A Holy Thread

Enlight137Years ago, I served The Providence Baptist Church of Little Rock as their pastor. In those days, 1992, I was the only ordained woman who was a Baptist pastor in the state. Because of the strong and vocal disapproval and disdain from Baptists in Arkansas, my ministry at Providence was a lonely nine years.

I had just experienced months of open animosity from the Arkansas Baptist State Convention as I went through a hard, hard ordination process. Threatening phone calls were just the tip of a very ugly iceberg. And I was hurt, almost broken, from the experience. But that story is a blog post in itself that I will save for another day.

I was given a rare gift, though, in the people of Providence β€” a congregation of deep love and unwavering support. They were a courageous people, each having come to Providence from other Baptist churches to live out their faith. They took a risk to join Providence. Many convictions led them to do so, the role of women in the church, the inclusion of all persons, the re-visioning of the idea of β€œBaptist,” the desire to create a covenant with like-minded brothers and sisters, the quest to build a β€œbeloved community” in our city.

I will always remember Ethel, one of our deacons and a dear mother-figure for me, who gave me constant encouragement. She would say to me almost weekly, β€œTie a knot in the rope and hang on.” One of the times she said that, I was experiencing a particularly difficult time. I responded that what she was calling a rope felt much more like a thread.

I often recall those years with a mixture of joy and pain. In those years, many of us were grieving the loss of the denomination that had long nurtured us. We mourned for the loss of our seminaries, our beloved professors scattered in a deliberate and abusive diaspora. We mourned the loss of our Foreign Mission Board and worried about our missionaries around the world and the people they ministered to in towns and villages, plains and forests.

What I can say is that the pain slowly faded and healing covered us. I can also say with firm certainty that there was always a thread to hold on to, a thread that represented hope. I am inspired by the writing of William Stafford, who must know something about the thread we grip so tightly.

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

– William Stafford, The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press: 1998), 42.

Oh, what a comfort it is to hold on to the thread that never changes, even as everything around us changes constantly. What a comfort it is to find that sacred thread and to hold it tightly through all manner of life tragedy. What a comfort it is to move through change, suffering, loss, the many threatening events of life, and to feel the holy thread in your hands . . . constant, unbreakable, given to us by a compassionate God who always knew that our pathway would be scattered with stumbling stones and ominous boulders.

Thanks be to God for the holy thread. Hold it tightly.

Light for a Dark Path

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Life can be a very dark path, frightenly uncharted. Inching through life often finds us hesitating in dark places, afraid to take even one step into an unknown future. The darkness can be daunting. Still, for me light has at times eased the darkness, and with even a tiny ray of light, I was able to move forward.

Brother Curtis Almquist writes of the grace-filled presence of beacons of light.

There have been people in our past who have been beacons of light, and whose life still shines into the present . . . and we remember them because they help us find our way and know our place in life, which is otherwise so terribly uncharted.

– Brother Curtis Almquist
Society of Saint John the Evangelist

How fondly I remember and give thanks for the people who were beacons of light for me.

Yiayia, my beloved grandmother, who was my faithful and loving protector and whose energy nurtured me.

Thea Koula, my favorite aunt, who was like a mother to me and who brought joy and lightheartedness to my life.

Ethel, my forever friend, who was a constant beacon of light, always helping me find my way.

In the darkness, the light of faith endured and made the journey possible. Most certainly, the people in my life strengthened my faith and were for me a welcomed light for a dark path. And yes, I stumbled over more than a few nasty obstacles and rough spots. But even when I languished in the darkness of an uncharted path, my faith was enough. My faith was my brightest light.

I will be forever grateful for the beacons of light that helped guide me on the journey and for the enduring, constant presence of a faithful God.

The Lord will guide you always;
will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.

– Isaiah 58:11 NIV

Persisting with God

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When spring arrives, I remember the anniversary of my ordination to the ministry. March 22nd . . . this year marked 25 years since that memorable day. I arrived at that ordination service held at a Baptist church in El Paso, Texas, battered and bruised. The path to ordination in the Baptist church was, in those days, a grueling experience. My home church in Little Rock, Arkansas, had tormented me for several months, adamant about their refusal to ordain a woman.

