Beside Still Waters

 

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Still waters near Pulaski County, Arkansas. Photo by Steve Nawojczyk.

I long each day to live beside still waters, to dwell in serenity, to find peace in the depths of my soul. Not such a simple task, that. 

The problem is that life is not that much about still waters. It’s more often about churning waters and swelling currents. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sound of waves crashing in the ocean and then coming to the shoreline with a special kind of energy. I love the rolling of a mighty river, the trickling sounds of creeks, and the splashing sounds that streams make as  they ripple over stones.

But the sheer silence of still waters . . . That’s when you can skip a rock across the top of the water and watch its antics. In still waters, you can hear the sounds of fish flying up to the surface and turtles paddling almost silently acreoss the waters with only their heads visible in search for a morsel of food. In still waters, a family of ducklings can move through the waters with just a hint of a sound and the graceful swan can glide by with hardly any sound at all while its webbed feet move swiftly to push the waters aside.

Those still waters! Their silence and their calm show us how to be.

The truth is that rushing waters do describe our lives at times. That is our reality. Life brings what feels like raging storms. Life assails us with a power that reminds us of the breaking waves of the ocean. In this life, we come upon rivers too deep and too wide and too turbulent to cross. We will feel a force against us that may come because of serious illness or the loss of a loved one. It may come with the pain of broken relationships or with devastating financial hardship.

Life brings brokenheartedness, but it brings brokenheartedness in the midst of grace. For on this journey we call life, we travel with a divine guide, One who does lead us beside still waters. And it is there that our soul is restored and comforted in the midst of green pastures of sacred serenity and holy calm.

I am thinking, of course, of the words of the Psalmist.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;

       he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me;

        your rod and your staff — they comfort me.

— Psalm 23:1-4 (New Revised Standard Version)

I also think of my friend, Steven Nawojczyk, who is finding his much-needed peace in the forests, mountains and valleys of Arkansas. His stunning photograph illustrates today’s blog post. With his beautiful dog and companion, Feebi, he follows a path of serenity and healing, hiking through nature’s beauty most every day.

His life has not been an easy one. As a public servant — many years as Pulaski County Coroner — he has seen far too much anguish for one person. He was integrally involved, literally in the trenches, with ending and preventing Little Rock gang violence, and has been a staunch champion for young people.

He faces serious illness and harsh treatment in his retirement. but he knows that life really does have a pathway that goes around the dangers, toils and snares. He knows that he and Feebi will find lightheartedness in exploring a forest or watching a flowing stream. He knows that the simple joy of a mountain view can bring transformation. He knows about peace, and he has chosen to follow the life path that passes beside still waters. I admire him. I have always admired him, but even more so now as I witness his unwavering commitment to serenity.

That’s what it’s all about in the end — a commitment to serenity, a firm resolve to walk beside the still waters of life, and in that intentional journey, to find our souls.

May the grace and peace of God fill your soul, and may your journey, wherever it leads, bring you serenity.

 

 

 

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Through the Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.

— Isaiah 43:2 New International Version (NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Moving a Mountain with a Teaspoon

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Quote by Napoleon Bonaparte

Moving a mountain with a teaspoon!

Ever feel like that’s exactly what you’re trying to do? I know the feeling personally, and I have also witnessed others in the middle of this kind of daunting task.

Making ends meet in a single parent family . . . moving a mountain with a teaspoon.

Caring for an aging loved one who needs constant attention . . . moving a mountain with a teaspoon.

Fighting a debilitating and relentless illness . . . moving a mountain with a teaspoon.

None of us are immune to life situations that get the best of us, sometimes bringing us to our knees in desperation. And sometimes, these life challenges move us to the precipice of almost giving in and giving up. There is simply not enough strength and fortitude to go on, and we find that we are sitting in the dust where we collapsed, contemplating if it’s even worth it to try to get back up.

With inner resilience and a tiny bit of hope, we do get up. We move farther along our path, part of us dreading the next collapse, and the other part of us filled with certainty that we will survive. Moving a mountain with a teaspoon is most certainly a part of life, every person’s life.

And yet, from somewhere in our past, there is this faint whisper of hope. We may not remember where the whisper comes from, and it may be ever-so-quiet. But still we hear it . . .  echoing from ages past, coming from somewhere in our lives at some devastating moment, maybe even becoming a sigh from the deepest place in the soul.

Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.

— Mark 11:23 NRSV

What a promise to remember when we feel as if we are moving a mountain with a teaspoon! It is a God-sent word of assurance, a message of hope that encourages us to pick ourselves up and move forward, to try one more time.

Thanks be to God.

How Do You Live When You Know What’s Coming?

