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
After about five years of co-teaching my Sunday School class, known as the Voices Class, I have had an insight, a rather critical insight. Teaching this class, in particular, has been a gift for me and possibly for the other class members. We have bonded in important and meaningful ways. Most importantly, we “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2) and most definitely, we weep with our sisters who have found themselves weeping along the journey. (Romans 12:15)
And what a journey it has been for our class. We began with a lovely Lenten study titled, “Praying with Your Pen,” which took us into the wonderful world of contemplative writing. Such a spiritual disciple leads into all manner of emotional and spiritual discovery, not all of which is positive. The study was emotionally and spiritually taxing at times, while being life-giving for us all.
We then studied a three-month series of biblical women who faced various hardships and later revisited that study for an additional seven weeks. As we followed the journeys of these biblical women, we found kindred spirits and grace for our own journeys. But the lives of the biblical women were harsh, harsh enough to bring up in us an examination of the harshness we have encountered. So this study was a difficult one as well.
Other Lenten and Advent studies through the years kept us in a contemplative, and often melancholy, space where we learned so much about ourselves, our faith and our relationship with God and with each other. We followed Christ Sophia for a while, as we considered the feminine nature of God, and as we followed her, we uncovered spiritual layers in us that have long been touched by Spirit Wisdom.
All of our studies along the way took us to tender places within, places where spiritual maturity occurs and faith deepens. A deepened faith, it seems, was especially important as we entered the pandemic that separated us from each other, at least physically. We adapted valiantly and immediately, and our class continued via virtual Zoom meetings. The meetings, that regularly lasted two hours or more, seemed to ensure our sanity as we navigated pandemic lifestyles that we certainly did not choose. Suddenly, the day to day living became harder, school more complicated, safety measures all-encompassing, family isolation straining. Figuring out this new way to live became draining beyond belief.
That, too, we navigated together, holding one another in the light, learning to find church in uncommon places and keeping each other gathered close, covered in the love each of us brought to our circle. Gathering close to each other was critically important as we lost friends, church members and close family members to this pandemic. Apart from the pandemic tragedies we watched, our class was brought low by other illness and deaths of persons close to us.
So a few weeks ago, my soul cried out, “Enough!” Then I asked myself, ”Where is our joy?” We’ve got the ‘weep with those who weep’ part, God. Can we just move on to the ‘rejoicing with those who rejoice’ part?”
Where is our joy? That’s the part of faith I cannot discern, because right now, it’s just too far away. Still, I asked myself the question.
And I answered myself immediately. It’s in our hymns! Our joy is in our singing.
So the Voices Class started a new study titled,
Singing Theology: Hymns & the Formation of Faith OurWorship, Hymnody and Theology
A delightful study it has been for us, as we explore how hymns express the theology of a particular Christian community or tradition. Searching deeply into one hymn each week, we have asked: how does the hymn’s theology shape and form our faith, our belief, our mission and our action? “As the church sings, so she believes,” writes Beth Bowers. We had discovered in this new study an informative, important—and fun—exploration of song!
Hymns We Have Studied Each Week . . .
Here is our joy, in the hymns we sing — in their rhythms and their melodies, their thoughts and words. Hymns express our faith, our longing, our petition, our awe, our need, our regret, our grief, our testimony, our theology, our conviction and the deepest joy of our hearts. May it always be so!
My life goes on in endless song Above earth´s lamentations, I hear the real, though far-off hymn That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife I hear its music ringing, It sounds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?
While though the tempest loudly roars, I hear the truth, it liveth. And though the darkness ’round me close, Songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm, While to that rock I´m clinging. Since love is lord of heaven and earth How can I keep from singing?
When tyrants tremble in their fear And hear their death knell ringing, When friends rejoice both far and near How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile Our thoughts to them are winging, When friends by shame are undefiled How can I keep from singing?
Songwriters: Eithne Ni Bhraonain / Nicky Ryan / Roma Ryan
Bright Monday is here! You might be wondering if “Bright Monday” is even a thing. It is, in fact. Just keep reading.
I suppose when you and I look back on all that we experienced throughout Lent — what thoughts we had, what emotions we felt, what we wrote or said, what we saw and heard, what was painful and what was dark — we might see our experience through many facets. We have had to look at our multilayered experiences alone for the most part, because many of us are still in full or partial Covid isolation. You know that isolation, the one that has made Lent 2021 even more somber, quiet and reflective than Lents past have been. Doesn’t Covid seem to do that — magnify the parts of our lives that are disheartening and make them worse? Being alone has been one of the hardships of this Lenten journey, at least for me. I was forced to look at my Lenten experiences alone, for the most part, and I discovered that making some journeys alone can be emotionally and spiritually detrimental to the soul.
