With a Tambourine in My Hand

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Water Dancers by Canadian artist, Rob Gonsalves

Women in white gowns emerge from the crashing water of  a moonlit waterfall. What in the world does that have to do with me, other than the fact that I am completely enthralled by this painting? I certainly cannot relate or see myself emerging from rushing waters or even dancing with a tambourine in my hand. Yet, there is something about this art that inspired my soul searching and brought up some questions I want to contemplate.

Where did I come from? Where will I go?
What will I do with my life? Which of my dreams will I realize?

I have asked myself similar questions, questions about what made me who I am and if I will ever feel that I have realized my life dreams. It’s true that I have entered my seventieth year of life, and one might wonder why the need for all the introspective questions. But In the core of my being, I believe that I can still dream and that I can still experience wonder about what I see in and around my life.

What people will enter my life leaving cherished gifts of friendship? What wonder will I see around me as I search for meaning? What will Spirit say to me with the gentle breath of her voice that can also enter my life as a rushing, mighty wind? And how does God continue to call me to new ministries of the heart?

I do not know the answer to those questions. Nor do I know who or what I will be when I grow up. So I struggle to know. I plead with God to give me direction. During this season of my life while I am challenged with so many things related to my kidney transplant, I have been somewhat obsessed with finding the answers to all those “who am I?” questions. I despair a little when I can’t find the answers.

Back to the art. Yesterday, I accidentally came across the painting by Canadian artist Rob Gonsalves which is at the top of this post. I was immediately captivated by the image, especially the rushing waterfall that changed into women living life — some of them dancing, others playing their tambourines, others just emerging, still others just beginning to awaken.

The art reminds me of how we might emerge into life — to grow into life, to be open to change, to be willing to embrace a process of becoming. Each of us is engaged in that kind of process whether we know it or not, whether we embrace it or not. We want to experience an awakening that opens our eyes to wonder and our souls to extraordinary newness of life. We want the freedom to be who we are. We don’t want to stay in our awakening place, reticent about moving into the best part of our lives, refusing to move because of our fear. We want to throw off our hesitation and, in search of our dreams, to sing, to dance, to play our tambourines in celebration of our unique personhood.

I am reminded of a beautiful passage of Scripture from the Psalms.

Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.

— Psalm 149:3 (NRSV)

Isn’t that precisely what we want for our lives? To lean into our true selves so that we are compelled to sing, to dance with tambourines in our hands, to celebrate our lives, to dream and to praise the God who rejoices when we live into freedom and joy!

 

 

 

 

 

“My Soul in Silence Waits”

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Photography by Jim Dailey: January 1, 2020, Lake Ouachita, Hot Springs, Arkansas

My dear, long-time friend, former Little Rock Mayor Jim Daily, sent me this photo this afternoon. Mayor Jim is a hiker, a camper, a photographer and a naturalist. He loves the outdoors. He is a person of profound thought, and he spends a good amount of his time in thoughtful contemplation — on a lake or an Arkansas River, in a verdant valley or on a mountaintop. He frequently blogs on what he calls his “adventures,” and his blog is filled with thoughts about wherever he is and whatever beauty he has found. For Jim, every day is a new adventure, and his adventures hold sway over him. They change him in so many ways

One more thing — As a tribute to my friend, Mayor Jim, I want to introduce you to his Blog, which you may enjoy viewing at this link: Last Pair of Boots

His Blog, called “Last Pair of Boots,” tells a poignant story — of nature’s beauty, of God’s presence in it, of friendships, of Arkansas’ and America’s holy places, of worship and contemplation and prayer. Here’s what Jim says about naming his blog:

The name “Last Pair of Boots” came to me when my ten year old boots broke down and it occurred to me that at my age the new pair of boots might be my last pair. Metaphorically my boots represent the trails and travels of life.

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Whitaker Point … aka Hawksbill Crag! At the Buffalo National River

This is such a thought-provoking description that fits Jim’s love of nature’s splendor. He also hints at endings, not in a melancholy  way, but in words the reveal his life of contemplation and curiosity. Jim’s outings are hiking and wilderness camping, skiing, fishing, exploring, visiting every Arkansas State Park through his job as Arkansas Tourism Director, finding friendships in every small Arkansas hamlet, searching for Arkansas treasures,
finding God in all the places and faces.

