Musings on Unfaith

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Unfaith! Such an unsettling word that may well describe where we sometimes find ourselves! I am certain that unfaith applies to me, to the times when my soul is troubled, to the seasons when my faith becomes small. Unfaith most definitely takes over in my heart at times, and in those times, my journey is a struggle. So I battle against unfaith, all the while simply wanting to understand it. This is my truth: I fight unfaith, praying to be rid of it, writing down my emotions around it, reading my Bible when I cannot live with unfaith another minute. My skirmish with unfaith often leads me to the words of the Psalmist.

In yesterday’s struggle with unfaith, I happened upon Psalm 73. It is a rather lengthy Psalm, as Psalms go, and it spends a great deal of time describing wicked people. I rushed through it, I think, because I was searching for inspiring words about unfaith and because I all already know a lot about wicked people. I can, in fact, describe wicked people almost as passionately as does the Psalmist. On top of that, my description of wicked people often includes some choice and inappropriate words.

I plowed on through the Psalm when, out of the blue, one particular verse “hit me upside the head!” (That’s southern slang!) Verse 14 came much too close to my soul. It described my emotions and showed me myself.

All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments.

— Psalm 73:14 NIV

Oh my! There it is: a succinct statement that so fully reflects what I had been feeling for the past week. It is unpleasant to read, as if it is stating my disconcerting reality and then forcing me to ask myself a question I would rather avoid. Still, I dare to ask myself — “So what are you going to do about your current state?” — knowing that I will likely not have an immediate answer nor a reassuring one. Sometimes I think that all of my feelings and responses come from my unfaith.

I should give you the backdrop for my Psalm 73 experience. I have felt unwell for several days — unrelenting fatigue, deep muscle aches, shortness of breath, trembling, hand tremors and several other troubling symptoms. The reality is that since my kidney transplant in November, I have been plagued with less than perfect health and a very compromised immune system.

Last week, my immunosuppressant medication dosage was increased, something I always dread because I know the distress that usually follows. This time, the side-effects seem worse than they have ever been. I struggle with the reality that so many parts of my body are just not working normally and despair is one of my recurring feelings, despair that, on most days, I have to fight against.

I have learned that I can fight against despair and that often I must. Despair does a number on the soul and spirit, on the place where my emotions live. So, yes, I can fight it, but the fight is exhausting. I can stand courageously and face off with despair. At times, I can even rise above it, but the encounter leaves me deep-down weary.

As for my spirit? Well, my spirit constantly searches for God’s comfort, for holy relief and answers to my questions. I try to attend to my spiritual health, as well as my emotional and physical health, often without much success. I sometimes experience God as a comforter who is far away. I do not often hear God’s voice, and I am not one to beg God for healing. Is all of this struggle because of my unfaith?

I have shared far more confession and self-revelation than anyone needs to hear. I do it because sometimes I believe that release might come if I can give voice to my pain and discouragement, if I can own my weariness and tell my story. Telling is not a quick-fix miracle cure, but telling another person how I feel gives me an extra measure of strength and resolve. And telling all of you who read my blog always means that many of you will offer prayers for me.

After sharing with you that I sometimes feel distant from God, this morning I caught an unexpected glimpse of God. It was just a tiny glimpse, though it was also a comforting, healing glimpse. I caught a glimpse of God in the place I find God most often — through the words of the Prophet Isaiah. The Book of Isaiah is my go-to place when I find myself so weary that I feel as if I cannot take another step.

Selected passages from Isaiah 40 and 41:

Do you not know?  Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:28-31 NIV

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you; 
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.

— Isaiah 41:10,13 NIV

For some reason, I felt an urging to read Psalm 73 again. As I read it again, I found a clear and enduring declaration of God’s presence that rings so true to me on my best days.

Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
 and my portion forever.

