All Because of the Stories

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Telling our stories is one of the most sacred things we do. I am reminded of that as I enjoy my church’s annual women’s retreat on St. Simon’s Island. Now understand this: being on an island means sun and breezes, ocean waves, white sand and palm trees. So the physical environment of this retreat is very conducive to re-creating. On top of that, our sessions have focused our thoughts on knowing ourselves and finding the peace that comes from mindfulness and balance.

But at lunch today with three of the women, I rediscovered the power of our stories as we each told about vivid snippets of our lives and histories. One person commented that we might never have known these things about each other by just greeting one another in church. She was so right! The retreat gave us the gift of safe space in which to tell our stories.

All four of us delighted in the stories the others told. Each of us grew in our own spirituality as we told one another things about our faith. We shared our dreams. One shared her 15-year plan. Another shared her hopes for the year ahead. Two of us shared parts of life past, as the other two celebrated us.

We shared some pain, too, and some loss. We shared times of disappointment and times of plain old survival. We shared stories that brought laughter to the lunch table. We shared communion, in a way, when we created community — a safe community for sharing some of the experiences that brought such meaning to our lives.

We spoke and we listened. We told our stories, each voice around the table willing to be vulnerable enough to share their lives. There was power in the telling. And then there was another kind of power in the listening.

Each of us — just the four of us — were enriched, emboldened, supported and celebrated in the brief lunch activity of hearing one another’s story.

For today at least, four strangers became friends — all because of the stories.

Lonely In a Crowd

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Being lonely in a room full of people can be disconcerting. You might call it “lonely in a crowd.” Not such a great place to find yourself! In these days of waiting to be transplanted, I find that this is precisely where I am, lonely in a crowd. Not alone, just lonely, as if being where I am emotionally is a place where no one has ever been before. No one I know is with me on this massive, nationwide transplant list!

People call it a “wait list,” and that is actually a very good name for it, because all you can do when you’re on it is wait. No one ever reassures you that your name has not been accidentally removed. No one gives you a magic beeper that you keep until you hear that glorious beeping that means they have a table for you. No one says, “Thank you for waiting. One of our representatives will be with you shortly.” No one tells you anything at all. It’s just a wait list and all you can do on there is wait.

The result is that being on a huge, invisible, impersonal list is a lonely place to be. As I sat in church on Sunday, with a fairly large congregation in fact.  I realized that we were gathered together but we were not really with each other. I looked all around me and thought, “I don’t know these people and they don’t know me. In a few minutes, we will all leave here, and I will have emotionally connected with no one.”

It made me sad, and all the more lonely. It’s my own fault, I suppose. I could make a concerted effort to engage more fully with the worshippers that surround me each Sunday. I could will myself to go deeper into conversations than, “How are you? I’m fine, thank you.” Surely there is another appropriate thing to say after such customary and gentile greetings. Whatever it is, I don’t say it. Therefore, I depart from the church a little bit lonelier than when I came. 

I left my church in Little Rock when we moved here to Macon, Georgia, almost five years ago. Leaving New Millennium Church was heartbreaking. I grieved for the good people of New Millennium for almost two years. I served as Minister of Worship there before I got sick. My mission was to plan worship each Sunday for a congregation that already knew how to worship. When New Millennium people took my plans for prayers and hymns and litanies, they lived into them freely and fully as they worshipped, and what emerged from the people was somewhere between pure exuberance and holy reverence.

And one more thing. It can truly be said of New Millennium that no one could leave there lonely. The people of the church had a way about them, almost like they collectively gave a perennial hug that expressed this truth: “God is with you, and I’m with you, too.”

I remember well the Sunday we sang this familiar hymn with a wonderfully comforting text.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;

I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting in His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;

Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw still closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

A congregation can always sing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” but New Millennium Church really SANG this song — with empathy, with joy, with a special kind of conviction that forced you to believe its message. Indeed it is a message worth believing, worth taking into your very soul, all the way into that loneliest place.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are numbered.

