In the Presence of God

C90EDAB6-79B0-4CA2-A04E-1166EA16A59F

What does it mean to be in the presence of God? How do we get there? How do we rest there long enough for our souls to be restored?

Had I ever been able to answer those questions, I imagine my life would have been different — fuller, gentler, more peaceful. But like many people who work to achieve inner peace and a spirituality with staying power, I have struggled around the prize, never quite being able to grasp it.

I have used all of the tools available to me — my bible, my bookcase full of contemplative writing, my labyrinth, my hymnal, my writing, my art, my prayer. The list goes on, and I go on, still struggling to find God’s presence.F40CF356-14B8-489C-A6CE-0DC8F34C0B95

The worse thing I can do is to cast blame on myself for a small spirituality and an even smaller faith. Truth is, I think I do have spirituality and faith. Faith has lifted me up through many difficult times. Faith was present when fire destroyed part of our home. My faith held when I was forced to close the doors our nonprofit. My faith carried me through sudden kidney failure. Faith showed up every time I wept bitter tears of grief and mourned my life losses. My faith was present with me when I thought I was dying and when I left my home of 32 years, my son and my grandchildren.

My faith held. My anchor gripped God’s solid rock. I picked myself up every time and moved on with hope. Yet, this thing we call “the presence of God” has eluded me. I mostly can’t experience it or feel it or sense it as a reality.

I guess it gets back to faith, doesn’t it. For it is faith that whispers to us, “Know the presence of God. If you cannot sense it, know it. If you cannot feel it, believe it anyway.”

The book of Jeremiah offers this comforting advice: “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”

And then I can always fall back on Richard Rohr wisdom: 

“We’re already in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.”

F9FA5D3C-53F0-4043-8A72-F9E2D63F7349

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it.
You hem me in, behind and before me,
and you gently lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
I cannot begin to understand it.

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.

— Psalm 139:1-10 ESV (paraphrased)

A Safe and Gentle Presence

D10C41D6-4875-479D-B4BC-40762C72FD3CIf you know me well, you will know that I have a love affair with trees. I always have, ever since I was a little girl playing among the protruding, gnarly roots of the enormous, beautiful magnolia tree in our yard. I would stay there for hours sometimes, finding under the tree’s canopy my own personal and private hiding place. Though it was ill advised, the tree endured carvings in its trunk without complaining even once. That tree had multiple carved hearts, each with an arrow and the names of boyfriends that came and went.

Today I was reminded how much I love trees when I received a mailing from the Arbor Day Foundation asking me to complete a survey, which I promptly did. As a token of appreciation for completing the survey, the Arbor Day Foundation will send me a calendar, a tree book and ten free trees.

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, dreaming of having ten new trees in my yard, but of course, knowing that the free trees they send me will be five inches tall. No matter. I’ll plant them and nurse them and hope for the best.

I was also prompted by the Arbor Day Foundation to wonder about state trees. Fred and I tried to guess a few, but eventually resorted to Wikipedia for a list. Interesting list, ranging from common trees like the ubiquitous pine all the way to more exotic-sounding trees like Utah’s Quaking Aspen, Pennsylvania’s Eastern Hemlock and Arizona’s Blue Palo Verde.

23E0BDA9-6047-4A1B-AE2A-131CC85D8385Now that you’ve had a lesson on state trees that you did not ask for, I will tell you what’s up with me and trees. The lifelong connection happened when I was just a little girl. I lived with an abusive father who made my home a very unsafe place. Other forms of violence were prevalent as well: shouting and abusive language, threats of physical harm and a violent uncle that came with a gun and broke into our house by smashing the glass in our front door.

I was a child of fear, constant fear, and so I found hiding places under our trees, two huge magnolias, an even taller pecan tree, and even under the branches of Miss Martha Tebshereny’s plum tree. An occasional plum was a bonus!

Here’s the best truth: that it is incredibly powerful that out of a troubled childhood, I brought happy memories. I brought with me into my adult years images of safety; moments of playfulness; an appreciation of nature’s beauty; the taste of fresh figs, plums and pecans; a lovely collection of magnolia cones; the treasure of memories and an abiding love of trees.

80B6B271-36DF-445D-B9B3-147572ED24FE

She wept a river of tears
holy water, sent to soften the sharp edges of sorrow
a gentle hollowing out, carving new chambers in her heart
a hallowed vessel . . . 
Kate Mullane Robertson

There was healing under the weeping branches of those trees. There was hope. I think it was Holy Ground.

That’s something for which I am very grateful. I am grateful to a loving and compassionate God, who, I am quite sure, met me a few times under one of those childhood trees. God, who knows how important it is to protect children,  and graced me with a safe and gentle presence. Because of that, I made it out of a home filled with violence to a better, safer world.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

A Baby Brother! Not for Me!

051DDA23-6104-48A2-B63A-E5B2E72D2EE8

Michael, the Archangel

This morning I was reading an interesting article about Michael, the Archangel. The headline read “Call upon the Archangel to stand guard over you . . . at night.” The article pointed out that we are the most vulnerable when we are asleep, unable to protect ourselves from harm. The Archangel Michael can protect us. The information, while interesting, was not all that earth shattering. But reading it brought to mind an unforgettable childhood memory.

