Peace, Pandemic and Love

A9B89FA8-D79C-4999-B5DE-9695C420F354
What a time in the story of our lives! In my lifetime, I have never been personally affected by a pandemic. I have lived a little over seventy years without having this troubling and potentially deadly experience. My prayer is that once the pandemic of year 2020 has run its course, we will not have to live through another one for at least seventy years.

In the past few days, I have heard from students lamenting the loss of their senior year. I have commiserated with friends who feared for their elderly parents, especially those in nursing homes. I listened recently to a discussion about how we could possibly keep incarcerated persons safe from this virus. I have listened to friends and family express deeply held fears about how the virus might affect them and their families. I have heard almost daily from my adult son (an unprecedented number of calls in such a short time) who is worried about his parents and about his wife and their new baby to be born in early April. I have heard from friends my age who are quarantined at home fearing for their health. I have communicated with post transplant patients like me expressing their most intense fear because of their suppressed immune systems. As a recent transplant recipient myself, I completely understand their angst of being on immunosuppressant medications. Like them, I know I have no immune system right now.

There is no doubt that all over the world people are frightened. People of faith, however, know that faith is stronger than fear, God is stronger than despair and love is stronger than death. Of course, even though we might have great faith, we must admit that we don’t know what God will do or how God can protect us. That is not unfaith; it is the reality of our humanity. Oh, we can take the easy way out and proclaim words like, “God is in control” or “everything happens for a reason.” But doesn’t the past suffering and pain of your life convince you that those words are not your reality?

One of my former seminary professors taught and preached often about the experience of Jesus’ suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane. Dr. Frank Tupper’s answer to the question about how a loving God could allow Christ’s suffering went something like this: “because before the foundation of the world God had chosen the way of self-limitation.”

Dr. Tupper also said some things that some people might consider blasphemy: 

I do not believe that God is in control of everything that happens in our world. Indeed, I would argue that God controls very, very little of what happens in our world. God chose not to be a ‘do anything, anytime, anywhere’ kind of God. In every specific historical context with its possibilities and limitations, God always does the most God can do.

In my mind, and through the crucible of my life, I believe that God wanted authentic and honest relationships with humankind that affirm both divine love and human freedom. God built that kind of relationship with me when, through every life storm, every time of despair, every disappointment, every fear, every loss — and through my life-threatening illness — God did not change any circumstance of my suffering, but God promised me a love that would not let me go, ever.

In these days, God is not stopping the dreaded Coronavirus pandemic. God is not stilling our current storm. God is not taking away our very real fear. God is not telling us, “Go on out to that social gathering, I am in control.” Instead God has promised us peace through the words of Jesus recorded in John 16:33:

These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but take courage, I have overcome the world.

I pray that you will find peace in these troubling days and that your faith will be even a little stronger than your fear. I pray that you will not experience economic hardship and that you will have all you need. I pray that illness will spare you and those you love. I pray that your children will thrive even though their schools are closed. I pray that you will find ways to worship God even if the doors of your church are shuttered. Most of all, I pray that you will feel God’s love as a love that will never let you go.

The words of one of my favorite hymns express these thoughts so well:

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow
may richer, fuller be.

O Light that follow’st all my way,
I yield my flick’ring torch to thee;
my heart restores its borrowed ray,
that in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
may brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow thro’ the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
and from the ground there blossoms red,
life that shall endless be.

— Author: George Matheson, 1842-1906

Perhaps you would like to spend a few moments of quiet meditation listening to this beautiful hymn arrangement.

The Path to Inner Peace, Joy and Freedom

C969192F-5A14-440C-866D-D5E5D8D00F36
Peace, joy and freedom.
All three are needed things, soul things that make us content. They are not easily gained, however, as the daily routine we call life attacks them on a regular basis.

How troubling it is to lose one’s sense of peace. A number of life situations can result in a loss of soul-peace — worry about illness, financial concerns, difficulty with children, caring for aging parents, moving to another home. It would be impossible to complete the list of things that can steal our sense of peace.

