The People of Uganda: The Music of Abiding Faith

 

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Ugandan Women at the River; Watercolor by Kathy Manis Findley

I tell my story best when I tell the stories of the people that God has placed in my life. Quite often, my heart recalls beautiful memories of a people that became an important part of my life. They are a people who touched me beyond measure when my husband and I served as missionaries to Uganda, East Africa.

The Ugandan people captured our hearts quickly and completely. We saw the great need and set about our work in village after village, doing whatever we could to promote self sufficiency and good health. We worshipped in their churches and learned about the amazing resilience of their Christian faith. Perhaps we helped make their lives better in small ways. There is no doubt that the Ugandan people made our lives better in big ways. It was so many years ago, but I remember it as if it happened yesterday. The two of us stepped off of a plane in the Nairobi airport to begin a new life. As very young missionaries, we had no idea what we would face in the days to come.

Getting to Uganda from Kenya was a long, dusty ride through the most beautiful places we had ever seen. Through bush country and savannah, through banana groves and rain forests, through tea plantations on the mountainsides and the deep waters of Lake Victoria, we were getting acquainted with this continent.

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Ugandan Crested Cranes; Watercolor

The terrain was ever-changing, and the way was marked by the majestic beauty of elephants, giraffe, cape buffalo, gazelles, flamingos and Ugandan crested cranes.

The most moving sight of all was the people, barefoot and downtrodden, wearing rags and carrying heavy water containers. Yet, the sight of women at the banks of a river dipping their water jugs to carry to their families was a portrait of beauty and community. In spite of the toll the war had taken, these women retained their pride and dignity, and their joy. They wore basutis (native Ugandan dresses) of many vibrant African colors. In spite of the fact that their basutis were torn and tattered, they caught the rays of the equatorial sun and were bright with the greens, oranges, burgundies blues and yellows that mirrored the Ugandan landscape. The women stood together in the river, at times laughing and talking to one another, and at other times singing, in spite of their ominous sociopolitical world.

Their country had all but been destroyed by the evil dictator Idi Amin, who orchestrated the genocide of 100,000 to 500,000 Ugandans. Churches were burned to the ground, schools pillaged, roads were in shambles. Children were left orphaned in a country of widows. Their faces showed the wear of grief, their bodies the mask of mourning.

They were why we had come, sent by God to comfort a grieving people. The days ahead found us digging water wells, distributing agricultural tools and vegetable seeds, giving out books, bibles, blankets and sewing supplies, bringing in simple medicines and vaccines.

I can never think of the Ugandan people without recalling Lamentations 5, a scripture passage that was read in a church service to describe the plight of the people. As the reader read through her tears, the entire congregation wept, mourning so many losses. I offer the text here in its entirety:

Remember, Lord, what has happened to us; look, and see our disgrace.
Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to foreigners.
We have become fatherless, our mothers are widows.
We must buy the water we drink; our wood can be had only at a price.
Those who pursue us are at our heels; we are weary and find no rest.

We submitted to Egypt and Assyria to get enough bread.
Our ancestors sinned and are no more, and we bear their punishment.
Slaves rule over us, and there is no one to free us from their hands.
We get our bread at the risk of our lives because of the sword in the desert.
Our skin is hot as an oven, feverish from hunger.

Women have been violated in Zion, and virgins in the towns of Judah.
Princes have been hung up by their hands; elders are shown no respect.
Young men toil at the millstones; boys stagger under loads of wood.
The elders are gone from the city gate; the young men have stopped their music.

Joy is gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned to mourning.
The crown has fallen from our head.
Woe to us, for we have sinned!

Because of this our hearts are faint, because of these things our eyes grow dim for Mount Zion, which lies desolate, with jackals prowling over it.You, Lord, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation.
Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?

Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old
unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.

— Lamentations 5, New International Version

That worship service in the Church of Uganda (Anglican) sanctuary was unlike any I had ever experienced. The people wept freely and openly, grieving the loss of husbands, children, parents. Once described as “the pearl of Africa” by Sir Winston Churchill, Uganda was a land of incomparable natural beauty that now had been ravaged by war.

As the reading of the scripture in Lamentations came to an end, one woman with tears flowing down her cheeks began to sing and dance. The congregation joined her, singing with great fervency, “Dance then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance said he. And I’ll lead you on wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the Dance said he.”

The aisles of the sanctuary filled with dancing and weeping all at once.

