Can’t Stay on the Mountaintop

909AB186-15E1-4DA7-9027-5FC7B28578BDChrist-followers will always know ascent and descent, knowing and not-knowing. I can recall so many spiritual retreats that ended too soon, leaving me with a reluctance to go back into ordinary time. I wanted to stay in the place where God’s Spirit was moving within me. But every single time, I had to go home, leaving the mountaintop of my transformative spiritual experience.

In the Scriptures, two companion pieces tell of a “God experience.” Moses on Mount Sinai and Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. When Moses is on Mount Sinai, God is somehow manifest in thick darkness. “You saw no shape on that day at Horeb.” (Deuteronomy 4:15) Moses “sees” and “hears” to some degree, yet YHWH does not allow Moses to see God’s “glory” or “face.” The most that Moses can see is, humorously, YHWH’s backside. God placed Moses in a cleft in the rock and covered him until He had passed by. Moses would not see his face.

The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”

And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock.When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

— Exodus 33:14-23 NIV

In the parallel story of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36; Mark 9:2-8; Matthew 17:1-9), there is first dazzling light. Yet a cloud soon overshadows the whole scene. Richard Rohr explains that “the epiphany is both light and darkness, knowability and unknowability, disclosure and non-disclosure.”

After the astounding experience on the mountain, Jesus deliberately walks with the disciples back down the mountain, onto the plain and desert of everyday life. Richard Rohr says that Jesus wanted to move the disciples “out of this enlightening, but also dangerously ego-inflating experience.”

We know that, always, we must return to the ordinary. We must come down from our mountaintops and walk on the rough road where life happens. We must experience the path’s twists and turns that take us through green pastures as well as through valleys of death’s shadow. That is the life we must live. Our Christian faith does not allow for permanent ascents. Mountaintop experiences for us are times of strength-gathering that make the rough roads bearable.

Jesus tells the disciples who witnessed his glorious transfiguration, “Don’t talk about it!” (Matthew 17:9). Because Jesus knew that talking too soon would only weaken the experience. Silence is important. Silence is necessary to preserve the sacred and the mysterious. Silence helps us remember how we felt on the “mountaintop.” And remembering helps us walk on, facing wherever life’s journey takes us with faith, confidence and perseverance. Thanks be to God. Amen.

At Any Age

D543405F-29D8-492C-B48A-4BB0EC12CF72I asked my husband a rather strange question last night. It was about my recent preaching at First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon. This was how I posed the question to him:

“You have listened to me preach a gazillion times in past years when I was young. But now do I just seem like a little old lady in the pulpit?”

Apologies to all little old ladies who might very well preach as prophetically as ever in a similar situation! But back to my question, and my husband’s response.

“No! Not at all,” he said. “If anything, you seemed more confident and powerful than I have ever seen you.”

So much for my feelings of being inadequate just because I am now a retired senior adult who has not preached a sermon in a very long time. The truth is I agreed with my husband. I felt very confident within myself. I believed that I had received a holy and prophetic word from God, and was honored that God (and my pastor) chose me to speak that word. When I stood in the pulpit, I felt the memory and the wisdom of ministries past, all of them, and that recognition of God’s workings within me over the years filled me with assurance.

Still, we are used to prophets being young, like Jeremiah and John the Baptist. Prophets, after all, are given the mission of looking ahead. On the other hand, we think of elders as caretakers of the past. 

Pope Francis spoke about this in 2014 in his homily on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. In that homily, he asks us to see the mission of our elders as looking ahead to the future. And looking ahead to the future as persons who possess the wisdom of age. He gives us Simeon and Anna as our role models, naming them “senior citizen prophets.” And what role models they are! Among all the stories in Scripture, I have long been inspired and moved by the stories of Anna and Simeon.

In the story, this older woman and man have just met the new parents, Mary and Joseph, who were bringing their baby Jesus to the Temple. Pope Francis preached it with these words.

“It is a meeting between young people who are full of joy in observing the Law of the Lord, and the elderly who are filled with joy for the action of the Holy Spirit. It is a unique encounter between observance and prophecy, where young people are the observers and the elderly are prophetic!”

This is their story from the second chapter of Luke, verses 21-38:

And when eight days had passed, before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law, then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said,

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed — and a sword will pierce even your own soul — to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

— Luke 2: 21-38 (KJV, NASB)

Simeon, a righteous and devout man who was looking for the consolation of Israel, was graced by the Holy Spirit. And in that Spirit, he came into the temple, finally holding Jesus in his arms and blessing him. This was the moment Simeon had hoped for over many years. And after prophesying about the child Jesus, he blessed the parents and began Mary’s preparation for the pain she was destined to experience when her son was crucified.