ABD2C8E4-5AA9-49EC-B771-A85BCDFBBD90How do you live when you know what’s coming? Jesus might have asked himself that question when the crowds were shouting “Hosanna!” and making a big deal of the fact that he was riding into town on a donkey. The Gospel of Mark tells the story well.

Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.

Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

— Mark 11:8-11 New International Version

So how do you live when you know what’s coming? Jesus went to the temple as was his custom and then set off to Bethany with his disciples. He knew what was coming, yet he did nothing very earth shattering. He sent his disciples into the city to prepare for for the Passover meal they would share. They ate the meal together, Jesus told then they would all desert him, and each one declared that they would never do such a thing.

They did. But life went on as life does. The Gospel then continues the sorrow-filled story as Jesus goes on with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane.

. . . And Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.”

He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated.
And said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.”

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him.

He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.

Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.”

So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him.

Then they laid hands on him and arrested him.

— Mark 14:33-46 New Internation Versioned

So now life is earth shattering for Jesus. How do you live when you know what’s coming?

Right now in deep Lent, this is a question we probably should ask. I don’t know about you, but as for me, I know what’s coming, at least some of what’s coming. There’s aging and illness, separation from children and grandchildren, the inevitable loss of loved ones, waning energy and more loss of independence. It happens to persons of a certain age. What’s coming for me includes things that are not so positive.So how do I live when I know what’s coming?

The preacher in me wants to offer a religious platitude that minimizes the troubling reality and lifts up abiding hope. The preacher in me wants to proclaim with a great deal of passion that all will be well. The preacher in me wants to declare that whatever happens to me, God will be glorified.

How do I live when I know what’s coming?

Right smack dab through the middle of it! Living strong in the face of fear. Holding tightly to hope. Summoning my inner courage. Standing steady through the winds of change, depending on the inner resilience that has always sustained me. That’s how I live in the days I have left in this world.

But, by the way, there really is a religious word that upholds and sustains me. The preacher in me is still alive and well, so I can proclaim with great certainty the comforting truth I find in my favorite passage of scripture

You have searched me, O God,
and you know me. You know whenI sit down and when I rise;

You perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways . .

You hem me in behind and before, you protect me, and you lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful, too lofty for me to comprehend.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall your hand guide me and your right hand will hold me fast.

— Psalm 139:1-10 New International Version (paraphrased)

With that sacred promise and with the strength that has grown in me over many years, I really do know how to live when I know what’s coming. Thanks be to God.

Light for a Dark Path

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Life can be a very dark path, frightenly uncharted. Inching through life often finds us hesitating in dark places, afraid to take even one step into an unknown future. The darkness can be daunting. Still, for me light has at times eased the darkness, and with even a tiny ray of light, I was able to move forward.

Brother Curtis Almquist writes of the grace-filled presence of beacons of light.

There have been people in our past who have been beacons of light, and whose life still shines into the present . . . and we remember them because they help us find our way and know our place in life, which is otherwise so terribly uncharted.

– Brother Curtis Almquist
Society of Saint John the Evangelist

How fondly I remember and give thanks for the people who were beacons of light for me.

Yiayia, my beloved grandmother, who was my faithful and loving protector and whose energy nurtured me.

Thea Koula, my favorite aunt, who was like a mother to me and who brought joy and lightheartedness to my life.

Ethel, my forever friend, who was a constant beacon of light, always helping me find my way.

In the darkness, the light of faith endured and made the journey possible. Most certainly, the people in my life strengthened my faith and were for me a welcomed light for a dark path. And yes, I stumbled over more than a few nasty obstacles and rough spots. But even when I languished in the darkness of an uncharted path, my faith was enough. My faith was my brightest light.

I will be forever grateful for the beacons of light that helped guide me on the journey and for the enduring, constant presence of a faithful God.

The Lord will guide you always;
will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.

– Isaiah 58:11 NIV

Change and Hope

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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.

Life’s Narrow and Wide Gates

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Life is full of narrow and wide gates, beckoning us to choose which gate to enter. On one hand, the idea of gates — narrow ones and wide ones — is a Biblical idea describing the kind of life a Christian person might choose. On the other hand, narrow and wide gates are simply a part of our life pilgrimage.

The Scripture reference is found in the Gospel of Matthew.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

– Matthew 7:13-14 New International Version (NIV)

The pilgrimage that we call life is, most certainly, a series of challenges we must face. How common it is for us to complain when the gate before us is narrow and the road ahead is rocky. Why do I struggle financially? Why must I endure failing health? Why am I in the middle of a failing relationship? Why did I lose someone I love so deeply?

Didn’t I choose the narrow gate, God? Did I not commit my life to the way that leads to life? Then why? Why the suffering?