Nevertheless, I persisted. It was the first life experience that taught me that, in order to live out my fondest dreams, I had to learn to persist. It was a good lesson actually, one that I had to embrace. Yes, I was hurt by my church, by the people closest to me. My prayer was, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” That had to be my constant and sincere prayer so that I could genuinely forgive those who had hurt me and follow God into meaningful ministry.

God led me to hospital chaplaincy, to ministry as the pastor of a Presbyterian church, to founding a nonprofit organization that served victims of violence and abuse and to the pastorate of a Baptist church where I served for nine years.

So, yes, I did learn to persist and to follow God into unlikely places of service. Most importantly, God persisted . . . walking with me, guiding me, ennobling me to ministry.

The Bible reveals a God of infinite persistence, a God who never gives up on us. There are, of course, many portraits of God throughout the Bible, but my vision is of a God of extravagant grace, patience, and persistence. And for that I am eternally grateful.

Happy Ordination Anniversary to me . . . persisting with God for 25 years.

A Winding Path

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I simply cannot see what’s up ahead. I know that the path is a winding one. I know that the path is strewn with rocks and a few obstacles along the way. I know that the trees provide shade on the journey. I know, most surely of all, that the path winds on into places that remain unknown to me. That could cause fear and a reluctance to walk forward.

I have known such fear at times. I have gazed at the path before me and have welcomed the kind of fear that stops the journey. I have trembled, deeply in my soul, because the path was formidable . . . a winding, crooked path that stretched before me farther than I could see. I have never known the destination, only the fear and the path.

JosΓ© N. Harris has written about this kind of fear. He writes of a remedy, in fact.

When you find your path, you must ignore fear. You need to have the courage to risk mistakes. But once you are on that road… run, run, run, and don’t stop until you’ve reached its end.

– JosΓ© N. Harris, MI VIDA: A Story of Faith, Hope and Love

That’s wise counsel. I must ignore the fear and bravely walk my path in faith, faith in the God that placed my path before me in the first place. The truth is that God has a long history of faithfulness, a long history of guiding folk on their journeys and protecting them on the pathways they were traveling. And that’s good enough for me!

Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the wilderness. By day the pillar of cloud did not cease to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take.

– Nehemiah 9:19 NIV

There Will Be Miracles

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The Lenten journey always reminds me of wandering through a wilderness. Today, I thought about the Exodus story that details a part of the journey of the Israelites. The story tells how the Israelite community traveled from place to place as the Lord commanded. When they camped at Rephidim, they found no water, so, of course, they complained to Moses.

An exasperated Moses cried out to the Lord, β€œWhat am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

Of course they were. It was so much easier to blame Moses than to take responsibility for their own decision to make this journey. I am well acquainted with the tendency to blame other people or other circumstances for my own mistakes and missteps. And like the Israelites, I have often been exasperated enough to cry out as they did: β€œIs the Lord among us or not?”

As always, God showed up to help Moses with this dilemma.

The Lord answered Moses, β€œGo out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink. (From Exodus 17)

Moses did just that and obeyed a God who provided the miracle. Water spewed out of Horeb’s rock and the people drank the miracle water until they thirsted no more. They would see God’s miracles again. They would witness the glory of the Lord again, and again.

But the journey continued, the wilderness was barren, the way was long. The people would complain again. They would sin, even as they witnessed life-changing events. They would be very human.

Just as we are. So take heart as you travel your Lenten journey. There will be dry, wilderness patches. But there will also be miracles. Keep your eyes open for them. You’ll be grateful that you did.

Safe in God’s Care

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There are times when I need to draw close to God and stay there. There are moments that define us, and sometimes they are seasons of despair when prayer is the only thing to do. I have been through those hard seasons many times and found a way to reach out to God. I wanted to stay there, near to God’s heart of compassion, near to God’s glory, safe under God’s sheltering wings.

