Joy

102F7D81-F946-4E11-A42A-07566031DEABAs I often do, I found today, in my lengthy list of unread emails, a plethora of pleas to do something. Save the bees. Save the libraries. Save the children. Save the political candidate . . . and several other things that someone wants to save.  I care deeply about most of those things that need saving, like the libraries and the children and the bees. And I spend a fair amount of time worrying about them and praying for them to be saved.

But for this day, I am laser focused on saving myself, saving myself from the onslaught of various illnesses, from nature’s effects of aging, and mostly, from a life filled with worry where there should be joy.

Memories flood my mind with sweet, little songs from the past: “The joy of the Lord is my strength . . .”  (1)  “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart . . .” (2) Simple songs they were for us when as children we learned every word and took the melodies into our hearts to recall in the years to come.

And so today, I recall them, realizing that whatever may come, I have joy in my heart, and most of all, that I am leaning into the truth that the joy of the Lord is my strength. These were good and positive lessons to learn as a child, with simple music as the teacher. So today, I remember the songs, singing them silently as I write. Singing them aloud would most surely disturb the household. So I keep silent.

It can be a dangerous thing to keep silence, for in those silent times, there can be a flood of memories, thoughts, recollections, and the sacred space so essential to the spiritual life. Today’s sacred space brings these words to my heart:

The Lord is my strength and my shield;
in him my heart trusts;
so I am helped, and my heart exults,
and with my song I give thanks to him.

— Psalm 28:7 (RSV)

You are being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might, so that you might patiently endure everything with joy.

— Colossians 1:11(ISV)

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

— Nehemiah 8:10 (NIV)

On top of my end stage kidney disease, debilitating fibromyalgia, diabetes, and an almost constant barrage of new diagnoses, I have one job really: to find ways of guarding the joy that makes its home in my heart, to patiently endure whatever comes with joy. I must trust that joy really is there in my heart. I must believe that joy is still a part of my faith. I must know that joy has been with me on my journey, every day, at every turn, over every mountain and through every valley.

I must guard my joy lovingly and persistently. And I must guard my heart, joy’s dwelling place. When new illnesses come along, new concerns, new challenges, new problems and new sorrows, perhaps the most important thing I can do is to guard my heart.

Along with the other passages of scripture that have entered my sacred soace today, there is another tiny scripture passage that has moved me over the years. The writer of the book of Proverbs begins chapter four with a list of life instructions, and for twenty-two verses, the writer admonishes the reader to be vigilant, to be careful, to hold on to instruction, to avoid the path of the wicked, etc. And then in verse 23, the writer of the everlasting wisdom of the Proverbs gives us one more tidbit of advice and advises us to pay attention to this one instruction, above all else.

Above all else, guard your heart,
for from it flow the wellsprings of life.

— Proverbs 4:23 

I am never 100% certain about the meaning of scripture passages, but this one feels very clear to me — guard your heart and the wellsprings of your life will flow from it. I think the wellsprings might be joy! Not such a simple message, is it, that we have “joy down in our hearts to stay.”

 

(1) The Joy of the Lord Is My Strength, written by Alliene Vale, ©️1971, Universal Music.

(2) Joy In My Heart, written by George William Cooke, 1925

Life Can Lose Its Magic

 

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Photography  from Lize Bard’s blog, Haiku out of Africa at https://wandererhaiku.wordpress.com/2018/07/18/aura/

Life can lose its magic. 

It happens. 

It happens when labor eclipses the joy of leisure. 

It happens when busyness replaces moments of re-creation. 

It happens when meaningless prayers are more common than deep spiritual contemplation. 

It happens when relationships are taken for granted. 

It happens when entitlement replaces gratitude. 

It happens when despondency is more present that genuine laughter. 

It happens when nature becomes commonplace and we miss its breathtaking beauty. 

It happens when we hear the sounds of the birds as white noise instead of captivating birdsong. 

It happens when the dawn’s sunrise happens without our notice.

It happens when a serene, pink sunset that gently paints the sky loses its enchantment.

it happens when music becomes noise rather than the soul’s inspiration.

It happens when the shimmer of the moon is just a nightly expectation and the sparkle of the stars in the night sky becomes ordinary.

Life can lose its magic. 

How tragic.

 

 

 

Around the Bend

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Photo by Steven Nawojczyk

I wonder sometimes what I might find around the bend. “Around the bend” is an apt metaphor for the twists and turns of life’s pathway. No matter how long I have traveled my journey, no matter how much life wisdom I have gained, I never, ever know what what’s around the bend.