God seldom answers us when we ask these questions. We listen constantly for God’s voice and a satisfactory explanation of life’s suffering.

We hear nothing.

Just relentless, ominous silence. It can try one’s faith.

Gratefully, I came across an encouraging quote. Before collapsing on my life’s dusty road, I found a place to lean in the words of Brother Luke Ditewig. Here’s what he said:

After making much fuss about our great accomplishment at having found a narrow and obscure gate and walked through, we’re often surprised at the ordinary challenges of life that follow, again and again. I’m embarrassed by how much I say: “Wow, this road is hard!” or “Why are we still in the wilderness?” But if you look around right now, you’ll notice divine love in the ordinary stuff of life.

– Brother Luke Ditewig
Society of Saint John the Evangelist

So let us persist, moving forward with even a tiny fistful of faith. And may we look around on the way, passing through the gates we encounter and always noticing the divine love that is ever present in the “ordinary stuff of life.”

A Winding Path

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I simply cannot see what’s up ahead. I know that the path is a winding one. I know that the path is strewn with rocks and a few obstacles along the way. I know that the trees provide shade on the journey. I know, most surely of all, that the path winds on into places that remain unknown to me. That could cause fear and a reluctance to walk forward.

I have known such fear at times. I have gazed at the path before me and have welcomed the kind of fear that stops the journey. I have trembled, deeply in my soul, because the path was formidable . . . a winding, crooked path that stretched before me farther than I could see. I have never known the destination, only the fear and the path.

José N. Harris has written about this kind of fear. He writes of a remedy, in fact.

When you find your path, you must ignore fear. You need to have the courage to risk mistakes. But once you are on that road… run, run, run, and don’t stop until you’ve reached its end.

– José N. Harris, MI VIDA: A Story of Faith, Hope and Love

That’s wise counsel. I must ignore the fear and bravely walk my path in faith, faith in the God that placed my path before me in the first place. The truth is that God has a long history of faithfulness, a long history of guiding folk on their journeys and protecting them on the pathways they were traveling. And that’s good enough for me!

Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the wilderness. By day the pillar of cloud did not cease to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take.

– Nehemiah 9:19 NIV

Bridges and Tunnels

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River bridge and tunnel over the White River at Cotter, Arkansas. Photo by Ray Brooks.

Life has its share of bridges and tunnels. I have traversed both. The bridges were nearly always open to the world and promised to take me to the other side of something. And although long bridges, old rickety bridges, and high-over-a-river bridges do present some measure of fear in crossing, bridges are pretty welcoming. They offer a wide-open promise to get you across.

Tunnels, on the other hand, are not wide open at all. They represent a more mysterious part of the journey, a few dark moments when you must enter the tunnel with faith that it won’t collapse on top of you and that there will be light at the end of it. Tunnels bury you for a time under rock, mountains, or water.

I’m prepared for crossing bridges and going through tunnels. So many life events have been my preparation, teaching me to move forward with confidence and courage. And God has proven to be present with me no matter how deep the tunnel or how long the bridge.

So I’ll keep moving, and along the way, I will enjoy the breathtaking vistas I see from the bridges. And I might even enjoy going into the tunnels, which could well be a time for me to experience the kind of darkness that touches the peaceful darkness inside me.

 

Celebrating the Journey

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We are travelers on a journey, fellow pilgrims on the road;
We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.
I will hold the Christ-light for you in the night-time of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.

– Richard Gillard (1974) Copyright: © 1977 Scripture In Song/Maranatha! Music/ASCAP

This hymn, “The Servant Song,” offers the image of life as a journey. It is a clear call to our interconnectedness as “fellow pilgrims.” It is a portrait of making the journey together, caring each for the other, holding up the light when the darkness becomes overwhelming.

So we are not wandering strangers, but instead brothers and sisters united by our mutual care for one another weathering the storms of every difficult hour. For me, the path has been steep and rocky at times, smooth and pleasant at other times. The brothers and sisters along the way gave me enough grace and courage to keep moving ahead when the journey got the best of me. Bishop Steven Charleston offers a tribute for journey travelers.

Here is the respect you deserve for all that you have done. You have weathered the storms of many difficult hours, kept going when others might have stopped, continued to believe despite all evidence to the contrary. Were you perfect in thought and action? No, of course not, none of us are, but you have tried, more than once, and tried again, admitting mistakes, growing in wisdom, learning the lessons of a life well lived. For all of this, from one other traveler walking the road beside you, you have my respect. I honor you and celebrate what you have accomplished.

Always celebrate the journey you have traveled. Always honor the wisdom you gained, the lessons you learned, the brothers and sisters you found along the way. May God bless you as you journey on.