Peter, James and John found themselves on a high mountain with Jesus. Glory filled the place and the story tells us that Jesus became “as bright as a flash of lightening.” They wanted to stay there. Wouldn’t you? Peter, James and John were in the glow of the glory of Jesus. Peter spoke up and said, “We need to stay here, Master. Let us put up three shelters for you, Moses and Elijah. Let’s just stay here on this holy mountain.”

The story begins with Jesus praying in private with his disciples. He asked them, β€œWho do the crowds say I am?”

They replied by telling Jesus that some people were saying he was John the Baptist; others were saying he was Elijah. Others were saying that Jesus was one of the prophets of long ago who had come back to life. But Jesus wanted them to answer the question, “Who do you say I am?”

As he often did, Peter answered for the group. β€œGod’s Messiah.”

Then Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone, predicting his imminent death and telling them that they would suffer as well. But then we get to the redeeming part of this story, the part that looks past the suffering and reveals the glory. Here is the Transfiguration text from the Gospel of Luke:

About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, β€œMaster, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three sheltersβ€”one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

– Luke 9:28-33 New International Version (NIV)

Without a doubt, the disciples of Jesus were about to enter one of those difficult life seasons. They would be tested to their limits, and would find themselves longing to draw close to Jesus once again and rest in that place of safety.

Mary Austin relates a story told by pastor and theologian Jennifer Bailey. (https://revgalblogpals.org/2017/02/21/narrative-lectionary-glory-then-guts-luke-928-45/). In a time of deep distress, Jennifer recalls the depth of her pain. This is how she describes her experience:

I folded into myself: my arms wrapped tightly around my knees and found their rest on my heaving chest . . . As I opened my mouth to cry out to God, as I often do in moments of hopelessness, no sound emerged…Rocking back and forth on the cool linoleum floor, I finally uttered the only words that I could find, β€œI don’t feel safe. I don’t feel safe.”

Like a gust of wind, I could suddenly feel the soulful presence of my ancestors surround me, holding me and bearing witness to my pain. Then I heard my mama’s spirit whisper gently, gently in my ear, β€œBaby, we ain’t never been safe”.

Jesus proclaimed the hard truth that there is no safety for those who follow him. Yet we live on, knowing that sometimes seasons of pain will engulf us. But also knowing that we are safe in God’s care, that God is faithful and present with us always.

Yes, sometimes I need to draw close to God and stay there. I hope I’ll have the wisdom and the will to stay there long enough.

Of Sacred Worth

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Jesus said that we are worth more than many sparrows. Perhaps he knew that knowing our worth would elude us. It truly is difficult to recognize our worth. It is even more difficult to recognize our sacred worth and to know that God deeply values the persons we are.

In 1904, songwriter Civilla Martin went to visit a bedridden friend in Elmira, New York. Mrs. Martin asked the woman if she ever got discouraged because of her physical condition. Her friend quickly responded: “Mrs. Martin, how can I be discouraged when my heavenly Father watches over each little sparrow and I know He loves and cares for me?”

On her journey back home, Mrs. Martin completed the writing of this new hymn text:

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come, why should my heart be lonely and long for Heaven and home, when Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me…

“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear, and resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears; though by the path He leadeth but one step I may see: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me…

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

The words of that hymn ring true for me as I recall the many times I have needed God’s protection and care. Based on several scriptures, this hymn and the scripture that inspired it has comforted many people in need over the years.

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

– Matthew 10:29-31 New International Version (NIV)

I invite you to listen to the Mississippi Mass Children’s Choir singing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” at this link:
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v1MPFyVek-U

As you listen, meditate on the truth that you are a person of sacred worth to God.

Under the Shadow of God’s Wings

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How comforting it is to know that we can find refuge under the shadow of God’s wings. It is a beautiful metaphor of divine protection. One of the emotions of aging, at least for me, is that of feeling orphaned. When parents and other significant people in my life are no longer present, I often feel unprotected and vulnerable. Never was it more true than when I spent most of 2014 in the hospital.

