A Holy Thread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life Is a Gift

IMG_5772

Today I read an inspiring blog post written by my long-time friend, Guy Sayles. He recalls his medical diagnosis of Multiple Myeloma three years ago and describes the experience of “vivid remembering of hard days of treatment.”

Around the same time, I entered a time of serious and unexpected illness which led to a diagnosis of end stage kidney disease. I spent most of 2014 in the hospital, literally fighting for my life on at least three occasions. My husband was terrified. Mercifully, I knew nothing of the urgency of what was happening to me.

Guy Sayles writes of a reality that I completely understand when he says, “The first two years of my having Multiple Myeloma were so challenging that I didn’t expect to be alive now. That I am is sheer and surprising gift to me.” (http://www.fromtheintersection.org/blog/2017/8/8/its-all-gift)

For me, it was not so much that I expected imminent death, but throughout my long period of recovery and rehabilitation, I never expected to be able to care for myself again. That I now am able to live a relatively normal life is most certainly a gift of grace I never expected. Healing and recuperating was much like a resurrection for me. I got my life back.

So my constant question to myself is what will I do with this gift of life? I am inspired by the way Mary Oliver asks this question in her poem, The Summer Day.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

I am compelled to answer that question, to use the gift of my life as a gift to others. To care for people with compassion. To do justice where oppression reigns. To make peace in the face of violence. To scatter hope in the places where despair has taken hold.

I hope you will truly hear the way Guy Sayles expresses this.

The awareness which gently and repeatedly washed over me was, “Life is gift and my response may, can, and should be gift-giving.”

And my calling is to lavish gift-giving—to share freely and fully whatever I manage to harvest. There’s no need now for barns and bins, for storing up for another day, or for worrying about markets and prices. “Freely you have received,” Paul said, “freely give.”

These days, I aspire, in every dimension of life, to this the wisdom Annie Dillard offered to writers:

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now . . . something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water . . . The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is shameful, it is destructive.  Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” (The Writing Life, pp. 78-79)

Amen and amen. May God make it so.

Nearer, My God, to Thee

Enlight136

While enjoying some quiet time on my new pergola swing, I listened to the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee” sung by Brigham Young University’s male choral group, Vocal Point. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I was transported to a sacred place in those few moments. The hymn I had sung for so many years took on fresh, new meaning for me. It could be because of my aging, my illness, my need for a closer relationship with God. Perhaps the hymn spoke to me simply because I needed it. I have long loved this old hymn and its simple, but profound, message.

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.

Refrain:
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God, to Thee.

There let the way appear, steps unto Heav’n;
All that Thou sendest me, in mercy giv’n;
Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee.

Then, with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee.

Or, if on joyful wing cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward I’ll fly,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.

– Lyrics by Sarah F. Adams, 1805–1848
Music by Lowell Mason, 1792–1872
Published 1841, Hymn in public domain.

What makes this particular performance of the hymn so compelling is the inclusion of a counter melody. While a solo voice sings the words of “Nearer, My God to Thee” and paints a portrait of a life drawing near to God, the chorus sings a counter melody in Latin. The music is stunningly beautiful. The message reaches the depths of a soul in need of God’s presence. One listener described it like this:

So wonderful. It feels like angels paying a visit to earth with a hymn.

So I want to share with you the Latin text and the translation, which brings new meaning to the hymn.

In articulo mortis // At the moment of death

Caelitus mihi vires // My strength is from heaven

Deo adjuvante non timendum // God helping, nothing should be feared

In perpetuum // Forever

Dirige nos Domine // Direct us, O Lord

Ad augusta per angusta // To high places by narrow roads

Sic itur ad astra // Such is the path to the stars

Excelsior // Ever upward

Why, you might ask, am I writing a music review on my blog today? I suppose my words are an attempt to describe a need for the nearness of God. In times of grief, when sorrow overwhelms, when darkness is all we see, drawing near to a God of compassion is our healing balm and our highest hope. As I contemplate this truth, I am thinking of what was called the greatest disaster in maritime history — April 14, 1912 — the S.S. Titanic sank after striking an iceberg. As the ship disappeared into the vast ocean, Mr. W. Hartley, the ship’s bandmaster, led the band in playing “Nearer, My God, To Thee.”

I pray that, in whatever crisis you face, you will rest in the nearness of God. And I invite you to listen to BYU Vocal Point’s performance of this hymn:

 

A Perfect Place to Die

IMG_5744

Japan’s Aokigahara Suicide Forest

I watched a very thoughtful and intriguing movie last week — The Sea of Trees. The film was captivating, telling the story of a despondent professor who despaired of life and searched for a way to end his life. His search led him to Aokigahara, a forest in Japan known also as the Sea of Trees or the Suicide Forest.  Aokigahara Forest has been home to over 500 confirmed suicides since the 1950s. It is called “the perfect place to die” and is the world’s second most popular place for suicide.

One might say that suicide is not the most uplifting subject for a blog. But suicide is a very real and present tragedy in the world. Consider these startling statistics reported by The Jason Foundation. (http://prp.jasonfoundation.com/facts/youth-suicide-statistics/)

▪️Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24. (2015 CDC)

▪️Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18. (2015 CDC)

▪️More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined.

▪️Each day in our nation, there are an average of over 5,240 attempts by young people grades 7-12.

▪️Each year, 30,000 Americans die by suicide. An additional 500,000 Americans attempt suicide annually. (http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/suicide)

Some people have found help through suicide prevention programs. Others choose to turn to 24-hour suicide helplines available around the clock to provide crisis intervention. (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/) Still others find that it is their faith that raises fresh hope within them and lifts their sight above the darkest of days.

There is a special kind of renewed hope when people who have been on the brink of taking their own lives share their stories of faith, the depth of faith that ultimately gave them the inner strength to live. Samuel Trevor Francis (1835-1925) told such a story of faith. He experienced a spiritual turning point as a teenager, contemplating suicide one night on a bridge over the River Thames. An unexpected renewal of his faith saved his life that night. At age 41, Samuel Trevor Francis recalled the faith that saved him and penned the words of the well-known Christian hymn, “O the Deep Deep, Love of Jesus.”

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!
Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!
Underneath me, all around me, is the current of Thy love
Leading onward, leading homeward to Thy glorious rest above!

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, spread His praise from shore to shore!
How He loveth, ever loveth, changeth never, nevermore!
How He watches o’er His loved ones, died to call them all His own;
How for them He intercedeth, watcheth o’er them from the throne!

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, love of every love the best!
‘Tis an ocean vast of blessing, ’tis a haven sweet of rest!
O the deep, deep love of Jesus, ’tis a heaven of heavens to me;
And it lifts me up to glory, for it lifts me up to Thee!

But let’s go back to where we began —  the best place to die.

Many years ago, I looked for that place, a way out of many years of relentless, chronic pain. I traveled alone to Mayo Clinic to receive two weeks of specialized medical care and physical therapy.  Perhaps a city very far from my home would be the best place to die. After an upsetting treatment at the clinic, I managed to make it to my hotel room. I took out all the bottles of prescription medication I had with me. The phone rang, and a friend distracted my focus from the tablets I had poured out in front of me. And through our conversation, with tears falling on my freshly-made bed, I learned something very life-giving about the depth of my faith, and most of all, about the depth of God’s abiding, ever-present love.

And so today I can say with strong assurance that the best place to die — or to live — is in middle of the deep, deep love of Jesus, a love that is for me “vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!” A love that restored hope in the midst of my despair. A love that was enough.

Today, as I silently sing “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus,” the words of that beautiful hymn ring real and true. God’s love truly was underneath me and all around me, even on that cold and lonely night in Minnesota.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

Raise Beautiful Trouble!

IMG_5737Raise beautiful trouble!

Resist! Resist all actions that hinder peace and cause the madness of warring. Women have long dreamed of peace, dreaming of a world without war, hatred, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and all forms of injustice. Our Jewish brothers and sisters proclaim “Tikkun Olam” calling us to heal the world. Tukkun Olam is a jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world. The phrase is found in the Mishnah, a body of classical rabbinic teachings and is often used when discussing issues of social policy.

Raise beautiful trouble!

Diane Wilson climbed over the fence at the White House, skinning her stomach on the steel barbs. Two weeks later she got a visit from two guys in black suits, black shoes, and wearing sunglasses, Secret Service agents who wanted to know if she had an authority complex.

Diane is active in the organization, CODEPINK, a women-led grassroots organization working to end U.S. wars and militarism, support peace and human rights initiatives, and redirect tax dollars into healthcare, education, green jobs and other life-affirming programs. (http://www.codepink.org)

Century after century women have yearned for and worked for peace. Through the years, women have walked hand in hand as they reflected on ways to create a just and peaceful world. Maybe it’s just a woman thing! Julia Ward Howe proclaimed these words in 1870.

Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears! . . . We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”

— Julia Ward Howe, 1870, From her Mother’s Day Proclamation for Peace

IMG_5734

Art by Ayla Mahler

The dream persists. The peacemakers persevere, longing for a day when all people will “hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war.” (Isaiah 2:4 NASB)

The words of T.E. Lawrence offer stunning hope for better days.

. . . the dreamers of the day are dangerous men and women, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible.

Sisters (and brothers too), continue to dream of peace with eyes wide open. Raise beautiful trouble! Resist! Persist! The peace of the world is your reward.

 

 

Persevering Hope

IMG_5700

 

PAX

(pɑks ; päks; pæks ; paks). noun

1. the Roman goddess of peace, identified with the Greek Irene

2. sign of peace

 

The Reverend Jennifer Butler was wearing a white clergy stole with Pax embroidered over a cross and an olive branch. Enlight126She Was singing as police officers restrained her, arms behind her back, both thumbs held tightly together with plastic straps. Next to be arrested was The Reverend Traci Blackmon, who chanted “justice, mercy” again and again as police restrained her and led her away.

The Charlotte Examiner described the event, The March to Save Medicaid, Save Lives.

Capitol Hill police arrested the president of the North Carolina NAACP on Thursday morning after he led a protest of the Senate’s proposed health care repeal-and-replace bill.

Rev. William J. Barber II, who was protesting in his role as president of Repairers of the Breach, was released from jail by 2 p.m. On that morning, July 13, 2017, Dr. Barber and other faith leaders led a group of about 50 people to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office in the Capitol.

The group gathered a few blocks away at 10 a.m. and walked to the Capitol, chanting and singing along the way. Eleven protesters were arrested.

Read more at this link:

http://www.charlotteobserver.com/latest-news/article161200048.html#storylink=cpy

As I watched the live feed of this moral and courageous expression of civil disobedience, I hoped that the police would not arrest The Reverend Dr. William Butler, who was obviously experiencing pain from his physical disabilities. I hoped that other faith leaders would not be arrested.

The band of justice-seekers, clergy and persons of all faiths, gathered together in a prophetic action to protect the 22 million Americans in danger of losing healthcare because of what the group calls “immoral Congressional legislation.” The Repairers of the Breach Facebook page gives details of the event.

Together, we’ll join in song and march through the halls of power, sending a moral message that we cannot cut Medicaid — a lifeline for so many children, seniors and people with disabilities.

My heart was with them in Washington. My prayers pleaded for hope for a brighter day, for justice for those who are oppressed, for peace for every person. My mind recalled the words of the prophet Isaiah . . .

And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you always;
And will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.

You will be like a watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.

Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins;
You will raise up the age-old foundations;
And you will be called the repairer of the breach,
The restorer of the streets in which to dwell.

– Isaiah 58:10-12

I watched them stand bravely as they faced the powers before them, living into the words spoken by Hannibal of Carthage, “We will either find a way or make one.” I listened to their voices echoing through the halls of the building, singing with persisting, persevering hope.

Ain’t gonna let injustice turn me around
Turn me around, turn me around
Ain’t gonna let injustice turn me around
I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’
Marchin’ up to freedom’s land.

Ain’t gonna let no jail cell turn me around
Turn me around, turn me around
Ain’t gonna let no jail cell turn me around
I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’
Marchin’ up to freedom’s land.

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
Turn me around, turn me around
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’
Marchin’ up to freedom’s land.

Repairers of the Breach — http://www.breachrepairers.org/

Beautiful and Terrible Things

IMG_5469

We live in a world where beautiful things happen every day. The dawn lights the dew of the night. The sun rises and warms the earth. The rain satisfies the thirsty ground. The foliage wears its lush green and the flowers bloom again and again.

Just in my own family new babies will soon be born. We will celebrate two high school graduations. Our young ones, just babies yesterday it seems, will begin college. To be sure, in the world beautiful things happen.

But terrible things will happen, too. A news story tells of an infant being found with almost a hundred rodent bites. An eight year old boy takes his own life. Syrian children are orphaned by war. The United Nations reports more than 14 million Yemenis are going hungry, 370,000 of them children. Certainly, in this world, terrible things will happen.

I am comforted by these words from Frederick Buechner.

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.

The challenge to our hearts is to live in the world without fear, to live courageously, to live fully with hope and joy.

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

– Isaiah 41:10

Chains

IMG_5468

Chains.

Some folks see a golden necklace with sparkling links. But others see chains as cruel symbols of enslavement. History records thousands of inhumane acts of enslavement. A review of history is about real people whose lives were oppressive, whose chains were heavy, whose slavery was permanent. We remember their lives with a sense of shame and we honor them with genuine repentance.

But we must also bring the reality of chains closer to home as we recall the times of our lives that held us in chains. Serious illnesses. Violent relationships. Troubled children. Careers that became personal enslavement. No, the chains that bound us were not made of steel. Instead, they were chains that bound our very being, holding us fast, oppressing our spirits.

In all of this, there is hope. It is the hope of God’s grace that empowers us to break free. I am reminded of one of my favorite Scripture passages.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

– Galatians 5:1, New International Version

Of one thing I am certain. God does not desire for us a life of enslavement, but graces us with the courage to free ourselves from all that holds us hostage. Life in Christ is not a life of chains. It is a life of freedom to live, to love, and to thrive. Though we may have been hurt by circumstances that left us in chains, our souls can never be chained.

Laurie Halse Anderson writes this in her brilliant novel series, Chains: Seeds of America.

She cannot chain my soul. Yes, she could hurt me. She’d already done so . . . I would bleed, or not. Scar, or not. Live, or not. But she could not hurt my soul, not unless I gave it to her.

Please listen to a beautiful arrangement of “Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone” sung by Noteworthy.  https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=X6Mtpk4jeVA

 

A Living Hope

Design

When an eight year old child takes his own life after being viciously bullied, a mother is left in deep bereavement  holding a deep sadness that will forever mark her life. Every day, life stories like hers come through on our news feeds. We hear them; we feel a moment of strong empathy; we move on to the next like task.

The reality is that any of us, all of us, may face the worse of life’s pain at any time. None of us is immune to tragedies that turn life upside down. Each of us will at times endure gale force winds that rearrange everything we hold dear.

As always, we are left to figure out how to navigate hard times, how to summon the faith we need to persevere. We must find within ourselves a living hope that cannot be destroyed. Only then will we be able to endure the difficulty life can hand us.

Often, I find wisdom and comfort in the words of Bishop Steven Charleston. This is what he writes about faith during difficult times.

It is hard. Life is hard. The losses, the sudden arrival of illness, the struggles within families, the pressure of a world trying to find a reason to hope. Spirituality that is sugar is no help in such a reality. Feel good philosophy cannot withstand the weight of what many of us have had to face. If it is to endure the gale force winds of chance, faith must be deeply rooted, anchored in trust, strengthened by courage, able to bend but never break. So here is a prayer for all of you living in the real world: may you find your faith as tough as you are and as resilient as the love that keeps you going.

– Steven Charleston

The good news is that God graced us with a resilient faith that perseveres when we endure trials, a living hope that can never fail. Thanks be to God.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

– I Peter 1:3-7

Change and Hope

Enlight90

Change happens always, but not always for the better. It is simply a reality of living life. Change comes to us; we try our best to navigate it; and with any luck, we will end up stronger for it. In the best of all worlds, going through change will strengthen our hope and bolster our faith. To be sure, best laid plans change all the time, often leaving us shaken. But it is good to know that God knows all about changes and what they do to our equilibrium.

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

– Jeremiah 29:11

Change does not always feel like hope to us. What we face tomorrow, and all the tomorrows to come, is always an unknown, an unknown that causes fear in us. And yet, so much of our contentment depends on our outlook, how we see change, how we move ourselves through it, how we end up on the other side. I like the outlook that journalist, Linda Ellerbee shares in this statement.

What I like most about change is that it can be a synonym for hope. If you are taking a risk what you’re really saying is, “Ibelieve in tomorrow and I will be a part of it.”

– Linda Ellerbee

So if there is any good advice here, it is to hang on to your life even in the face of change. Try to see change as hope. Navigate those life risks, all the while proclaiming, “I believe in tomorrow and I will be a part of it.” Living that way is the way of God, the way of faith, the way of hope.