Holy Ground

470DF6B9-F261-497E-8A59-58EABE4E7898My friend, Buddy Shurden, shared an experience he had while serving his first pastorate near Ethel. Mississippi. He tells of his frequent habit of calling on Early Steed to pray. He wrote that Mr. Early Steed always began his prayer the same way, every time. 

“Lord, we come to you one more time from this low ground of sin, shame and sorrow.”

Buddy Shurden reflects on the term Mr. Early used, “low ground,” and adds, “Oh! If Early could see us now.”

Indeed. Low ground.

We are standing in the wake of waves of violence . . .

Fifteen pipe bombs mailed to two former presidents, a former secretary of state, a news outlet, and others;

Eleven worshippers killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in Mr. Rogers’ real-life neighborhood;

Maurice Stallard, 69, and Vickie Jones, 67, killed in a Kroger in Jeffersontown, Kentucky.

We are standing on pretty low ground these days. There’s no doubt about that. Yet, even in grief, with memorial vigils going on around the nation, we can still hear the faint voice of Mr. Rogers singing, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

And that resonates with us as we watch neighbors grieving alongside neighbors, Muslim neighbors reaching out to help their Jewish neighbors at Tree of Life, and the news outlet that was targeted with multiple pipe bombs speaking the names of the victims and telling bits of their life stories.

Maybe it feels like low ground we’re standing on these days. But if we look around, and listen, and watch while genuine love is being shared between grieving brothers and sisters, and friends who are grieving with them, we have to admit that this ground we’re now standing on might just feel more like holy ground.

Weep with Those Who Weep

AD620082-4B5E-47C6-B2B0-0D553454614BWhat a caring and compassionate ministry it is to sit beside someone who is grieving and remind them of God’s grace. In recent days, I have wept for and with so many friends who are grieving for what they have lost because of the Florida hurricane. To be sure, there were losses in Georgia and in the Carolinas, but the devastation in and around Panama City was catastrophic.

Hordes of compassionate people traveled to Florida to help. They will clean up debris, repair or rebuild homes that sustained damage, do electrical work, provide help in the shelters, share their hearts and God’s heart, and stand beside families as they pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. Mostly, they will weep with people, and that’s what will help more than anything else.

Author Ann Weems paints a sparkling vision with her words that speak of the “godforsaken obscene quicksand of life.” But then she tells of a deafening alleluia arising from the souls of those who weep and from the souls of those who weep with them. From that weeping, Ann Weems tells us what will happen next. “If you watch,” she writes, you will see the hand of God putting the stars back in their skies one by one.”

I like to think that the caregivers who traveled to Florida did a lot of weeping with those who needed it and that they stayed near them long enough for them to “see the hand of God putting the stars back in their skies one by one.” When all is lost — when you learn that your loved one has died or you stand in a pile of rubble on the ground that used to be your home — seeing the hand of God putting the stars back in their skies would be for you a manifestation of pure and holy hope.

Without a doubt, Florida is experiencing “the godforsaken obscene quicksand of life.” Their memories of this devastating time will be cruel and long-lasting. They will remember better days, neighborhoods that once thrived, schools that were destroyed and friends who are trying their best to recover. But what grieving people will remember most is the care someone gave them and the loving compassion of strangers who became forever friends. I am reminded of the words of poet Khalil Gibran:

You may forget with whom you laughed, but you will never forget with whom you wept.

― Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.    Romans 12:15

Guard Your Heart

FF412EF2-E311-4F00-9859-65D0582E5935A heart can break so easily. Life is filled with heartbreaking things, and no person is immune to heartbreak. Hurt from one’s children, the loss of a loved one, a marriage rife with anger, abuse by a trusted person, betrayal by a lifelong friend — all of these can leave a heart crushed.

How important it is, though, to find healing for our hearts, to find the healing balm that will ease the pain. We recall the comfort of Scripture that says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” We lean on the everlasting arms that always hold us, we rest on the promise that “God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds,” (Psalm 147:3) and we hear again the tender words of the Psalmist.

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

— Psalm 34:18

So we take these promises into our souls, and we give ourselves the time we need to heal our broken hearts. To be sure, the healing depends upon letting enough time pass for restoration to happen. Never do we heal on a swift timetable. The clock must move and the days must pass on our heartbreak. The weeks may well turn into months, even years. Yet we move ahead with confidence in our resiliency and faith in the Great Healer who abides with us for as long as it takes.

The final message is this: Be patient, but persevering, for the healing of your heart must be a life priority. Always guard your heart. Believe in the healing that will surely come. Know that your broken heart will mend as it rests in the hands of the One who heals every broken heart, every time, always.

Why is healing so important? It’s all about “the springs of life.”

Above all else, guard your heart,
For from it flow the springs of life.

— Proverbs 4:23

“Are you upset, little friend?”