The pathway before me can frighten, even while I strain to see as far as I can into what lies ahead. The bend is sharp most times, and the angle hides my view. As I age, fear on the journey looms large, for I am completely aware of the dangers I might encounter around the first bend, and the next, and all the bends that are ahead of me. And yet, I am constantly graced with flashes of hope and faith whispering that what is ahead of me could be even better than what I have left behind.

The beautiful photo above by Steven Nawojczyk is a gift of calm waters bending in a gentle flow at the foot of a mountain, lightened by the golden rays of the sun. The image makes me believe that whatever is around the bend is lovely, peaceful, comforting, safe. And that is exactly what God would want me to believe, and woukd want us all to believe. I cannot help but think of the Psalmist’s affirmation that God “leads me beside still waters.”

In so many comfort-filled passages, the Psalmist offers sure and certain comfort. Hear the Psalmist’s words . . .

Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge.

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
Surely I have a delightful inheritance.

I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
   Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure . . .

You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

— Psalm 16:1, 5-6, 8-9, 11 (NIV)

And hear the words of the Prophet Isaiah . . .

Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he, I am he who will sustain you. 
I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.  

— Isaiah 46:4 (NIV)

And so “around the bend” is not so frightening after all. In God — “who makes known the path of life” —  there is comfort, safety, protection, constancy, and even joy. Thanks be to God.

Every Bird’s a Songbird

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Art: “Songbirds in Apple Blossoms” by James Hautman.

As I sit on my porch this morning in a light, refreshing rain, the most prominent sound I hear is joyous birdsong, different strains of music from a variety of birds that co-habit in our tiny bird sanctuary. A statue of St. Francis appropriately stands among the feeders and the suet. The hummingbird feeders are in a separate spot, providing a banquet of sweet nectar to these delightful birds, whose fast moving wings create their most unique song.

I love to listen to the songbirds, and we are graciously blessed to live in a neighborhood with very few sounds — no traffic, no motorcycles, no speeding cars, usually not even people voices. Just the birdsong, with an occasional tree frog and the wonderful southern gift of cicadas. 

In my opinion, every bird is a songbird. According to scientists at The Nature Conservancy, the term “songbirds” refers to a wide range of bird species. Songbirds typically include finches, sparrows and warblers, but most often when someone is defining “songbird” they refer to beautifully colored birds that we’ve never heard of. The Nature Conservancy website features three: the Dickcissel, the Blackburnian Warbler, and the Kirtland’s Warbler.

I have never seen any of those birds, but I have heard lots of glorious birdsong. So I stand by my opinion that every bird’s a songbird. And in my better moments, I hear their songs as an offering to God, their songs of praise to God who gave them voice. During those times, I am drawn to the many beautiful and lyrical Psalms. This is one that is particularly moving to me

Praise the Lord, my soul.

Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty.

You wrap yourself in light as with a garment;

You stretch out the heavens like a tent and lay the beams of your upper chambers on their waters.

You make the clouds your chariot and you ride on the wings of the wind.

You make the winds your messengers . . .

How many are your works, Lord!

In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.

There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number — living things both large and small.

When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.

You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills,

You give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst.

The birds of the sky nest by the waters; they sing among the branches.

— Psalm 104: 1-3;10-12; 24-25, 30 (paraphrased)

Many of the Psalms urge us to sing, to praise God with our voices. 

Sing to the Lord a new song . . .

I will sing to the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.

As far as singing, well sometimes we are reluctant, holding back an imperfect voice that does not always make pleasant songs. Sometimes we are convinced that our singing would not be such a worthy offering of praise. So we should probably remember that every bird’s a songbird. And as for us humans, it might help to remember that every person has a voice, every heart has a song, every soul has a melody.

Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to thee. How great thou art! How great thou art!*

Amen.

 

* From the hymn, “How Great Thou Art,” a Swedish traditional melody and a poem written by Carl Boberg (1859–1940) in Mönsterås, Sweden in 1885. It was translated into German and then into Russian and became a hymn. It was translated into English from the Russian by English missionary Stuart K. Hine, who also added two original verses of his own.

 

 

 

 

The “Laughter of the Redeemed”

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So when the grand and glorious celebration of Christ’s resurrection is over, what do we do with our leftover joy? There is an easy answer to that. Celebrate Bright Week with laughter and loud singing, and look forward with great anticipation to Bright Sunday! You might be wondering what in the world I’m talking about. What’s Bright Week and Bright Sunday?

Well, just in case you didn’t know, Bright Week and Bright Sunday are real. genuine. bonafide things. Many Christian churches celebrate the Sunday after Easter as Bright Sunday, a day for joyful celebration. In fact, the entire week following Easter, called Bright Week, was set aside for the celebration of the Resurrection according to the 66th canon of the Council in Trullo:

. . . from the holy day of the Resurrection of Christ our God until New Sunday (or Bright Sunday) for a whole week the faithful in the holy churches should continually be repeating psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, rejoicing and celebrating Christ, and attending to the reading of the Divine Scriptures and delighting in the Holy Mysteries. For in this way shall we be exalted with Christ; raised up together with Him.

The custom was rooted in the musings of early church theologians like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom, including the intriguing idea that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. “Risus paschalis – the Easter laugh,” the early theologians called it.

For centuries in Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant countries, the week following Easter Sunday, including “Bright Sunday,” the Sunday after Easter, was observed by the faithful as “days of joy and laughter” with parties and picnics to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. Churchgoers and pastors played practical jokes on each other, drenched each other with water, told jokes, sang, and danced. Can you even imagine such hilarity in some of our most traditional churches?

Yet, theologians wrote about holy laughter. While languishing in a Nazi prison, Protestant theologian Jurgen Moltmann became fascinated by the ongoing celebrations of Jesus’ Resurrection by the early Christians that continued long after Easter Sunday. He called it “the laughter of the redeemed.”

And yet, we Christians are often viewed as offering a joyless and humorless Christianity.

Where is “the laughter of the redeemed?”

We have a Savior who, knowing that he was about to be betrayed, tortured, and crucified, told his disciples before his arrest:

“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:11)

So where is our joy? Where is our laughter?

With great fondness, I remember the youth ensemble at First Baptist Church of Arab, Alabama singing an amped-up version of “Sunshine in My Soul,” lively, syncopated, full of unbridled joy! With a big smile on every face, the group sang this spirited, exuberant song about their sheer joy in Christ. Always, their offering of “Sunshine in My Soul” was a joyous event. I can hear it in my memory right now.

There is sunshine in my soul today.
It’s a glow so warm and bright.
That shines in any earthly sky
For Jesus is my light.
Oh, there’s sunshine, beautiful sunshine,
When the peaceful, happy moments roll.
When I look with love into my brother’s face, there is sunshine in my soul.

What a bright and joy-filled song! A perfect song for Bright Sunday.

Laughter, joy, fun, rejoicing!

I hope that during this Bright Week you will find sunshine in your soul. I hope that you will laugh hard and long during Bright Week, that you will pass joy along to those you love, that you will sing a song of joy or two, using your biggest, strongest outdoor voice. After all, it is Christ’s resurrection that we celebrate!

 

 

 

Lighthearted Living

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Photo by Tim Ernst. Harvest moonrise, Hawksbill Crag, Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area, Ozark National Forest, Arkansas.

I often think of my Aunt Eirene and wish she was still with us. She was the queen of lighthearted living, in good times and in not-so-good times. She had a beautiful, playful spirit. She was always bejeweled when she dressed for any occasion. She was creative, with many talents from drawing house plans to interior decorating to iconography.

She invited me into her iconography world by urging me to go with her to a week-long iconography workshop on Weeks Bay, a beautiful, serene spot near Fairhope, . Weeks Bay is described with the phrase “where rivers meet the sea.” With its stunning marshes and shorelines, it made a perfect backdrop for a week of rest, creativity and spiritual experiences.

As the sun set each day, we lingered near the river and wondered about the delightful reality that this river’s current actually meets the sea’s tide. Then, after a pleasant community dinner, we enjoyed creating sacred icons in an atmosphere of soft music and quiet conversation that always included talk about how our icons were taking shape, the blending of colors, and the strokes of the brush that had to be precise.

IMG_6030“It’s not looking right” was a frequent comment. And always someone would reply that we were doing very well and that we should prayerfully continue. My aunt would constantly call attention to my icon, making sure that everyone within earshot knew that her niece’s iconography was the most beautiful she had ever seen. The workshop was a creative and spiritual week that enriched my life for years to come. For that, I am grateful to my Aunt Eirene, one of my two fun-loving aunts.

But there is another thing that I remember fondly about Eirene. Music! Thanks to Eirene, I may have been the only toddler in the world that could sing every word of dozens of songs from the early 1900s . . .

Shine on, shine on harvest moon up in the sky;
I ain’t had no lovin’ since January, February, June or July . . .

I’ll spare you the remaining lyrics. But to this day, I sing along to the Pandora tunes of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and even the songs of the Ziegfield Follies — every word!

