Into This Dark and Silent Night

The First Sunday of Advent
December 1, 2019

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INTO THIS SILENT NIGHT

Into this silent night
as we make our weary way
we know not where,
just when the night becomes its darkest
and we cannot see our path,
just then
is when the angels rush in,
their hands full of stars.

— Ann Weems

All of us find ourselves in dark places — when the darkness is thick, when we are immersed in silence, when we try our best to make our weary way but the way ahead is veiled.

How disconcerting it is when the night becomes its darkest and we cannot see our path. I have been in that kind of place, and I imagine you have as well. It’s dark when you lose a loved one; when you relocate to a different, unknown place; when you must be away from those you love and who love you back; when a divorce brings you grief and uncertainty; when your children are in trouble; when you suffer an illness or endure a major surgery or treatment. The list of dark seasons of life is endless, personal, hiding in the depths of our wounded places.

We feel a deep kind of despair that does not seem to lift. We hold inside us invisible wounds of the soul and spirit that cannot be healed quickly or easily. Healing of the soul is a long, slow process but it does happen as time brings healing grace. Still, we experience the darkness at a time when the world around us is trying to rush us ever so quickly into Christmas. It is to our benefit if we can hold back and let the darkness call us to places we have never been. Gayle Boss expresses it like this:

Advent, to the Church Fathers, was the right naming of the season when light and life are fading. They urged the faithful to set aside four weeks to fast, give, and pray — all ways to strip down, to let the bared soul recall what it knows beneath its fear of the dark, to know what Jesus called “the one thing necessary”: that there is One who is the source of all life, One who comes to be with us and in us, even, especially, in darkness and death. One who brings a new beginning.

I wonder if in this Advent season I can let my “bared soul recall what it knows beneath its fear of the dark?” I wonder for all of us, will we let Advent be a time of waiting, a time of hoping without knowing, a time of emptying so that we can be filled with God’s Presence? Will we take time to allow the Advent darkness to do its work in us? Because the beautiful hope of Advent is that while we are waiting, lingering in its darkness, just when we realize we cannot see our path “is when angels rush in, their hands full of stars.

Amen.

From the Rising of the Sun

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Just after sunrise on Arkansas’ Mount Nebo. Photography by Brad Burleson.

Praise the Lord!
Praise, O servants of the Lord;
praise the name of the Lord.

Blessed be the name of the Lord
from this time on and forevermore.

From the rising of the sun to its setting
the name of the Lord is to be praised.

The Lord is high above all nations,
and his glory above the heavens.

Who is like the Lord our God,
who is seated on high,
who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?

He raises the poor from the dust,
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.

He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.

Praise the Lord!

— Psalm 113 (NRSV)

The Palmist assures us that the sun rises and sets. The Psalmist speaks to us of the comfort of sameness, of something we can count on. But this Psalm says more. The Psalmist pictures God, not only as One who is to be praised, but also a God who is the helper of the poor and needy. This is a God-image that we need in these troubled times. The Psalmist’s story sings with praise to God, but then continues on, showing us a God who raises up those who are poor and lifts up the people whose needs are great. And nestled in the words of this Psalm are the words we have long heard:

From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same,
the Lord’s name is to be praised. (KJV)

What a comfort it is to know that when the sun rises, God will be God, and when the same sun sets, God will be God — a constant, divine presence. The sun will sink into the horizon, leaving darkness around us. Yet, the next day will dawn, the sun will rise as it always does and God will still be present, ever watching over us.

There are times when I have needed to know that God was in place, times when I was poor in spirit, needy in heart. There are times when sadness and worry have silenced my praise. In such a time, I was unable to speak, unable to even name my silences. In those times, my silences were deep. They were hidden, unspoken places of pain.

What I now know is that my pain would ease, that my spirit would again rejoice, and that my silences would find words. That knowledge enables me to lift my eyes to the sunrise of God and to rest in the assurance of God’s abiding presence with me. 

