid, but whenever I fear the future, I am often reminded that I am never outside of God’s care. It is a good thing, an important thing, to know that to God, I am worth more than many sparrows. It’s the Gospel truth!

I thought you might enjoy hearing a contemporary arrangement of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” performed by Lauryn Hill and Tanya Blount at this link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=k7Pk5YMkEcg

I Can Face Tomorrow

Enlight272Yesterday was not my best day. All day long challenges got the best of me — health challenges, schedule challenges, even bad haircut challenges. My sister of the heart, Donna, said I was cranky. My husband, Fred, said I should chalk it up to Ash Wednesday. Martie, my dear Little Rock friend, said that yesterday was the first day of Mercury in retrograde and that I should do my best to survive until it’s over on March 28th.

I’m not so convinced of any of those explanations, but I’ll let it be for now. Today is a new day, a day in which I have chosen peace for the beginning of my Lenten journey. Typically, the way I find peace is through music. So Pandora is on my sacred music station today. It would be an understatement to say that the music has lifted me today and has almost made yesterday’s fiascoes a dim memory.

As I listened, a song from my past brought sweet memories. Years ago, before I learned to renounce masculine pronouns to refer to God, I was inspired greatly by these words: “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.” We sang this Gospel song often to remind us of hope, of perseverance, of God’s faithfulness and of Christ’s resurrection. Today, those words and that melody on Pandora reminded me of those exact things. In spite of masculine pronoun referring to God, the music moved me as it has always done. The message has not changed. God has not changed. My faith in Christ has not changed. Thanks be to God!

Here’s my truth as I follow my Lenten path, the abiding truth: “Tomorrow” for me seems murky, with the path ahead unknown and somewhat disconcerting. I do not know if I will receive a kidney transplant or live on daily dialysis for the rest of my life. I do not know what tomorrow promises.

But this is as it has always been — before illness and after. I never knew what tomorrow would bring, even in those days when I thought I was fearlessly and fully in control of my life. So it feels like a Lenten testimony of my faith to say that I do not know what tomorrow looks like for me. Leaning into the reality of the unknown future, I feel embraced in the consoling truth that “because He lives, I can face tomorrow.”

Of this, I am confident. Resting on this promise, I can move onto the Lenten path before me with refreshed hope and renewed faith. Amen.

Breath of Wonder

69175F90-305B-48F5-9797-D4F4BA54C428I cannot give you a better thing today than this prayer shared by Anne Fraley, rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in South Windsor, Connecticut. “Listen” to her words and find yourself in them. Let grace from God refresh you as you live into peace and serenity. And as Anne writes it so eloquently, may faith carry you on the delicate breath of wonder and discovery, calling you forth beyond your wildest dreams.

I know these things to be true.

The sun dances and rainbows shine through pearls of water.

The coos of infants elicit contented sighs and gut-deep gladness.

Music stirs and tempers within the beats of its own rhythm.

The earth is rich with nourishment and holds sacred story with gentleness.

Hearts break and find renewal in healing.

Love sustains, encourages, emboldens, and makes us silly.

Divinity is everlasting.

Comfort is found in meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Or maybe sweet potato fries.

We sag and thrive, ponder and muddle through confusion.

We persist.

My prayer this day is that the best of these things will rise and claim their place on our horizons, and that the least of these things will recall our need for each other.

My prayer for this day is that faith will carry us on the delicate breath of wonder and discovery, calling us forth beyond our wildest dreams.

Amen.

 

Reprinted from https://revgalblogpals.org/2019/02/25/monday-prayer-these-things/.

God Images

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How do you see God? What image 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 power greater than ourselves. There are as many images of God as there are people.

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. Some imagine God as spirit, the holiest, gentlest spirit that comes to us in times of silence.

It is the Sacred Scripture that most influences our image of God. In the fragile pages of our Bibles, we find images that sustain us, inspire us and move us. And in those times of angst we all experience from time to time, we find God images that comfort us.

If I had to choose just one Scripture text to help me imagine God, perhaps to take with me through a difficult time, it would be Psalm 139.

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)

I cherish the image of God I find in this Psalm, the image of a God who is ever-present. Of all the ways I have envisioned God through the years, this one is most comforting to me.

So I wonder, how is it that you see God?

May your image of God one be one that is strong and true, powerful and gentle, constant and ever-present.

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.