Most folk don’t take nearly enough time to notice it. These days way too much ugliness hides the beauty that’s always around us. Even when we don’t pay attention, beauty surprises us with magic and mystery. Beauty is a lot like hope.
The magical appearance of beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder. For me, beauty can inspire me by color and movement, by the shimmering stars on a clear night, by the magnificence of a tree’s movement in the breeze, by looking into the eyes of my grandchildren. Beauty is there for us always—to be seen, to be heard, to be sensed deeply in our bodies and in our spirits.
These days, I need more of it—more hope, more beauty. I need more visions of beauty to supersede the ugliness of injustice, division, racism, misogyny, homophobia, political warring, brokenhearted immigrants looking for life, mass shootings, Covid, gun violence, child trafficking, suffering in Ukraine—all the varied chaos around the world.
And then there are the people here and there who bring grace to us all by transforming ugliness into beautyand hope.
As for the beauty revealed in the opening photo, I don’t know who created it or photographed it. I do know that he or she is a person who finds beauty in unlikely places at unexpected times, and translates that beauty into grace to be shared with those who most need it.
Who knows about that image? The striking silhouette of the trees, the birds flying above, the twinkling stars in the sky, and all of that with swirls of color that seem to me like holy movement. Regardless of the source of that photograph, I like to believe that its beauty—all beauty—comes directly from God as grace for me, and for you.
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
We could have a long conversation about the potter’s messy hands, about the mud under his nails, about the strength of hands that look as if they are using every muscle to shape the pot. We would probably talk about the dynamic force of his hands that hold the pot lightly enough to form it, but controlled enough to avoid marring or damaging it.
In our conversation, we would probably remember the prophet Jeremiah’s encounter with a potter and the ways we have used that passage of scripture over the years. I don’t know about you, but my teachers and preachers used this text to teach me about the ways God can mold me into a worthy vessel that can hold enough faith and hope to get me through the hard times. Plus, being remolded would mean I was being ”obedient to God!”
We certainly do not want to use scripture out of its historical context, but another use of a scripture passage is to consider its imagery, its symbolism and its relevance to us in a given life situation. The following scripture, as translated in The Voice, contains a powerful section after verse 1 that tells us how God’s message comes through a prophetic drama played out at a potter’s wheel, and that there, the prophet sees an ordinary event from which he receives an extraordinary message.
1 The word of the Eternal came to Jeremiah
Now God’s message comes through another prophetic drama played out in a potter’s shop somewhere in the city. The prophet sees an ordinary event but receives an extraordinary message.
Eternal One:2 Go down to the potter’s shop in the city, and wait for My word. 3 So I went down to the potter’s shop and found him making something on his wheel.
4 And as I watched, the clay vessel in his hands became flawed and unusable. So the potter started again with the same clay. He crushed and squeezed and shaped it into another vessel that was to his liking. — Jeremiah 18:1-4 (The VOICE)
I cannot help but remember the many times throughout my life that this passage was interpreted as a potter (God) forming me. The message inevitably moved to the part where ”God is not pleased with me and is trying to remold me into a more worthy vessel for God’s glory.” Not the best biblical message we could glean from Jeremiah’s drama! Not only that, but I don’t much like the idea of the potter ”crushing, squeezing and shaping” me.
The best truth is that God does remold us in so many ways, gently and intentionally, so that we are always in the process of change and growth. In our case, the God who loves us just as we are, also holds us, as if in a potter’s hands. Though this passage does speak of serious remolding, it never indicates that the potter throws the damaged pot into the trash pile.
It is true that we are damaged again and again in this life, but God loves who we are, and like the potter, God gently remolds us along the way, creating of us the best we can be. God never throws us away, no matter how severe our damage — damage on the outside, visible to all; and on the inside, where the deepest damage rests, in the soul and spirit. Visible to no one, excruciatingly visible to us.
We can choose to be like clay in the potter’s hands, allowing a gentle God to remold us, repair our damaged life, and empower us to be new, remade. This sounds like hope to me, and grace.
This is Jeremian’s story, his vision. He sees it as an ordinary event that graces us with an extraordinary message. Jeremiah’s story is ours to ponder and to ask ourselves if there is any damage to us or in us. If you sometimes view yourself as damaged, seek help from someone you trust — a friend or family member, a therapist, a spiritual director, your minister.
And remember, the potter is always near for gentle remolding.
My cousins visited this weekend for the first time in months, a needed visit for all of us. We laughed and played and enjoyed one another. We talked a lot, too, into the wee hours. We talked about sweet memories, of course, remembering so many good and fun times. We talked about old boyfriends and childhood disagreements and family idiosyncrasies.
I think we talked most about aging and the physical and emotional changes it brings. We lamented it, of course, and wished it away. We cursed it just a bit, and tried in vain to find ways around it. In the end, we agreed that we can’t get around it, but just have to go through it. Right through the middle of it until the pathway ends.
Right smack dab in the middle of dialogue about age spots, edema, muscle pain and a plethora of bodily ills, we stopped, suddenly realizing that there must be more to the aging process than physical symptoms. Where is life’s meaning when we draw nearer to life’s end? How do we grow old held by the same grace that held us when we were children, young adults, middle aged?
I came across an intriguing word this morning in an NPR article. The word is Lastingness What an astounding word to ponder. Perhaps we should consider lastingness instead of aging. Various creative artists are the subjects of Nicholas Delbanco’s latest book, Lastingness: The Art of Old Age. Delbanco examines artists who either maintained or advanced their work past the age of 70 — from Claude Monet, to Giuseppe Verdi, to Georgia O’Keeffe. Because I am an artist, I was captivated by the idea of lastingness, especially when Delbanco told the story of Monet’s later years.
Delbanco writes that French impressionist Claude Monet — who painted well into his 80s, even after his vision was clouded by cataracts — created some of his most well-known works in the last decades of his life. After a long career as a renowned and financially successful artist, Monet retreated to the beloved gardens of his home in Giverny, 20 miles outside of Paris. His gardens became his artistic obsession. It was Monet’s failing eyesight that posed the greatest threat to his work. “He became more or less legally blind as we would describe it now,” Delbanco says. “So Monet compensated for, or focused on, the visible world in very different ways in his older age.” The works Monet created in his last years at Giverny are regarded as masterpieces.
In the last decades of his life, French impressionist painter Claude Monet focused much of his work on the water lilies in his garden at Giverny. He continued painting well into his 80s, even after his vision had been clouded by cataracts.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Monet’s exquisite impressionist paintings eventually ended because of his cataracts. The poet Lisel Mueller has captured Monet’s cataract story brilliantly, in “Monet Refuses the Operation.” As of 1919, the Monet was urged to have the cataracts attended to; in 1923 he had operations on his right eye, and glasses improved his eyesight — but only briefly, fitfully, and he had trouble distinguishing color. Mueller’s poem begins:
Doctor, you say there are no haloes around the streetlights in Paris and what I see is an aberration caused by old age, an affliction. I tell you it has taken me all my life to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels, to soften and blur and finally banish the edges you regret I don’t see, to learn that the line I called the horizon does not exist and sky and water, so long apart, are the same state of being . . .
I don’t know exactly what “lastingness” means, but I think it might mean seeing haloes glowing around street lights or the ”vision of gas lamps as angels.” I’m pretty sure it means learning to look at life as softened and blurred, banishing life’s sharp edges. Perhaps “lastingness” means that my writing or my art will have a lasting impact on the world. Maybe it means that I will pass on my wisdom to my grandchildren. Or that the child I helped recover from long-term sexual abuse will find happiness in her life. Perhaps “lastingness” means that my faith in God will carry me to the grace that is the end of life. That kind of “lastingness” brings a kind of peace to my aging, a grace that assures me that aging is much more than painful joints and aching muscles. “Lastingness” is holier than physical afflictions and I think it blurs and softens them until they are tolerable.
When I cannot find the right words, I can always count on Bishop Steven Charleston to write them.
I see more clearly, now that I am aging. Not with my eyesight, but with my soul. I see the fine detail of what I missed in younger years. I see the place of faith and forgiveness in my story. I see the possibilities of life in ways I never imagined. I was not blind in my youth, but my vision was limited to only a few seasons of seeing. Now I am an old man standing on a hill. I see more clearly. The universe stretches above me in infinite glory and the Earth spreads her shawl to wrap me in creation. Open the eyes of your spirit. Look out in wonder. See the fullness of the life you have received. See the promise of love walking in beauty before you.
Bishop Charleston’s words might just be the very best description of ”lastingness.” Maybe “lastingness” means that because I am aging, I now see not only with my eyesight, but with my soul. Maybe it means that now I can clearly see the fullness of the life I have received and the promise of lasting grace holding me close.
Even to your old age I will be the same, And even to your graying years I will bear you! I have done it, and I will carry you; And I will bear you and I will deliver you. — Isaiah 46:4 —
I’m not sure I know what it feels like to have God “undo me with grace,” but I have learned how it feels to need more grace, to long for Spirit breezes to gently blow around me with winds of grace. I need grace for enduring illness, grace for being separated from my son and his family, especially my five grandchildren. I need grace when I’m angry or disappointed or heartbroken. I need grace when I feel like giving up and giving in. I need God’s grace — the grace of the Spirit — to help me live in this season of my life.
I read a provocative prayer today. It kind of grabbed at my heart, asking me what exactly is in my heart right now. It asked me what I’m struggling with. The brilliant writer of prayers, Diane Strickland, writes again and again in her prayer the words, ”Undo my life with your grace,” leaving me asking myself what might happen if God decided to undo my life, even through God would likely be merciful enough to undo my life with grace.
The truth is that those words so grabbed me that my prayer was, ”God, I think I need to let you undo my life.” Maybe I feel the need to re-do my life with string of second chances. Maybe I need forgiveness for regrets, release from memories of pain. Whatever it means to have one’s life undone by God, my heart responded, with longing, to this prayer.
O, my Creator,
In the injustice of my country I caught a glimpse of the bottom of the iceberg this week. I saw how my life lived above the waterline rests on wrong assumptions of privilege, great and small and many. I am cold inside. I don’t want to be cold inside.
Undo my life with your grace. Pick out the seams sewn by fear and mend the tears made by violence. Patch the holes that were always there from the start because I don’t know much about the rest of the world or how life works for others you love just as much as you love me.
Undo me with your grace. Shake out the fabric of me. Unfold and fold me anew. Reveal your image in there somewhere and surprise me with what You make of me when mercy prevails and justice leads and love accompanies us.
Undo me with your grace. I’ve lived a long time now, long enough to know there’s more to be if I can lay down what has mattered more than it needed to, and take up what I’ve barely used at all.
I don’t feel there’s so much wrong with me that we must start over. I feel there’s more of me somewhere that fits better for now and will make room for later. Release more gospel into my life and from my life. Warm me up again. Humble me with wisdom and truth and promise and hold me together with those same gifts.
Undo me with your grace. Just a little bit more today, Spirit. Just a little more.
“Undo me with your grace. Just a little bit more today, Spirit. Just a little more.”
As I reflected on those words, my thoughts ended up with this conclusion. I don’t need grace to extricate me or liberate me from all that is difficult, heartbreaking and oppressive about my life. But I definitely need Spirit wind to live my life.
I don’t need grace to rescue me. But I do need Spirit-grace that moves in my life with me, giving me life-saving and healing grace for each moment. I need Spirit because I have known her holy presence with me and I have learned to experience the wonder of being moved by wind wild and calm, her breeze blowing around me with both tender comfort and empowering promise.
With that kind of sacred promise, I can live into my life, not shrink from it or fear it. I can move into my life, whatever it brings, with Spirit’s blessing. That’s how she impels me to honor the grace I have received — by giving it away. Her winds have impelled me for many years to minister to God’s people, and I do not intend to stop now. My call from God was for life, not meant to expire when I retired or when my health failed.
I know that God gives grace for waning health and I have it on good authority that God gives “more grace when burdens grow greater.”* When I consider the grace that has so filled my life, I think of the story of Annie Johnson Flint who wrote the text of the hymn, ”He Giveth More Grace.”
Annie Johnson Flint, born in 1866, was an inspiration to all who knew her. This is just a tiny bit of her story. The fullness of Annie Johnson Flint’s story includes a life-long string of losses and difficulties. By the time she was six years old, she had lost her mother and father to illnesses and was adopted by a family named Flint. She loved poetry and dreamed of being a composer and concert pianist. After graduating from high school, Annie went on to become an elementary school teacher, but in her second year was afflicted with arthritis that steadily and quickly worsened. She lost her ability to walk, but she became a prolific writer of poems and hymn texts.
The many stories written about her stories tell how later in life she was unable to open her hands and could no longer write, yet continued to compose her on a typewriter using her knuckles. And that “she sought healing, but in the end she was thoroughly convinced that God intended to glory Himself through her, in her weak earthen vessel.”