When storm clouds threaten, God is present. 

When the earth beneath my feet quakes, God is present. 

In sunshine and in shadow, God is present.

Blessed be the name of the Lord
from this time on and forevermore.

From the rising of the sun to its setting
the name of the Lord is to be praised.

 

 

 

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On another note, please pray for me as I look toward my kidney transplant on November 15th. I am grateful that you are walking with me on this journey that often felt so frightening. Your thoughts and prayers mean so much. If you would like to read the story of my illness, please visit the Georgia Transplant Foundation’s website at this link:

http://client.gatransplant.org/goto/KathyMFindley

A “Go Fund Me” page is set up for contributions to help with the enormous costs related to the transplant, including medications, housing costs for the month we have to stay near the transplant center, and other unforeseeable costs for my care following the transplant. If you can, please be a part of my transplant journey by making a contribution at this link:

https://bit.ly/33KXZOj

 

 

Call a Blessing Down

 

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“Angels Blessing the Earth” by Suely Eloy

Bishop Steven Charleston writes, “Help me call a blessing down, for I think our poor old world needs it.”

I have listened this week to folk bemoaning the downward movement of the stock market that diminished their retirement savings. I have heard expressions of real fear about what the president is doing and might do. Many people seem despondent about children taken from their parents and placed in detention centers. People are angry that two young children have died there in the past couple of weeks. People are embarrassed about the way other countries now view America. Every day, there is another reason to feel concern, anger, fear,and many other emotions about what our nation has become.

And on top of that, we see the grief and pain of people all over the world. They face repressive governments in countries like North Korea, Syria, Equatorial Guinea, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Yemen, Uzbekistan and the Central African Republic.

They have endured natural disasters like the earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia, volcanoes in Guatemala and Hawaii, the dust storm in India, the wildfires in California, flooding and mudslides in Japan, numerous earthquakes around the world. People are living in countries in the midst of wars that persist for decades.

They have witnessed with horror events like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school ahooting, the Waffle House shooting, the shooting at Santa Fe High School, the Capital Gazette shooting, the Jeffersontown, Kentucky shooting, the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, the Thousand Oaks bar shooting, the Chicago Mercy Hospital shooting. All over the world, disasters — natural disasters and disasters caused by humans — have the power to bring us to our knees.

On our knees is perhaps the very place we must be. And as we fall to our knees to pray for our world, perhaps we might whisper the Hebrew phrase, Tikkum Olam, heal the world.  Perhaps we might repeat the prayer of Bishop Steven Charleston:

Help me call a blessing down, for I think our poor old world needs it, a blessing of peace, a blessing of the ordinary, a blessing of national life without chaos and personal life without fear. 

Help me pray a healing down, for I know how much we need it, a strengthening of the bonds between us, simple respect and patient listening, a new beginning for us all. 

Help me welcome the sacred down, the wide-winged Spirit, drawn from every corner of heaven, to walk among us once more, to show us again how it can be, when justice is the path and love the destination.

Amen.

 

 

Holy Ground

470DF6B9-F261-497E-8A59-58EABE4E7898My friend, Buddy Shurden, shared an experience he had while serving his first pastorate near Ethel. Mississippi. He tells of his frequent habit of calling on Early Steed to pray. He wrote that Mr. Early Steed always began his prayer the same way, every time. 

“Lord, we come to you one more time from this low ground of sin, shame and sorrow.”

Buddy Shurden reflects on the term Mr. Early used, “low ground,” and adds, “Oh! If Early could see us now.”

Indeed. Low ground.

We are standing in the wake of waves of violence . . .

Fifteen pipe bombs mailed to two former presidents, a former secretary of state, a news outlet, and others;

Eleven worshippers killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in Mr. Rogers’ real-life neighborhood;

Maurice Stallard, 69, and Vickie Jones, 67, killed in a Kroger in Jeffersontown, Kentucky.

