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 β€œwhere 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_6030β€œIt’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 β€” 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 β€” 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.Β I don’t know about you, but I can use more of that lighthearted living.

Thanks, Eirene. Rest in fun.

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“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 haveΒ 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, β€œYou 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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β€œCursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.”
(Deuteronomy 27:19)
All the people shall say, β€œAmen!”

β€œYou shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy10:19).
All the people shall say, β€œAmen!”

β€œThere shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you” (Exodus 12:49).
All the people shall say, β€œAmen!”

β€œWhen an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien” (Leviticus 19:33).
All the people shall say, β€œAmen!”

“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”Β Β (Malachi 3:5).
All the people shall say, β€œAmen!”

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

For we, who were formerly illegal aliens and undocumented workers in Creation’s midst, β€œare 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!

Β©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

She Gave Me Wings!

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She made broken look beautiful and strong look invincible.Β 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: Β© 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 β€” 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!

Our Stories

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Stories move through our lives, especially when we are willing to tell them. There is great power in the telling. Telling our stories makes us better and stronger. It helps us create our lasting history. It allows us to open ourselves to others.

C.S. Song writes about stories in his book, In the Beginning Were Stories not Texts. He writes, “Stories are conceived within the womb of dreams and developed and nurtured within it . . . If the story is good . . . it will be told from one generation to another.”

Happy stories and sad stories weave through our lives and are a part of making us who we are. Then when we tell them, we share who we are with others. We risk being authentic, being known. We give to the hearer the gift of genuinely knowing us. Telling our stories is the seed of true friendships and relationships.

Out of our dreams emerge our stories, stories that must be told and retold. The telling is a gift we give to our children and their children. It is a precious gift, and the only way to give it is to open up our hearts to let our dreams go forth in words.

So I urge you to open up your life and tell your stories. You will be stronger for it. Generations will be blessed by it.

Think on These Things

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I browsed Facebook this morning as I often do. I seriously considered closing my account. Harsh words were sent my way. Presidential candidates appeared on every other post, Supporters touted their candidate while often discrediting and disrespecting those who disagreed with them. Supporters even threatened violence. Poll watchers vowed to be ominously present to intimidate voters. Some people even predicted literal bloodshed after the election. And then there were missing children, reports of sexual assaults, abused animals . . . I could go on and on.

I use Facebook to keep in touch with friends. I enjoy hearing about their lives. But these days, I cannot get beyond the negativity. It makes me want to close my eyes, to disengage completely.

I think the lesson here for me is to take care of my soul and to withdraw from all activities and people who harm my spirit and my heart. It’s not bad advice, to seek those things that uplift us and give us life and to avoid all that sucks the life out of us.

I have always been an engaged person, so the answer for me is not to disengage. But it is to be selective and to focus on the things that nurture my soul. Engaged but not absorbed.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

– Philippians 4:8

On Lovingkindness

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Too often we use words of Scripture to prove a point. It can be a bad practice. Yet at times there are words that seem to speak clearly to our times. Such is this passage from the Book of Leviticus that is a clear call for lovingkindness.

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

– Leviticus 19:33-34 New International Version (NIV)

This is what I hear clearly in this passage. The Lord is our God. And God commands us to treat foreign-born citizens with respect and love. It is as simple as that.

Juxtapose that command with the many voices calling for mass deportations, dividing immigrant families, and refusing to offer welcome to refugees fleeing from danger in their homeland. How can those who profess that they are people of faith advocate for unwelcoming national policy?

I cannot answer that question. I do not understand. What I do understand is this:

– 8.4 million Syrian children, inside and outside the country, are in need of humanitarian aid, and millions have borne witness to unrelenting violence from the brutal conflict that began more than five years ago.

– 2.6 million Syrian children are no longer in school and more than 2.5 million are living as refugees in neighboring countries or on the run in search of safety, helping to fuel a global migrant crisis.

– Syria is now the world’s biggest producer of both internally displaced people and refugees. Many children have spent several bitter winters living in makeshift shelters without adequate protection from the cold.Β (unicefusa.org)

On the brighter side the U.S. accepted more than 2,300 Syrian refugees in June of 2016 alone, sending the fiscal year total soaring past the 5,000 mark and putting the government on track to surpass President Obama’s goal of 10,000 by the end of September. (washingtontimes.com)

May God fill our hearts with compassion and lovingkindness. May our nation become a welcoming place of refuge. May we love others as we love ourselves.

Dear President Obama

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Dear President Obama,

Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home]? Park in the driveway or on the street and we will be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother. Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria, Omar, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. We can teach him English too, just like my friend Aoto from Japan.

Please tell him that his brother will be Alex who is a very kind boy, just like him. Since he won’t bring toys and doesn’t have toys Catherine will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it. I will teach him additions and subtractions in math. And he [can] smell Catherine’s lip gloss penguin which is green. She doesn’t let anyone touch it.

Thank you very much! I can’t wait for you to come!

Alex

6 years old

Last month, like people around the world, Alex was moved by the heartbreaking images of Omran Daqneesh, a five-year-old boy in Aleppo, Syria, sitting in an ambulance, in shock as he tried to wipe the blood from his hands.

In his letter, Alex told President Obama that he wanted Omran to come live with him and his family. He wanted to share his bike, and teach him how to ride. He said his little sister would collect butterflies for him. “We can all play together,” he wrote. “We will give him a family and he will be our brother.”

Those are the words of a six-year-old boy — a young child who has not learned to be cynical or suspicious or fearful of other people because of where they come from, how they look, or how they pray.

We’ll be waiting with flags, flowers and balloons.

With these words, we adults learn an important lesson from a six year old. Can we become as compassionate and welcoming to those who need a place to call home? Can we look at other humans as our brothers and sisters? Can we play together and work together to create a better world?

Can we?

Axis Moments of the Heart

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People from every state have been sending prayers and support to the people of Louisiana after the devastating flood there. The natural disaster visited upon Louisiana brings out the best of who we are as neighbors — the kindness, the compassion, the generosity.

As we send our prayers and positive thoughts, we know that the people of Louisiana are grateful because the scale of this disaster is historic. Whatever we can offer — donations, volunteer labor, prayers — has been gratefully received.

Bishop Steven Charleston describes the outpouring of care with these words.

As so often happens when natural disasters strike, the best in human courage, kindness and endurance shines through the loss and the grief. These are the great axis moments of the heart, when we swing from our lowest point of despair to our highest expression of faith. Our differences are forgotten, our conflicts set aside. What matters is life and the love that sustains it.

Even when great loss comes to pass, we experience together those “axis moments of the heart” when hope rises above despair and we express our faith in acts of love. Thanks be to God for placing within us hearts of compassion and caring.