O God, be gracious to me, For my soul takes refuge in you; And in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge Until destruction passes by.
— Psalm 57:1
Last night we had thunderstorms, loud ones. All of us were awakened from a deep sleep—me, my husband Fred, and Kikí the cat. And all three of us ended up in the bed together, Kikí snuggled between us in the soft covers. Sleeping in our bed is not Kikí’s normal habit, but the storm frightened her, and it was her safe place for the long, long night of the scary thunder!
Most of us tend to take feeling safe for granted. It’s all about knowing we live in a safe home, in a safe neighborhood, with the things we need. Typically, we aren’t stranded outdoors in a storm or wandering about in a scorching desert. For the most part, we are not left outdoors in freezing weather. We are the fortunate ones who have choices, but there are people all over the world who do not have the comforts they need and deserve.
In this season, we think about people who have needs more than we do in other times of the year. We may give more to organizations that help them, or we may reach out ourselves to offer a safe place for them. As we think about gifts and ribbons and bows (and gift cards for our teens), I hope all of us will remember the many people in our communities who truly need our gifts and our caring.
Truth is, we all need safe places almost more than we need anything else—physical safe places as well as emotional safe places. I suspect the little puppy in the photo above found both in the shelter of a goose’s wings. The animal kingdom is truly incredible. While we assume that animals are only focused on the safety and survival of their own kind, this simply isn’t true.
We have all heard stories about interspecies friendships. A dog who makes friends a cat. Or even a dog and a cow who have become friends. Usually the story is about an animal who went out of his/her way to comfort another, even though the two animals might be of different species and have very little in common. I want to share a true story with you.
It’s the story of a goose who sheltered a puppy from the cold during some dangerously low temperatures. The original story of this unlikely couple went something like this: In January of 2019, a polar vortex hit North America. In Montana, an especially frigid place, a passerby spotted a goose cradling a freezing puppy under its wings.
This goose’s motherly instincts immediately kicked in when she saw the puppy. Not wanting the tiny puppy to suffer, she covered the baby with her plumage to shelter it from the bitter cold. She hoped that her efforts would keep the puppy alive. Another source of this story tells us that the goose and the puppy—not at all of the same species—were adopted together. What a truly beautiful thing to witness!
There are plenty of humans that love and respect one another and even go out of their way to help those in need, even those who are not like them. But there is still far too much hatred and intolerance in the world. What might it be like if every person, animal, and every part of God’s creation could count on safe places, shelter from the danger, protection from fear, or a refuge in troubled times?
And how graced we are when we believe the Psalmist’s promise . . .
In the shadow of your wings I will take refuge Until destruction passes by.
During your meditation time, you may listen to the lyrics of this song. Original Songwriter/Composer: Scott Brenner, Cheryl Thomas
How true it is that when we know nights of sorrow, when weeping is all we can muster, that daybreak does eventually come as it always has. And with the rising of the sun, perhaps our tears are replaced with at least some measure of inner joy.
The universe is wide and wondrous, full of love, full of grace, and sparked by freedom. Those three—love, grace and freedom—are the things we most need, all of us.
I offer you this meditation, praying that you are surrounded in love, that you know the grace that accepts every part of yourself, and that you feel the the freedom to run with the wind in wide and wondrous places, toward your dreams.
As you continue the quiet time you claim for yourself today, I hope you will be be inspired and comforted by this beautiful choral piece by the brilliant composer Elaine Hagenberg, ”All Things New.”
Poem by Frances Havergal and text adapted from Revelation 21:5-6
Light after darkness, gain after loss Strength after weakness, crown after cross; Sweet after bitter, hope after fears Home after wandering, praise after tears
Alpha and Omega Beginning and the end He is making all things new Springs of living water Shall wash away each tear He is making all things new Sight after mystery, sun after rain Joy after sorrow, peace after pain; Near after distant, gleam after gloom Love aftеr wandering, life after tomb
Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.
Author, poet, critic and Chinese literary giant Lu Xun. (Lu was a pen name; his real name was Zhou Shuren.)
I have stumbled upon places where there was no road and no way to move forward. I am mulling over the poet’s affirmation that ”Hope is like a road in the country.” I know a little about hope, a little less about country roads, and even less about walking trails in a forest. I also know many, many people who hang on to hope through every narrow, rocky path they encounter. These hope-filled ones follow the path ahead of them and persist on their journey, in spite of the reality that the path is steep, arduous and sometimes not beaten down enough to walk on.
That’s the important thing about paths—that travelers might walk on one for years when it is barely passable, beating it down for smoother walking. It’s called a beaten path. I imagine you have walked some beaten paths.
Even I have walked a few, like when I was just a wee girl. The path for me was a short one, but nevertheless ominous. It went from my back yard to Miss Martha’s back yard next door. But wait! You must know that the path also led us to Miss Martha’s plum tree, filled with delicIous plums just waiting for my brothers and me to devour. We felt hope every time we got to the tree and began to shake it so that the plums would come tumbling to the ground. We hoped—until we heard Miss Martha’s shrill, frightening voice yelling, ”Get away from my plum tree!”
Because we so feared Miss Martha, hearing her loud voice chastening us made us run immediately home and into the house. We also knew she would tell our Yiayiá (grandmother), and we feared that too. Like Miss Martha, Yiayia could give rise in us the most daunting fear of all. We hoped for plums that day, but got fear instead.
Fear can be the enemy of hope, which brings us back to our path. The poet says to us that hope is like a country road. While reading the poet’s words, I imagine reaching a place where is no road and no way forward—a situation of facing a path without much hope. But there is hope after all! Because many people had walked on the path, it was eventually beaten down. Now the people could travel on with hope. There was an open way, a possible path. There was hope.
What’s the message in this parable-like tale? Just this. All of us walk a journey that leads us to pleasant places as well as to sorrowful and terrible places. No one can make the pilgrimage we call life without encountering rough and rocky roads and impassable paths along the way. They are the places that hold the power to steal our hope and leave us paralyzed.
I know how it feels to lose hope. I have known abuse, violence, illness, betrayal, loss, grief. And I have known it first hand, these things that took my hope. I can also bear witness that my hope has returned many times, just in time, but not before I had to struggle with the real, deep despair of absent hope. When I stood at the entrance of the way where there was no way, at the beginning of the path that was impassable and impossible, I often thought of this testimony of hope and faith found in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9; 16-17.
We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed . . .
Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though we are outwardly perishing, the inner place in us is being renewed day by day.
For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.
Yes, you and I may feel cast down and almost crushed by the weight of the world. We may feel the strongest despair. But we must know that, even on this day of threats and pandemics, some of our paths will be smooth and passable. We will feel hope when we least expect it. Hope will surprise us and flood us with grace, directly at the juncture of our despair. A beaten path might appear before us today—rightnow—and invite us to travel from fear to hope.
What’s on your mind today? I ask because for me there are days, like today, when my mind is free-flowing without one thought, idea or plan. That can be troubling for a person like me who almost constantly churns out thoughts and creative responses to those thoughts. My blog, for instance, is a preaching platform for this retired and frustrated preacher. And there is almost always a sermon in me just itching to see the light of day!
But not today! You’ll get no sermon today, just words without organization and thoughts floating in the wind. Perhaps my thoughts will be energized by Spirit Wind, or not! It seems to me to be a good time for floating thoughts and random words, because in this pandemic world, there are simply no words.
When I look at pandemic facts and trends in my state, Georgia, I am aghast at this reality released today by WMAZ News: “The number of Covid cases in Georgia children has jumped in a month from 40 to 488. That’s more than 1,100 percent.”* Dr. Edward Clark, an Atrium Health Navicent pediatrician, says parents should be very concerned. “We’ve seen a spike in kids ranging from infants anywhere up to age 18,” he said. On top of that, children ages 12 and older have been approved only for the Pfizer vaccine at this time.
The truth is that some parents are very alarmed — even terrified — about the rising number of delta variant cases in children and teenagers. As well they should be, as they watch with great alarm the highly-contagious Delta variant cases increasing so rapidly in children. Parents are frightened and many of them worry that in-person school is not the best decision in these conditions. Teachers, too, are dealing with difficult issues as in-person school begins.
The number of Covid cases in Georgia children has jumped in a month from 40 to 488. That’s more than 1100%!
In the midst of my free-flowing thoughts today, I am finding focus enough to ask why we did virtual learning last school year when children were less likely to be infected, yet in this school year when the Delta variant is rapidly infecting children, we are sending them to in-person school, some schools without mask mandate. Someone far less cautious than I am must have made that decision! I would have never sent children into harm’s way, into a place where they could spread the surging Delta variant to each other! Is it time for another season of sheltering-in-place?
Let us be careful about the ways we inadvertently expose children to danger. Let us be mindful of our responsibility to protect all children. Let us be diligent in letting our faith inform our compassion and care for children.
After all, Jesus was clear about drawing children close and sheltering them from harm. We should be just as committed to holding children close in a shelter of protection. May God make it so!
It’s true, isn’t it? Without the risk of going too far, stepping out of our comfort zone, we will probably never know just how far we can possibly go. But oh, the complete comfort of that comfort zone hems us in completely. We cannot move. We cannot take a step into new life. We cannot know what we might have accomplished. We cannot free ourselves from the bondage of fear.
I’ve been there and I have a notion you have, too. In fact, I can recall many times when I could not overcome my fear enough to take a risk. One time in particular has haunted me for almost 30 years. I wonder what my life would look like today if I had taken that particular risk — moving to a new state, to a new position, to a larger city, to a different house on a different street. That one single refusal to step out of my comfort zone has troubled me to this day.
Risk-taking is not easy. Change is difficult for some people, and some of us can convince ourselves to avoid change at any cost. Huge changes, even tiny changes, simply frighten those of us who have convinced ourselves that we are not risk-takers. Yet, I can think of so many persons who have decided that changing their lives — maybe even changing the world — is worth the risk. I will never forget one of my seminary professors whose words in a chapel sermon changed the course of my life.
Is what you’re doing worth giving your life for? Because every day you live, you are actually expending your life a little at a time doing whatever it is you’re doing.
– Dr. Paul Simmons
I left the chapel that day, walked across the campus to my office and resigned from my job, setting my sights on enrolling in classes to complete a Theology degree. A risk! A big risk that I was determined to take for two reasons: 1) I actually believed I could change the world; and 2) I was young, bold and unafraid. I’m not so young anymore, and the courage and boldness to change is small in me. It feels like being stuck, and I think it’s the first time in my life I have felt so thoroughly stuck. A brand new mantra for my life is this: “Stuck is more harmful to me than risk. I am not afraid to take a risk!”
Still, there is a part of me who longs to change the world, at least my corner of it. There is this alter ego inside me who actually believes she can change the world. That is the part of me that believes injustice can be conquered, wrongs can be righted, equality can be reality and liberation can emerge out of any form of bondage. Crazy? Probably, but I know of many kindred spirits who would be all-in on changing the world — Malala Yousafzai, Emma Gonzalez, Greta Thunberg, Crystal Echo Hawk, Amanda Gorman. Men are on the list of risk-takers, too. One in particular died in 2011 at age 56, but left behind a lasting legacy that was an example of what a human being is capable of doing.
The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
– Steve Jobs
I have given thought to those words, as well as something else Steve Jobs said when he was dying of pancreatic cancer: “Death is mankind’s best invention! I looked in the mirror every day wondering if what I am doing today is fun for me. If the answer was no for several consecutive days, then I have to change something!”
Yes, I am stuck right now, and for several days I have had to admit that what I am doing every day is not fun for me. Nor is it anything significant enough to change the world. So I do need to change something. I’m not sure what sort of change I need to make or how risky the change might be. STUCK! No matter what I decide to change — big risk or small risk — it won’t be easy. And I have to look into myself, into my soul, and ask myself if I am able to take a risk or even willing to take a risk. Truthfully, I know in the depths of my being that refusing to take a risk right now will leave me stuck, maybe even permanently stuck. I don’t like the sound of that. I don’t like the stark reality of that. Small risk or big risk — I know I need to change something in order to truly live!
Like the little goldfish in the small bowl, I’ll skip the bigger bowl and shoot for the ocean.
– Rev. Kathy Manis Findley
I used to be “one of the crazy ones,” always taking risks and most often taking big ones. The visual goldfish metaphor is one that described me well throughout my years. I was not one to leap from a small fishbowl to one that was a little larger. I was much more likely to take a brave, risky leap out of a fishbowl and into an ocean! Until now! Until aging and illness and displacement took its toll. I’m definitely not as young as I was in my former and more courageous days. I am not as physically well as I used to be, and I am not living in the town that was my home.
I am facing a three-headed enemy — age, health and displacement. In truth, this enemy does have enough power to keep me stuck, depressed and disheartened. At this moment, I don’t yet know what I plan to do about it, but I do know it will probably call for a leap, a risk, a change and maybe doing something a little crazy.
At this moment, I’m not up for crazy. I need a little contemplative time in my safe space to look deeper into my soul. I’m not at all sure what will come out of my time looking at soul things —maybe some extra peace or maybe renewed hope, new thinking, fresh courage, some sort of healing. Maybe even a little craziness that helps me consider some risky changes in my life. What I am sure of is that I do not enter my soul-searching space alone, for God has walked with me on every step of my journey. I cannot plan anything right now, but there is someone who watches over me who is making plans I cannot make.
‘For I know what I have planned for you,’ says the Lord. ‘I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope. When you call out to me and come to me in prayer, I will hear your prayers.’
Jeremiah 29:11-12 NET
I will take risks again someday. I will reclaim the “crazy” part of myself that was never afraid to risk going too far. I will embrace change, inevitable change, with more courage than I have at this moment. I will take another big risk one day soon that will remind me how far I can go and how high I can leap. Like the little goldfish in the small bowl, I’ll skip the bigger bowl and shoot for the ocean. Until I can do that, I’ll be in my sacred space with the One who has never left me and has never let me walk alone.
I wonder if you would be willing to stop what you’re doing right now and spend a quiet moment with me, just listening? Your time might well be a needed time for you and for your soul.
There is always so much to listen to — traffic, sirens, video game sounds, annoying household noise like the washing machine/dryer, food processor, mixer, fans, buzzers and alarms and the awful sound of the disposal trying to crush that inadvertent chicken bone. These, of course, are not our favorite sounds, but they are the myriad sounds and noises we hear in a typical day.
There are sweeter sounds, too, like the sound of a gentle, falling rain or the sound of rain when it hits hard on the roof; the sound of a gusty breeze as it rustles the leaves on a tree; the sound of a flowing stream, a rolling river and constant, ever-rushing ocean sounds; the flutter of a hummingbird’s wings; the sound of cicadas on a Southern summer night; the sound of a child’s laughter; the sweet, peaceful sound of a purring kitten; and birdsong, always birdsong.
Of course, listening as pure joy is listening to music — quiet music, lyrical melodies, rhythms that slow the pulse, the sound of a bow moving across a cello’s strings, the mesmerizing sound of a harp, the velvet sound of voices in harmony or the enthralling sound of a symphony orchestra.
Sounds fill the space that surrounds us, all the time. What is rarer for us is to hear the sound of silence. Some of us fear the silence or dread silent moments. Others of us avoid it at all costs because the silence tends to bring up whatever we are afraid to hear. So the noise that enfolds us fills the place that might otherwise hear the sighs of the soul — its cries and laments, its laughter, its sound of contentedness. It seems to me that this is the place we long to be, in the soul’s sound chamber where whatever we hear — if we’re listening carefully — is the song of the soul that tells us who we are and why we are.
There is a poem that many of you will remember (if you’re old enough) as a Simon and Garfunkel song from the 1960s. The poem was written by Paul Simon and it presents a frightening picture of the modern world doomed by the lack of spirituality and the people’s aversion to the true meaning of life. It is not so different in these days that spirituality and life meaning can be elusive, no matter how hard we may search for it and yearn for it.
The poem, entitledThe Sound of Silence, is written by the voice of a visionary asking people to be serious about the true meaning of life. The poem’s message is that people are moving further and further away from true happiness because they have ignored life’s true meaning. They debate and quarrel about worthless things. They listen to or watch meaningless things. The poet writes that the people “speak and hear without listening. Like we often do?
Throughout its five stanzas, the poem presents the conflict between spiritual and material values. The poetic persona is a person of vision who warns against the lack of spiritual seriousness. The poem begins with an address by the poet persona to the darkness, saying that he has come to talk with the darkness. When he awakens, he says that the vision still remains as the sound of silence.
Some of us fear the silence or dread silent moments. Others avoid it at all costs because the silence tends to bring up whatever they are afraid to hear. So the noise that enfolds us fills the place that might otherwise hear the sighs of the soul — its cries and laments, its laughter, its sounds of contentedness. It seems to me that this is the place we long to be, in the soul’s sound chamber where whatever we hear — if we’re listening carefully — is the song of the soul that tells us who we are and why we are.
The words of the poet . . .
And in the naked light, I saw Ten thousand people, maybe more People talking without speaking People hearing without listening People writing songs that voices never share And no one dared Disturb the sound of silence
And the people bowed and prayed To the neon god they made And the sign flashed out its warning In the words that it was forming And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls And tenement halls” And whispered in the sound of silence
All of that trivia about the poem certainly moved us a little farther away from my point, which is that most, if not all, of us have a deep emotional and spiritual need to listen to our souls, really listen. Even if we don’t know it, we long to hear what the depth of our being wants to say to us. We want to find our true selves, a quest only our souls can accomplish. If we are honest, we would say that we want to do the soulwork that leads us out of the darkness of our own making and into a place of light.
When we do carve out a sacred pause, when we wait in the darkness of that silent space, and when we open ourselves to deep listening, we will likely hear God’s whisper. We will probably move slowly out of darkness and realize the promise that as “God’s own people” we will “proclaim the mighty acts of God who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
This is the place we long to be, in the soul’s sound chamber where whatever we hear — if we’re listening carefully — is the song of the soul that tells us who we are and why we are.
— Rev. Kathy Manis Findley
Hearing God’s voice moves us to a deeper experience of life, but hearing our soul’s sighs may take us deeper still, because we open ourselves to self-knowing. It’s not a surface knowing. It is a deep knowing of who it is that lives in our skin. Without hearing the sighs our souls are making, we might never enter into fullness of self. I suggest that only the fullness of who we are can stand before the God who knows us even better than we know ourselves.
In my own experience, I think that perhaps I cannot be in deep communion with God if I try to face God as my superficial self. Perhaps God seeks relationship with my soul, my deepest place of being. To find and define my soul for myself, to know myself fully, I must find the sound of silence and sit with it patiently and expectantly. Maybe that is the essence of spirituality.
So there are a few lessons in these words and these are the obvious lessons:
Limit the harsh sounds in your life.
Surround yourself with tender, gentle sounds.
Make sacred space and holy time to listen deeply for the sounds that speak to your soul.
Listen for God’s whispers. They are important to hear.
Always consider what is, for you, the true meaning of life.
Listen to your soul — its sighs, its cries, its songs.
Andwho knows? If you linger for a while in your sacred listening space, you might just find the very essence of grace by hearing what your soul whispers to you. It will be the most beautiful sound of all.
— Rev.Kathy Manis Findley
One day I listened — really listened. And I heard the whisper of God and the song of my soul. Thanks be to God.
I invite you to hear the poem, “The Sound of Silence,” through music. It can rightly be said that no group or person could ever sing this as well as Simon and Garfunkel, but I thought you might enjoy it covered by a very popular contemporary a cappella group, Pentatonix.
Throughout my life there were times, many of them, when the only thing I could do was pray. In spite of knowing that praying was the very best thing that I could do, my soul held a kind of dark, helpless, hopeless sadness. My brother’s serious illness has taken me into that “dark night.” Thinking of him in the hospital’s ICU fighting the ravages of the coronavirus brought me to darkness, especially at night while trying to fall asleep. Lying in bed, I experienced panic attacks. Being unable to visit him brought even more darkness to my spirit. The fear of losing him triggered every past trauma I have suffered throughout my life.
The dark night! The unknown! Yes, I fear it. I dread it. And it is here with me now.
The writing of Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross (1542–1591) gave me a kind of marker that helped me measure my current experience of “the dark night.” He described his darkness as a place of“unknowing.”
Yet when I saw myself there
Without knowing where I was
I understood great things;
I shall not say what I felt
For I remained in unknowing
Transcending all knowledge.
— St John of the Cross
I suspect that every person has sometimes been in places I can only describe as the “dark night of the soul.”It is a place most people experience as abandonment by God. It is a place where I have found myself many times. And yes, I fear it. I dread it. Perhaps you fear it, too.
Many people believe that the dark night of the soul comes to them because of something they have done, some sin they have committed that results in God’s absence. Yet, we find the experience of darkness in the life stories of those we think of as having been faithful followers of God. People such as Mother Teresa, C. S. Lewis, Henri Nouwen and Martin Luther. Each of these suffered particularly intense episodes of the “dark night of the soul.”
In his secret journal, Henri Nouwen wrote about a dark season in 1988 in which he could not feel God’s love.He had brought millions of others into a more tender and intimate experience with God, but he writes that he was in a “dark night of the soul.”
C.S. Lewis’s dark night came after the death of his wife Joy, the love of his life who died four years after their marriage. Lewis explained that he experienced the emotional pain of Absence — not just the absence of his wife, but the immense Absence of God, his “dark night of the soul.”
Mother Teresa’s darkness came at the very founding of her Missionaries of Charity and lasted to the end of her life, with little respite. Martin Luther’s dark night plagued him as a young monk, and then in several other forms as a Reformer.
The dark night! The unknown! Yes, I fear it. I dread it.
It is for me a time when prayer is my only response. At least, what I understand of prayer. At times I have found myself turning to music to quiet my soul in my darkest night. One song that I turn to almost every time in the darkness is “The Prayer” written by Carole Bayer Sager, David Foster, Tony Renis and Alberto Testa. “The Prayer” is a song of safety and inspiration.
Carole Bayer Sager speaks about how the song’s theme of safety is so important to her:
I think it embodies everything I looked for my whole life. “Lead us to the place, guide us with your grace, to a place where we’ll be safe.” I didn’t find that safety until my mid-40s.
I wonder if the words and thoughts in “The Prayer” might comfort you on this day, reading its words and listening to the video I’ve embedded below.
Ipray you’ll be our eyes
And watch us where we go
And help us to be wise
In times when we don’t know
Let this be our prayer
When we lose our way
Lead us to a place
Guide us with your grace
To a place where we’ll be safe.
I pray we’ll find your light
And hold it in our hearts
When stars go out each night
Remind us where you are.
Let this be our prayer
When shadows fill our day
Lead us to a place
Guide us with your grace
To a place where we’ll be safe.
A world where pain and
sorrow will be ended
And every heart that’s
broken will be mended
And we’ll remember we
are all God’s children Reaching out to touch you
Reaching to the sky.
We ask that life be kind
And watch us from above
We hope each soul will find
Another soul to love.
Let this be our prayer
Just like every child
Needs to find a place
Guide us with your grace.
Give us faith so we’ll be safe.
The dark night!The unknown!Yes, we fear it. We dread it. Praying ourselves through it may seem impossible.
Yet, might we look at darkness and the unknown in another way by reflecting on the creation story in Genesis? When I consider God’s creation of day, and night, it seems that God’s astounding creation of day and night reside in a continuum where neither are bad. They just are! When I consider our gift of “In the beginning,”I cannot help but look on in awe and wonder as God and Spirit create light out of darkness.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.”
God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day. — Genesis 1:1-3, 16-19
God saw that it was good. In that, I have confidence. I see the brightness of the day, andthe night, nightthat God has filled with a glowing moon and glistening stars — light in darkness. Perhaps this thought, this truth of Scripture, will help us to not fear the darkness of night, for without it, we would can never enjoy its light. And as for the dark night of the soul, the unknown that we so fear, perhaps we can embrace it as a place to linger and to wait for the Spirit to guide us into the realization of God’s presence, even as we are experiencing God’s absence.
One of my favorite writers, Mirabai Starr, knows about the way of unknowing personally and intimately. She describes what happens between the soul and God in the “dark night:”
The soul in the dark night cannot, by definition, understand what is happening to her. . . . she does not realize that the darkness is a blessing. She feels miserable and unworthy, convinced that God has abandoned her, afraid she may herself be turning against him. In her despair, the soul does not recognize that God is teaching her in a secret way now.
At the same time that the soul in the night becomes paralyzed . . .a sense of abundance starts to grow inside the emptied soul. . . . God will whisper to the soul in the depth of darkness and guide it through the wilderness of the Unknown.
Barbara Brown Taylor intentionally moved herself into an experience of forced darkness, a place where her intention was to stay there for a long period of time. In that darkness, she said this: “St. John of the Cross says that the dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation.”
The dark night!The unknown!Yes, I still fear it. I will probably always dread it. But after being in dark spaces so many times, I think I can stay there now, knowing in my heart of hearts that my soul’s dark night really is God’s best gift to me, intended for my liberation.
The dark night!The unknown!Yes, I still fear it.
I may fear the darkness, but I love the stars.
Though my soul may set in darkness,
it will rise in perfect light; I have loved the stars too fondly
to be fearful of the night.
― Sarah Williams, Twilight Hours: A Legacy Of Verse
In my soul’s darkest nights, I learned that the light of the stars is always there, even in the times when I cannot see them. I also learned something profound about prayer — something so profound, so holy and intimate — that I am at a loss to describe it. I learned that a part of prayer in the dark is the miracle that Spirit holds me close and God whispers to my soul.
I know that the stars still comfort me in the dark, that in the darkest of my soul’s nights, I can still pray. For that, I give thanks to God.
I once preached a sermon entitled, “What Do You Say to a Broken World?” In this week, after our nation’s Capitol was breached and defiled, I have wondered if ministers who will stand before congregations in two days are asking themselves a similar question: “What will I say on this day to a broken world?”
A friend of mine is preaching this week. I am praying that she will have an extra measure of wisdom, because standing before a congregation while the nation is in chaos is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. My first feeling as I thought about preaching for this Sunday was relief that I was no longer a pastor with such a heavy responsibility, that I did not have to summon the wisdom to speak to a people with heavy hearts who need to hear of healing grace and hope. But my most intense feeling was envy, not hostile envy, but heart envy about my deep desire to speak Gospel Good News to people who need to hear good news. Still I envied my friend and wished that, this Sunday, I could stand before a congregation with wisdom, open my spirit and invite God to speak through me. It is a heavy responsibility and a sacred calling.
Dr. Greg Carey, Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, wrote an essay this week entitled “Preaching When It’s Broken.” In the essay he says this:
God bless you, preachers who will address congregations this Sunday . . . Here in the United States, things are broken, most people know they’re broken, and we all need healing and truth.
For many of us, the invasion of the Capitol and the response to it by people we know, love and admire, brings this brokenness to the foreground. Since that terrible, violent day, I have heard dozens of interviews that expressed anger, frustration, contempt, indignation and all manner of raw emotion. I have also heard wise leaders express their resoluteness to lead this nation into healing, unity and hope.
Indeed, the questions about this Sunday’s preaching call us to attention: How do our pastors, our priests, our rabbis, our imams, our bhikkhus and bhikkhunis stand before their congregations offering comfort when our nation is so broken, so angry, so mournful in the face of violent acts? What will they proclaim? What will they preach? What will they pray? What will they sing?
Minneapolis Pastor and Poet, Rev. Meta Herrick Carlson, has given us a grace-gift with this poem entitled, “A Blessing for Grieving Terrorism.”
A Blessing for Grieving Terrorism
There is sickness
with symptoms as old as humankind,
a rush of power born by inciting fear in others,
a wave of victoryin causing enemies pain.
There is a push to solve the mystery,
to isolate the suspect and
explain the evil simply
to a safe distance from the anomaly.
There is a temptation
to skip the part that feels
near the suffering
that shares the sadness,
that names our shared humanity.
There is a courage
in rejecting the numbing need for data
in favor of finding the helpers,
loving the neighbor,
resisting terror through random acts of connection.
There is a sickness
with symptoms as old as humankind,
but so is the remedy.
From Rev. Meta Herrick Carlson’s book “Ordinary Blessings: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations for Everyday Life.” Used with permission.
So much truth in her words, so much wisdom “for the living of these days.” In her words, I feel all over again the desire of my heart, the impossible dream of standing in a pulpit this Sunday, speaking to a congregation that needs strength in the midst of adversity. I will not stand behind a pulpit this week, but I will pray for those who will stand in that sacred space. I will pray for them, the proclaimers, and I will pray for their hearers across this nation. I will lean on this beautiful prayer written by Reverend Valerie Bridgeman:
May God Strengthen You for Adversity
A blessing for today:
May God strengthen you for adversity
and companion you in joy.
May God give you the courage of your conviction
and the wisdom to know when to speak and act.
May you know peace.
May you be gifted with deep,true friendship and love.
May every God-breathed thing
you put your hand to prosper and succeed.
May you have laughter to fortify you
against the disappointments.
May you be brave.
When all is said and done, more important than what the “proclaimer in the pulpit” says is what the hearers hear. For in this time — when violence, riots, terrorism, pandemic and all manner of chaos is so much a part of life — those who listen need to hear a clear message of a God who dwells among us, a Christ who leads us, a Spirit who comforts us under the shadow of her wings. For hearts in these days are heavy, souls are wounded, spirits seek hope. And all the people want to believe that they do not walk alone through their present angst.
I pray that you know that you are not alone, that God’s grace-filled presence is with you and that “in God you live and move and have your being. As some of your poets have said, ‘We are God’s children.’” (Acts 17:28)
I pray that your heart will heal and be filled anew with hope. I pray that the wounds of your soul and spirit will heal and be filled anew with the peace of God. I pray that, when you listen in faith, you will hear the voice of God whispering in your ear, “You do not walk alone.”
I invite you to spend a few moments of meditation hearing the message of this music:
May you see God’s light on the path ahead
when the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear
even in your hour of sorrow
the gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard
May you always remember when the shadows fall–
You do not walk alone.
On this Epiphany Sunday, I want to give you a gift — a star.Not just any ordinary star. My gift to you is a Star Word that I randomly select, eyes closed, from a large bowl. You might be wondering what a Star Word is and what it is for. What is its meaning, if it has any meaning at all?
The use of Star Words, also called “star gifts,” is a prayer practice connected to Epiphany and the new year. The idea is that a list of intention words, or guiding words, are written or printed on paper stars. These paper stars are then arranged face down on a table or in a bowl or large basket. You are invited to draw a word and to use that word as a guiding word for you throughout the year.
I wish I could choose a Star Word for every one of you reading this blog post. Since I can’t do that, I will choose one word from a beautiful set of 150 cards entitled, “Those Who Dream.” My prayer is that this Star Word will become for you whatever it needs to be — a word to contemplate, a word to emulate, a word that becomes an intention for you, a word that guides you in new ways to new places on your spiritual journeymand into the year 2021. More about your Star Word later. First let us think a bit about Epiphany.
Epiphany, you know, is all about the special, more brilliant star that caught the eye and the imagination of three Magi (or Wise Men or scholars or astrologers) or more widely known throughout the world as The Three Kings. Nations and cultures near and far celebrate them in various ways and are amazed by their story. As the story goes, a brightly shining star in the East appeared suddenly in the dark sky and these three saw it and followed it. Each of them bearing gifts for the “King” they had looked for and hoped for.
As scholarly as these three might have been, they had no idea when this new King would appear, where they would find him or how far they might have to travel. So their journey would have to be a faith journey. And once they saw this sight in the inky black sky, this one star that had serendipitously appeared to them, they knew this would be a journey of trust. Their maps could no longer lead them because something significant about the universe had changed. I imagine that this single star had never before been a part of the constellations they studied.
This star was just unexpectedly up there, in the vast expanse of night sky, sparkling all by itself — among the constellations, but in no way a part of them. “The universe has changed,” the three Magi might have thought. And then their thoughts likely went something like this:
We cannot travel with our old maps, our long held assumptions about the ways the stars align in the sky,
our logic and reasoning about where the new King might be found,
our deductions about when he might appear to us,
our intricate, detailed drawings of constellation patterns and webs,
our studies of the prophecies that foretold the King’s coming.
No, these things we have pondered and studied over the decades can no longer lead us to the King foretold! We must follow that one surprising, unforeseen, unpredicted, astonishing, dazzling, breathtaking, bewildering star!
“Star of wonder,” we sing each year. And so it was — a star of wonder, yet a bewildering star, that called to them and beckoned them to follow. They left their old maps behind, I think, and took with them trust. Just trust. And, of course, their gifts, presumably gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gifts fit for a real live King foretold, if not for an infant born in a stable.
Trust may well be the one single, simple gift we can take to the Christ child in these days. For when our normals are no longer in place, trust is the only real and needful thing we have left. We trust even beyond pandemics and wildfires and earthquakes and storms, even beyond upheaval and confusion and uncertainty and isolation and loss and grief and death. We trust still, maybe because when we look up into the dark expanse we call sky, we still see the dazzling glow of starlight! The stars are still up there aligned in their patterns even if patterns on earth are in disarray.
I think I probably use these lines from a poem** written by Sarah Williams every single Epiphany because I so love its message. At the end of 2020 — knowing that we will still face many of the same challenges in 2021 — I am now, more than ever, comforted by these words that have passed through so many minds and lips before mine.
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light; I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
The words call us to trust, even through fear, even when our soul is in the dark. Trust is a compelling and timely message for me for the new year. Perhaps the message of trust will also guide you forward on your journey — through pleasant places along the way, but also through fearful, dark passages. May trust be your guide and lead you well, and may you know that behind trust is a God that never leaves our side.