—Psalm 73:23-26 NIV

This is the spiritual place I want to be — the place where I know that God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever — in spite of pain, in spite of discomfort, in spite of uncertainty, in spite of the life reality that my questions will not always have answers, in spite of my unfaith. I am convinced that unfaith is always with us like “a thorn in the flesh,” an ever-present oppressor, a silent demon that steals into the soul. But I am even more certain that, along with unfaith, there is pure and true faith. Perhaps we cannot know abiding faith without also knowing the disconcerting seasons of unfaith.

So these are my musings about unfaith, prompted by a Psalm. Isn’t that just like God, though, offering me a grace gift by gently guiding me through a Psalm that reaffirms God’s protection? Isn’t that like God, to freely give me reassuring grace? Isn’t it just like God, to give me the gift of presence, a gift freely given to me even when I doubt, even when I am struggling with a season of unfaith?

Thanks be to God for the epiphany that, in my heart and soul, faith has most assuredly come, though bringing unfaith with it. Thanks be to God for this insight: that growing in faith means descending into my unfaith for as long as it takes for its oppressive darkness to give way to God’s wonderful light.

As I walked through this part of my faith journey, I could not help but remember the words of a hymn that declares that we are held by a firm foundation and, through words spoken by God, promises us protection, strength and grace.

* Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

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

In your quiet time, spend a few moments hearing this hymn as you worship with the congregation of First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.

*Author: George Keith 1787; R. Keen, 1787
Source: Rippon’s A Selection of Hymns, 1787
Copyright: Public Domain

The Civil Rights Movement and Womanist Theology

 

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The civil rights movement and womanist theology? Not much in common between the two, it seems. Maybe, maybe not! The thing is: God’s people are guided by Spirit into an unjust world where people are oppressed, not just through a particular movement, whether it is for civil rights or equity for women. People are oppressed beyond any movement. People are oppressed in everyday life, today, as well as in past struggles for liberation.

God is all about liberation from oppression, now and in the future. The battle for liberation is ongoing and never-ending. And God’s people — you and I — cannot follow Christ in “loving our neighbors as we love ourselves” unless we stand alongside people who are oppressed, unless we pour our lives into building a just society where every person is treated according to the well worn and well loved declaration that “all people are created equal.”

If you believe there is nothing in common between the civil rights movement and womanist theology, then you do not know much about The Rev. Dr. Prathia LauraAnn Hall (1940 – 2002), who was an undersung leader for civil rights, a bulwark of the black church in the United States and an advocate of the womanist vision of equity and equality.

In the recently published book, Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall, Courtney Cox paints the portrait of Prathia Hall as a woman of deep conviction, courage and eloquence who literally embodied the longing for the rights of every person and the womanist vision of equality.

You may not know much about her, but Prathia Hall electrified audiences through her speaking and preaching.

I say to you our daughters and sons, it is in you! Every time you behold the world as it is and dare to dream of what it must become that’s the fire of freedom’s faith. . . Every time you grab hold of the United States of America and like Israel dare to wrestle and declare to it — We will not let you go until you bless us — That is freedom faith’s fire. It is in you — It’s in us.     — Prathia Hall

You may not know much about her, but Prathia Hall was an inspiring leader in the Southwest Georgia Project in Albany, Georgia, in the civil rights struggle in Selma, Alabama, and in the multiorganization Atlanta, Georgia project.

Prathia Hall literally changed the course of the civil rights movement. As a “firebrand” in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Hall labored tirelessly under the central guiding principle of her life, her activism and her ministry. Her life’s guiding principle was “Freedom Faith, the belief that God wants people to be free and equips and empowers those who work for freedom.”

In Hall’s work in door-to-door voter registration, in church-based educational programs, inspirational mass meetings, and through her scholarship and preaching, Freedom Faith found its ultimate expression in her womanist vision of the liberation of all people. For Hall, freedom was not only about the goals of the civil rights movement, it was about the many layered forms of oppression — racism, classism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism, denominationalism — all formidable obstacles to human rights.

You may not know her name, but Prathia Hall was listed in Ebony Magazine’s 1997 “15 Greatest Black Women Preachers.” It is said of Prathia Hall that her call to ministry was both her glory and her burden. Yet her preaching electrified masses of people bowed low by oppression.