We are standing on pretty low ground these days. There’s no doubt about that. Yet, even in grief, with memorial vigils going on around the nation, we can still hear the faint voice of Mr. Rogers singing, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

And that resonates with us as we watch neighbors grieving alongside neighbors, Muslim neighbors reaching out to help their Jewish neighbors at Tree of Life, and the news outlet that was targeted with multiple pipe bombs speaking the names of the victims and telling bits of their life stories.

Maybe it feels like low ground we’re standing on these days. But if we look around, and listen, and watch while genuine love is being shared between grieving brothers and sisters, and friends who are grieving with them, we have to admit that this ground we’re now standing on might just feel more like holy ground.

Weep with Those Who Weep

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

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

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

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

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

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

― Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam

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

Losing Hope

 

Losing Hope And Interest Quote Motivational Quotes For Hope Pics 15+ Don't Lose Hope Quotes With

Dr. Michelle Bengtson

How do we live after we have lost hope? How do we live with brokenness? What do we say to a broken world? What do we do with our broken hearts? The truth is that each day can bring us heartbreak. Any season of life can bring us failure. At times, the struggle is so intense that we do lose hope. 

Khalil Gibran has written that “out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” 

How true that is, that our suffering makes us stronger, that our scars make us resilient. Most of us move through life steeled against any suffering. We bravely put on our body armor to protect us against every assault. We refuse to allow our vulnerability to rise within us.

I have been strengthened by Brené Brown’s book, “Rising Strong.” She points us to wisdom that names hope is a function of struggle, and challenges us to not be afraid to lean into discomfort.

Why would we want to do that, you might ask? Who in their right mind really wants to invite adversity into their lives? Why would we want to be vulnerable? We need to be strong. We need to live into courage. We need to be impenetrable, tough and impervious to anything that might hurt us.

Here’s what Brené Brown says about that:

Hiding out, pretending and armoring up against vulnerability are killing us: killing our spirits, our hope, our potential, our creativity . . . Our love, our faith, our joy. We’re sick of being afraid and sick of hustling for our self-worth. We want to be brave, but deep inside of we know that being brave requires us to be vulnerable.

“No adversity, no hope,” she writes. “Fall. Get up. Try again.”

As people of faith, we can speak, through our own heartbreak, to a broken world. We can offer the message that if you feel that you have to give up, hope whispers, “try one more time.”

When we live in life’s fullness, with our whole hearts, we will always know heartbreak. We will push to try something new, and sometimes we will fail completely. We will experience disappointment. But without those heartbreak times, we will never know that we can get beyond them.

If we never fall, we will never know that we really can get up. If we never lose hope, we will never experience the joy of finding it again.

If we never lose hope, we will never know new hope, fresh and pointing us toward the skies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hands that Made the Stars

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Comfort in the magnificent Arkansas skies. Photography by Steven Nawojczyk.

As I write on this day, I am aware that many friends are in the throes of darkness and despair. Some are facing devastating medical diagnoses. Some are yearning to have a child and are going through difficult medical procedures. Some are grieving for a family member in trouble. Some are waiting with hope for a cure for a disease that is bringing them to their knees. Others are enduring harsh medical treatments, hoping their lives will be saved. Many of them are at the point of losing all hope.

It hurts me deeply every time I am at a loss for comforting words. A little part of my heart breaks because I know I cannot “do something” to ease the suffering. And so I search for my own comfort as I search for ways to hold my friends in the light. As always, I am led to Scripture, not for easy answers, miraculous cures, or an instant panacea. I peek into the Bible to find words that will lift up hope in the middle of dark days and darker nights.

Often the words I find point me to the skies, as if gazing into an expanse beyond imagination might open my eyes to a radiant and holy hope. In truth, the words of Scripture do point me to hope. 

From the Prophet Isaiah:

Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. O Jacob, how can you say the LORD does not see your troubles?

Have you never heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.

— Isaiah 40:26-29

From the Psalmist:

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers — the moon and the stars you have set in place — what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?