Their mourning had turned to dancing. The inner joy of a people was not, and could never be, destroyed. Their hearts, so filled with the music of their faith, could not be silenced. They could sing. They could dance. Even through their tears. That is the music of abiding, persistent faith.

How grateful I am to God for choosing us to enter into community for a time with these wonderful people.

 

 

Teresa of Avila

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The saints have left us a legacy of wisdom, inspiration and challenge. I often browse through readings by the saints and find myself enthralled in the words, wondering what in their lives prompted the words they have written. Most often, there is a back story that offers a glimpse into their lives.

One of the saints that calls for my attention is Teresa of Avila. I became especially interested in her life during the years our progressive Baptist church worshipped each week in the chapel of Carmel of Saint Teresa of Jesus in Little Rock, Arkansas. I was the pastor of a church where Baptist congregants worshipped in a beautiful chapel cared for and consecrated by Carmelite Sisters, thirteen of them at that time.

How rich an experience it was for us! As we lived out our spiritual commitments in the world, we were blessed immeasurably by the inner life the Sisters modeled before us . . . a life of silence, reverence, prayer and contemplation.

Recently I came across a quote by Saint Teresa of Avila, also known as Saint Teresa of Jesus, that touched my heart.

Close your eyes and follow your breath to the still place that leads to the invisible path that leads you home.

Those words were intriguing to me, calling me to a still place. Calling me to allow my breath to lead me to the still place on the invisible path. I contemplated the meaning and what the meaning might say to me. I could not help but wonder what prompted Saint Teresa’s words. And then I looked at her back story. 

It seems that Teresa of Avila was a reformer of the Carmelite Order. The movement she initiated was later joined by the younger Spanish Carmelite friar and mystic, Saint John of the Cross. It led eventually to the establishment of the Discalced Carmelites. A formal papal decree adopting the split was issued in 1580. Throughout her life, Teresa founded several new reformed Carmelite Orders.

Saint Teresa experienced years of excruciating pain and serious illness. Her  spiritual life was one of dreams, visions and mystical experiences. Unfortunately, when her mystical experiences, including visions, became widely known, she was treated with ridicule and even persecution. Her religious ecstasies caused jealousy and suspicion. She lived in the period of the Spanish inquisition, a time in history when any deviation from the orthodox religious experience came under strict observation and scrutiny. 

So her experiences of spiritual ecstasy subjected her to the investigations of the Inquisition. In 1576, a series of persecutions began on the part of the older observant Carmelite order against Teresa, her friends, and her reforms. Pursuant to a body of resolutions adopted at the general chapter at Piacenza, the “definitors” of the order forbade all further founding of convents. The general chapter condemned Teresa to “voluntary” retirement to one of her institutions. 

But prior to her forced retirement, Saint Teresa devoted her life to traveling around Spain setting up new convents based upon ancient monastic traditions. Her travels and work were not always greeted with enthusiasm, as many resented her reforms and the implied criticism of existing religious orders. She often met with criticism, including the papal nuncio, who used the rather descriptive phrase “a restless disobedient gadabout who has gone about teaching as though she were a professor.”

Saint Teresa of Avila most assuredly had a great deal to teach us about the importance of an inner life of deep contemplation and an outer life of immersion into the hurt of the world. What a lesson we could learn about doing the inner work that enables us to do the outer work in a suffering world!

So the one who spoke those words about a “still place” had so much more to say when we readthe entirety of her writings. The following are but two small glimpses into her depth of devotion.

This magnificent refuge is inside you. Enter. Shatter the darkness that shrouds the doorway. Be bold. Be humble. Put away the incense and forget the incantations they taught you. Ask no permission from the authorities. Close your eyes and follow your breath to the still place that leads to the invisible path that leads you home.

Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ looks compassion into the world.
Yours are the feet
with which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands

with which Christ blesses the world.

Saint Teresa was a contemplative mystic that showed us a life of silence and prayer. But she was also a brilliant revolutionary in the best sense of that word. We would do well in our quest to follow God to emulate her life that spoke so eloquently of our hands and feet being those of Christ on earth. She showed us deep contemplation and revolution. Our world needs both.

 

 

Holy Energy!

There is a very special call from God that lets you know that it is your call and that no one else can respond to it quite like you can. It brings with it a kind of holy, inexplicable energy.