They called us: ‘nigger,’ ‘winch,’ ‘buck,’ ‘slave,’ but out there in the brush arbors, the wilderness, and the woods, the God of our ancestors, the God we had known on the other side of the waters met us and whispered words in our ears, and stirred a song in our souls . . .     — Prathia Hall

You may not know much about Prathia Hall, but she was an indefatigable activist for human rights, a brilliant scholar, an engaging speaker, a compelling preacher, a distinguished theologian. Hall’s theology focused on liberation from all forms of oppression, and she did not shrink from the womanist theology that called out sexism and the duplicity of the Black Church in recognizing the call of women only in narrow and constricted ways. In an absolute articulation of her womanist vision of inclusion, Hall espoused a multidimensional structure of oppression. “Gender-based oppression,” she wrote, “isn’t a trivial inconvenuence. It’s human devastation.” As an insider, choosing to remain in ministry in the Baptist Church, Hall’s courage and conviction never ceased from criticizing a Church that opposed racism, but tolerated sexism.

It absolutely boggles my mind as well as grieves my spirit that brothers, with whom I have stood side by side in the struggle, brothers with whom I have bowed, knelt, prayed, worked, struggled, gone to jail, dodged bullets, and caught bullets, claim to be unable to make the transition from the critique of race-based oppression to the critique of gender and class-based oppression.    — Prathia Hall

You may not know much about Prathia Hall, but her very soul was embroiled in the civil rights drama. In the summer of 1962, four black churches in Georgia’s Lee and Terrell Counties, all associated with the movement, were burned by white supremacists.

Hall and other SNCC workers wept together in the ashes of the Mount Olive Baptist Church. The next day the SNCC received a phone call that Martin Luther King, Jr. intended to visit Albany to attend a prayer vigil over the ashes of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Sasser. According to the New York Times, “As the sun sets across the cotton fields, some fifty Negroes and two whites met at Mount Olive for a prayer vigil. Joining hands, they sang softly, ‘We Shall Overcome.’”

After the song, Prathia Hall led the group in prayer, her voice breaking in grief. According to oral tradition, Hall repeated the phrase “I have a dream,” each time followed by a specific vision of racial justice. After the service, King asked for her permission to use the “I have a dream” phrase, which she granted. From the oral evidence gathered from several witnesses, one can definitely make a case for Prathia Hall as the source of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.      — Courtney Cox, Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall

You may not know much about Prathia Hall, but in the pages of Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall, author Courtney Cox lays bare the world of this fascinating woman of God. She presents Prathia Hall through various lenses: Christian minister, liberation theologian, civil rights activist and leader, professor and scholar, preacher and speaker, mother, daughter, wife, agitator, womanist theologian.

Until now, you may not have known much about Prathia Hall, but many notables spoke of her abilities:

One in a million . . . A model that needs to be lifted up in every seminary of all races . . . so people can get a glimpse of what someone who has really said yes to ministry and who went to her grave living that ministry daily.     — Jeremiah Wright

The best preacher in the United States, possessing proven ability to exegete, illustrate, celebrate and apply the scriptures healingly to the problems, pains and perplexities of the people who sit ready to hear a word from Yahweh.     — Charles Adams, former president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention

. . . She was known for her commitment, her dedication, her stick-to-it-ness, for hanging in there, for never giving up or giving in.      — Rep. John Lewis

So what about the civil rights movement and womanist equality? Is there any commonality between them? Certainly there is commonality — both are never-ending struggles for justice, because we are a country where various groups of people are still denied their civil rights and woman are still suppressed and oppressed. Both movements — and many other struggles for justice — require our commitment, our resolve, our persistence, our courage, our compassion, our best efforts and our faithfulness to God.

At least for me, Prathia Hall’s life begs several questions:

What is it that I am passionate about, willing to follow God with courage to fulfill that passion?

Is there an injustice I must stand against?

Is there any oppression, any wrong, that I am compelled to confront?

Is there anything I care about deeply enough that I will dig deep into myself to find the courage to defend it?

Fair questions, I think, for those who are trying to follow God into places of need! Compelling questions for those who are trying to follow God in offering compassionate  care to the oppressed and hurting people who need us! Compelling questions for those who are trying to follow God in freeing people who live in various forms of bondage!

These are urgent questions for God followers!

I pray that I am able to sit with those questions and respond to them boldly as an act of my faith. I pray that for you, too.

Finally, do we dare we ask what will be our reward for seeking justice for the oppressed people around us? Probably not, yet this beloved passage of Scripture does speak of both our call from God and what we will receive for our commitment to our call.

. . . Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear . . .

Then my favor will shine on you like the morning sun, and your wounds will be quickly healed. I will always be with you to save you; my presence will protect you on every side. When you pray, I will answer you. When you call to me, I will respond.

If you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word; if you give food to the hungry and satisfy those who are in need, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon. And I will always guide you and satisfy you with good things. I will keep you strong and well. You will be like a garden that has plenty of water, like a spring of water that never goes dry.

— Isaiah 58:6-11 Good News Translation (GNT)

So let us follow God into every place of need, every place of injustice, every place where oppression has raised its evil head. Let us follow God — as an embodiment of Christ’s love and compassion — until that day when “the darkness around us turns to the brightness of noon.”

May God make it so. May God find us faithful. Amen.

 


I offer you this music to listen to as you spend time in prayer and meditation

 

As Though I Had Wings

 

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I want to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings. [1]

I am continually inspired by Mary Oliver’s poetry, today by her phrase, “as though I had wings.” In the past six months or so — since my kidney transplant — I have felt a little wing-less. Not so unusual, because a transplant — before, during and after — is a rather big deal, like a super colossal deal! If I ever thought the enormous physical challenge would be the surgery itself, I was wrong. I think I deluded myself on that. The aftershocks of the surgery proved to be enormous and enduring. Hence, my lack of wings.

Everywhere, one can see eloquently expressed promises of wings. You and I can “mount up with wings as eagles”[2] or “take the wings of the morning.” [3]  There is even a wing promise that God will “raise you up on eagle’s wings.” [4]

I know the promises and I love them, but I also love how poet Mary Oliver brings it all down to where I live — on shifting sands in an ever-shifting world. She expresses it like this: “I want to think again of dangerous and noble things . . . to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings.” [5]

All of a sudden, I have a critical assignment, something I must do myself and for myself. It seems to me that I must start by focusing on my mind, thinking again of things noble and dangerous. Then I must allow my mind (my will) to move through my heart and soul, to the very center of my being, because there is the place inside me where dangerous acts are weighed and noble acts can become resolve. In one of the common phrases of my faith — an admonition I heard in church over and over again — a pastor or teacher would say, “count the cost.”

Here’s where I am honest. So I must admit that doing noble things has seemed impossible for me in the past few years. Prior to my illness, my life was a constant journey of determining the danger of noble things and doing them anyway. I miss the life of being a pastoral presence to a dying patient. I miss keeping vigil in the ER family room with grieving parents mourning the death of a child. I miss offering a memorial service  for a dear congregant and friend. I miss comforting victims of sexual assault as police officers question them, sometimes brusquely and accusingly. I miss trauma counseling with persons who have endured horrific emotional and physical trauma. I miss forensic interviewing even the youngest child victim of abuse. I miss standing firm as a court advocate for child victims of sexual abuse. I even miss being thrown out of the courtroom by a persnickety judge who did not appreciate the intensity level of my advocacy.

I miss it all. It was dangerous. All of this work was dangerous and it was noble. I could do it because of wings — the wings God gave me when I determined I would do dangerous and noble things and do them with urgency.

What about now, this season of my life? What am I doing that’s dangerous and noble? Should I even expect to be able to face danger at my age, with my physical limitations? Last night, a friend listened to me list all the things I cannot do when very intently she interrupted me and asked, “Kathy, what can you do?” She continued, as she so often does, “Your life is not about the things you can’t do. It’s about the things you can do!”

She nailed it. Perhaps she even nailed me, albeit with some gentleness. So I have to sit awhile with that provoking question: “What can you do?” I have to sit with that question with God close by to guide me and Spirit near to remind me of Spirit-wind and Spirit-fire. I am not precluded from Spirit-wind because of age or Spirit-fire because of physical limitations. It is up to me to discern what I need in my life right now. Will I be satisfied with what I have done in the past and let myself off the hook? What dangerous and noble things will I take on?

I cannot help but think of so many nurses and doctors who are caring for persons with COVID19 — how they enter the ICU knowing that a deadly virus is there, believing that they could take the virus home to their families. Dangerous and noble! Somehow, Spirit-wind is raising them up for the task.

I wonder if you have thought about this for yourself, considering the cost of doing dangerous and noble things. Have you considered that the things you are already doing — feeding the poor, caring for the sick, taking a meal to an elderly person sheltered alone in her home — are all dangerous and noble things? That you show mercy to others as you go? That you weep for a broken world with so many broken people in it? That you share in Christ’s compassion?

“Dangerous and noble things! Afraid of nothing as if we had wings!” [6]

I’ve given all of this a lot of thought and I think we might get our wings after we have made the determination to give ourselves to noble things, no matter the danger. I think we get wings when we move to the urgency of Christ’s compassion, when our rhythms begin to emulate the rhythms of God. I think we get wings when we have determined in our hearts and souls to act — after we have counted the cost and have said “Yes!”

Again, the eloquence of the poet may most fully express my deepest longing and yours.

I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings . . .

What I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world. [7]

May God make it so for us.

 



1 Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
2 Isaiah 40:31
3 Psalm 139:9
4 “On Eagles Wing’s” composed by Michael Joncas
5 Starlings in Winter, a poem by Mary Oliver
6 Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
7 The Ponds, a poem by Mary Oliver

Peace, Pandemic and Love

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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.

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.

“Listening for the Rustle of Angels’ Wings”

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The Fourth Sunday of Advent
The Advent Sunday of Love
Transplant Day Forty-One
December 22, 2019

 

TO LISTEN, TO LOOK

Is it all sewn up — my life?
Is it at this point so predictable,
so orderly,
so neat,
so arranged,
so right,
that I don’t have time or space
for listening for the rustle of angels’ wings
or running to stables to see a baby?
Could this be what he meant when he said
Listen, those who have ears to hear . . .
Look, those who have eyes to see?
Oh God, give me the humbleness of those shepherds
who saw in the cold December darkness
the Coming of Light,
the Advent of Love!

— Ann Weems

I ask myself those Ann Weems questions often:

Is it all sewn up — my life? Is it so predictable, so orderly, so neat, so arranged, so right,
that I don’t have time or space for listening for the rustle of angels’ wings or running to stables to see a baby?

These are among the most important questions I might sit with for a while, pondering my answers. On this Advent Sunday when we light the Candle of Love, I suddenly realize that Advent is ending, bringing Christmas so abruptly, or so it seems. Am I ready, I wonder? Am I ready for the birth of the Child, “Love’s Pure Light?”486917B0-E862-4C44-895D-D08210690B48

Have I prepared a place in my heart for the “pure unbounded love” we sing about in the beloved hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling?” Was my life so preoccupied that I missed the gentle darkness of the Season of Advent and am now feeling pushed — shoved —into Christmas?

Love in a manger is too holy a gift to take for granted. Love in a manger offers us a gift that we must be prepared to receive, and Advent is our season of preparation. As the season ends, I cannot help but ask myself if I spent these days preparing myself, heart and soul. Did I pray enough? Did I spend enough contemplative time? Did I love my neighbor and care for the persons around me who had so many life needs? Did I create sacred, meditative moments in anticipation, preparing for Emmanuel to come into my life anew?

I’m afraid I must answer, “no.” Yes, I did reflect on Advent now and then as I wrote for my blog, but I definitely did not spend enough time in meditation, preparing myself to receive the Christ Child. I was completely preoccupied with creating my life’s new normal after my kidney transplant. New routines and schedules overwhelmed my mind. I spent virtually all my time adjusting to this new normal. Self-absorbed does not adequately describe me during this Advent.

I haven’t felt much holiness hovering around me. I didn’t have time or space “for listening for the rustle of angels’ wings.” Yet, the transplant itself was a season somewhat like Advent . . . filled with expectation, preparation, anticipation. With Bethlehem’s star shining through the darkest night, and hope — always hope.

And so it was for people waiting for kidneys to renew their lives. Advent offered us a look at journey, a journey that ended in celebration. Celebration came full circle yesterday when I learned that my transplant was a part of a chain of living donors and kidney recipients. The chain included 16 people — donors and recipients — which means eight people got new kidneys. Perhaps that felt to me something like “the rustle of angels’ wings.”

And then it dawned on me that the Christ Child was not born into a world where everything always worked perfectly, where everything was orderly and neat and planned out. The Christ Child was not born into a world where everything was sacred. He was not born into a perfect family, and the people around his manger were not always holy.

Maybe that’s part of what Advent gives us:

the grace to be genuinely who we are — on our holy days and on days we feel not-so-holy. Maybe Advent beckons us to ready ourselves and to prepare our hearts with humbleness so that we can see “in the cold December darkness . . .

the Coming of Light, the Advent of Love!”

 

 

Joy!

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The Third Sunday in Advent
The Sunday of Joy
December 15, 2019

How I love the pink candle on this day of joy! We light the purple ones each week until today, and then there is this surprising burst of color — lighter, brighter, pink — that proclaims to us that life for us is joy.  Always! 

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And joy is ever-present within us. No matter the circumstances we face, joy is waiting to emerge from our deep-down place. Joy was a part of the package that entered our lives when we professed our faith in Christ, and joy was there when we received grace, acceptance and God’s abiding presence. And so today we reflect on that joy and, like Mary, we treasure it and ponder it in our hearts. (Luke 2:19)

Now about Mary, God-chosen Mary — her joy must have been overwhelming when the surprise from out of nowhere was delivered by an angel! And yet, other emotions came along with that joy — fear, confusion, bewilderment, concern. And questions! Many questions like “How could this happen?”

I do not need to tell you that questions, fears, concerns are always a part of our lives, but underneath them in our inner soul, joy abides. Consistent, continual joy that hides until we really need it and then bursts upon us to remind us that the troubles of the day are superseded. Then we know the truth of what we heard from the beginning: “Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10)

Mary sang of deep joy in her devotion to God —“My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.” But there was for her a barrage of other emotions. The poetry of Ann Weems explores that:

MARY, NAZARETH GIRL

Mary,
Nazareth girl:
What did you know of ethereal beings
with messages from God?

What did you know of men
when you found yourself with child?

What did you know of babies,
you, barely out of childhood yourself?

God-chosen girl:
What did you know of God
that brought you to this stable
blessed among women?

Could it be that you had been ready
waiting
listening
for the footsteps
of an angel?

Could it be there are messages for us
if we have the faith to listen?

—Ann Weems

Maybe, just maybe, Mary “had been ready, waiting, listening for the footsteps of an angel?” And in that holy visitation, I imagine that the emotion she felt most deeply in her soul was joy. She was destined to be the mother of the Christ Child, the mother who would lead him and teach him and prepare him.

Emulating the young girl, Mary, let us face the obstacles and surprises that come our way, knowing that our deepest, abiding joy will arise in us when we most need it. D1528A68-0B1C-4D2C-83F9-D0AD87481E1C

Our message for this Sunday of Joy sings to us the words of a beloved carol:

O ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow;
Look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.

Today’s good word — and the lighting of the pink candle — urges us to never forget the promise: “Tidings of comfort and joy!”

We probably won’t hear the flutter of angel wings or the footsteps of an angel coming to us when our joy shows up. But with God, who knows?