Someday we would do well to look our experience of this past Lent together, with our faith community. Someday we shoukd gather up all of our memories of Lent 2021, look through them together and realize that some of them held pain and some of them held joy — all at once — pain and joy intermingled. Still, we have journeyed through the darker days of this Lent — each of us walking alone and separated at times, but walking together, side by side at other times. Together or alone, we have arrived today to Easter Monday, Bright Monday. We are here, “out of the darkness and into the light!” We are here in the light, together!
Practically speaking, what does happen on Easter Monday? You may be asking the same thing, and you may even say, “We’ve walked some hard roads through Lent, we have endured the darkness of Holy Week, we have celebrated Easter. But, come Monday, its all over!” You might be right. After looking at a few websites and a few religious websites, I learned that nothing happens today! Nothing happens on Easter Monday! But how can that be true? After the drama of Good Friday, the depression of Black Saturday and the pure joy of Resurrection Sunday, surely something remarkable must happen today.
Did you know that all over the world Christians celebrate this day. If we look at other religious traditions, this day is called “Bright Monday” and is it the first day of “Bright Week.” For Christians, Bright Monday is the first day of our renewed, restored and resurrected lives. It is also the first day of Jesus’s 40 days on earth before he ascended to heaven — the time in Christian history when Jesus appeared to believers, healed the sick, raised the dead, spread the word of God and set the believers on the path of becoming God’s Body and building God’s Church. How wonderful is that!
Looking back to the story of Jesus we have just told and remembered, I wonder what the disciples and other followers who loved Jesus would tell us about what happened on Easter Monday. Just imagine you are Mary or Peter or any of the other disciples. How would you feel? What would you be saying to others? Would you shake off the events of the last few days and just go back to work thinking,“Wow, that was some weekend!”
You would probably be stunned, confused, overjoyed, disoriented and asking yourself, “Did that really happen? Is this a dream? Is Jesus really alive?”
It was real on that first Bright Monday! All of it was real! It is still real on this Bright Monday! It is unbelievable Good News! Because of the empty tomb, because of Christ’s act of love in his darkest hour, Bright Monday can only be called a bright, sunlit and wonderfully sunshiny new day! We can see clearly now! Everything has changed!
Let us offer praise to the God of all things bright! Let us see ourselves standing in the light and warmth of the sun! Let us sing in the sunshine! Let us continue our Resurrection celebration into this Bright Week, because what was dark has now become bright!
Every good and perfect gift is from above. It comes down to us from the God of lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. James 1:17 (paraphrased)
You, my children, are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, and you will proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called you out of darkness and into God’s marvelous light. I Peter 2:9 (paraphrased)
Thanks be to God that you and I were called by God to come out of the darkness and to stand in God’s marvelous light!
Happy Bright Monday to you!
Song: “I Can See Clearly Now” Artist: Johnny Nash
I can see clearly now, the rain is gone, I can see all obstacles in my way Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) Sun-Shiny day.
I think I can make it now, the pain is gone All of the bad feelings have disappeared Here is the rainbow I’ve been praying for It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) Sun-Shiny day.
Look all around, there’s nothin but blue skies Look straight ahead, nothin but blue skies
JEREMIAH 31:31-34 (NIV) 31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
34 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
PSALM 51:1-12 (NIV) 1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. 5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. 6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
We are the faithful daughters and sons of God who wait. We are God’s people who wait for the promised days that are coming. For in those days the Prophet Jeremiah tells us that God will invite us into a covenant relationship. Like the people of Israel, we believe we are in covenant with God already. But this Lenten scripture speaks of a new covenant, a deeper covenant, a covenant not like the previous one. This covenant will be different, a new covenant.
As for me, well I desperately need a new covenant, because for this covenant, God will write God’s law upon my heart, where I need it most, when I need it most. For me, the season of need is right now — in the middle of a pandemic of isolation, in the midst of isolation due to acute kidney rejection, in the isolation caused by immunosuppressant medications, in the throes of worry and confusion. For me, these days promised need to come now — these days that affirm that we are God’s people and that, indeed, God is our God. God will remember our sin no more.