F96B5DE4-5888-46C4-8956-5E9B8C79538EPerhaps we should go one step further, though, and acknowledge that our loss is not merely the loss of peace, it is the loss of peacefulness. That loss can be disconcerting at best and devastating at worse. All of us long for a deep and abiding sense of peacefulness. We sometimes cry out “peace, peace, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14)

09448864-0833-49E4-B38B-EC6E4B5B1BC1
Joy! 
At times, it can be hard for us to feel joy. I think it is because we’re not at all sure what joy hidden inside the soul feels like. For joy is not simply happiness over something that has come to us — a new house or car, a life milestone like graduation or a wedding, a celebration of the birth of a child. Such things seem to bring joy, but our actual response to such events is a brief burst of happiness. Genuine joy — soul joy — happens when something inside of us deeply responds to
joy and we tuck it away safely in our hearts. And that kind of joy is not a brief response to a happy event, it is an abiding, spiritual state of being that comes with a grace-filled assurance that Christ came to make sure we live our lives ‘more abundantly.” The message from Jesus comes to us using various words:

I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.
(John 10:10, paraphrased)

I came to give life with joy and abundance.
(The VOICE translation)

I have come in order that you might have life—life in all its fullness.
(The Good News Bible)

Living “Life in all its fullness” seems to be the end result of abiding joy, in the soul and in the heart. Even when we listened to the song our children learned to sing, “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart,” we somehow knew that true joy was internal not external. That joy resided in our hearts and in our souls.

CCBEBC8B-56E7-44EF-A9D0-C73F395A35E6Finally freedom — the kind of freedom we have when peace and joy is hidden in the deepest recesses of our being. Freedom does not leave those who practice gratefulness, prayer, meditation and confession. It is at the altar of confession that God offers us assurance of pardon. It’s the opposite of the soul’s bondage. I cannot help but recall the words of the Apostle Paul about the nature of Christian freedom that so boldly introduce the 5th chapter of Galatians:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of bondage. (Galatians 5:1)

Frederick Buechner added a new dimension to our longing for peace, joy and freedom with this powerful thought:

Unless there is peace and joy and freedom for you,
there can be no real peace or joy or freedom for me.

Therein lies the crux of living the Christian life: an interconnectedness among those who follow Christ, a community of faith in which each one supports the other. It is an interconnectedness that transcends differences of opinion, different ways of practicing faith, disagreements about which hymns are more appropriate in worship or, even more trivial, what kind of light bulbs should we use in the sanctuary.

Our interconnectedness ensures that each of us will have the will and the faithfulness to enjoy the kind of peace, joy and freedom that abides in us when we “do not forsake the assembling of ourselves together and when we exhort and encourage one another. The Message translation by Eugene Peterson calls it “spurring each other on.” (Hebrews 10:25)

Perhaps caring for one another — exhorting, encouraging and “spurring each other on” — is the message of this beloved hymn that so often informs our worship and our community when we sing it together:

Brother, sister, let me serve you;
Let me be as Christ to you;
Pray that I might have the grace to
Let you be my servant, too.

We are pilgrims on a journey;
We are family on the road;
We are here to help each other
Walk the miles and bear the load.

I will hold the Christ-light for you
In the nighttime of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
Speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping;
When you laugh I’ll laugh with you;
I will share your joys and sorrows
Till we’ve seen this journey through.

When we sing to God in Heaven
We shall find such harmony,
Born of all we’ve known together
Of Christ’s love and agony.

— THE SERVANT SONG, Words and music by Richard Gillard

In our deepest time of prayer and contemplation and in the sacred refuge of our community of faith, our souls find peace, joy and freedom — for all of us, for each of us.

May God make it so. Amen.

War!

E1BC8F34-2C8B-4AAD-85B9-141D0938722D

WAR  noun, often attributive
(1)  a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations
(2)  a period of such armed conflict
(3)  a state of hostility, conflict, or antagonism
(4)  a struggle or competition between opposing forces for a particular end

In a time of turmoil across the earth, I am reminded of the many ways we long for peace and the many times we fail to achieve it. As I hear reports and human stories of the warring among peoples of many nations, I am also very aware of the wars that often rage within. War and peace are complex ideologies that spurn people to action — either action to plunder and kill or action that insists upon peace and tranquillity. The British peace advocate John Bright (1811-1889) gave a speech at the Conference of the Peace Society in Edinburgh in the summer of 1853 to oppose the forthcoming war against Russia (the Crimean War 1854-56). 

What is war?