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Charles M. Schulz

These days, I find myself in the very center of worry and discontent. I feel vulnerable, out of place in a new place I never expected to make my home. The problem is, I think, that I have not really made this place my home, and that reality has left me unsettled. I left forever friends behind when we moved here. I think the reason for my worry, my occasional despondency, even my fear, is that I feel alone. I recalled this week the well-known lyrics of a Carole King song from the seventies.

When you’re down and troubled
And you need a helping hand
And nothing, nothing is going right
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night.

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running to see you again;
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah.
You’ve got a friend.

If the sky above you
Should turn dark and full of clouds
And that old north wind should begin to blow;
Keep your head together
And call my name out loud, yeah
Soon I’ll be knocking upon your door . . .

It is a frightening state of being facing worry or illness or aging or loneliness, finding yourself disconsolate at times, and alone, without a loyal friend. But we have a mystical, magical force that leads us through the dark nights of the soul every time, without fail. I’ll name it faith.

A dear friend who just faced some devastating news reminded me of a deep-down, rock-solid truth about faith when she wrote, “My faith is bigger than my fear.” And that’s how we live a life filled with times of worry, aloneness, days of grief, fear, and sometimes mourning that engulfs us hard and long.

No person escapes such times, for they are an inevitable part of life. So we meet hard times face-to-face, up close, and we survive. We are, as the Bible says, “troubled on every hand, yet not distressed; perplexed, but not in despair . . . cast down, but not destroyed,” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)

To be sure, we are left with scars of the soul and spirit. Yet we live on, knowing that after times of despondency, we are stronger than we were before. There is no deeper consolation than the words of Scripture proclaimed by the Prophet Isaiah.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.

— Isaiah 43:2

I hang on Isaiah’s words, and I have rested on them so many times when sadness overwhelmed me and fear had its way. These Isaiah words are enough, more than enough for my disconsolate times.

But then I happened upon just the right message of consolation for me in this particular time of my life. And I found it in a most unlikely place. It’s a delightful little message of real and true comfort that speaks so sweetly to me, and perhaps to all of us who need a friend and an extra boost of encouragement in a time of worry.

Are you upset little friend? Have you been lying awake worrying? Well, don’t worry . . . I’m here. The flood waters will recede, the famine will end, the sun will shine tomorrow, and I will always be here to take care of you.

― Charles M. Schulz

Amen.

On Loneliness

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Photo of an Arkansas dawn by Steven Nawojczyk

I have always hated feeling lonely. Being alone meant sorrow for me, and in my younger years, I did everything I could to avoid spending time alone, trying to keep loneliness at bay. The more people I could have around me, the more alive I felt.

And then I began to experience the deep loneliness one can experience even when surrounded with people. That is to me the most painful loneliness of all — being lonely in a crowd, suddenly coming face to face with my emptiness, discovering that no one is ever truly present with me.

Growing older has taught me that being alone is actually life-giving. Sometimes being alone brings the kind of silence we need to draw closer to God, hearing the sacred whispers that reach the depths of the soul. Silence can bring a more intense awareness of the bursting life all around us, the rise and fall of the cicada’s song in the summer, the sweet music of birdsong, the delightful sound of fluttering hummingbird wings, the silence of the night broken only by the sounds of katydids and crickets.

I recently read these words from the children’s fantasy novel, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.

― Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

It truly is beautiful . . . being alone with silence complete enough to listen and to truly hear. It is one thing to be alone, but quite another to be alone with God. Being alone with God is being in the silent, sacred place where the soul meets its creator. It is finding the quiet, holy place of falling into the arms of a God who abides and protects. It is coming near to the “mercy seat” where disconsolate seekers bring their wounded hearts. It is sitting in the place where we learn that “earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.” *

I have learned, even in my loneliest times, that there is abiding truth in the words of philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich.

Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone; solitude expresses the glory of being alone.

Being alone taught me that, even when not one human soul is around me, I am never truly alone. And I rest my hope in these words, “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.”

Amen and amen.

 

“Come, Ye Disconsolate,” Lyrics: Thomas Moore (1779-1852); Altered by Thomas Hastings (1784-1872); Music: Samuel Webbe (1740-1816)

Please enjoy this beautiful hymn presented by the Baylor University Men’s A Cappella Choir at this link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mNqzhfB4y1I

To Sing Again

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60,072,551 Americans are celebrating, singing songs of victory. At the same time, 60,467,601 of us cannot sing at all. We are silenced by grief after a divisive and troubling presidential election. Many of us are afraid, some are angry, others are despondent. And all around us, people celebrate.

How will we get through this time? How will we ever again feel that America is our home? When will we again lift our eyes after being bowed down in mourning? I have no easy answers. I only know that these words of the Psalmist describe my deepest feeling.

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?

Psalm 137:1-4

It is my sincere prayer that on some day in the future we will pick up our lyres, lift our eyes to the heavens, stand tall, and sing again.

Celebrate!