Your call may be teaching or preaching, caring for others or working with children, tending the sick or lifting up those who live in poverty. Your call may take you down your street or halfway across the world. But when you hear your call and know it, you will also know the feeling of that holy energy. There’s really nothing quite like it. Its precisely the reason that no human has enough power to thwart your call for any reason — for being a woman, or being too old, too young, too inexperienced. No human can steal the holy energy of your call!

Preaching releases every kind of holy energy for me. Preaching creates in me a unique awareness of my body, mind and spirit. It is, above all, a soul exercise that brings me fresh new life. That’s the best way I can describe the event we call preaching, at least from my view. But it is so much more than just an event; it is a 20 minute pursuit of truth, inspiration and spirit movement. It is for the hearer and for the proclaimer, for both are in this place of spiritual replenishment in need of new awakening to the things of God.

Last fall, I preached at my church in Macon. It was a rare opportunity, a red-letter day really. It was the first time I had preached since my illness. It had been roughly five years since I stood in a pulpit to do what I have been called to do. Those who have a similar calling probably know the angst of not preaching when God has called you, for God’s call is a lifelong agreement. For me, there is something life-giving in the act of preaching a sermon. I experience a special connection to the congregation that feels as if it moves by the wind of the Spirit. 

So it would not be an exaggeration to say that I miss preaching deeply. I miss being a pastor. I miss creating worship experiences for a congregation. 

But back to the opportunity to preach at my church . . . 

I was looking forward to the holy energy, hoping it would come back to me after so long a time. And this was such an important life event for me that I had several conversations with “my village.” Most importantly, I had a conversation with my former pastor and colleague in ministry from the previous church I served in Little Rock. I think I needed some encouragement that I could still preach after so many years of illness. The words — the right words — came just in time from a person I will always consider to be my pastor. He is a person I greatly admire, and a male minister who knows how to serve a congregation in mutuality and communion with a woman. He is a minister who embodies that holy energy I’m talking about, and he inspires others to find or reclaim their holy energy.

How rare it is to enjoy the interrelationship and kinship of male and female in mission and ministry! I miss the time we served New Millennium Church together. I miss Wendell Griffen’s support, encouragement and respect. So when we exchanged messages that day, his words were the right words, the words I really needed to hear, so transformative for me in that moment that I copied them to my journal. This is what I wrote:

From Wendell, September 30, 2018:

“Praying for and with you, Kathy!  Preach like only you can!  New Millennium is praying with you, Reverend!”

It occurs to me that all of us need encouragement at times. We need persons who will cheer us on, persons who will believe in us when we don’t believe so much in ourselves. For me it was an illness that interrupted my life. For others a life interruption can be any sort of change — the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, dealing with an empty nest, moving to another home, leaving a church and searching for another church. For whatever reason, life interruptions do hold some measure of power that can break us down and assault our confidence.

It is no big news to know that life interruptions can throw us face-down in the dirt, and it is extremely important for us to have the fortitude and the will to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off. It’s not so easy to do that for so many reasons. With self confidence eroded, we can be motionless, bereft of spirit, with little energy left. 

So then, we must do two things to make sure that we can reposition ourselves — upright and moving forward after a life interruption. The first is to recall the Divine promises of a God who always holds us up. These are three of the promises that give me hope:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed . . .So we do not lose heart . . . For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.

— 2 Corinthians 4:8-9; 16,17 NRSV

And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.

— 1 Peter 5:10 NRSV

Thus says God, the Lord . . .

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

— Isaiah 42:5-7 NRSV

The second thing we must do is to surround ourselves with a community of care, love and grace — individuals who will listen, understand and always encourage. The book of Hebrews offers us good instruction to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” (Hebrews 10:24 RSV)

Each person has the opportunity to open up their hearts and spirits to the calling of God. Each person will hear the call to mission in their own way. Each person will decide whether or not to respond to God’s call on their life. But all of us — together in community — will be able to hear God’s call clearer and find in ourselves more courage to follow. Community, when it is genuine, is like that.

I hope that you will find your genuine community as you listen for God’s call to you, the call that no other person can fulfill. I hope that you will experience holy energy, that fire in your bones that no human can extinguish. There’s really nothing quite like it!

 

 

Pentecost!

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The Day of Pentecost — my favorite Sunday of the church year! A grand and glorious celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus told his friends. “I’m going to prepare a place for you. And in the meantime, know that I will ask the Father and he will send you another Comforter to be with you forever.” (From John 14:1-18,  paraphrased)

On the day we celebrate as Pentecost, Jesus made good on the promise that the Comforter would come. They gathered in the upper room that day, men and women, disciples and kinfolk, perhaps waiting to be baptized with the Holy Spirit as Jesus promised. (Acts 1) Or maybe they were just there to have good conversation, to discuss the politics of the day. Or maybe they just wanted to hang out.

Whatever their reason for gathering, they were in for the surprise of a lifetime, the coming of the Holy Spirit. I can try to find the best words to tell you how it happened, but I cannot say it any better than this: 

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

The Church was born on that day, born on the wind. The rush of the violent wind blew through their lives. Tongues that looked like flames of fire rested on every one of them, and from that dayon, their lives were changed. They left that room with renewed courage, with a confident boldness. Maybe they even believed they could change the world!

Ah, that renewing Holy Spirit! That breath of life that sweeps through us and prepares us for holy mission. In these days of ours, so many things need the kind of change that can only happen through the wind of the Spirit. There are divisions to heal and children to protect. There are wrongs that need to be righted and truth that needs to be told. There are walls to tear down and people to shelter. The world, so broken, needs repairing. To be summoned to the mission of repairing the world is our honor. 

I am inspired by the Jewish teaching Tikkun Olam, which means “repair the world.”  Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson described tikkun olam as the mission of every human being. With a voice of urgency, he spoke with the conviction that in our times, one small deed could bring the world to the resolution for which it has yearned since its creation.

For this kind of mission, the Holy Spirit comes to us, bringing the breath of holy change and inviting us to be a part of it. That refreshing, renewing Holy Spirit, Pentecostal power, wind and flame that can change our world! May the wind blow among us and the flame kindle our passions to bring that change!

It is as the hymn says:

O Breath of Life, come sweeping through us,
revive your church with life and power;
O Breath of Life, come, cleanse, renew us,
and fit your church to meet this hour.

— Bessie Porter Head

Spirit of God, make it so.

 

 

Find the Stillness

25BC8CF9-6462-4461-A6AE-1746BCFC9B73“I have calmed and quieted my soul.” Words from the Psalmist.

Sometimes we have to get out of the fray for a few minutes. We have to turn off the political rancor, close our eyes to the evil in the world, forget for just a moment that children have been taken from their parents at the southern border, shut out the images of refugee mothers with their children traveling miles to get to safe refuge, and finally, find the stillness that gives us strength.

Sometimes we have to leave the difficult stuff behind as we enter into a sacred place of communion with God. It is God, after all, who calls us to help those in need. So in the silence, God might just tell us how to do that.

How long has it been since you spent time in a quiet and calm place? Since you lingered in a place of holy, sacred beauty? Since you waited in silence hoping to know the healing that comes with stillness?

I must confess that I do not often calm my soul. Instead, I keep myself busy with life things. I get worked up over various injustices and, before I know it, I have spent hours signing petitions, writing my representatives in Congress, or composing opinion articles. But I never stop long enough to hear from God and, in listening, to discover how I should respond to the needs I see.

“I have calmed and quieted my soul,” the Psalmist tells us. And the Psalmist also instructs us to find the stillness: “Be still, and know that I am God.” 

It is such a brief thought, a simple injunction, and yet a part of Scripture that has been quoted again and again to instruct those of us who need to find stllness in our lives.

So what is it that we do that keeps us so busy? What is it that so thoroughly prevents us from stilling our souls? Have we determined that the busyness is worth the effort we give it? God calls us to acts of compassion and justice. God might also be calling us to stillness. 

One of my favorite hymns is Be Still, My Soul.* The author of this hymn, Katharina Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel, was born in Germany in 1697. Very little is known of her life though some hymnologists suggest that she may have become a Lutheran nun. Her hymn text appears at the time of German pietism, a movement led by Philipp Jacob Spener (1635-1705.) Although Spener was not a hymn writer himself, he inspired a revival in German hymnody characterized by faithfulness to Scripture, personal experience, and deep emotional expression. Katharina von Schlegel is thought to be the leading female hymn writer of this period.

To reach us, the hymn must, of course, be understandable in our own language, so it comes to us through a translation by Jane Borthwick (1813-1897), a member of the Free Church of Scotland.

Here are the moving words of the hymn:

Be still, my soul; the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; thy best, thy heavenly, Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul; thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence, let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul; the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul, though dearest friends depart
And all is darkened in the vale of tears;
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrows and thy fears.
Be still, my soul; thy Jesus can repay
From His own fulness all He takes away.

Be still, my soul; the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul; when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

Author: Catharine Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel, 1752 – ?
Translated by: Jane Borthwick, 1855
Composer: Jean Sibelius, b. 1865, arr.
Tune: “Finlandia”

 

In the stillness, we find God’s comfort, presence, faithfulness, grace. And with that, we are able to go into a world of need with resolve, commitment, compassion and mission. The world waits for us. The people frightened and oppressed wait for us. The stillness prepares us for the task.

May God make it so. Amen.

*During your quiet time, you may wish to listen to the hymn, Be Still My Soul. You may do so at this link:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=cHNT6G9ZKik

On Being Fixers

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A Broken World: For those who have lost their lives to terrorism in the twenty first century
By Rennett Stowe on Flikr

I certainly do not want to put out pessimistic vibes, but from what I observe, the world and its inhabitants are standing in the need of prayer. Children and parents at the border are still hopelessly separated. The Trump administration continues to cozy up with the world’s tyrants and dictators. Wildfires ravaged a Greek village, and continue their destruction in other parts of the world. Scores of people are hopelessly addicted to opioids, with very little assistance available to them. Veterans of our many wars are still homeless, scouring the streets for shelter, food and care. Elderly citizens of this nation cannot afford the medications prescribed for them. Growers and farmers assess their crops and contemplate how to navigate the very real effects of climate change, while U.S. leadership continues to deny that climate change has any devastating effects. Shall I go on, or spare us all from an endless and ominous list of broken things?

We need a fixer, an all purpose, jack-of-all-trades fixer that can fix the gamut of broken things. The dilemma is worse, though, because werry does not stop at a broken world. In that broken world — in every frenetic city and in every quiet hamlet — we find broken people, heartbreaking broken people. But even as our heart breaks, we look at the brokenness with our hands tied because the remedies are far too complicated. Prayer is a definite option for such a time. My new friend, Maren, has written a poignant prayer on her blog. This is the beginning of her prayer.

God, who is never in earthquake
not wind, not wildfire,
but comes walking across storms,
speaking with a still small voice
holding those who fear,
comforting those who grieve,
hear the prayers of the world . . . 

By Maren; Prayer for Lombok — Indonesia
https://giftsinopenhands.wordpress.com/2018/07/29/prayer-for-lombok-indonesia/

Prayers are necessary. Awareness is critical. Reaching out in specific, authentic ways is imperative. Yet, we still need a fixer, or at least a place to find hope and comfort. I always turn to the words of the prophet Isaiah for hope, while at the same time, I understand — with just a bit of reticence, fear and trembling — that Isaiah’s remedy points directly back to me.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,

to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of joy instead of mourning,
a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will repair the broken cities
that have been devastated for generations.

— Isaiah 61:1-4 

There’s the catch, the description of the fixer as one who has first been anointed by the Lord and then is sent. That would be me, and you, fixers all!

May God anoint us as we go into all the broken places and draw near to all the broken people.

Fault Lines and Faith

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Aerial photo of the San Andreas Fault in the Carrizo Plain,  http://www.geologyin.com.

Last week, we were inundated with media reports about President Donald J. Trump’s performance in his private meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. From the outset, voices cried out in protest that the President of the United States would even consider a meeting with the Russian dictator. Now we are working through what the U.S. president said or did not say during the meeting. In a sense, we are standing on the fault lines of our nation.

There is no shortage of criticism on the opinion that President Trump took sides. In fact, he took Vladimir Putin’s word over the findings of several American intelligence agencies that Russia interfered with the 2016 election. Alina Polyakova, an expert on Russia at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said this in a conference call with reporters.“It was telling that the U.S. president did not mention Ukraine or Crimea once. The U.S. president also didn’t mention U.S. sanctions and basically let the Russian president set the agenda on Syria and other items as well.”

Condemnation of this meeting was swift, sweeping and widespread. The Chicago Tribune reported a plethora of reactions: “Bizarre. Shameful. Disgraceful. And that’s just from the Republicans.” Disgraceful, embarrassing, incompetent, disturbing, unpatriotic . . . There are so many negative descriptors in the narrative about this meeting. People of faith stand on the fault line wondering if and how we should respond. 