The nights were long and lonely, and often sleep would not come to ease my anxiety. During those nights, I sometimes longed for the comfort of my grandmother who was probably the most constant protector in my younger years.

Like I did in those long nights, all of us experience times of utter aloneness. I am so blessed to be able to recall scripture, and during that hospitalization, two Psalms came to mind.

Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
for in you I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings
until the disaster has passed.

– Psalm 57:1 New International Version (NIV)

He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge . . .

– Psalm 91:4 New International Version (NIV)

I learned what it feels like to be in the shadow of God’s wings. I learned how to feel safe during unsafe times. Thanks be to the God of comfort who covers us with wings of refuge when we most need to feel protected.

Out of the Miry Clay

 

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The Jordan River, Israel

Sometimes I sink into the mire of my journey. It is if I am walking through thick, deep clay, barely able to take another step. All the prayers and promises I have held on to for so long suddenly do not bring comfort or courage. I feel as if I cannot take another step.

It doesn’t happen to me often, but when it does, I am immobilized. For just a time, all the faith of my mothers eludes me. I am stuck, fearful, and in search of a word from God that has the power to release me and guide me forward. The promises from the Holy promise maker seem not enough when I am so weary of the journey. I protest and lament, complaining that the way is too hard and long.

When I have nursed despair long enough, I begin surveying what has worked before. I go through message and melody that might hold the power to restore my will. Often, I will recall the words of the hymn, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”

When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside.
Bear me through the swelling current,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.

The Prophet Isaiah reaches me with this word of hope.

When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.

– Isaiah 43:2 New International Version (NIV)

And Jeremiah’s conversation with God hits me squarely with a hefty dose of reality.

The Lord answers Jeremiah:
β€œIf you have run with the footmen, and they have wearied you,
 then how can you contend with horses?
 And if in the land of peace,
In which you trusted, they wearied you,
 then how will you do in the swelling of the Jordan?”

– Jeremiah 12:5

God still calls out to each of us with words of hope if we are open to hearing. The miry days will come again, no doubt. No life escapes that. I’m sure I will once again struggle through the mud, but one thing I have learned well comes from the words of the Psalmist.
I waited patiently for the LORD; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of the horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.

– Psalm 40:1-2

Morning Mercies

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Every new morning reminds me that I have been given a gift, another day to live, another chance to make a difference in my world, another day to love and grow and enjoy. Not so long ago, I lived some days of fear. Each dark night brought a sense of dread, and I allowed myself to believe that another morning would not dawn. I was afraid to let myself sleep, and did not expect to make it through the night.

Obviously, I was wrong. Fortunately, I got beyond those dark times and willed myself to believe in hope and new dawns. But the process of finding hope again was no easy task. It took time, prayer, and talking about my feelings with a trusted friend. It was a process that required persistence. Most of all, it required getting re-acquainted with God’s grace and faithfulness. I learned to find hope again in each morning’s new mercies.

The writings of Steven Charleston were a part of my process toward hope. These words gave me an extra measure of strength.

Here is the hand of morning, coming so quietly to part the curtain, letting in the first light, welcoming the wide-eyed day into the sleepy corners of our lives. A new beginning is the miracle that awaits each one of us. We are the people of new beginnings, each one of us, brought here by more mornings than we can count, fresh chances from an older life, a turn of events, a change of mind, an unexpected friend, how many different mornings have we seen? You and I are made of morning, set free by the new light, forever being welcomed into a life that is just beginning.

– Bishop Steven Charleston

Now I expect mornings again. I fall asleep these days with new hope that morning will come. As for all of us, new days are not guaranteed. We live with that reality, but we do so without fear and with faith in the faithfulness of God. The beloved hymn says:

Great is thy faithfulness . . .
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed, thy hand hath provided.
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.

The Scripture says it this way:

Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

– Lamentations 3:21-23 New International Version

Thanks be to God.