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How can this be a melancholy day? The sun is shining. The flowers are blooming. A gentle breeze cools the day. Yet, melancholy days can come upon us, days when we feel that discouraged feeling that something is missing. Loved ones may be far away. Physical pain may be getting us down. Any number of circumstances can make for a melancholy day.

Today, I am there, feeling a bit sad, missing my grandchildren, concerned about my health. It happens. There will always be days like this. But we learn to get past them to a more hopeful mood. Even on melancholy days, aren’t there things to celebrate? Like relatively good health, loving family relationships, a comfortable home. Osho writes about learning to be celebrators.

Be the celebrators, celebrate! Already there is too much—the flowers have bloomed, the birds are singing, the sun is there in the sky—celebrate it! You are breathing and you are alive and you have consciousness, celebrate it!

― Osho, Creativity: Unleashing the Forces Within

How true that is! Breathing and alive, we can celebrate the day. We can enjoy the blooming flowers, the singing of the birds, the bright sun in our sky. We can celebrate our life!

Night Prayers

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I have had some dark nights of the soul in my life. And it seems that when night falls, the fear is greater, the mourning is harder, the sorrow is more intense, the Lonliness is almost unbearable. In those times, I would pray for the morning, hoping beyond hope that I would survive the night. Sleep would not come and I spent hours worrying. I spent many of those kinds of nights in the hospital, fearful, lonely, worried about my health and wondering if I would ever get well.

I can remember that during those long nights, I would call my husband for support. The time didn’t matter. I might call at 1:00am or even closer to the dawn. My husband was always faithful to talk me through the night crisis.

But when I was completely alone, my prayers emerged from the depths of worry and fear. I was almost desperate to talk to God and hear God’s voice of comfort.

Steven Charleston describes night prayers.

Night is drawing near. Soon the night prayers will begin. The after-hours prayers. The prayers without the need for words. Spoken from the heart, the language of those who work the late shift of sorrow. Night prayers turn bar rooms into churches, motels into cathedrals, truck stops into shrines. Night prayers are first time prayers, last chance prayers, prayers tossed up into the stars to see if anyone is there to catch them. Prayers without expectation. Tonight I will pray with the midnight seekers and the far from home angels. I will offer my own night prayer. For them, with them, in the congregation of the all night diner.

I love the words that speak of tossing prayers “up into the air to see if anyone is there to catch them.” I can attest to the fact that God was always there to hear my night prayers. Thanks be to God.

Set Hope Free

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Head bowed down, I listen to the stories on the news with deep sadness. I listen to my own inner voice telling me that I am aging. I listen to others speak of aging with terms like loneliness and discouragement. I listen to the voices of the young who speak fear about their future.

These, and a myriad of other stories of despondency, try to hold me down. And yet, my faith still rises up within me in its reach toward hope. The words of Bishop Steven Charleston never fail to inspire me.

Rise up in hope again today, no matter what may seek to hold you down. If the world around you seems dark, then have faith that your own light will only shine the brighter. Your witness is needed now more than ever. Do not bow your head before the story you hear being told by others, but lift your voice to tell your own story, a story of beauty and wonder, a story of love and struggle, the narrative of a life lived and lived well, a sign of faith for all to see. Rise up in hope again today, for you are living testimony to what hope can do when hope is set free.

As we tell our stories, you and I, we can share lives of beauty and wonder in the midst of struggle. We can give witness to a life well lived. We can rise up in hope and set it free!

Cast Down but Not Destroyed

 

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It was several years ago, a sunny, balmy day on the beach. A beautiful vacation with friends. Until the ill-fated phone call.

“Your nonprofit organization will no longer receive state funding. Your grant ends immediately. You will receive no payments as of today.”

To say this was shocking is an understatement. Suddenly, ten years of building was over. Services for victims of violence would cease immediately because staff had to be laid off. I was in shock and inconsolable. I had lost all that I had worked so hard to accomplish. What would we say to our clients? Who would help them when we closed our doors?

The press was asking for comments, but I had no words. All I could muster was silence and a few tears. I was too shocked to really cry. I was too bereft to make any coherent statement to the press or anyone else. Richard Rohr had the spot-on words to describe such a blow.

The pain of something old falling apart — chaos — invites the soul to listen at a deeper level. It invites and sometimes forces the soul to go to a new place because the old place is falling apart. Otherwise, most of us would never go to new places.

So true. I would never have gone to new places. As I look back on the day of my soul’s assault, I can honestly say that I was forced to listen to God at a deeper level. When that old life fell apart, there was something new in my future. Enmeshed in my work, I would never have seen it. I was drowning in my ministry and did not even notice that I was sinking. My health – physically, emotionally and spiritually – was at a low ebb. My friends saw it. I refused to.

In the end, the pain of that loss, the chaos, opened my eyes to a fresh new day. There was a new path ahead, bright and full of promise. As I allowed myself to be comforted, I called to mind one of my favorite scriptures, 2 Corinthians 4:8-9

“We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed . . .”