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.

Weep with Those Who Weep

AD620082-4B5E-47C6-B2B0-0D553454614BWhat a caring and compassionate ministry it is to sit beside someone who is grieving and remind them of God’s grace. In recent days, I have wept for and with so many friends who are grieving for what they have lost because of the Florida hurricane. To be sure, there were losses in Georgia and in the Carolinas, but the devastation in and around Panama City was catastrophic.

Hordes of compassionate people traveled to Florida to help. They will clean up debris, repair or rebuild homes that sustained damage, do electrical work, provide help in the shelters, share their hearts and God’s heart, and stand beside families as they pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. Mostly, they will weep with people, and that’s what will help more than anything else.

Author Ann Weems paints a sparkling vision with her words that speak of the “godforsaken obscene quicksand of life.” But then she tells of a deafening alleluia arising from the souls of those who weep and from the souls of those who weep with them. From that weeping, Ann Weems tells us what will happen next. “If you watch,” she writes, you will see the hand of God putting the stars back in their skies one by one.”

I like to think that the caregivers who traveled to Florida did a lot of weeping with those who needed it and that they stayed near them long enough for them to “see the hand of God putting the stars back in their skies one by one.” When all is lost — when you learn that your loved one has died or you stand in a pile of rubble on the ground that used to be your home — seeing the hand of God putting the stars back in their skies would be for you a manifestation of pure and holy hope.

Without a doubt, Florida is experiencing “the godforsaken obscene quicksand of life.” Their memories of this devastating time will be cruel and long-lasting. They will remember better days, neighborhoods that once thrived, schools that were destroyed and friends who are trying their best to recover. But what grieving people will remember most is the care someone gave them and the loving compassion of strangers who became forever friends. I am reminded of the words of poet Khalil Gibran:

You may forget with whom you laughed, but you will never forget with whom you wept.

― Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.    Romans 12:15

Friends

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Watercolor art by Kathy Manis Findley

There is nothing as enriching to life as genuine friendship. Not the superficial kind of friendship that boasts hundreds of “friends” on social media. Not the fickle kind of friendship described as a “fair weather” friendship. Not the exploitive kind of friendship that befriends someone only if there is something to gain by it. 

I’m actually talking about a specific friendship with a friend that is dearly special to me. But I am also talking about friendship in general. The kind of friendship I’m talking about is tried and true friendship that stands up to the test of time. It’s friendship that remains even though miles separate friend from friend. It’s friendship that cares through the years and deepens as time passes. It’s friendship that gives of your best to another person without thought of getting something in return. It’s friendship that is sweeter because you have allowed another person to know the real “you.”

Through the years, I recall many friendships that occurred in threes — three friends that were virtually inseparable so that when you saw one, the other two were close by. Of course, the friendship of three fluctuated with opportunity, going to different schools, living in different neighborhoods, and even those little spats that occurred every once in a while. Within those three, there were always the constant two — the twins, so to speak. For a time, I had this kind of friend.

So what did we do to build such friendships? That’s easy. We talked about boys and first loves, rivals for the boys we liked, as in girls that we didn’t like. We talked about going on dates, who was the cutest boy, and which boy liked which girl. We discussed the ways we might let a certain boy know that one of us liked him. We planned attendance at the next dance and how we could finagle to sit by a particular boy in church. We talked about going to Panama City to find a new crop of boys at the famous Hangout. We talked about clothes and shoes, especially shorts, and how we would sneak the shortest shorts by our ever-watchful parents. And of course, we planned times of spending the night together — eating, laughing, sitting in the dark around the lighted Christmas tree, listening to Otis Redding’s  “Try a Little Tenderness” and talking about boys all night long.

Sounds rather superficial, right? Maybe. But the truth is, in those relationships we learned how to share ourselves. Those giggly teenagers, who shared every intimate secret with one another while acting completely and unabashedly silly, grew up to be good and wise and strong women who still needed friends with whom to share their most intimate secrets. And guess what? We do. We still do. Across the miles, we interact with one another as if we have always been together. We share a love that is sweet and comforting.

Deep in myinnermost spirit, I know I can still count on the friend I made as a teenager. Apparently, ours was a bond that could not break. So thanks, Suzanne. I love you, then and now.

Resurrection People

C1D1BB39-1AD2-4D57-8ED7-8464718B35D8On Resurrection Sunday, I cry joy-tears — every time, without fail. For me, holding on to my emotions on Resurrection Sunday is impossible. After going through Lent, after hearing again of the betrayal Jesus experienced, after witnessing the suffering and execution of Christ, after acknowledging anew that Christ’s sacrifice was for the whole world and for me, I celebrate Christ’s resurrection. And when I do, I just cry.

But on Resurrection Sunday 2018, I wept with a heavy heart and a flood of memories. I thought of Easters past and the people of God with whom I celebrated. All of those precious friends now live miles away, others live in heaven. I was their pastor, and that is as holy a relationship as I can describe.

I walked with them through joy and tragedy, through days of health and days of illness, through crushing family problems, through death and divorce. But through every devastation, we celebrated Resurrection Sundays in our beautiful monastery chapel, in our little country church in small town Arkansas, at an altar on a lakeside, in the baptismal waters. We celebrated our covenant, our deep friendship, and gave thanks for the grace that gifted us with those relationships.

We were a fun and creative group. With some of them, I cut and stitched and glued and appliqued huge banners proclaiming, “Christ Is Risen!” With others, I burned palm branches for Ash Wednesday. With others, I lifted up the wooden cross onto thevaltar of the church sanctuary. And with others, I wandered through the woods searching for dogwood blossoms to adorn the wooden cross. I most fondly remember a circuitous and hilarious trek through the forest with Ethel.

Ethel was a true jewel, one of a kind. Never would you find a more loyal and loving parishioner than Ethel, who will always be known as the persevering founder of our church. She refused to let it fail. She was persistent and feisty and determined. And because of her, the church still stands firm, even now that she is gone.

But getting back to our trek in the forest, I have to say that Ethel was one of those unstoppable “elderly” people. She could barely walk at times because she suffered with a muscle disease that weakened her legs. But she pushed her way through the forest that day, leading me, pushing aside the limbs, vines and thorns, and dauntlessly creating our path over rocks and depressions in the ground. We were looking for a thorn tree . . . you guessed it . . . to use in making a crown of thorns.

Eventually we found a perfect thorn vine with angry-looking three-inch thorns on it. We carefully hauled it through the woods, trying to avoid getting stabbed by one of those sharp thorns. Then we put it in a bathtub full of water to soften it. When we began to bend it into a crown shape, we both sustained painful thorn wounds. Never to be deterred, Ethel managed to shape and finally fasten the two ends together, and the prickly vine became the crown of thorns that we used for many years.

When we placed it for the first time on the Good Friday cross during the church service, I wept. Many of us wept. We were like that because we remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah.

He is despised and rejected by men,
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.

But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth . . .

— Isaiah 53:3-7, KJV

We knew that after the suffering, the resurrection would most surely come. Through the passion and emotion of Good Friday, we wept. But we wept even more when the stark cross flowered on Easter morning, when we lit the Christ candle, when the black shroud was removed, and when we draped the cross in glistening white cloth.

So on Resurrection Sunday 2018, while singing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,”I wept with tears of gratitude, gratitude for the people of God through the years who made my Easters such sacred experiences of worship.

Ethel, Barbara, Johnnie, April, Bo, Michael, Stan, Dianna, Eric and Emily, Ann, Sister Bernadette, Gail, Noah, Wendell, Pat, Joyce, Suzette, Deborah, Cindy, Barbara Fay, Regina, Tonya, Vallory, Leroy, Mary, LaVante, Shirley, Ken, Steve, Jenna . . .

So many names! So many others. My memories of them brought me to tears on Easter Sunday. I saw them in my mind and remembered our shared times of worship. They are Resurrection people all, people who know how to proclaim Christ’s resurrection with passion, devotion and celebration. For all of them, today I give thanks.

“Are you upset, little friend?”

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Charles M. Schulz

These days, I find myself in the very center of worry and discontent. I feel vulnerable, out of place in a new place I never expected to make my home. The problem is, I think, that I have not really made this place my home, and that reality has left me unsettled. I left forever friends behind when we moved here. I think the reason for my worry, my occasional despondency, even my fear, is that I feel alone. I recalled this week the well-known lyrics of a Carole King song from the seventies.

When you’re down and troubled
And you need a helping hand
And nothing, nothing is going right
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night.

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running to see you again;
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah.
You’ve got a friend.

If the sky above you
Should turn dark and full of clouds
And that old north wind should begin to blow;
Keep your head together
And call my name out loud, yeah
Soon I’ll be knocking upon your door . . .

It is a frightening state of being facing worry or illness or aging or loneliness, finding yourself disconsolate at times, and alone, without a loyal friend. But we have a mystical, magical force that leads us through the dark nights of the soul every time, without fail. I’ll name it faith.

A dear friend who just faced some devastating news reminded me of a deep-down, rock-solid truth about faith when she wrote, “My faith is bigger than my fear.” And that’s how we live a life filled with times of worry, aloneness, days of grief, fear, and sometimes mourning that engulfs us hard and long.

No person escapes such times, for they are an inevitable part of life. So we meet hard times face-to-face, up close, and we survive. We are, as the Bible says, “troubled on every hand, yet not distressed; perplexed, but not in despair . . . cast down, but not destroyed,” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)

To be sure, we are left with scars of the soul and spirit. Yet we live on, knowing that after times of despondency, we are stronger than we were before. There is no deeper consolation than the words of Scripture proclaimed by the Prophet Isaiah.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.

— Isaiah 43:2

I hang on Isaiah’s words, and I have rested on them so many times when sadness overwhelmed me and fear had its way. These Isaiah words are enough, more than enough for my disconsolate times.

But then I happened upon just the right message of consolation for me in this particular time of my life. And I found it in a most unlikely place. It’s a delightful little message of real and true comfort that speaks so sweetly to me, and perhaps to all of us who need a friend and an extra boost of encouragement in a time of worry.

Are you upset little friend? Have you been lying awake worrying? Well, don’t worry . . . I’m here. The flood waters will recede, the famine will end, the sun will shine tomorrow, and I will always be here to take care of you.

― Charles M. Schulz

Amen.

Lighthearted Living

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Photo by Tim Ernst. Harvest moonrise, Hawksbill Crag, Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area, Ozark National Forest, Arkansas.

I often think of my Aunt Eirene and wish she was still with us. She was the queen of lighthearted living, in good times and in not-so-good times. She had a beautiful, playful spirit. She was always bejeweled when she dressed for any occasion. She was creative, with many talents from drawing house plans to interior decorating to iconography.

She invited me into her iconography world by urging me to go with her to a week-long iconography workshop on Weeks Bay, a beautiful, serene spot near Fairhope, . Weeks Bay is described with the phrase “where rivers meet the sea.” With its stunning marshes and shorelines, it made a perfect backdrop for a week of rest, creativity and spiritual experiences.

As the sun set each day, we lingered near the river and wondered about the delightful reality that this river’s current actually meets the sea’s tide. Then, after a pleasant community dinner, we enjoyed creating sacred icons in an atmosphere of soft music and quiet conversation that always included talk about how our icons were taking shape, the blending of colors, and the strokes of the brush that had to be precise.

IMG_6030“It’s not looking right” was a frequent comment. And always someone would reply that we were doing very well and that we should prayerfully continue. My aunt would constantly call attention to my icon, making sure that everyone within earshot knew that her niece’s iconography was the most beautiful she had ever seen. The workshop was a creative and spiritual week that enriched my life for years to come. For that, I am grateful to my Aunt Eirene, one of my two fun-loving aunts.

But there is another thing that I remember fondly about Eirene. Music! Thanks to Eirene, I may have been the only toddler in the world that could sing every word of dozens of songs from the early 1900s . . .

Shine on, shine on harvest moon up in the sky;
I ain’t had no lovin’ since January, February, June or July . . .

I’ll spare you the remaining lyrics. But to this day, I sing along to the Pandora tunes of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and even the songs of the Ziegfield Follies — every word!

I thought of Eirene just the other night when the gorgeous harvest moon appeared in the night sky. I thought of her gifts to me — music, painting, dancing, and most importantly, lighthearted living. By nature, I’m not particularly lighthearted, so it’s important for me to have lighthearted people in my life for balance.

If you look around, you might find fun-loving people who could add a little laughter and levity to your life. I don’t know about you, but I can use more of that lighthearted living.

Thanks, Eirene. Rest in fun.