What is war? I believe that half the people that talk about war have not the slightest idea of what it is. In a short sentence it may be summed up to be the combination and concentration of all the horrors, atrocities, crimes, and sufferings of which human nature on this globe is capable . . . injustice of any kind, be it bad laws, or be it a bloody, unjust, and unnecessary war, of necessity creates perils to every institution in the country.   — John Bright (1811-1889)

Profound truth rests in Bright’s words, and it is a truth every person would do well to contemplate. At some point I recall seeing a provocative image on the poster for Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket. It was an image of the soldier’s helmet with a handwritten “born to kill” slogan . . . and a peace symbol, a provocative juxtaposition of reminding us that human beings have the capacity for both killing and peace.

Who can forget the words of the Prophet Isaiah?

And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

So why talk of war after Ash Wednesday and into Lent? Perhaps the subject of war occurred to me as I moved closer to this season of repentance and self-reflection. Perhaps I felt a need to consider the futility of war because of Ash Wednesday’s dictum, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

One who came from dust, and who anticipates returning to dust, must certainly feel a longing for peace, peace in the world as well as peace of the soul and spirit. Neither examples of peace are easily achieved. The machinations of war between nations, and the eternal quest for finding inner peace, are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps it is those persons who have a dearth of inner peace who seriously contemplate making enemies and making war. War flourishes, at times, when the cause seems righteous, while at other times, the cause is greed, lust for power and human depravity. Either way, the losses of war are enormous beyond imagining.

I have been intrigued by the writing of Sebastian Junger in his book War (published in 2010). He echoes the famous words of Winston Churchill:

We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.

Junger also offers interesting insights into war:

The cause doesn’t have to be righteous and battle doesn’t have to be winnable; but over and over again throughout history, men have chosen to die in battle with their friends rather than to flee on their own and survive. 

The Army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is not negotiable and only deepens with time. The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly.

Three Christian denominations have positions on war.

Roman Catholic
The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life. Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.

The Southern Baptist Convention (Adopted on June 14, 2000)
Peace and War. It is the duty of Christians to seek peace with all men on principles of righteousness. In accordance with the spirit and teachings of Christ they should do all in their power to put an end to war.

The United Methodist Church (2000 United Methodist Book of Discipline)
We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as a usual instrument of national foreign policy and insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them; that human values must outweigh military claims as governments determine their priorities; that the militarization of society must be challenged and stopped; that the manufacture, sale, and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled; and that the production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons be condemned. Consequently, we endorse general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.

62CD426B-DC5F-4BAB-834D-47EC0FF59251

A map of Afghanistan with bullet holes at a school in the Kandahar Province. Photo by Bryan Denton for The New York Times

No doubt, this is probably more information on the deplorable subject of war than anyone needs to contemplate. And yet, war is not just “far off” in other countries where we can’t see it. “War” is all around us — in this divided nation, in the hate speech that is so prevalent, in the gun violence that takes lives, in violent acts within families, in racial division and the re-emergence of white nationalism. One can scarcely complete the list of the many ways war affects us, within us and around us.

We must remember that war is not only the catastrophic expectation of a nuclear bomb or chemical warfare, it is also a war that could raise its head in our communities, in our churches, even in our hearts, wreaking havoc on our souls. War is famine, homelessness, poverty, racism, family violence, child abuse, trafficking, homophobia and xenophobia. War is the destruction of humanity and all that we know to be right and just. The example of Jesus must be our guide and inspiration. No, Jesus did not explicitly warn against war, but he said so many things about peace.

The words of Jesus

Matthew 5: 38-48 (selected verses)
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also . . .

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven . . . For if you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Mark 12:28-31
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. ‘The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

The early Christians took Jesus at his word. They closely identified their religion with peace; they strongly condemned war and bloodshed; they appropriated to themselves the Old Testament prophecy which foretold the transformation of the weapons of war into the implements of agriculture; they declared that it was their Christian commitment to return good for evil and to conquer evil with good.

Might we all do likewise!

What is critical for us is to fully understand that war among us or within us creates profound loss . . . always. The current political divisions are taking a toll on everyone. We no longer live in a time when political leaders held all the divisiveness. In these days,  fractured politics have reached communities, churches and even families. When support for political candidates creates deep separations one from another, we have reached a dangerous and divisive environment. When we live in such a divisive environment, we risk losing relationships with those who “don’t vote like we do.” What a senseless, unfortunate and tragic loss that creates  — breaches between friends, alienation among family members, rifts in communities of faith, deep schism in neighborhoods and communities.