 — Matthew 10:29-30 New International Version (NIV)

Yes, I am lonely. Sometimes even in the presence of people. Sometimes even in church. But I have a couple of choices: I can make a real effort to insert myself into the lives of the people around me. OR I can just accept the reality of the lonely place I am in right now and rest in it, with the assurance that, like the song says, God really does watch over me.

In your quiet time today, perhaps you would like to hear this beautiful song. I invite you to watch this video:

I Need No Wings

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When accusers declared that the thoughts of Joan of Arc were figments of her imagination, she frequently answered them with this shrewd and sensible retort: “How else would God speak to me?”

This is one of the BIG questions most of us have asked ourselves again and again: How does God speak to me? 

And these big questions follow:

How will I know when it is God who is speaking?
Could this strong intuitive thought inside me be God speaking through my inner self?
Can God speak to me through other people?
How do I find God, hear God, feel God?

Richard Rohr, arguably one of the wisest thinkers of our time, wrote this in response to some of our big questions about God:

Intuitive truth, that inner whole-making instinct, just feels too much like our own thoughts and feelings, and most of us are not willing to call this “God,” even when that voice prompts us toward compassion instead of hatred, forgiveness instead of resentment, generosity instead of stinginess, bigness instead of pettiness.

Rohr goes on to explain that mystics like Augustine, Teresa of Ávila, Thomas Merton, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Thérèse of Lisieux, and so many others seem to equate the discovery of their own souls with the very discovery of God.

But to be honest, this post is more about me than it is about the people I admire as spiritual giants. This post is about me making hard life-altering decisions. I admit that making decisions frustrates me, especially at the most critical turning points in my life when I have felt most intensely the need for God’s guidance in the decision. It was easy, as a younger minister, to be confident that whatever I was thinking was “God’s will,” that God had complete control of my thoughts, decisions and actions, that every sermon I preached came “from God’s own lips.”

The passing years brought doubts, questions and the determination to hear God ever more clearly. In the past few years, my most daunting decision was whether or not to have a kidney transplant. My thoughts fluctuated between deciding to leave well enough alone and live my remaining years on dialysis or taking a risk on transplant surgery that has the potential of either making me worse or making my life infinitely better. This has felt like a life or death decision, and I prayed many times, “God, you have to tell me what to do this time. I don’t trust my ability to make this decision.”

Which brings us back to the BIG question: How will I know when it is God who is speaking?

How will I know when “God has spoken” about this decision? 

So let me go ahead and say this out loud in the vernacular of my Bible Belt inspired religious training . . . How will I know “God’s will?”

Now it’s out there where I can really see it. I can theologically skirt around it, but the bottom line is about that errant teaching ingrained in me that if I try hard enough, I will know God’s will about every important matter, and even about not-so-important matters, i.e., “We both wore blue today. It must have been God’s will.” And then there’s the other faith statement declaring that one has (spiritually) reached some decision, a much better statement actually: “I have a peace about it.”

Running as fast as I could from such theological beliefs, I ran way past a simple, quiet faith in a God who wants only my best. I ran past the faith that once told me not to let my heart be troubled or afraid and that the grace-gift I had received was a Comforter who would be with me forever. I ran past the simple truth that I really can have peace about a decision. I ran past the promise of Jesus:

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another comforter . . . to be with you forever. You know him, for he lives with you and will be in you . . . You will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.  (From John 14)

I’m still not certain I have mastered all the questions on the matter of hearing God. And I definitely do not have all the answers. But relying on the promise of scripture is a start. And listening in on the experiences of holy people — people who seem to have a more direct line to God than I ever hope to have — is of immense value to me. The beautiful Carmelite saint, Teresa of Avila, is one of my go-to holy people. This is one of her thoughts that speaks to me powerfully in times of indecision and confusion, times when I doubt my ability to discern God’s direction, times when I wonder if God even hears my prayers.