Now, the shock has somewhat abated. People, Democrat and Republican, are making their way back to the comfort of normalcy. To be sure, some Democrats are wringing their hands a bit more than they did before the Trump/Putin meeting, but at the end of the day, everyone will settle down on top of whatever fault line is nearest to them. I cannot help but think of the words of Edwin Muir from his poem, The Transfiguration, “But the world rolled back into its place, and we are here. And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn, As if it had never stirred.”

So after all the upheaval caused by the Helsinki meet-up, and after all the amped-up rhetoric of condemnation of the American president’s performance, it seems as if “the world rolled back into its place,” as if nothing has stirred. And yet, some people of faith feel an unease on this fault line, a vague sense that all is not as it should be, and wondering what all of this has to do with us. Most of us are do-ers, so inaction is difficult even when no clear action is before us. For good or ill, we are here in “the living of these days,” and there are indeed some clear actions we must take.

One set of effectual actions, as suggested by my friend, Ken Sehested, is to be prepared, to listen to media reports from a variety of sources, but to remember that we draw our bearings from “a larger horizon.” Ken writes this in a meditation entitled “We Must Be Prepared: A Brief Meditation for the Living of these Days.”

We must be prepared. Things are likely to get worse before they get better. We must listen to the news, from a variety of sources. But we must not draw our bearings from that news. Ours is a larger horizon.

It seems to me that all of our responses — whether being fully informed, shaping our opinions and convictions, advocating with members of Congress, or praying for our nation and our leaders — must emerge from that place called “a larger horizon.” 

And about the living of these days? These are the days we have, the good of them and the not so good. Certainly, we can feel hopeless when we hear disturbing headlines about any number of fault line issues. The narrative from the U.S. President clashes with the best direction from his own staff. The story of the private Helsinki meeting changes from hour to hour. Lawmakers are calling for recordings of the meeting. There is a palpable lack of trust within the Trump administration. 

In these days, we do feel threatened by fault lines, feeling them shifting underneath our feet. But along with the fault lines, we also have a living faith that guides us to create positive change, compels us to continue standing up for the marginalized people among us, strengthens us to labor for the good of our communities and our nation, and ennobles us to speak out for truth and justice.

A Broken, Waiting World

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Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you. ― L.R. Knost

When I was in seminary so many years ago, I worked part time in the Development Office, that extraordinary place that dreamed up words designed to gain support for the seminary and to tell the world what we were about. The one creative theme I most remember, because we made it our catch phrase and printed it on everything, was “We’re out to change the world!”

Some students left the seminary, degree in hand, and did just that. The rest of us labored mightily and did everything we knew to do to change a world that most assuredly was waiting and broken. What a mission!

I must admit, that short statement from seminary days became my personal quest. In every ministry position, I tried to change the world, much to the dismay of my parishioners. I took on every worthy cause as my own challenge to change the world. I committed myself to justice and set my face toward hope and healing for every person suffering injustice and indignity. It became a life-long quest, a personal commission. And what’s more, I sincerely believed I could do it, at least for the first few years I spent banging my head against various walls.

The song lyrics “to dream the impossible dream” come to mind. For those of you who may be too young to know about the magic of the 1964 Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha, I must give you the lyrics of the song that was the pronunciamento of the primary character, Don Quixote, and that almost instantly became the credo that many people of God embraced in trying to change the world.

To dream the impossible dream …
To fight the unbeatable foe …
To bear with unbearable sorrow …
To run where the brave dare not go …
To right the unrightable wrong …
To love pure and chaste from afar …
To try when your arms are too weary …
To reach the unreachable star …

This is my quest, to follow that star;
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far:
To fight for the right, without question or pause;
To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause.

And I know if I’ll only be true, to this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie will lie peaceful and calm,
when I’m laid to my rest.

And the world will be better for this:
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach the unreachable star.

— Lyrics by Joe Darion

Today, as I watch military strikes against Syria and know that our country has not welcomed desperate Syrian refugees, I am painfully aware that I did not change the world. I worked in Uganda after the devastation of Idi Amin, but I did not change the world for millions of Ugandan widows and orphans.

I worked with persons who were sick and dying in hospital ministry, and I did not change their hopeless world of suffering. I have written letters, contacted government officials, participated in demonstrations, and signed hundreds of petitions, but I have not changed the world.

It has indeed been an “impossible dream.” And yet, I believe that I lived into my call from God and followed every path God placed before me. I faced off against what I viewed as evil many times and was deeply, demonstrably angry many times. But always, my mission remained in the center of God’s gentle grace and love. How?

I learned along the way — finally — that changing the world God’s way means holding tightly to lovingkindness, compassion, love and gentleness. The Scripture in Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV) says it like this:

. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

“Change the world with gentleness,” God might say to me.

While others stand for bigotry, racism, violence and war, change the world with gentleness. While leaders refuse to welcome refugees who long for a safe haven for their children, change the world with gentleness. While the highest positions in this country are embroiled in collusion, corruption, lies, greed and unkindness, change the world with gentleness.

This is a broken, waiting world that yearns, not for my righteous anger toward the world that is, but rather for my gentle hands of healing for the world that can be.

Change the world with gentleness? How? Why?

Because “Gentleness is not weakness. Just the opposite. Preserving a gentle spirit in a heartless world takes extraordinary courage, determination, and resilience. Do not underestimate the power of gentleness because gentleness is strength wrapped in peace, and therein lies the power to change the world.”

― L.R. Knost

May God lead us all in the paths of righteousness and gentleness. Amen.

Baffled

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Art by David Hoffrichter Illustrations

At times, I am baffled by retirement and aging. It’s one of those “wonder-what-to-do-with-myself” times that is a part of life. Like so many people, I allowed my work to define me. On the other side of a life of ministry, there is a great deal of grief and loss, and mostly bewilderment. I constantly ask myself the question I should have answered decades ago: “Who am I?”

It is definitely true of me that I no longer know what to do. Oh, I keep myself busy enough with trivial pursuits. I cook. I write. I paint. I garden. I do crafty things. But none of those pursuits are engaging enough to help me redefine myself as a person who has passed her years of full time work and ministry.

Certainly, many people say that once you are a minister you never lose your ordination, your gifts, your calling and your mission. But I wonder what that really means. There is no preaching or worship planning going on in my world these days, no hospital ministry, no funerals and no weddings to officiate. If my mission and calling is for life, what does that mean in terms of day to day living?

I have to admit that, though I am busy doing “stuff,” I no longer know what to do with myself. Fortunately, I recently found a smidgen of comfort in these words written by Wendell Berry.

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

— ‘The Real Work’ by Wendell Berry, from Collected Poems, 1987.

So when all is said and done, perhaps it’s okay to be baffled. Maybe I can become that “impeded stream” and make a bit of music, filling these baffling days with singing. Just maybe, the writer of Ephesians had some very good advice for a person in my state of baffle-ment.

. . . be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

— Ephesians 5:18-20 New International Version (NIV)

A Holy Mission . . . A Possible Mission

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A post card created by the Syracuse Cultural Workers                                            commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Beloved Community.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of “beloved community” he was describing the ultimate goal of non-violent activism for peace and justice — a global community of caring where poverty, hunger and in justice are no more.

As a person of faith, how do I respond to injustice? Where do I find the impetus, the courage, to confront evil? How do I go deeply into my soul to find the inner strength to stand against that which is wrong in the world? How do I work to help realize the dream of a beloved community? How do I meet the challenge of so holy a mission?

Brian McClaren recently wrote about what he saw and experienced in Charlottesville. A part of his article includes a straight-up call to people of faith.

All of us, especially people of faith, need to proclaim that white supremacy and white privilege and all other forms of racism and injustice must indeed be replaced with something better – the beloved community where all are welcome, all are safe, and all are free. White supremacist and Nazi dreams of apartheid must be replaced with a better dream – people of all tribes, races, creeds, and nations learning to live in peace, mutual respect, and neighborliness. Such a better world is possible, but only if we set our hearts on realizing the possibility.

– Brian McClaren

Oh, how we long to experience “the beloved community.” How we long to see our dreams of peace become a reality. Yes, we do set our hearts on realizing these dreams. Yet, we still feel the reticence of fear and inadequacy. We still tend to hide inside of our religiosity, the kind of religiosity that prevents us from responding to God’s call to wage peace. The Apostle Paul spoke to the religious people of his time. His words are instructive to us.

Paul stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else . . . For in him we live and move and have our being.”

– From Acts 17:22-28

Therein lies the answer to my questions of inadequacy and urges me to go beyond my own “objects of worship.” Paul’s prompting urges me to move outside of my own religious temple into a hurting and warring world. How can I find the will and the courage?

In God I live and move and have my being. That makes every holy mission a possible mission.

May God make it so.