Our spiritual intention must be a quest for peace, reconciliation, unity and respect. This is God’s intention for people of faith. This is God’s intention for the world, that nations, tribes, villages, cities — all the peoples of the world — shall not learn war anymore!

May God make it so, globally and personally!

Walking Peacefully

BC2C5B3D-EFB1-4535-9D46-B4D8A9DB76F3
People say walking on water is a miracle,
but to me walking peacefully on earth is the real miracle.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Those words ring so true, but how does one realize “the real miracle?” “Walking peacefully on earth” is much harder than it sounds, much more challenging than it ought to be, at least for most of us. Some have poetically said that walking on earth is our pilgrim journey, and I believe that many people feel that they are walking a pilgrim journey.

In his book, The Pilgrim Journey: A History of Pilgrimage in the Western World, James Harpur asserts that we are now in a new era of pilgrimage and asks: “Why is pilgrimage coming back, especially in a time when many people are questioning traditional religion?” Harpur’s answer is that in these days, there seems to be a deep longing in humans for this form of spiritual practice.

As for me, pilgrimage and journey are very real descriptors of my life. I have often set out on one journey or another, not knowing where to go, only that my soul needs the journey. I am captivated by Harpur’s book, by his tracing the history of why countless people through the ages have embarked on spiritual pilgrimages, by his many stories of pilgrimage through the ages and by his examples of why journey is so relevant to today’s pilgrims. Harpur writes:

If that is done, the destination — a shrine, a holy mountain, or a house of God — will signify not the end of the journey, but the start: a gateway into a new way of being, of seeing life afresh with spiritually cleansed eyes.What is essential is that the journey, by whatever means it is accomplished, gives the pilgrim enough time to expose himself or herself to the possibility of a sacred metamorphosis.

Nothing seems more important to me than seeing my life afresh “with spiritually cleansed eyes.” But getting there is a long process, a journey.

3BCA9FAD-8CD2-4B6A-B300-6609E1318379Walking peacefully on earth requires my full resolve and my desire to reach that place in life. Wouldn’t any of us want to experience transformation and the freedom to be? Wouldn’t any of us want to experience a sacred metamorphosis?

Certainly, it is a long process, a long journey. There are many steps along the way that each person must determine in order to persist on the pilgrimage. There are divergent paths and rough roads and thorny ways and threatening obstacles. Though choosing the path is personal, the graphic at the top of his post illustrates a set of steps we could possibly choose for ourselves. If I chose to take those steps, it would look like this:

First, I must learn to cry again. Crying is very hard for me, as if I dared to cry, my crying might go on forever. Yet, crying is a part of cleansing the soul, and as the quotation says, there is an importance to flowing and finally letting go. Secondly, I need to accept that within me, there is fire and that I must not be afraid to let it burn. I think I must face the flame, adapt and re-ignite my inner fire. Thirdly, I must to open myself up to refreshing air — observe it, breathe it, focus and then decide whatever I need to decide.

The quote also says “remember that you are earth” and ground yourself, give, build and heal. Finally, “remember that you are Spirit” and care for your inner core so that you can connect, listen, know yourself and be still. It’s quite a lesson — a new way of seeing myself — and perhaps it is the way I must journey if I want to walk peacefully on the earth. In these days when peace is in short supply, when nations refuse to beat their swords into plowshares, when political rivals use hate speech against one another, it is so important that peace dwells within my soul.

In the end, all of us long for what James Harpur calls sacred metamorphosis. We all want to realize the miracle of walking peacefully. We want to walk peacefully in our souls. We want to walk peacefully with others. We want to walk peacefully in our families. We simply want to walk peacefully — hand in hand with God and moved by Spirit. We want the choice to walk or to be still, to run or to leap, to breathe or to hold our breath when we kneel before wonder. We want to have the freedom to speak and shout and sing and dance . . . and truly live. That is the miracle!

 

Finding Simple Pleasures

EF207F13-682F-4572-BB5B-F4AAAB1EDA50
A Saturday of football — what a simple pleasure! I am a fan of certain teams (Roll Tide!), but I am definitely not a football fanatic. And yet, this morning while half-watching Sportscenter, I realized that watching with Fred, not having to focus that much, resting in the ordinary seemed like a simple pleasure.