And the Prophetess Anna, now advanced in age, was there “at that very moment” the Scripture says. Anna never left the temple and she served God “night and day with fasting and prayer.” She lifted up her prayers of thanks to God for this child. And on top of that she proclaimed the message of hope that this child had come! Glorious news it was to “all those who were looking for the redemption of Israel.”

The stories of Anna and Simeon give us a portrait of elderly citizens, full of life’s wisdom and the Holy Spirit, who prophetically present to the world Jesus as Messiah!

And their story is full of hope for us, too. Perhaps those of us who are “of a certain age” are truly senior citizen prophets. Perhaps the hope we need to hear is the hope that, at any age, God calls us to prophetic mission. At any age, God will use our voices to speak hope to a world in despair, a world waiting for the consolation that comes only from God’s Spirit.

Wind and Flame

2E00E9CE-6DD5-449C-A11E-A0C9B7874B61Pentecost Sunday! I won’t let it pass without giving thanks for the Spirit-wind that rushes through my life. In and out, at times a gentle breeze, at times a rushing, mighty wind. I enjoy a windswept life, always able to count on the wind of the Spirit to move me where I need to be.

The Holy Spirit, though, comes in other forms. How it comforts me to experience the Holy Spirit as a descending dove, peaceful, gentle, bringing the accepting voice of God as it did in the story of the baptism of Jesus.

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”   (Mark 1: 9-11)

I do experience that kind of Holy Spirit — the descent upon me of a gentle peace, a comforting presence that declares, “You are my beloved daughter.” What an uplifting experience that affirms who I am. I need the Holy Spirit who whispers to me, “You are enough.”

Still, the rushing, mighty Spirit-wind is what I long for. It’s what I hope for. I wait expectantly, full of faith that I will know beyond a doubt the very moment that the Holy Spirit comes upon me. 

Like the wind that appeared on the Day of Pentecost, the wind of the Spirit breathes life into me, again and again. 

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)

After this, in a time of confusion over what had happened and the claim that the people were drunk with wine, Peter stood up, lifted his voice, and preached a sermon.

 . . . this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

 And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God,
That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh;

Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your young men shall see visions,
Your old men shall dream dreams.
And on My menservants and on My maidservants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days;

And they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:16-18)

My how we love the Spirit’s wind. But something else appeared on the Day of Pentecost. Fire! The Holy Spirit as flame can be shocking. It can be fierce and unbridled, the power of fire, the incinerating blaze — all-consuming, refining —a force that can destroy in an instant. 

Can I be grateful, also, for the presence of Spirit fire in my life? Is it Spirit fire that gives me tenacity? Is it Spirit fire that refines me with flame that, even when reduced to ashes, I miraculously emerge alive, completely changed, with a heart rekindled and a soul ablaze for God’s greatest use?

One of the most moving hymns for Pentecost was written in 1983 by Thomas H. Troeger.

Wind who makes all winds that blow—
    gusts that bend the saplings low,
    gales that heave the sea in waves,
    stirrings in the mind’s deep caves—
aim your breath with steady power
    on your church, this day, this hour.
Raise, renew the life we’ve lost,
Spirit God of Pentecost.

Fire who fuels all fires that burn—
    suns around which planets turn,
    beacons marking reefs and shoals,
    shining truth to guide our souls—
come to us as once you came;
    burst in tongues of sacred flame!
Light and Power, Might and Strength,
fill your church, its breadth and length.

Holy Spirit, Wind and Flame,
    move within our mortal frame.
Make our hearts an altar pyre.
Kindle them with your own fire.
Breathe and blow upon that blaze
    till our lives, our deeds, and ways 
    speak that tongue which every land 
    by your grace shall understand. 

I dare not add a single word of commentary to the sacred message of that hymn, but this is my sincerest prayer:

 . . . Come to us as once you came; burst in tongues of sacred flame!
Light and Power, Might and Strength, fill your church, its breadth and length.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

“Therefore, I have hope . . .”

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The quiet beauty of Arkansas. Photo by Steven Nawojczyk.

This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.

I have been without hope at times, disconsolate, forsaken, wondering why my faith seemed to fail me. My struggle overcame my hope even as I listened desperately to hear the Spirit of hope. I heard nothing. Day after day, in the long dark night of my soul’s anguish, I heard nothing.