I thought of Eirene just the other night when the gorgeous harvest moon appeared in the night sky. I thought of her gifts to me — music, painting, dancing, and most importantly, lighthearted living. By nature, I’m not particularly lighthearted, so it’s important for me to have lighthearted people in my life for balance.

If you look around, you might find fun-loving people who could add a little laughter and levity to your life. I don’t know about you, but I can use more of that lighthearted living.

Thanks, Eirene. Rest in fun.

Of Sacred Worth

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Jesus said that we are worth more than many sparrows. Perhaps he knew that knowing our worth would elude us. It truly is difficult to recognize our worth. It is even more difficult to recognize our sacred worth and to know that God deeply values the persons we are.

In 1904, songwriter Civilla Martin went to visit a bedridden friend in Elmira, New York. Mrs. Martin asked the woman if she ever got discouraged because of her physical condition. Her friend quickly responded: “Mrs. Martin, how can I be discouraged when my heavenly Father watches over each little sparrow and I know He loves and cares for me?”

On her journey back home, Mrs. Martin completed the writing of this new hymn text:

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come, why should my heart be lonely and long for Heaven and home, when Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me…

“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear, and resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears; though by the path He leadeth but one step I may see: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me…

Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise, when songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies, I draw still closer to Him; from care He sets me free; His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me…

The words of that hymn ring true for me as I recall the many times I have needed God’s protection and care. Based on several scriptures, this hymn and the scripture that inspired it has comforted many people in need over the years.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

– Matthew 10:29-31 New International Version (NIV)

I invite you to listen to the Mississippi Mass Children’s Choir singing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” at this link:
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v1MPFyVek-U

As you listen, meditate on the truth that you are a person of sacred worth to God.

Remembering

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Today you are being handed a towel of servanthood with your name on it.

Those are words written by Nancy Hastings Sehested for my ordination service on March 29, 1992. From that day to this, the power of that towel has been a part of my life. I won’t lie. There have been times when I wanted to lay it aside, get out from under the high calling it symbolized.

In 1996, I was presented an actual towel of servanthood by my church family. That towel has remained with me, a reminder of God’s sacred call to ministry. I took it out of its box last week and contemplated the flood of memories it holds.

I thought of patients I encountered as a hospital chaplain. I remembered their pain and suffering as if it happened yesterday. I remembered baptizing a stillborn child as her parents held her close.

I remembered the mother who prayed for a miracle in the hospital chapel after her son was injured in a car accident and declared brain dead by the doctor. I remembered the very moment he miraculously woke up and started his path toward healing.

I remembered the funeral of one of my church members, also a dear friend. I remembered the sheer joy of living and working with the people of Uganda. I remembered the day I preached my first sermon as a pastor.

I am grateful that the Holy Spirit abides with me and reminds me of my call — the grief, the pain, the labor, and most of all the joys. Remembering inspires me.

The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything that I have told you.

– John 14:26

Today, I placed my towel of servanthood in a visible place so that I would see it every day. That’s where it really needs to be, to help me remember.

Good Things Happen

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Good things happen. Life is filled with them, but sometimes we hardly notice. My husband and I woke up this morning, ready to enjoy another day of life. The mockingbird in the neighborhood is still singing his ever-changing song. The hummingbirds are still buzzing around the feeders. The leaves are beginning to take on fall colors. The morning breeze has a new Autumn crispness.

Sure, life has its challenges. I am dealing with health issues every day. I worry about my husband. I worry about the future. I miss my grandchildren who live far away. Most of all, I feel a sense of dread about life changes.

But I don’t want to let those feelings overshadow the good things. Yes, most of us fear change. I like to remember, though, that every good thing that has happened in my life happened because something changed.

Maya Angelou wrote, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”

So let the changes come, as inevitably they will, and I will embrace the good and beautiful things they bring my way. Good things happen!

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.    – James 1:17

Whimsy

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Sometimes life needs a little whimsy. Too much seriousness is bad for the soul. Try blowing a dandelion into the wind. Watch celestial pictures form in the moving clouds. Paint colors randomly on a blank sheet of paper.

It’s a good thing to break up a serious life with some whimsical experiences. It lifts the spirits and makes magical things seem more possible. Plan diversions on a whim. Try some playful things. Do those fun things that are so hard to do for such serious-minded folk.

I love the words of Robert A. Heineken in “The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.”

For millennia philosophers and saints have tried to reason out a logical scheme for the universe… until Hilda came along and demonstrated that the universe is not logical but whimsical, its structure depending solely on the dreams and nightmares of non-logical dreamers.

I think I’ll just drop the logical for a day or two. A little mirth and whimsy will do me good!