However quietly we speak, He is so near that He will hear us: we need no wings to go in search of Him but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him present within us.   — St. Teresa of Avila

I need no wings to go in search of God. 3B5858AA-997E-4D5C-8695-5D41049B2B90

When I can sense God present within me, I can believe in my own decision about a transplant, and any other decision for that matter. But I know that it takes a lifetime, and a lot of life experience, to be able to trust in a spiritual — perhaps mystical — union with the mind of God. It takes a lifetime of relationship for most of us to trust our intentions and our purity of heart enough to believe that our thoughts are God’s thoughts, that our decisions and actions are God’s. But when that day comes, I have an idea that it will feel like a “peace that passes understanding,” like a calm ability to quietly trust myself and trust God at the same time. 

May God’s Spirit make it so in me.

Amen

 

 

Dream, Always!

3EBA32DC-4D61-4073-9AEF-78FFD295DE48Today, I am celebrating my granddaughter’s birthday. More accurately, I am contemplating my granddaughter’s birthday. I do not celebrate the day, really, I celebrate her, the person she has become in the last nine years. I celebrate her smile, her humor, her laughter, her sweet spirit, her strength, her talent and her beauty. I celebrate hope for the ways she will grow and mature.

I want to tell her everything about life, how it will lift her up and also let her down. I want to tell her about love and how to know when it’s real. I want to talk with her about faith and what it means to draw close to God. I want to tell her about the joy of life so that she will know how to transcend the sorrows of the world and claim abiding happiness and contentment. I want to tell her about the healing power of laughter, and of tears. I want to tell her that she has within her all the resilience she needs to overcome adversity. I want to tell her to dream, always. And I want to tell her about inner strength and how to develop the ability to rise up on wings of confidence and soar. 

I want to tell her that I will be near her always, so that when she falls, I can pick her up, wipe off the dust, clean her wounds, tell her she is okay, and set her back on her life journey. But that I cannot promise, because I won’t be with her forever in this life.

So I want to tell her about the adventures that marked my life and how each one made me wiser and stronger. And that’s really my point for this day’s post: that I need to make adventures! I need to live a life full of new experiences and new discoveries. I need to fill my life with substance. What I do and what I discover in this life will be my legacy for my granddaughter and for my other grandchildren. I think of the words of Cristina Garcia on this subject.

Before you know it you’ll be my age telling your own granddaughter the story of your life, and you wanna make it an interesting one, don’t you? You wanna be able to tell her some adventures, some excitements, some something. How you live your life . . . is a gift for those who come after you, a kind of inheritance.   (Cristina Garcia)

I hope the story I leave for my granddaughter will give her courage and determination. I hope she will find in my life story an example of one who chased dreams always and actually caught them, sometimes. I hope that in my story, she will see perseverance and persistence, so that she will know that she can run like the wind toward every dream she chooses.

Happy birthday, my sweet Jordan! I love you.

 

 

 

 

Magical

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Magical Night: A painting by Teressa Nichole

Tell your story. Shout it. Write it.
Whisper it if you have to.
But tell it.
 ― L.R. Knost

These words of LR. Knost are so very true.

During the weeks of Lent, I helped lead a writing group at my church. What a rich experience it was for me — watching each group member spending quiet moments meditating and contemplating the ripples of his/her life. Then witnessing one person after another begin to write as if they were expecting transformation, telling their stories, writing down the highs and lows. It was almost magical.

It seemed as if I saw the throes of stress leave their spirits. It seemed as if I watched their expressions of pain ease as pen flowed across paper. It seemed at times as if a weight was lifted, an emotion discovered, a community created, a sense of understanding settled in.

I know this: no one left the room with a broken spirit or a weight they could not carry. Instead, they left the room in covenant with one another, knowing that someone cared deeply about their story. They left the room knowing that, in this intimate space, they could spew out whatever they needed to release or they could be silent in a peaceful sanctuary of acceptance.