I imagine he will hold all of these adventures in his heart now that he has finished his work as Arkansas Tourism Director this past December.

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HamfestWhatever it is …  it’s gotta be something special to celebrate 50 consecutive years on top of the second highest mountain in Arkansas — Rich Mountain — in the beautiful Ouachita Mountains, Queen Wilhelmina State Park.

Congratulations, Jim, for your many years of service to the citizens of Little Rock and of Arkansas. Your wisdom, your love of nature, your unquenchable thirst for adventure and your unfailing commitment will remain as one of our enduring Arkansas’ treasures.

As I mused about Jim’s outings tonight, I asked myself about the places and times that created my contemplative times. They are few, too few.

For whatever lame reason, I do not take the contemplative times I need. I think that my kidney transplant on November 12th pushed me into a soul-need that beckons me to solitude, silence, contemplation, adventure — new things to examine in the stunning beauty of nature. It calls me out of the house and into the sunlight or under the stars of the night. It calls me to breathe in the fresh air of God’s creation and, with that breath, to take in the miracle of God’s presence.

Now that I’m retired and have time, I tend to fill my time with all manner of preoccupation. At times, I feel busy and frazzled and don’t really know why. Why am I unable to make enough time to spend in the mesmerizing beauty of nature, keeping silence in God’s creation? Why do I not spend time beside still waters, listening to the silence of a pond? What is wrong with my soul that it is rarely drawn to God’s quiet places, and my heart that does not often seek God’s presence in silent space?

I dare not answer those questions until I am prepared to make some life changes. But what I can do is to hold near these reminders of what God desires for me until I can change my life. These reminders might even inspire me to seek change:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother.   
(Psalm 131:1-2)

For God alone my soul in silence waits.   (Psalm 62:1)

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.   (Psalm 23:1-3)

Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him.   (Lamentations 3:28)

To you, O God, silence is praise.   (Psalm 65:1)

It is never a bad thing to offer God the praise of silence, to invite God into my contemplation and to allow God’s presence in my moments of prayer and meditation. The truth is that God has always been present with me. But my deepest desire is that I be present with God. As the Psalmist wrote, “My soul in silence waits.”

May those words become my words . . . and yours. Amen.

Holding Hope

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A new year has dawned. We’re in it, ready or not! While we cannot control what 2020 brings to us, we can control the way we respond —- to times of joy, times of sorrow and all the times that are just ordinary. No doubt we will greet them all, ready or not!

As the poet reminds us, “Live the year that lies ahead with energy and hope. Be strong, have courage. It is time now for something new.” And so it is. But embracing something new is sometimes difficult. Sometimes our hope is small. Sometimes following our journey into an unknown future is frightening. If the year past still holds us in a place of suffering, if illness lingers with us, if depression and anxiety still rages in us, if persistent grief comes with us into the new year, it is difficult, if not impossible, to leave the past pain behind and embrace something new. So if you feel that you cannot leave past suffering behind you, this little message is for you.

The most important thing you can do is to honestly acknowledge the suffering and accept the fact that it will not leave you just because the new year has arrived. Spend some time contemplating your suffering, how it impacted you in the year past. Can you find any newness at all at the beginning of a new year? Is there some of the suffering  you can see in a different light? Can you respond to it differently? Can you find a way to endure it that is better than the way you endured it in the past? Can you make a concerted effort to learn something from your suffering?

Still, if you are in the throes of suffering — physical, emotional or spiritual — the suggestions above can illicit the strong response, “You’ve got to be kidding! This way of looking at the same thing I’ve endured for years is simply impossible!”

I will be the first to acknowledge the truth of that response, but I must also ask, “What do you have to lose?” Even a change in your response to one place of suffering could bring a small change for you, a change ever-so-slight that has the power to offer you increased resilience and hope. It may be worth a try.

I think it’s important to repeat these wise words: “Live the year that lies ahead with energy and hope. Be strong, have courage. It is time now for something new.”

I suggest that, even if we are enduring suffering, we can greet the new year “with energy and hope.” Hope is always available to us, even when we cannot see it or feel it.