There are many simple pleasures, of course, far more soulful than watching football — taking a walk in the splendor of nature, listening to birdsong, snuggling with your puppy, looking up at the night’s moon and stars, taking a walk on a labyrinth’s spiritual path . . . There are so many more simple pleasures in life, and most of them do not even require a trip to the grocery store. They cost us nothing, but their worth is priceless.

These are the simple moments that caress the soul, bring peace and calm to the heart and enliven a wounded spirit. These moments, and others like them, are the moments we desperately need, especially in times when we are burdened with the weight of the world, languishing in darkness.

I have learned some things about a wounded spirit: that woundedness happens to all of us; that “dark nights of the soul” happen to everyone at some time in life; that the wounded spirit does not always require sophisticated remedies; that a simple pleasure is sometimes all it takes to begin a healing journey.

The important factor is self-awareness, being mindful of the soul’s health, accepting the reality that healing will require us to self-intervene and that our intervention could begin with entering into a simple pleasure. One worthy New Year’s resolution is to intentionally identify the simple pleasures that feed our souls and then to allow a simple pleasure to enfold us in contemplation.

Normally, I would say “bah humbug” to New Year’s Resolutions that we make, break, and then feel guilty about for an entire year! But a resolution to discover the simple pleasures that give us life is one worthy resolution. So I challenge you to look and listen for the simple pleasures that are “you,” and to hold them near whenever you are experiencing a “dark night of the soul.”

“There comes a time when both body and soul enter into such a vast darkness that one loses light,” wrote Mechtild of Magdeburg. There comes a time when the soul “sinks down into the night.”

Her words are the words of one who knew spiritual journey and seasons of darkness. There is no doubt that at some time throughout your life, you will find yourself traveling the spiritual night. I do know this within my place of deep knowing: when I give myself to spiritual journeying, allowing myself the peace of a simple pleasure that calms my spirit, I realize that God always invites us beyond where we are.

God guides us on the spiritual journey that sometimes means winding through a dark wood. The darkness may frighten us, but it is a necessary part of the trip. When we panic in the darkness, we must try to understand that it’s a holy dark and that the idea is to surrender to it and journey through until we reach God’s light.

And then on to simple pleasures!372C6D47-6761-412E-AACF-420F5B1EE76D

God will be present beside us —- in the light of simple pleasures and in the soul’s dark night.

That is the gift, the grace, that God has freely given to us, and for that we give thanks.

“Within Reach of Our Full Personhood”

Nativity scene, Christmas star on blue sky and birth of Jesus, illustration
The Twenty-Fourth Day of Advent

Christmas Eve
December 24, 2019

As I near the end of Advent 2019, I am contemplating what these Advent days have taught me. Am I closer to God in deep relationship? Have I spent time in contemplation and prayer? Was I so preoccupied with my surgery and recovery to even think about Advent? Did I experience Advent as a time of waiting, expectation, preparation and hope in the coming of the Christ Child? Did I experience Advent at all?

You might ask yourself questions similar to these. They are questions all of us would do well to answer. As for me, I fully resonate with the statement in Ann Weems’ poem: “we are on our knees, where we are within reach of our full personhood.” Isn’t that part of what Christ’s coming was about — to place before us the hope of reaching our full personhood?

As you contemplate that, read a part of Ann Weems’ poem, “The Church Year.”

For no matter how long the darkness,
God will send the light.
In spite of cursing and violence and the massacring
of human dignity,
we will dance in the streets of Bethlehem,
for He will be born!

We search for something more.
And — of all unlikely places
in a stable
the Deity appears.

The borning of our Lord
bursts in upon our ordinary lives
like fireworks in the snow.
Only God would send a little baby King,
and we are on our knees,
where we are within reach of our full personhood.

— Ann Weems

What else can be said on this Eve of Christmas? We sit with a miracle story, an event marked by angels and the brilliance of an unusual star. We gather together in churches around the world, where we sit together in candlelight and contemplate the birth of the Christ Child, the One who came for us, the One who “became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.“ (John 1:14)

I wonder why we gather for candlelight services on Christmas Eve. I think it’s because we want to experience the holy; we want to contemplate the mystery of a young girl who gives birth to the Christ Child; we want to hear the singing of angels and see the sparkling beam of an unusual star in the night sky;  we want to be together in community because, in our heart of hearts, we truly believe that it is here, together, we will be “within reach of our full personhood.”