— Psalm 8:3-4

And so whoever you are, whatever pain you are carrying, know that the hands that made the stars are holding your heart.

Unanswered Prayer

EE073AB1-5433-429E-90B2-4400B2C20C2BUnanswered prayer leaves me disconsolate. At times,  I have offered pleas to a God that seemed absent. On difficult days, I lifted up my longings to a God who was often silent. There were times when I languished in God’s silences and lamented as one who has no hope. Sometimes I cried out as one whose faith is spent.

There you have it: my candid and disturbingly honest confession about unanswered prayer. I could offer excuses for it. Or I could try to minimize the reality that this is a serious lapse of my faith. I could try to explain how, through the years, I have known trauma and trouble, as I hope for your sympathy. Or I could rest comfortably in your commiseration with me, together admitting that God is indeed absent, silent and uncaring.

But to believe those things about God would harm my faith and yours.

Good news: I am not alone in my feeling of abandonment. Remember David, who in his darkest hour, felt that God was absent:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?  (Psalm 13:1)

And hear also these words from the Psalmist that bring to light a sense of abandonment by God:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
   (Psalm 22:1-2)

So back to unanswered prayer.

To buy in to a “silent God” theology would be to deny that God has, in fact, sustained me on every step of my faith journey. When God seemed most absent, God’s presence in time became most clear. When I felt that God had abandoned me, I soon felt embraced by God’s strong, grace-filled hands. When I cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” I found God very near, saying to me: “I will never leave you or forsake you.”  (Isaiah 41:10; Hebrews 13:5)

Most of all, I discovered that unanswered prayer, in the throes of deep angst, creates a stronger faith and a more abiding hope. I love the hymn, “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart” especially this stanza:

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.*

Amen.

*Hymn Text: George Croley, 1854, public domain)

Please take a few minutes to hear this beautiful hymn In the video below:

 

 

 

 

A Life Breathtakingly Beautiful

 

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Art by Darlene Gibson-Piper

Life can be tricky. Life is a living thing just waiting to grab you and pull you down, or so it seems at times. Bad things do happen to all of us. Misfortune can suddenly engulf our lives and leave us, any of us, in a heap on the ground, heads bowed low.

I know all too well the stark reality of being brought low, but when I find myself face down in the dirt, I always recall one of the most comforting passages of Scripture.

We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed . . .

— 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (King James Version)

At this time in my life, I am thankfully on the other side of a very serious illness. But the year 2014 was a nightmare year for me and for my family. I spent a good part of that year in the hospital, at times leaning very close to death’s door. Much of that year, I spent in a mental haze not even knowing the loved ones caring for me. I was often very afraid, but one thought came to mind again and again.

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.
― Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith

So many people find themselves afraid and in despair. In the time it takes me to write this piece, five people in the U.S. will take their own lives. For every suicide, there will be 25 attempted suicides. Some people will suddenly and unexpectedly lose a job and plunge into financial ruin. Others will lose someone they love by death or divorce. Others will fall deeply into illness. Others will face the challenges of aging and lose their homes. Some will experience the terror of addiction. Every person — every person — will know the lowest depths of despair, an existence void of hope.

I love the writing of L.R. Knost. She is an award-winning author, feminist, and social justice activist, the founder and director of the children’s rights advocacy and family consulting group, Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, and the Editor-in-Chief of Holistic Parenting Magazine. Her writing is down to earth and uplifting, always filled with snippets of pure wisdom. This is what she writes about life.

Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and awful it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.

She is so spot-on about life, so thoroughly wise. She knows about muddling through the muck of life to the best part of it, the beautiful part of it. And that’s what we must do, muddle through until we get to the beauty. It is true that life doesn’t always get better. Sometimes the thing that breaks us down just lingers with us and keeps us on the lowest ground of desperation. Yet there is that life-giving, life-saving thing called grace, the gentle and persistent grace that is ever-present with us during every low season in life.

Here is the reality, the tried and true foundation of truth that keeps us moving forward after a difficult patch. Again, L.R. Knost describes it.

Life doesn’t always get better.
But you do. You get stronger.
You get wiser. You get softer.
With tattered wings you rise.
And the world watches in wonder at the breathless beauty of a human who survived life.

Going back to that wonderful passage in 2 Corinthians, we find this:

. . . We do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

— 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 (New International Version)

This is, indeed, a soul-healing life, utterly beautiful during the good times, but still heart-breaking and frightening at other times. You and I will pick ourselves up from the dusty earth again and again. We will most certainly rise to our feet for another day. We will find the gentle, persistent grace that holds us upright. We will not lose heart. We will make it to the breathtakingly beautiful part of our lives. Count on it!

Through the Fire

892264FE-E803-4E0E-B598-C7503D77F674Sometimes life hurts.
We suffer. We heal. We move on.
But sometimes life hits back. Harder.
Lethal in its cruelty.
Shattering us into a million glittering shards
of pain and loss and anguish.
And we suffer, too broken to heal,
to become what we once were.
— L.R Knost

How deeply I know that feeling of brokenness. I am personally acquainted — well acquainted — with the lethal cruelty that life can present. To heal the past requires that I pay close attention to the spiritual and emotional places within me in the present, to make sure I am healthy and whole right now. Only then will I find the strength to invite the pain of the past into my psyche so that I can face off against it.

I have learned through the years that it is not a good option to leave past pain where it is, to let it occupy the place within me it has claimed. This writing by L.R Knost is one of the best descriptions I have ever seen on healing from past pain.

Healing is not a straight and narrow road
that leads from darkness to light.
There’s no sudden epiphany to take
us from despair to serenity, no orchestrated
steps to move us from hurting to healed.
Healing is a winding mountain road with steep
climbs and sudden descents, breathtaking views
and breath-stealing drop-offs, dark tunnels
and blinding exposures, dead ends and
endless backtracks, rest stops and break downs,
sheer rock walls and panoramic vistas.
Healing is a journey with no destination,
because healing is the journey of every lifetime.

Indeed, “healing is the journey of every lifetime.” The reality is that the only way to heal from the pain of the past is to walk directly through the center of that pain in the present. Does it feel safer to just let the pain continue to smolder in the dark parts of myself? Of course it feels safer. It feels terrifying, in fact, downright terrifying.

But the dark places in me will never heal spontaneously. I have to conquer the fear and open up to the possibility that God’s Spirit can breathe life back into those embers of pain snd rekindle the fires of unhealed hurts. So as I sit cautiously at the very edge of the fires of past pain, I cannot help but recall the comforting words of the prophet Isaiah.

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 so many times, I have found deep comfort in singing the beloved hymn, How Firm a Foundation.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
 My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.
 The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
 Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.*

Text: Attr. to Robert Keen, ca. 1787.
Music: Attr. to J. Ellis, ca. 1889

So the flames aren’t there to burn me. The flames are there to light my way through pain to healing. At times, I have approached those flames with courage and confidence. But at other times, I met the flames with terror.

Courage or terror — it didn’t matter really. I just walked through it just as I was, and as I did, the hurt transformed into hope. I had wounds, for sure, and lasting scars. But the scars tell a story of the battles I won and the battles I lost, and most importantly, the scars tell the story of a human who survived. So, in spite of fiery places of past pain, we learn to live as L.R. Knost says

. . . with the shards of pain and loss and anguish forever embedded in our souls,

and with shaking fingers we piece together the bloody fragments of who we were into a mosaic grotesque in its stark reality,

yet exquisite in its sharp-edged story of the tragic, breathless beauty of a human who survived life.

And we move on, often unaware of the light glittering behind us
showing others the way through the darkness.

This is a resilience we can be thankful for, a perseverance we can cherish, a strength straight from a present and faithful God that will ever — forever — sustain us. Amen.

 

* Hear the entire hymn, How Firm a Foundation, at this link:
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=G0S62se1hAE