That Sunday School room in the tall-steepled church at the top of a street in Macon, Georgia known as High Place became a sacred space for just a brief time. It became a place almost magical, a place of rest, a place of comfort, a place where each person could feel that they were not alone and that they would never feel alone again. Truly, that was magical.

I end today’s blog post with these words written by L.R. Knost:

Tell your story. Shout it. Write it.
Whisper it if you have to.
But tell it.
Some won’t understand it.
Some will outright reject it.
But many will
thank you for it.
And then the most
magical thing will happen.
One by one, voices will start
whispering, ‘Me, too.’
And your tribe will gather.
And you will never
feel alone again.

Amen.

Reconciliation: The Heart’s Repentance

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The long and arduous presidential campaign left behind a fractured nation. The political parties displayed unprecedented enmity between Democrats and Republicans. The citizenry followed their lead, and the result was broken relationships among friends and even within families. My own family exchanged sharp and hurtful words during the campaign, words that continue to affect our relationships.

We have made enemies of other nations. Some among us have made enemies based on race, culture, gender, national identity, religious practice, sexual orientation. And we remain divided and hostile, with no apparent desire to reconcile. And yet, we desperately need true reconciliation.

The Biblical concept of reconciliation suggests the presence of spiritual, divine intervention that creates reconciliation in the hearts of those who are estranged. Reconciliation assumes there has been a breakdown in a relationship, but through the heart’s repentance, there is a change from a state of enmity and fragmentation to one of harmony and fellowship.

It is going to require the heart’s repentance to restore a climate of unity, mutual respect, love and peace. Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, offers these insightful thoughts about reconciliation.

Reconciliation isn’t just singing Kumbaya and everyone being nice. Reconciliation is about the hard work of working through our differences, maybe acknowledging them and not changing them, necessarily. Working through our differences, honestly and with integrity, and sometimes repenting of where our differences or my differences or yours has actually hurt relationship and not helped the human family.

Shall we just leave everything as it is? Shall we allow the distance to continue between us and those we have lost because of our differences? Shall we accept a fractured world and the divisiveness that now assails us? Or shall we instead commit ourselves to the holy work of reconciliation?

Our sacred calling is to restore peace within the human family, creating a world that can nurture our children and grandchildren, striving for genuine reconciliation among those from whom we are estranged, restoring peace and a community of love, transforming fractured and hurting humanity. This is what God implores us to do.

. . . This is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

2 Corinthians 5:18-19

 

Covenant and Grace

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Recently I experienced a perceived misunderstanding with a close family member. It was mostly in my mind and I was hesitant to bring it up and talk through it. But this was a cherished relationship and I knew I had to do everything possible to preserve it. The end result was a loving and understanding conversation that led to genuine growth in our relationship.

We speak often of the word “relationship.” Less often, we use the word “covenant,” but that’s the term God urges us to live into. Hear these words about covenant written by Henri Nouwen.

When God makes a covenant with us, God says: “I will love you with an everlasting love. I will be faithful to you, even when you run away from me, reject me, or betray me.” In our society we don’t speak much about covenants; we speak about contracts. When we make a contract with a person, we say: “I will fulfill my part as long as you fulfill yours. When you don’t live up to your promises, I no longer have to live up to mine.” Contracts are often broken because the partners are unwilling or unable to be faithful to their terms.

But God didn’t make a contract with us; God made a covenant with us, and God wants our relationships with one another to reflect that covenant. That’s why marriage, friendship, life in community are all ways to give visibility to God’s faithfulness in our lives together.

– Henri Nouwen

That is so true. Covenant is not a contract. Covenant is deeper than a relationship. Covenant is grace. If I had considered my relationship with my family member a covenant, our interaction might have been clearer, more intentional, more committed, and filled with more grace.

So I intend to work on creating covenant relationships in my life. It’s God’s best way. It’s the way of grace.