It is God’s holy mystery, and we are invited to enter and to see the Christ Child as if it were our very first time; to hear angel song as if it were our first time; to gaze upon Bethlehem’s star as if we had never seen it before. That is the mystery: that Christ is born unto us again and again — God Incarnate, the hope of all nations and hope for our hearts. My gift to you is a video of a beautiful Christmas carol, “Candlelight Carol” written by John Rutter. Particularly if you, like me, are unable to attend a Christmas Eve service, this lovely carol might speak to your spirit and give you peace. After the lyrics, you will find the video. Happy Christmas Eve to you all

How do you capture the wind
On the water?
How do you count all the stars
In the sky?
How can you measure the love
Of a mother?
Or how can you write down
A baby’s first cry?

Candlelight, angel light
Firelight and starglow
Shine on his cradle ’til breaking of dawn
Gloria, gloria, in excelsis dear
Angels are singing, the Christ child is born

Shepherds and wise men will kneel
And adore him
Seraphim round him their vigil will keep
Nations proclaim him their Lord
And their Savior
But Mary will hold him, and sing him to sleep

Candlelight, angel light
Firelight and starglow
Shine on his cradle ’til breaking of dawn
Gloria, gloria, in excelsis deo
Angels are singing, the Christ child is born

Find him at Bethlehem laid
In a manger
Christ our Redeemer asleep
In the hay
Godhead incarnate and hope
Of salvation
A child with his mother
That first Christmas Day

Candlelight, angel light
Firelight and starglow
Shine on his cradle ’til breaking of dawn
Gloria, gloria, in excelsis deo
Angels are singing, the Christ child is born.

“In Search of Our Kneeling Places”

DBD1A3AF-D9E4-40CB-A77F-D8CFB3E0E6FB

The Tenth Day of Advent.
December 11, 2019

IN SEARCH OF OUR KNEELING PLACES

In each heart lies a Bethlehem,
an inn where we must ultimately answer
whether there is room or not.
When we are Bethlehem-bound
we experience our own advent in his.
When we are Bethlehem-bound
we can no longer look the other way
conveniently not seeing stars
not hearing angel voices.
We can no longer excuse ourselves by busily
tending our sheep or our kingdoms.

This Advent let’s go to Bethlehem
and see this thing the the Lord has made known to us.
In the midst of shopping sprees
let’s ponder in our hearts the Gift of Gifts.
Through the tinsel
let’s look for the gold of the Christmas Star.
In the excitement and confusion, in the merry chaos,
let’s listen for the brush of angels’ wings.
This Advent, let’s go to Bethlehem
and find our kneeling places.

— Ann Weems

The words of Ann Weems this morning seem to call us to Bethlehem. Perhaps the call intends for us to remember more clearly the birth of the Christ Child, the incarnation of God. Perhaps this call wants us to focus more fully on what this Child’s birth really means for us. Perhaps the call wants us to find our kneeling places, those places that enable us to open ourselves to God’s presence in us, God’s call to us.

When, in your own kneeling place, have you responded to a call from God? Was it a call that would change your life? Was it a call that you could only answer by saying, “Here am I. Send me.”

Among all the meanings of Advent is a call to watch, to wait, to worship, to be full of expectation, to rejoice in the birth of the Christ Child and to offer our lives to God. Advent is a call to find our kneeling places.

So I am thinking today about the many ways God has called me through the years. Some of those calls became divine appointments for me. Some were hard calls, risky and frightening. Some were calls that I answered with an immediate “Yes!” There were calls that summoned me to find my kneeling places. One specific call is the one that emerged from my most impassioned, fervent kneeling place. It was the call that asked, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

To respond “yes” to that call required extended time spent at my kneeling place. To respond “yes” to that call would alter the course of my life. Looking back, I can see that saying “yes” to that call call brought me life’s deepest sorrows and matchless joys. That call from God was to be transformative for me, transcending whatever I had imagined. I vividly remember that call, and from my kneeling place, I answered, “Here I am, Lord.”

“Here I am,Lord!” Those words from my heart would bring a plethora of emotions in the months that followed — through times of testing, disparagement, condemnation, criticism, disappointment, struggle, and eventually, peace. Thinking back to my ordination service brings a host of special memories: my friends and family gathered for the holy service; the church family that laid hands of blessing on me; my husband and my best friend singing words I remember to this day.