That’s the thing about hope. She doesn’t shout our her presence. She doesn’t get your attention in a loud, thunderous manner. Hope, it seems to me, is the quiet whisper of the Holy Spirit that goes beyond your conscious mind deep into the depths of your soul. That is the only kind of hope that works, the only kind of hope that can comfort us in times of affliction. The Scripture offers a promise in the book of Romans: “By the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” 

The prophet Jeremiah speaks in the book of Lamentations with words filled with devastating pain. Certainly Jeremiah was a man of abiding and genuine faith. Yet, he suffered. Although it may not be our understanding, Jeremiah understood his times of anguish to be at the hand of the God he served. In hearing Jeremiah’s words of lament, we hear his loss of hope. Listen to this prophet’s heart.

I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light;

against me alone he turns his hand again and again, all day long.

though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer;

He has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked. He has filled me with bitterness . . . My soul is bereft of peace;

I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.”

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,  his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

— Lamentations 3: 1-3; 8-10; 17-24 (New Revised Standard Version)

To reassure the prophet, God did not shout out a proclamation of new hope. There were no loud, boisterous declarations. Instead, the prophet calls to mind the mercies of God. And as he calls God’s faithfulness to mind, his soul speaks of hope.

If you are a long-time Baptist, you may have sung an old hymn that speaks of the quiet presence of hope. The hymn, Whispering Hope,* promises a gentle hope that comforts us in a whisper. Here is a portion of that hymn.

Soft as the voice of an angel breathing a lesson unheard,

Hope with a gentle persuasion whispers her comforting word:

Wait till the darkness is over, Wait till the tempest is done,

Hope for the sunshine tomorrow, after the shower is gone.

Whispering hope, oh, how welcome thy voice, making my heart in its sorrow rejoice.

— Septimus Winner, 1868

Hope with a gentle persuasion whispers her comforting word . . . To me, that sounds like the whisper of the Holy Spirit who, in our times of despair, in the times when we feel that we have lost all hope, brings her comfort, her assurance, her peace to us again and again.

May you hear the Spirit’s whisper when you need it most.

And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13)

Amen.

 

* If you would like to listen to a lovely arrangement of “Whispering Hope” sung by Hayley Westenra, or if you have not heard this hymn in a while, please visit this link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=zj3N9LE9FPs

 

 

 

 

Pentecostal Power

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Art created by Jody Richards. The text is an adaptation by Satish Kumar of a mantra from the Hindu Upanishads and is commonly referred to as the “World Peace Prayer.”

 

With joy and exuberance, we used to sing an old Gospel hymn, our voices echoing through the rafters of the church house: “Lord, send the old time power, the Pentecostal power . . . that sinners be converted and Thy name glorified.”

That was our mission: that sinners be converted and that God’s name would be glorified. Over the years, we may well have lost some of our evangelical zeal. We may have developed differing views about what it means to glorify God. It’s a sign of the times, I suppose, times that are rife with the fear of terrorism, war, and the destruction of our way of life.

Some Christian leaders seem to believe that glorifying God in these days means advocating for a ruthless national counter-terrorism policy. In a 2004 interview, Rev. Jerry Falwell recommended that we “blow them [terrorists] away in the name of the Lord.” (CNN 10.24.04) I cannot fathom that such a view is inspired by the One we know as the Prince of Peace. I cannot imagine that Pentecostal power means power against persons and nations we have defined as our enemies.

One of the most genuine truth-tellers of my generation is my good friend Ken Sehested. He never tires of speaking prophetically about all things related to peace and justice. These are his words from an article entitled “The Things that Make for Peace” published at prayerandpolitiks.org.

People of the Way remain committed to a peculiar allegiance and a distinctive conviction: that all violence, of every sort, is a form of evangelism for the Devil . . . We make this profession of our faith even knowing that we ourselves are not immune from the lust for vengeance. As César Chávez, the great practitioner of nonviolent struggle for justice, said: “I am a violent man learning to be nonviolent.”

The meek are getting ready. And they welcome the company of any with eyes to see and ears to hear Christ’s arising, arousing, and disruptive invitation to join Pentecost’s Resurrection Movement. Now, as much as ever, we are in a “fear not” moment. Wait a week—Pentecostal power, with its assault on earth’s beleaguered condition and seemingly endless walls of hostility, is coming. Babel’s confused tongues, nationalist claims, conflicting cultures, and racial enmity are being reversed. Lord, send the old-time pow’r. [*]

Yes, God. Send the old-time power that inspired us to wage peace, to condemn injustice, to love our enemies. Meet us inside the breezes of Pentecost where Holy Spirit wind and Pentecostal fire will descend upon us once again. Grant us the courage to use our power to condemn hostile power, to live into our covenant, and to return to our first love and highest calling: “that sinners be converted and Thy name glorified.”

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

– I Corinthians 12:13, NASB
[*] From the hymn’s refrain, “Pentecostal Power,” by Charles H. Gabriel.