But we remember do our sin. Indeed, our sin is ever before us. As our teachers and preachers and parents used to say, we sin by both commission and omission. I know immediately, in my soul, when I have willfully committed a sin. That kind of sin is clear to me, and I quickly cry out to God, “Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.” But sins of omission get me every time. What have I left undone that endangers my spirit? What have I left undone that harms another person? What have I done to sin against God?
These twelve verses of Psalm 51 are arguably the most heartfelt and poignant words of prayer and confession in the whole of scripture. The Psalmist’s words fully reveal his heart, open his spirit to God and speak fully and clearly of sin and of his deep longing to put his sin away. The Psalmist does not want his sin to be ever before him. Instead, he beseeches God . . .
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
I have no words to illuminate today’s scripture, no words of reflection that would enhance the message of this beautiful Psalm. I have no thoughts to add to its essence. But from the depths of my disconsolate soul, I pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Amen.
Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God, arr. Victor Johnson Sanctuary Choir, First United Methodist, Downtown, Houston Texas Dr. Terry Morris, Director of Traditional Music John Gearhart, Organist Jonathon Saint-Thomas, Pianist
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. He has exalted me and, humbly, His servant I will be.
All generations, henceforth, shall call be blessed.
For He has done great things for me and holy is His name.
I will probably always remember those words penned by a lyricist whose name I cannot remember. (Apologies to John W. Peterson, Anna Laura Page, Ragan Courtney or whoever helped create this arrangement. I remember the tune and every word, but I can’t remember you.)
I have sung, in my short lifetime, dozens of versions of Mary’s song that we know from the Gospel of Luke. We often call it Mary’s Magnificat. I sang the version quoted above many, many years ago as a part of my church’s Advent music. I looked through the music in our first Advent choir rehearsal and immediately turned the pages to this one that was called “Mary’s Song.” I knew I would sing it since the churches we served seldom had willing sopranos.
As November and December moved along, I rehearsed Mary’s Song over and over again, not to enunciate all the lyrics clearly or to sing all the notes correctly. I sang it again and again because the act of getting into Mary’s skin brought me to tears every time I sang it. Tears were okay, but being unable to sing because I was weeping was not okay with me. And yet, I didn’t want to rehearse the emotion out of it. I wanted to “be” Mary for just those moments and I wanted the hearers in the sanctuary to emotionally connect with her.
In the end, I prayed and left it in God’s hands, because in the end, that’s what people of faith do. Today, as we do every year, we lit the Advent candle of joy — the pink candle, Mary’s candle — hoping that the sheer joy of her news to Elizabeth would ring true enough in us to bring us joy. How? “How can this be?” as Mary said to the angel.
I suppose that in these Advent days, in this particular year, many of us have asked “How?” How will we get through this bewildering time? How can joy fill us, enter into our souls and enliven our spirits, as we bury our loved ones? As we wait for word by phone about the person we love who is hospitalized? As we touch the hand of our grandmother through the window of her nursing home? As health care professionals become almost too weary to go on while people with the virus keep coming? As we know we will not see our family this Christmas — to keep them safe, to keep us safe?
How can we sing, this year, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior” — Mary’s magnificat? Joy is a hard thing this year, for 2020 has brought us grief upon grief, fear upon fear and uncertainty upon uncertainty. Yet, we have held one another close, even over Zoom, because together we have found strength to go on. Over the senseless racially motivated violence we saw on our televisions this year, we saw also a people languishing in a pandemic that took so much.
We saw politicians fighting each other over what some of them see as truth and others see as deliberate, hurtful lies. We saw children who wondered about where school would be and parents agonizing over hard decisions. We saw congregations gathering in parking lots and sanctuaries still, silent, without voices. We saw devastating unemployment and small businesses closing their doors. We saw medically vulnerable or immunosuppressed people locked in their homes. We saw people struggling to pay their bills — very poor people wanting and the very rich, as always, continuing their lavish lifestyles. We saw the rich continuing to oppress the poor, if not in their direct actions, then in their greed that, at least indirectly, deprives those among them who are poor.
The young girl Mary spoke about that, too, in the words of her Magnificat from the Gospel of Luke.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Luke 1:51-53 (NRSV)
The young girl we have called the Virgin Mary, the holy one that accepted the strange and frightening mission from God to bear God’s Son — this Mary is also the subversive one who called out the rich, the powerful and the proud. In her Magnificat? Oh yes, Mary said that God would scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, bring down the powerful from their thrones and send the rich away empty.
Subversive! Courageous! Defiant! Bold! Audacious! Wise! She was all those things when she spoke the kind of subversive truth no young girl in those days would have dared to speak. The miracle of it is that God chose a young girl who possessed the tenderness to nurture a newborn, the wisdom to raise him to live into his mission and the courage to help him stand in a world that would both adore him and hate him — worship him at a manger and then crucify him on a hill. Dr. Marcia Riggs described Mary’s Magnificat like this: “The song sows joy that is the seed of a social revolution.” Indeed!
This was the Mary of our pink candle, the Mary who would be submissive enough to agree to a holy life of chaos and the Mary whose inner strength enabled her to look up and watch her son die.
To be sure, her Magnificat has been read and sung in millions of voices, with thousands of tunes, in cathedral-like sanctuaries and in mud huts. The words have been translated into various versions of the Bible and composers have woven paraphrases of her words into hundreds of melodies and rhythms. Still to this day, one phrase remains . . .
Holy! Holy! Holy is His name.
May Mary’s joy find us on this day and in our own worlds — wherever we are, however we feel, whatever sadness we hold. Amen.
For your quiet, meditative time — one version of Mary’s song:
I never dance anymore, and that’s a real shame. It’s about losing a part of my soul, really. Letting persnickety circumstances overshadow what my soul loves and desires, maybe even needs. Persnickety circumstances like . . . My back hurts. I’m too old now. I can’t remember how to do it anymore. There’s no room in my living room. It’s just no fun dancing when I’m dancing by myself. But those thoughts describe now! In the past? Well, as you might expect, my past was very different! I lived to dance whether the music was Rock ‘n Roll, Soul, Greek Folk Dancing or Motown. Especially Motown!
If my friends from the past described me, they would most certainly declare that I was a dancing fiend. I think that would be a fairly accurate description. As a young child, I cut my teeth on what I would describe as Big Fat Greek Dances. There was simply no place to be that was as much fun as those Greek dances that could last well past midnight. Did I fall asleep in a chair in a corner as the music filled the hall? Not a chance! When I heard music, I had to dance! Greek dances in big halls or hotel ballrooms included a lot of Greek dancing, which is probably more fun than any dancing known to humankind. But when the band played American music, I waited in my chair, smiling, and waiting for a boy (or a man) to ask me to dance. The men usually came through — favorite uncles, my Godfather, my Godbrother, family friends. It is no exaggeration to say that I traveled far and wide with my Aunt Koula and Uncle John to go to Greek dances — Montgomery, Atlanta, Mobile and, of course, at home in Birmingham.
So that’s my dance-filled childhood. My teenage years were another story altogether! I continued to dance at Greek weddings and other ballroom dances with my friends Suzanne, Frank, Demetra, Xane, Greg, Terry, Sammy and Gussie, to name only a few that come to mind.
But my best friend, Suzanne, and I were all about Motown! With Motown, there was no holding back, and we didn’t hold back. We scandalized every Motown venue we could find with our slick and sultry dance moves.
On one day, we might be depicting beautiful and stately Ancient Greek Goddesses, golden laurels in our hair. On another day, you might find us at The Hangout in Panama City dancing to the sounds of Motown.
And that’s how I earned the reputation of being a “dancing fiend.”
Now that I think back on those years, I don’t accept the title “Dancing Fiend!” Especially now that I am remembering the ABBA song . . .
Friday night and the lights are low, looking out for a place to go
Where they play the right music, getting in the swing
You come to look for a king.
Anybody could be that guy
Night is young and the music’s high
With a bit of rock music, everything is fine.
You’re in the mood for a dance, and when you get the chance . . .
You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen.
Dancing queen, feel the beat from the tambourine.
You can dance! You can jive!
Having the time of your life
See that girl, watch that scene
Dig in the dancing queen!
With that ABBA inspiration, I declare myself, not a dancing fiend, but (Wait for it!) “The Dancing Queen!”
But that was then and this is now. I don’t dance anymore, and that is beginning to trouble me. What troubles me isn’t really about the dancing. It’s that something that was a part of my soul has withered away. That can happen to all of us when, at some point in time, we stop hearing our soul’s music. When a certain life circumstance, a crossroads maybe, cuts us off from our muse,* we lose a part of ourselves. We awaken one morning with the stark realization that something that was important to us is lost. So I ask you, as I ask myself, what important thing have you? What does your soul long for, something that you have lost that was once so healing, so comforting, so fulfilling, so much fun?
These are the pressing questions I am asking myself: What has my soul lost? When did I lose it and how did I lose it? For some it might be singing, dancing, teaching, painting, writing, walking, reading. We could list dozens, maybe hundreds, of things that once nourished our souls and we sometimes deeply regret those soul losses.
Sometimes we seem doomed to feel nostalgic despair or disappointment. OR . . . might we find a way to unearth whatever we have lost? Could we reclaim our ability to once again do what we love, in spite of any limitation that the passing years have brought us? It is indeed a question worth pondering.
So you see, this post isn’t just about dancing. It’s about embracing whatever your soul has lost and allowing your muse to spark within you the creative spirit that nourishes the soul. So go ahead and take a chance. Dance! Sing! Teach! Preach! Garden! Read! Paint! Throw yourself again into whatever your soul loves and needs. I predict you will find comfort, peace, joy and a new refreshing of your soul.
As for me . . . If we ever break out of our social distancing mode and you drop by my house, you might just catch a glimpse of me dancing in the living room!
Motown, of course!
SPECIAL BONUS: I want to leave you with a “social distancing video” that will lift you up and inspire your soul. It isn’t Motown music at all, but its music will probably inspire you to celebrate the gift of ballet. Take a few minutes to enjoy it and to celebrate the enormous talent it brings to us from all over the world.
* The Muses were the nine Greek goddesses who presided over the arts, including music and dance. An artist or poet about to begin work would call on his particular Muse to inspire him, and a poem itself might begin with such a call; thus, Homer’s Odyssey begins, “Sing to me of the man, Muse” (that is, of Odysseus). Today a muse may be one’s special creative spirit, but some artists and writers have also chosen living human beings to serve as their muses.
Today, while minding my own business — and browsing the Better Homes & Gardens website — I stumbled across a stunning image of a tree. Those of you who know me, know that I have had a lifelong passion for trees. Trees, for me, are not only beautiful, they also take me often into a spiritual place. This morning while looking at the bark of the Rainbow Eucalyptus tree (Eucalyptus deglupta), my thought was, “This is almost magic! It can’t be real!”
Rainbow Eucalyptus trees look too beautiful to be real (but they are!) (BH&G)
These trees have an astounding multicolored bark that looks like it’s been decorated with a humongous paintbrush. They seem like something one might imagine, or see in a fantasy movie, or discover in a Dr. Seuss book. But they do grow naturally with a brilliantly colored bark. The Rainbow Eucalyptus, which grow 100 to 200 feet tall, are native to tropical regions like the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and even in the most southern parts of the U.S. “Though pictures of these trees are stunning, they don’t quite capture the awe of seeing them in person.
A real rainbow eucalyptus can stop you in your tracks, so if you have the chance to travel to see them, it’s well worth the journey. (BH&G)
As you would expect, I did some research to find places where I could see this magical tree in person. San Diego, California, is actually becoming a travel destination for seeing these trees. One can see them at Balboa Park, along Sports Arena Boulevard, at the San Diego Zoo, and in parts of Mission Bay. One can also see them in parts of Florida, Hawaii and Texas. So there really are a few places you can see a Rainbow Eucalyptus without needing a passport.
You might ask, “What’s so important about a tree that looks fake?” And that would be a good question. I’m not sure I have a coherent answer, but I’ll give it a shot. Sometimes we find ourselves in places that feel “blah.” We’ve lost our sense of direction and maybe even our will to move forward in life. Those times can come to us because of grief, illness, family challenges, concern for our children, stagnancy in our careers, waning spirituality or simply feeling out of sorts. Hundreds of life circumstances can bring us to a lethargic or depressed place in life. It’s not a very good place to be, and most of us wonder how we got to such a place.
In those times (and there have been many) when lethargy got the best of me, I tended to search for a bit of magic. No ordinary remedy seemed adequate. I just needed some magic and I have discovered over many years that magic can be found in a myriad of places, beginning with some very hope-filled passages of Scripture.
There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy . . .
— Ecclesiastes 2:24-26 (NRSV)
In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other . . .
— Ecclesiastes 7:14 (NRSV)
So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.
— Ecclesiastes 8:15 (NRSV)
For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
— Isaiah 55:12 (ESV)
Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength . . .” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing . . . — Nehemiah 8:9-12 (NRSV)
And always, words from the Psalmist:
You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
— Psalm 16:11 (NRSV)
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
— Psalm 27:13 (NRSV)
Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
— Psalm 37:4 (ESV)
These messages from the pages of the Bible bring me joy and a bit of relief from feeling down. Being lifted from depression, sadness, the doldrums and other similar difficult seasons of life can feel like magic, magic that can be found in lots of places — if we’re paying attention. The magic may be found in a forest with a verdant canopy of leaves we can see if we look up. It may be found in the laughter of a child or in listening to joyful songs, the rhythmic melody moving through the heart. Magic may be found in loving relationships, in a garden, in a place of prayer and contemplation. You and I might find magic in birdsong or in the cloud shapes we see in the morning sky. We can even find magic in the darkest of our nights — for 100 thousand million stars sparkle for us in the Milky Way — a gift from the Creator, shining out of the darkness.
Today, I found magic in the most unlikely place — in the bark of Rainbow Eucalyptus trees. At least it felt like almost magic! I happened upon this treasure of nature quite by accident, or perhaps it was by providence. Anyway, catching sight of this whimsical, majestic tree brought me the joy of remembering afresh the varied potpourri of the gifts of creation, coming from God, the Father/Mother of lights.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness nor shadow of turning.
— James 1:17 (NKJV)
Thanks be to God for unspeakable gifts of grace. Amen.
Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.
― Mary Oliver
For some reason yet unknown to me, I am remembering those words today. At the same time, I have vivid memories of persons I loved — many of them through the years — who gifted me with “a box full of darkness.” Each time, it felt like anything but a gift. I accepted the boxes because I believed I had no choice. I reached out to take the boxes from people I loved and immediately discovered that it was the darkness I held in my hands. Unfortunately, the darkness in my hands was potent enough to engulf me, and for a good amount of time, the darkness was my constant companion. All around me. Above and below me. Darkness so deep that I could not begin to see the path ahead.
What would I do with these ominous gifts? How would I escape the deep effect they had on my soul? How will I cast off the heartbreak? In time, I was able to think beyond my initial acceptance of these boxes moving to the reality that they were given to me by persons I loved. These were loved ones who might ordinarily have given me gifts, but these gifts — these boxes — were filled with darkness! Why? What did these gifts mean?
I held on to the pain of those “gifts” for years, feeling anger on some days, or betrayal, or loss, or rejection. The experiences changed my life in many ways, and changed the very course of my life. Being a person who so values friendship and loyalty, I was left despondent and a bit lost. Okay, a lot lost!
Yet, the passing years actually did bring healing relief. I could not avoid the darkness that my loved ones gave me. I could not get around it, slip under it, or leap over it. It was just there with me, in my life, and feeling like it would be permanent. The boxes were to me a heart rending breach of covenant. And yes, I did experience despair in the darkness, and loneliness and lostness, and bitterness wondering how these gift boxes had such immense power over me.
When the darkness finally lifted, it brought me a brand new love of life. It gave me new courage and new excitement. It gave me an awakening! I experienced a holy transformation. I knew then that I could get on with my life, joyously, and moving forward following my dreams. So Mary Oliver knew something that I had to learn the hard way, over many years. Here’s what she wrote: “It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
And then there is this wise and wonderful postscript that Annie Dillard wrote about her writing. It applies to every vocation or avocation that we love, and it’s really about living life — all out!
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. (Annie Dillard from her book, The Writing Life)
Finally, James 1:2-4, a Scripture passage very familiar to us says it another way:
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
So real and true it was when the people I loved betrayed me with a terrible “box full of darkness.” I had faith in each of them. I trusted them and held their love in my heart. My box full of darkness was indeed a trial and a testing of my faith. But the promise of The Epistle of James is there, in my face. It may just be a Holy Letter addressed directly to me. My challenge was to “consider it nothing but joy,” and to know that the testing of my faith most assuredly created endurance. Thanks be to God.
Women in white gowns emerge from the crashing water of a moonlit waterfall. What in the world does that have to do with me, other than the fact that I am completely enthralled by this painting? I certainly cannot relate or see myself emerging from rushing waters or even dancing with a tambourine in my hand. Yet, there is something about this art that inspired my soul searching and brought up some questions I want to contemplate.
Where did I come from? Where will I go?
What will I do with my life? Which of my dreams will I realize?
I have asked myself similar questions, questions about what made me who I am and if I will ever feel that I have realized my life dreams. It’s true that I have entered my seventieth year of life, and one might wonder why the need for all the introspective questions. But In the core of my being, I believe that I can still dream and that I can still experience wonder about what I see in and around my life.
What people will enter my life leaving cherished gifts of friendship? What wonder will I see around me as I search for meaning? What will Spirit say to me with the gentle breath of her voice that can also enter my life as a rushing, mighty wind? And how does God continue to call me to new ministries of the heart?
I do not know the answer to those questions. Nor do I know who or what I will be when I grow up. So I struggle to know. I plead with God to give me direction. During this season of my life while I am challenged with so many things related to my kidney transplant, I have been somewhat obsessed with finding the answers to all those “who am I?” questions. I despair a little when I can’t find the answers.
Back to the art. Yesterday, I accidentally came across the painting by Canadian artist Rob Gonsalves which is at the top of this post. I was immediately captivated by the image, especially the rushing waterfall that changed into women living life — some of them dancing, others playing their tambourines, others just emerging, still others just beginning to awaken.
The art reminds me of how we might emerge into life — to grow into life, to be open to change, to be willing to embrace a process of becoming. Each of us is engaged in that kind of process whether we know it or not, whether we embrace it or not. We want to experience an awakening that opens our eyes to wonder and our souls to extraordinary newness of life. We want the freedom to be who we are. We don’t want to stay in our awakening place, reticent about moving into the best part of our lives, refusing to move because of our fear. We want to throw off our hesitation and, in search of our dreams, to sing, to dance, to play our tambourines in celebration of our unique personhood.
I am reminded of a beautiful passage of Scripture from the Psalms.
Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.
— Psalm 149:3 (NRSV)
Isn’t that precisely what we want for our lives? To lean into our true selves so that we are compelled to sing, to dance with tambourines in our hands, to celebrate our lives, to dream and to praise the God who rejoices when we live into freedom and joy!
The Third Sunday in Advent The Sunday of Joy December 15, 2019
How I love the pink candle on this day of joy! We light the purple ones each week until today, and then there is this surprising burst of color — lighter, brighter, pink — that proclaims to us that life for us is joy.Always!
And joy is ever-present within us. No matter the circumstances we face, joy is waiting to emerge from our deep-down place. Joy was a part of the package that entered our lives when we professed our faith in Christ, and joy was there when we received grace, acceptance and God’s abiding presence. And so today we reflect on that joy and, like Mary, we treasure it and ponder it in our hearts. (Luke 2:19)
Now about Mary, God-chosen Mary — her joy must have been overwhelming when the surprise from out of nowhere was delivered by an angel! And yet, other emotions came along with that joy — fear, confusion, bewilderment, concern. And questions! Many questions like “How could this happen?”
I do not need to tell you that questions, fears, concerns are always a part of our lives, but underneath them in our inner soul, joy abides. Consistent, continual joy that hides until we really need it and then bursts upon us to remind us that the troubles of the day are superseded. Then we know the truth of what we heard from the beginning: “Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10)
Mary sang of deep joy in her devotion to God —“My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.” But there was for her a barrage of other emotions. The poetry of Ann Weems explores that:
MARY, NAZARETH GIRL
What did you know of ethereal beings
with messages from God?
What did you know of men
when you found yourself with child?
What did you know of babies,
you, barely out of childhood yourself?
What did you know of God
that brought you to this stable
blessed among women?
Could it be that you had been ready
for the footsteps
of an angel?
Could it be there are messages for us
if we have the faith to listen?
Maybe, just maybe, Mary “had been ready, waiting, listening for the footsteps of an angel?” And in that holy visitation, I imagine that the emotion she felt most deeply in her soul was joy. She was destined to be the mother of the Christ Child, the mother who would lead him and teach him and prepare him.
Emulating the young girl, Mary, let us face the obstacles and surprises that come our way, knowing that our deepest, abiding joy will arise in us when we most need it.
Our message for this Sunday of Joy sings to us the words of a beloved carol:
O ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow;
Look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.
Today’s good word — and the lighting of the pink candle — urges us to never forget the promise: “Tidings of comfort and joy!”
We probably won’t hear the flutter of angel wings or the footsteps of an angel coming to us when our joy shows up. But with God, who knows?