From the promises of Scripture . . . 
“ . . . so that we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place.
 — Hebrews 6:18-19

From the depths of our souls . . .
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”   — Psalm 42:11

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.”  
— Psalm 130:5

But I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more.”  — Psalm 71:14

The Scriptures can be comforting to us. They can lift up courage in us and they can give us strength to face all of our tomorrows, but the place where hope really lives is within us. We can reach down for it, hold it close, and allow it to help us move forward. No matter what manner of suffering we hold, hope can guide us.

I leave you and your journey into 2020 with the wise words of Corrie Ten Boom:

“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”

 

Itchy! Shaky! Puffy!*

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Transplant Day Sixteen
November 27, 2019

An endearing Physician’s Assistant, Melanie, listened carefully to my symptoms, complaints, concerns and pains, taking very seriously every snippet of information I gave her. She responded with a well thought out remedy for each of my concerns. She was thorough in explaining how we would address every problem and she did so with humor and compassion. Melanie was obviously highly trained and impeccably qualified to treat transplant patients. She had many years of experience and could explain every symptom and prescribe a plan to address it. Her encouragement that the unpleasantness would pass over time was a boost to my courage. Her gift to me was increased patience and a renewal of my hope.

At the end of our session, Melanie offered a summary of the visit, a very descriptive, professional and astute summary. “You’re just having a rough patch right now,” she said, “Itchy, shaky and puffy!”

All of a sudden, I knew her words would be the title of my next blog post. “Itchy, shaky and puffy!” Perfect! Simple descriptive words — not just sterile clinical jargon — but extremely real and true. And that’s what my family and friends want most to know. What are you really feeling?

The truth is that, from the transplant itself, I am recovering well, and now with very little pain. But the effects of my high-powered immunosuppressant medications are playing havoc on my body and all its systems.

Itchy — enough to keep me awake through the night.

Shaky — along with weakness makes it hard to walk and even feed myself.

Puffy — I can’t even describe the pressure in my legs that feels like a balloon about to burst. Two times their normal size is not an exaggeration!

There you have it — a very real, true and human description of how I am faring post transplant. It is pure grace to be able to counter the simple description of my ailments with the simple words of encouragement from the Gospel of Luke:

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

— Luke 12:6-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

When all is said and done, I am beginning to believe that I really will emerge from this transplant with a stronger faith and an everlasting hope, having learned how to trust God more fully and know in my heart of God’s healing mercies. Most of all, I want to get past this transplant with words of praise to God on my lips, like the Psalmist, declaring that my mourning has turned to dancing:

Hear, O Lord, and have mercy on me;
Lord, be my helper!”
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
You have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness,
To the end that my glory may sing praise to You and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to You forever.

— From Psalm 30


* With thanks to Melanie.

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

Around the Bend

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Photo by Steven Nawojczyk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Psalm 16:1, 5-6, 8-9, 11 (NIV)

And hear the words of the Prophet Isaiah . . .

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

— Isaiah 46:4 (NIV)

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

The Hands that Made the Stars

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Comfort in the magnificent Arkansas skies. Photography by Steven Nawojczyk.

As I write on this day, I am aware that many friends are in the throes of darkness and despair. Some are facing devastating medical diagnoses. Some are yearning to have a child and are going through difficult medical procedures. Some are grieving for a family member in trouble. Some are waiting with hope for a cure for a disease that is bringing them to their knees. Others are enduring harsh medical treatments, hoping their lives will be saved. Many of them are at the point of losing all hope.

It hurts me deeply every time I am at a loss for comforting words. A little part of my heart breaks because I know I cannot “do something” to ease the suffering. And so I search for my own comfort as I search for ways to hold my friends in the light. As always, I am led to Scripture, not for easy answers, miraculous cures, or an instant panacea. I peek into the Bible to find words that will lift up hope in the middle of dark days and darker nights.

Often the words I find point me to the skies, as if gazing into an expanse beyond imagination might open my eyes to a radiant and holy hope. In truth, the words of Scripture do point me to hope. 

From the Prophet Isaiah:

Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. O Jacob, how can you say the LORD does not see your troubles?

Have you never heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.

— Isaiah 40:26-29

From the Psalmist:

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers — the moon and the stars you have set in place — what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?

— Psalm 8:3-4

And so whoever you are, whatever pain you are carrying, know that the hands that made the stars are holding your heart.