“You Shall Also Love the Stranger”

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In December of 2000, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution to inaugurate World Refugee Day, to be observed annually on the twentieth of June. Protestant bodies as diverse as the World Evangelical Alliance and the World Council of Churches (which include Orthodox bodies as well) urge member congregations to commemorate World Refugee Sunday each year on the Sunday before or after June 20th. The Roman Catholic Church observes the World Day of Migrants and Refugees in January.

According to 60 Minutes, hundreds of houses of worship in the United States have volunteered to shelter illegal immigrants and their families who face deportation. In fact, since Donald Trump was elected in November, the number of churches in the United States expressing willingness to offer sanctuary has doubled to more than 800, according to the Rev. Noel Anderson, national grassroots coordinator at Church World Service. Illegal immigrants can be arrested in places of worship, but ICE has a long-time policy of avoiding religious spaces, schools and hospitals.

Katy Long of The Guardian news organization tells the story of a Christian couple who own and operate Refugee Coffee, a company that hires newly arrived refugees. Long also writes about Clarkston, a small town in Georgia, that has received over 40,000 refugees over the past 25 years. They come to Clarkston from every corner of the globe. This year there are more Congolese than Syrians. Past waves of refugee resettlement have brought Bhutanese, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Somalis, Sudanese, Liberians, Vietnamese. All have landed in an otherwise unremarkable city in the Deep South, population 13,500.

TIME magazine called Clarkston the most diverse square mile in America with almost 32% of the city being foreign born. Their story is recounted in the best selling book, Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference.

Good for a Clarkston, Georgia, a shining example to us in our increasingly xenophobic nation! As people of God, we have our mandate: to love and respect those who come to seek refuge among us.

I share with you a litany for worship written by Ken Sehested, “You Shall Also Love the Stranger.”

Gracious One, who jealously guards the lives of those at every edge, we lift our heavy hearts to your Mercy.

We live in a fretful land, anxious over the ebbing away of privilege, fearful that strangers are stealing our birthright.

Aliens breaching our borders.

Refugees threatening our security . . .

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“Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.”
(Deuteronomy 27:19)
All the people shall say, “Amen!”

“You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy10:19).
All the people shall say, “Amen!”

“There shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you” (Exodus 12:49).
All the people shall say, “Amen!”

“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien” (Leviticus 19:33).
All the people shall say, “Amen!”

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against . . . those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts”  (Malachi 3:5).
All the people shall say, “Amen!”

[Speaking to those destined for paradise, Jesus explained:] “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35)
All the people shall say, “Amen!”

For we, who were formerly illegal aliens and undocumented workers in Creation’s midst, “are no longer strangers and aliens, but you with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (Ephesians 2:19)

Amen, Amen and Amen!

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

She Gave Me Wings!

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She made broken look beautiful and strong look invincible. She walked with the universe on her shoulders and made it look like a pair of wings.

This quote makes me remember Ethel, one of my most cherished friends. Ethel was my hero. She inspired me to dream and always held hope high so that I could see it. She walked beside me during difficult days and challenged me to stay the course. “Tie a knot in the rope and hang on,” she would often say. And when I would fall into the dust, despondent and exhausted, Ethel gave me wings.

Most people knew Ethel as someone’s wife, someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother, because she always loved them more than she loved herself. She always used her energy to raise them up, to push them forward, to champion their hopes.

To me, Ethel was my dearest and most loyal friend, almost like a mother. I could not be despondent for very long around Ethel. She wouldn’t allow it. I could not be broken and stay that way. Ethel would gently pick up the pieces and help me find beauty in my brokenness.

Ethel was the matriarch of Providence Baptist Church of Little Rock, a new church start, and the first Baptist church in Arkansas to call a woman as pastor. I was that pastor. I moved into that ministry position after a grueling ordination process that lasted for almost a year and ended in my home church refusing to ordain a woman. Their refusal to work with me toward ordination was a devastating blow.

But Ethel was certain that ordination would come in time, at the right time. She quoted this verse from Habakkuk, one of her favorites, every time my resolve faltered and I was ready to give up.

For the vision is yet for the appointed time;
It hastens toward the goal and it will not fail.
Though it tarries, wait for it;
For it will certainly come, it will not delay.

– Habakkuk 2:3

Although Habakkuk was surely not writing about the denied ordination of a Baptist woman, his words rang true to Ethel and were encouraging to me. Together, Ethel and I “hastened toward the goal” that did not fail. We waited for it and it did come, seemingly out of nowhere.

On a Sunday evening, I received a phone call from the pastor of a church in El Paso Texas, who was the former Executive Secretary of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. After a brief getting-to-know-you conversation in which he told me that he had become acquainted with my ministry through a colleague who happened to be my hospital chaplaincy mentor, he stunned me with these words.

“Our church voted this morning to ordain you.”

“But you don’t even know me,” I said, shocked, taken aback and just a little confused.

Oh, but we know you very well. We have talked about you for weeks in our church. We know you are a chaplain. We know where you went to seminary. We know you can preach and even sing. We know you were a Southern Baptist Foreign missionary to Uganda. And if you were appointed a missionary by our Foreign Mission Board, you are qualified to be ordained so that you can continue your ministry.

I could barely respond. I knew only that I needed to think.

“Let me think about this for a few days and send you some information about me.”

And so I sent them a copy of my life story so they could be sure, even if I was not. Ethel said, “‘Though it tarries, wait for it; For it will certainly come, it will not delay.’ Now let’s pack up and go to El Paso.”

Thirteen friends, members of Providence, traveled to El Paso. My family drove 953.4 miles, and I was ordained in El Paso, Texas on April 29, 1992 by a church I did not know that became my community over a weekend.

Ethel left this world many years ago, much too soon. But she is still my hero and I miss her terribly. Does she watch over me? Is she, as some people like to think, an angel of God with a pair of wings? I’m not at all sure of that, but I know one thing. Every time things get hard, I hear her words, “Tie a knot in the rope and hang on.”

She gave me wings!

Celebrating the Journey

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We are travelers on a journey, fellow pilgrims on the road;
We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.
I will hold the Christ-light for you in the night-time of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.

– Richard Gillard (1974) Copyright: © 1977 Scripture In Song/Maranatha! Music/ASCAP

This hymn, “The Servant Song,” offers the image of life as a journey. It is a clear call to our interconnectedness as “fellow pilgrims.” It is a portrait of making the journey together, caring each for the other, holding up the light when the darkness becomes overwhelming.

So we are not wandering strangers, but instead brothers and sisters united by our mutual care for one another weathering the storms of every difficult hour. For me, the path has been steep and rocky at times, smooth and pleasant at other times. The brothers and sisters along the way gave me enough grace and courage to keep moving ahead when the journey got the best of me. Bishop Steven Charleston offers a tribute for journey travelers.

Here is the respect you deserve for all that you have done. You have weathered the storms of many difficult hours, kept going when others might have stopped, continued to believe despite all evidence to the contrary. Were you perfect in thought and action? No, of course not, none of us are, but you have tried, more than once, and tried again, admitting mistakes, growing in wisdom, learning the lessons of a life well lived. For all of this, from one other traveler walking the road beside you, you have my respect. I honor you and celebrate what you have accomplished.

Always celebrate the journey you have traveled. Always honor the wisdom you gained, the lessons you learned, the brothers and sisters you found along the way. May God bless you as you journey on.

We Can Do This!

 

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Everywhere I look I see safety pins. People are wearing them. Millions are posting them on social media. Churches are adding them to messages of inclusion. The pins carry a simple message: whoever you are, you are safe with me.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners describes our state of affairs.

Today, many people are frightened — mostly the people whom the now president-elect has regularly attacked. If I read my Scriptures right, those are the people Christians and other people of good conscience should now turn to in solidarity and support.

I am getting calls all the time. They are from the people who feel most vulnerable: parents of young black and brown children, Hispanic pastors who are dealing with the terrified undocumented families in their congregations, African-American ministers who fear the emboldened white police officers who no longer fear the scrutiny of a justice department, a president, or anyone else who might hold them accountable. And, of course, many of our Muslim brothers and sisters are wondering whether this can be a country for them anymore.

Where must we start as Christians and faithful churches after such a devastating election that brings the most dangerous man to the White House that we have seen in our lifetimes?

That is the question we must answer. As never before, we must find tangible ways to live out our faith by being present with those who are now living with fear. May God give us the courage and compassion to do just that . . . for our brothers and sisters — Latinos, Muslim Americans, women, LGBT persons, African American persons — anyone who is marginalized, disrespected and diminished.

Standing with them in loving solidarity is our calling for the living of these days. Sincere and unceasing prayer is critical. Open hearts and open minds will carry us through, together. The safety pins on our lapels will remind us. We can do this!