I am at this moment looking at the bowl of Star Words. I wanted you to see the bowl and the cards inside it. I will turn them over before selecting one.
The card below is the Star Word I have drawn out of the bowl for you, in hopes that it might offer you some extra insight for your journey.
Place your Star Word somewhere where you will see it regularly, and consistently reflect on how God moves in you, through you and around you as you contemplate your Star Word. And may the blessings of God be upon you in the coming year.
** This poem by Sarah Williams was published in Twilight Hours in 1868, the same year the poet died. These lines from the poem became the tombstone epitaph of two amateur astronomers, John and Phoebe Brashear, and is located under the Keeler Memorial Reflecting Telescope at the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in a tiny basement room decorated in luminous mosaic tiles. The crypt contains the mortal remains of Brashear and his wife, Phoebe. The epitaph on their tomb, an excerpt from Sarah Williams’s poem “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil,” still speaks to all those who have looked upward in awe.
The last line of the poem also offers comfort: “God will mercifully guide me on my way amongst the stars.”
I have a certain fondness for sparrows and the spiritual stories we have ascribed to them. That my blog is named “God of the Sparrow” is no accident. I have aspired many times in my life to live like the sparrow lives. I wanted my human, adult, mature and seasoned self to know, beyond any doubt, that God is watching over me. I do not live the simple, sparrow-like life I always hoped to live. But my unshakable faith has always told me that the God who watches over my every moment is also the God of the sparrow. I remember well the words written in the Gospel of Matthew . . .
So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. — Matthew 10:41 NRSV
Such a comforting passage of Scripture! Yet, its message to us often pales in comparison to all the things that so frighten us. The state of the world that surrounds us in these days seems to have even more power over us than Matthew’s words about our value to God.
How is it that we are valuable to God when God does not act to protect us from all of life’s slings and arrows? Yesterday in my blog post I listed our world’s bad and scary things, so I won’t list them again today. But I will venture a prognosis that many, many people are suffering in many ways in this confusing season. I am one of those suffering people, feeling a bit of hopelessness in these days of racial unrest, coronavirus unsettledness and political divisions.
I heard a moving choral performance this morning. Its text lifted up my helplessness before me and turned it into a prayer so attuned to where I find myself.
God of the sparrow, sing through us Songs of deliverance, songs of peace. Helpless we seek You, God our joy, Quiet our troubles, bid them cease. — Jonathan Cook
I need the sparrow’s God to sing through me. Perhaps you do, too. I need that God-given song because my own music seems to have become quiet, my singing turned to mourning. (Amos 8:10) But this week, I took hold of that mourning. With strong intention, I spent most of one day this week singing my heart out.
You need to know that I had to choose a day when my husband would be away so that I could sing loud, with abandon. Why did he have to be away? That’s a long story, but in a nutshell, my singing is awful these days. Probably my vocal cords have lost some of their youthful elasticity and, on top of that, I did not sing at all for more than a year. Serious illness took my music.
When I (literally) came back from the dead in 2015, I realized that I had lost so many of my former abilities. Singing was one of them. It felt strange to me when I realized I could no longer sing. My former life was filled with song. Since childhood, there was never a choir I did not join, never a solo I did not sing.
Acknowledging my inability to sing was difficult, just as my life after kidney transplant and this coronavirus is difficult. My isolation has been lengthy, most of nine months, and it is taking its toll on my spirit. Prayer has become both a burden and a grace to me. My singing was my prayer for so many years, and I really need my singing in these hard days. I need to sing my praises to God. I need to sing my lamentations. I need to sing like the sparrow who doesn’t worry about her vocal chords. I need to be like the sparrow who sits on her branch — without fear, without worry — because she knows that if she happens to light on a flimsy branch that does not hold her, her wings will lift her.
The end of this story is that I need the God of the sparrow to sing through me once again — to sing through me in shadowy days, in times of trouble, in isolation, in fear, in hopelessness. That’s what God does, after all. In a troubled and despairing soul, God creates music, tucking it into every crevice, filling it with songs that can sing out both mourning and celebration. As an added bonus, I have it on good authority that God also turns mourning into dancing.
You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever. Psalm 30 11-12 NRSV
So as you sing, dance to the new rhythms of your soul! Because you can!
Thanks be to God.
Please spend your meditation time today listening to this beautiful song with text written by Jonathan Cook and music by Craig Courtney. The video follows the text.
God of the Sparrow
God of the sparrow, sing through us, Songs of deliverance, songs of peace. Helpless we seek You, God our joy, Quiet our troubles, bid them cease. Alleluia.
God of the sparrow, God of hope, Tenderly guide us, be our song, God of affliction, pain and hurt, Comfort Your children, make us strong. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
God of the sparrow, care for us. Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief. Sing us Your music, lift our hearts, Pour out Your mercy, send relief.
God, like the sparrow, we abide In Your protection, love and grace. Just as the sparrow in Your care,