Here I am, Lord.
Is it I Lord?
I have heard You calling in the night.
I will go Lord if You lead me.
I will hold Your people in my heart.

I, the Lord of sea and sky,
I have heard my people cry,
All who dwell in dark and sin
My hand will save.

I have made the stars of night.
I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear my light to them?
Whom shall I send?

I, the lord of wind and flame,
I will tend the poor and lame,
I will set a feast for them,
My hand will save.
Finest bread I will provide
Till their hearts be satisfied.
I will give my life to them,
Whom shall I send?

— Songwriters: Anna Laura Page / Daniel L. Schutte; Based on Isaiah 6:8 and 1 Samuel 3

If you like, take a few minutes to view the video of this song, reflecting on the words and their meaning for you.

 

And so it was, from my kneeling place, I answered God’s call: “Here I am, Lord!”

The season of Advent calls us in a voice just as compelling to find our kneeling places . . .
to focus on Advent’s promises of hope, peace, joy and love,
to wait in anticipation for the birth of our Savior,
to lift our eyes and sing with the angels, “Hallelujah!”

Amen.

Peace

E9C46343-6738-420D-96FA-E49A5BB1A0D6
The Second Sunday in Advent

The Sunday of Peace
December 8, 2019

PEACE ON EARTH

“Peace on earth, goodwill to all” . . .
The song came out like one loud hosanna
hurled through the earth’s darkness,
lighting the Bethlehem sky.

Sometimes I hear it now,
but it means a baby in a manger;
it means a time of year,
a cozy feeling,
a few coins in the Salvation Army bucket.

It doesn’t mean much —
and then it’s gone,
lost in the tinsel.

Where did the angels’ song go?
Who hushed the alleluias?

Was it death and war and disease and poverty?
Was it darkness and chaos and famine and plague?
Who brought violence and took away the sweet plucking of heavenly harps?
Who brought despair and took away hope?
Who brought barrenness and crushed the flowers?
Who stole the music and brought the silence?
What Herods lurk within our world seeking to kill our children?

Are there are still those
who listen for the brush of angel wings
and look for stars above some godforsaken little stable?

Are there still those
who long to hear an angel’s song
and touch a star?

To kneel beside some shepherd
in the hope of catching a glimpse of eternity
in a baby’s smile?

Are there still those who sing
“Peace on earth, goodwill to all?”

If there are — then, O Lord,
keep ablaze their flickering candle
in the darkness of this world!

— Ann Weems

How to I manage to keep my candle ablaze in the darkness of this world? Doing so is a hard thing at times. I watch. I listen for sights and sounds that herald peace on earth, yet almost every day I see the world’s chaos instead. I contemplate what I might do in creating peace and come up empty. As in the carol I have sung during so many Advents …

Then in despair I bowed my head; 
There is no peace on earth,” I said.
“For hate is strong and mocks the song 
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

Despair seems to be a constant companion in these days. Children separated from parents and detained in cages. Gun violence rampant. Vitriolic relationships among those who govern our nation. Climate change harming communities. Refugees searching for safe havens.

I turn toward the words of Ann Weems and ask, “Who stole the music and brought the silence?”

Are there are still those
who listen for the brush of angel wings
and look for stars above some godforsaken little stable?

Are there still those
who long to hear an angel’s song
and touch a star?

Are people of peace still singing “Peace on earth, goodwill to all?” If there are — even if there are only a few — then we pray to God that their flickering candle of peace would light the world’s darkness,

Advent’s prayer for peace remains on our lips:

O Lord, keep ablaze their flickering candle in the darkness of this world!

Amen.

Sometimes God Flings Stars!

0E6B5F26-6125-45C7-8B3C-48718E5A951D
The Fifth Day of Advent

Transplant Day Twenty-four
December 5, 2019

THIS YEAR

I wonder if God comes to the edge of heaven each Advent
and flings the Star into the December sky,
laughing with joy as it lights the darkness of the earth;
and the angels, hearing the laughter of God,
begin to congregate in some celestial chamber
to practice their alleluias.

I wonder if there’s some ordering of rank among the angels
as they move into procession
the seraphim bumping the cherubim from top spot,
the new inhabitants of heaven standing in the back
until they get the knack of it.
(After all, treading air over a stable and annunciating
at the same time can’t be all that easy!)
Or is everybody — that is, every “soul” — free to fly
wherever the spirit moves?
Or do they even think about it?

Perhaps when God calls, perhaps they just come,
this multitude of heavenly hosts.
Perhaps they come,
winging through the winds of time
full of expectancy
full of hope
that this year
perhaps this year
(perhaps)
the earth will fall to its knees
in a whisper of “Peace.”

— Ann Weems

This year for me is unlike any other year, not at all like Advents of my past. This Advent for me is not at all ordinary. It is an Advent that finds me in a bit of suffering, a bit of pain and, most of all, crying out for peace.

The poet asks: “What might it look like if the earth fell to its knees in a whisper of ‘Peace?’” We are always full of expectancy, full of hope that during some Advent, perhaps this year’s Advent, we will finally hear the earth whispering “Peace.” 

From the place I find myself today, I look for that Peace. Recovering from a kidney transplant and trying to live into a new normal, what I need most is peace. Peace after a life upheaval. Peace after a physical trauma. Peace that might help restore my emotional and spiritual self.

I do so want to fall to my knees in a whisper of “Peace.” But probably not today. Not until some parts of me heal a little more. It’s not always an easy thing, falling to my knees, even in the best of times. Today, though — far from home and family, separated from my friends and my faith community — most things are not easy.

I will remember these recovery days as a season of harsh medications, pain, swelling, itching, tremors, instability and anxiety. But there is another part of my memory that remembers that the Apostle Paul wrote some words that have always spoken deep peace to me. He wrote of being “troubled on every side, yet not distressed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.”

And then his most comforting words of all: “We do not lose heart. . . for our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (From 2 Corinthians 4)

Walking through those words of hope, I think I can make it another day. Even in my darkness of a difficult recovery, perhaps I can gather up my courage and perseverance and walk a few more steps. Yes, this is a hard time.

04E87215-AC50-4CC9-B2F4-6612E56D0CB9And yet, I still believe that, in some mysterious way, God comes to the edge of Advent and flings the Star into the night sky, maybe many stars. I can still envision God laughing with joy as starlights illuminate the darkness. And I can almost hear the singing of angels practicing their alleluias.

It is Advent, after all!

Numb!

CDB6753B-4835-42F3-B27C-45192AB4B808
Numb! It’s not a very emotive feeling like other emotions. It seems so much more appropriate to feel ecstatic, elated, overjoyed — or even terrified — at receiving the call from Mayo Clinic saying a kidney is available and the transplant is scheduled for November 15th. But numb is all I can get to right now. After all, this is a very tangible way of announcing an end to five years of illness, uncertainty and dialysis. Five years does not seem like such a long time, but it feels in some ways like a lifetime.

So in the immortal words of Pink Floyd, “I have become comfortably numb.” It’s not such a bad way to feel. The journey has been a long one, an emotional one, and now I think it’s time for calm. Numb is actually pretty darn calm, and after traveling this wild and fantastic journey, numb is okay. There’s something about numb that feels like serenity.

So many people have walked alongside me on this journey and, at times, carried me when I could barely take the next step. No one — and I really mean no one — could have been as dedicated and loving a caregiver as Fred. He is forever faithful as he has always been. 

And oh, my friends, my friends nearby and far away from many lives past to this very day! Thinking of them just now and knowing how faithfully and deeply they have prayed for me brings tears to my eyes. I am grateful for extended family who cared for me and Fred enough to urge us to Georgia. They have supported us in so many ways.

No person could have had a more dedicated and caring staff of dialysis professionals as I have had. They have missed nothing, not a change in a blood test, not the signs of an infection, nothing! And they are the ones who have kept me healthy enough to get to today.

My friend who is donating a kidney on my behalf is living a life of selflessness, giving a very precious gift of immeasurable value. I think of him today with such unfettered gratitude.

God’s grace and protection have been near, so near at times that I felt a palpable sense of the holy — within me, surrounding me, above me and below me, behind and before me guiding me on the unknown path.

As I said at the very beginning, I am numb, and although numb is acceptable and appropriate right now, numb is not such a good crucible for words. So I have no more words right now. Except this good word:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you . . .

— Philippians 1:3-4 (NRSV)


For all that has been — Thanks.        
For all that shall be —Yes!

― Dag Hammarskjöld