The words of the hymn text she wrote, ”He Giveth More Grace,” reflect the many disheartening moments she experienced throughout her life. She died at the age of 66, leaving as her legacy so many faith-strengthening words, including these:
He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater, He sendeth more strength when the labours increase; To added afflictions He addeth His mercy, To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace.
When we have exhausted our store of endurance, When our strength has failed ere the day is half done, When we reach the end of our hoarded resources Our Father’s full giving is only begun.
Fear not that your need shall exceed His provision, Our God ever yearns His resources to share; Lean hard on the arm everlasting, availing; The Father, both you and your load will upbear.
His love has no limits, His grace has no measure, His power no boundary known unto men; For out of His infinite riches in Jesus He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.
I have loved this hymn for years in spite of its masculine language. It moves me and uplifts me. It always reminds me of the infinite grace I have known in my life. I hope you will listen to this hymn as a part of your contemplative time.
*Diane Strickland is in her 33rd year as an ordained minister now serving in The United Church of Canada as retired clergy. She is a Certified Community and Workplace Traumatologist, Compassion Fatigue Specialist-Therapist, and Critical Incident Responder, author and creator of trauma informed resources.
“A soul in transit.” What does that phrase even mean? It sounds a bit ominous to me, like something bad couched in flowery language. Maybe like words of a poem that make little sense because they point to something otherworldly. Perhaps it means something related to a soul that lives, gets old, and dies — in transit from birth to death and beyond. Pondering!
I’m not up for those thoughts right now, because I am in the troubling place of feeling old sometimes. It’s something like aging anxiety, I think. Feeling old should not be so surprising to me since I really am kind of old. But sometimes I feel old in a bad way, the way that sends negative thoughts through my mind. Thoughts like . . .
I can’t do much anymore, I don’t feel well most of the time, my joints hurt, or even, I may die soon.
It is not helpful for my soul to entertain such thoughts, even though some of them are downright truth. Pondering! You have probably heard that “getting old is not for sissies.” It holds some truth, I imagine, for those of us who have come face to face with normal aging, aging that feels not so normal at all. But what about the great juxtaposition? What about the positive exercise that puts thoughts side by side so that we can see what is life-giving instead of what is troubling? For instance . . .
I am old. — I am wise.
I feel weak. — My spirit is strong and still vibrant.
My back aches when I exert myself. — I can still move.
So much for pondering juxtaposed thoughts. They may not be all that helpful, although re-imagining so that we recognize what is spirited and sparkling about ourselves can be very helpful. Still my words on this subject are pretty empty. I think I need assurance from someone else’s words, and I can’t help but turn to a very wise and insightful spiritual guide, Bishop Steven Charleston, whose thoughts are captivating, enlightening and filled with wisdom. And on top of that, the wise bishop is the one who offered up the phrase, “a soul in transit” in the first place.
We will not grow old, not in spirit. In mind and body, yes, we will age as all things age, all making the pilgrimage through time to find the place of sources. But in our spirit, no, we will not grow old. The child that was us will run forever through the fields. The dreams we spun from the fine wool of cloud watching will forever lead us to the next wonder that awaits us. The love we knew, so quiet, so life giving, will always be there to lift us up and hold us close. The spirit of life is eternal. It does not diminish. It does not forget. It does not alter. The spirit within us is the sum total of our sacred experience. It is what we were sent here to be and to do. Our spirit, a soul in transit, has a life outside of time. It will not grow old because it is on loan from a source more ancient than time itself.
Bishop Steven Charleston
Still pondering! I see more clearly that the “soul in transit” has “a life outside of time.” Eternal! That is what our faith has taught us for generations, for ages, always. But it is a truth that we can barely fathom, much less find comfort in. It’s not so easy to accept a truth that ultimately represents death, even if it includes that timeless and stunning place that is called eternity. The introductory words of 1 Peter give us a most glorious glimpse of eternity, a living hope.
May grace and peace be yours in abundance. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
— 1 Peter 1: 2-5 NRSV
Pondering still as I ask, “what does it all mean for me, the words, the images?” I feel much like the Psalmist who said, “my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.” (Psalm 131:1) And yet, I do search and struggle with the thought of aging, of what it means for me and of what comes next. I hear the words:
“. . . in our spirit, no, we will not grow old. The child that was us will run forever through the fields. The dreams we spun from the fine wool of cloud watching will forever lead us to the next wonder that awaits us. The love we knew, so quiet, so life giving, will always be there to lift us up and hold us close. The spirit of life is eternal. It does not diminish. It does not forget. It does not alter. The spirit within us is the sum total of our sacred experience.”
I hear the words, and the spirit of me understands, even if my mind does not. When I write, I ponder deeply. In my pondering this day, I am compelled to admit that I definitely feel the sting of aging. I am very human, after all! But I can usually move from anxiety to a good kind of awareness. That good awareness shows me that it is comforting to hold on tightly to the thought that the spirit is eternal, that my spirit is eternal. Dwelling on aging isolates me, but knowing in my heart that my spirit is eternal is a grace-gift that sets me free to really live.
I know from experience that pondering can be hurtful, leading me through all kinds of unpleasant scenarios. But sacred pondering, the kind that allows one’s faith to sit with a problem until it seems acceptable, can open the mind and heart to the eternal and empower us to see the plans for good that God has for us, “a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
So, after a time of sacred pondering, I am blessed with a fresh awareness. I can see more clearly God’s truth that my spirit will remain with my grandchildren, always. My spirit will hold on to the sweet love I have known. My spirit will immerse itself in the beauty of nature that has always been present. My spirit will run through the fields like a young person, and through the forests, it will love the trees I have always loved.
My body will do what bodies do, but my spirit will not die and will not grow old!
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.
Psalm 27:14 ESV
Waiting is no easy thing. Most of us don’t really like it. We’re not good at it. We are impatient people. We want things to happen quickly. Isn’t it excruciating at times to wait when a traffic light stays red far too long, and no traffic can be seen anywhere! How often we have stood in a long, slow-moving line and frustratingly declared, “This is not worth the wait!”
The more important matter, though, is when the soul must wait, when our hearts must wait for pain to ease. When our hearts have to wait, when our souls have to wait in the silence of suffering, it’s almost impossible for us to bear. Yet the the words of the psalmist and the prophets echo through the ages:
For God alone my soul waits in silence;from God comes my salvation; God alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress. I shall never be shaken.
Psalm 62:1-2 ESV
Those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.
Isaiah 40:31 NKJV
Messages of hope, yes. Yet when we are suffering, when we are in pain or disheartened or in trouble, nothing really sounds much like hope. Waiting for pain to ease is difficult, even excruciating. I like the way Sue Monk Kidd offers insight about waiting in her book, “When the Heart Waits.”
I had tended to view waiting as mere passivity. When I looked it up in my dictionary however, I found that the words passive and passion come from the same Latin root, pati, which means “to endure.” Waiting is thus both passive and passionate. It’s a vibrant, contemplative work. It means descending into self, into God, into the deeper labyrinths of prayer. It involves listening to disinherited voices within, facing the wounded holes in the soul, the denied and undiscovered, the places one lives falsely. It means struggling with the vision of who we really are in God and molding the courage to live that vision.
Sue Monk Kidd, “When the Heart Waits”
I cannot explain it better than that and I won’t try. My deepest self desperately grasps for these words, “listening to disinherited voices within, facing the wounded holes in the soul.” I cannot respond with any meaningful comments, but I will offer another insight about waiting for a God who covers us with pure, merciful, amazing grace.
GRACE. The Hebrew word is Hesed.
Hesed is a Hebrew word that means grace in all its fulness. Hesed is defined as compassion, mercy, love, faithfulness and most often, grace. But none of these words fully capture this Hebrew word that means grace. Hesed is not just an emotion or a feeling. It describes the way God lavishly pours grace upon us in our most needful moments.
And so we learn to wait for God’s outpouring of grace. Sometimes we wait impatiently. Sometimes we wait in anger. Sometimes we wait with a holy sense of peace. Sometimes we wait with hope, joyfully expectant. And sometimes we wait in silence, without words, disconsolate and cast down.
A number of years ago, I found myself nursing a disconsolate, cast down soul and spirit. I had been through a trying time in my life that I can only remember as one of deep sorrow. I remember one day when I sat down at the piano after reading Psalm 42. One particular verse of the Psalm reverberated in my mind. Over and over again, I heard the words, but I did not hear them read. I heard them sung, with a simple, but hopeful strength. I heard myself singing, a soul-song from somewhere inside me. I began to play what I heard, first the melody and rhythm, then the chords that arose from somewhere I could not pinpoint. It sounded beautiful, and it sounded like it was emerging from a sacred promise from God — unequivocally for me. This was my soul song:
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
Psalm 42:11 NRSV
I think I was waiting that day, though I was not sure what I was waiting for. I just know that I found hope again that day, if just for a few moments of holy music. And in my disquieted spirit, I sensed pure grace once again — grace, hesed — God’s infinite, matchless, amazing grace.
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.
Yesterday I noticed a dogwood tree in full bloom, the first blooming dogwood I have seen this year. The sight of it did my heart good, because it reminded me that some simple and beautiful things remain. They return every year. They mark a season. They grow, and their blooms become ever more vibrant, or so it seems.
The dogwood has its own story, a lovely legend that explains the tree’s qualities. The legend holds that the tree was once very large, like a Great Oak tree, and because its wood was strong and sturdy, it provided building material for a variety of purposes. According to the story, it was the dogwood tree that provided the wood used to build the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
Because of its role in the crucifixion, it is said that God both cursed and blessed the tree. It was cursed to forever be small, so that it would never grow large enough again for its wood to be used as a cross for a crucifixion. Its branches would be narrow and crooked — not good for building at all. At the same time, the tree was blessed so that it would produce beautiful flowers each spring, just in time for Easter. The legend says that God it is gave it a few traits so that whoever looks upon it will never forget.
The petals of the dogwood actually form the shape of a cross. The blooms have four petals. The tips of each of the petals are indented, as if they bear a nail dent. The hint of color at the indentation bring to mind the drops of blood spilled during the crucifixion.
Diana Butler Bass tells the story like this:
There’s an old southern legend that dogwoods grew in Jerusalem — and that one gave its wood for Jesus’s cross. Because of this, the dogwood was cursed (its short stature a ‘punishment’ for being the wood of death) but it also became a blessing. Blessing? For on each twisted branch burst forth petals of lightness and light.
So let’s leave the dogwood’s story and look at our stories — your story and my story. People often use the term “storied past.” Well, a storied past is something all of us have.
In talking with a friend a few days ago, I asked, “How is your heart?” She began to tell me her story, which was a long and winding one that included many mini-stories — happy ones snd sad ones — from her life’s journey. Toward the end of her story, she said, “I feel as if I am cursed by God.” That was her bottom line answer to my question, “How is your heart?” Hers was an honest, heartbroken response that instantly revealed that her heart was not all that good, but that was a critical part of her story.
If you and I are honest, we will admit that our hearts were broken and hurting at several places in our stories. Recalling our brokenhearted times is something we always do when we tell our stories, and it’s an important part of the telling. My story and yours is never complete if we leave out the heartbroken moments, for at those points, what feels like God’s curse almost always transforms into God’s grace.
If not for our heartbroken moments, the hurting places in our hearts might never “burst forth with lightness and light.” Our heartbroken moments change us and grow us. They set us on better paths and they embrace our pain with grace. Our heartbroken moments give us pause, and in that pause, we find that once again, our hearts are good. Our broken hearts are once again peaceful hearts — healed, restored, transformed, filled with God’s grace.
How is your heart? That is a question we would do well to ask ourselves often, because languishing with our heartbreak for long spans of time can cause our stories to be stories mostly of pain. Instead, stop right here in this post for just a few moments and ask yourself, “How is my heart?”
Your answer may well be your path to a contemplative, sacred pause that can become a moment of healing, a time for God’s grace to embrace whatever is broken in your heart and to transform it into love, light and hope. So don’t be afraid to look into your heart when pain is there. In looking, you may find reasons, many and and complex, that are causing deep pain and brokenness. You may also find the healing touch of the Spirit of God waiting there for you and offering healing grace — a Godburst of new hope.
May your story be filled always with times when your was light with joy and times when your heart was broken with loss, mourning, discouragement, disappointment. Both create your extraordinary story — the joyful parts and the sorrowful parts. So tell your story again and again to encourage yourself and to give the hope of God’s healing grace to all who hear it.
I remember a beloved hymn that is a prayer for the Spirit of God to “descend upon my heart.” May this be your prayer today.
Spirit of God, descend upon my heart; Wean it from earth; through all its pulses move. Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art, And make me love Thee as I ought to love.
Hast Thou not bid me love Thee, God and King? All, all Thine own, soul, heart and strength and mind. I see Thy cross; there teach my heart to cling: Oh, let me seek Thee, and, oh, let me find!
Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh; Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear, To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh; Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.
Teach me to love Thee as Thine angels love, One holy passion filling all my frame; The kindling of the heav’n-descended Dove, My heart an altar, and Thy love the flame.
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.