As a child around the age of five, I didn’t think much of this particular day, but as an adult, I count it as one of my most cherished memories. On top of that, I now see it as an early childhood experience that shaped my view of God and began to prepare me for the vocation of ministry. But I must begin at the beginning to paint a picture of a precocious, spoiled five year old.

My mother was expecting a new baby, my first sibling. I was all in if the baby was a sister, but for some reason, I loathed the idea of a baby brother, which is exactly what I got. I was NOT happy! I remember it like it was yesterday. Yiayia (my grandmother) broke the news. I stomped my feet and declared that my mother could absolutely not return home with a boy baby!

Going on alongside my childish impertinence, the adults were experiencing a completely different reality. It appeared, in fact, that my baby brother would not come home and that his survival was doubtful. As in many Greek families, my brother’s dangerous situation remained “between us,” which meant my grandmother, my father and my two aunts, Eirene and Koula. At all costs, my mother was not to be told of the seriousness of her new baby’s health. And of course, nothing was to be said in the presence of five-year-old Kalliope, though that made no difference at all because my ears had always been finely attuned to family secrets and whispers. When adults spoke, even in hushed whispers, I heard.

So I knew, at least, that something was amiss, and if I am honest, I have to confess that I was glad I would not be having a brother in my world. Until the next day. As soon as I woke up, Yiayia washed my face, made me brush my teeth, and began to dress me. For reasons I did not yet understand, she was dressed in her church clothes and she pulled out a church dress for me. I knew it wasn’t Sunday, but I did not know that I was about to have a life-altering experience. Now you might think that a five-year-old cannot really understand a life-altering experience. But you would be mistaken. This life-altering experience has been lying in my memories for more than six decades.

Both dressed impeccably, we put on our winter coats and walked across the street and down the block to the bus stop. I was cold, ready for the bus to show up. Of course, I asked where we were going and why we were so dressed up. “Siopi! Min milas tora!” was Yiayia’s response. “Hush! Don’t talk right now!” Sensing the fear and grief in Yiayia’s mood, I sat quietly and didn’t say another word as the bus took us to downtown Birmingham. When we disembarked, I knew exactly where we were going, but I did not know why.

As we walked up the front steps at our Greek Orthodox church, I felt the warmth of the building easing the February cold. I was glad to be warm. I smelled the incense, comforted by the familiar fragrance. And I watched the flames of hundreds of thin white candles placed in a bed of sand as Yiayia lit another one, placed it in the sand, and made her cross. Immediately, I made my cross, too, three times, as I was taught to do.

The church was silent. With dim lights, it had never looked more beautiful. As we walked down the aisle through the nave, I looked to each side to see the stained glass windows. I looked up above the nave into the dome of the church where the icon of Christ, Ruler of All, looked back directly at me in a way that almost seemed eerie. I realize that we are going up the steps to the iconostasis, the wall of doors that each had an icon on them. I had never, ever been up those few steps. It was the place, I thought, where only the priest and the altar boys could be.

But up we went, and stood directly in front of the door bearing the image of Michael the Archangel. Finally, Yiayia spoke. “Your brother is going to die. We have to pray for him to St Michael, the protector of all. You pray too.

And so we did, Yiayia with a deep, reverent, desperate fervency that pleaded for the Archangel to save the baby, offering Saint Michael a promise in return for the baby’s life. As for me, I can only remember having a lump in my throat and trying not to cry. But tears streamed down my cheeks as we finished, and I made my cross three times.

We headed silently back to the bus stop to go home. The house was much quieter than usual, and I stayed quiet too, which was a huge feat for me. I didn’t say anything about not wanting my baby brother for a few days, which proves the cunning wisdom of a five-year-old. I played quietly in my room the rest of the morning, but the mood in the house lifted that very afternoon.

My father and aunts came home not many hours after our church experience and announced with unbridled joy that the baby was going to be fine. Yiayia made her cross three times and gave exuberant thanks to God and St. Michael the Archangel who heard our prayers, gave us a miracle, and saved the baby boy.

My mother did come home with the miracle baby, Andrew Michael (named after the Archangel who saved his life). I stood my ground, refused to hold him or look at him, and sternly pronounced that they should take him back and bring me a sister!

So much for my spiritual act of devotion in the church. On the other hand, isn’t that just the way God works with us? Planting spiritual experiences in us when we hardly take notice, knowing that we will hide them somewhere in our hearts for a later time in our lives. 

Thanks be to God.

 

 

The People of Uganda: The Music of Abiding Faith

 

image

Ugandan Women at the River; Watercolor by Kathy Manis Findley

I tell my story best when I tell the stories of the people that God has placed in my life. Quite often, my heart recalls beautiful memories of a people that became an important part of my life. They are a people who touched me beyond measure when my husband and I served as missionaries to Uganda, East Africa.

The Ugandan people captured our hearts quickly and completely. We saw the great need and set about our work in village after village, doing whatever we could to promote self sufficiency and good health. We worshipped in their churches and learned about the amazing resilience of their Christian faith. Perhaps we helped make their lives better in small ways. There is no doubt that the Ugandan people made our lives better in big ways. It was so many years ago, but I remember it as if it happened yesterday. The two of us stepped off of a plane in the Nairobi airport to begin a new life. As very young missionaries, we had no idea what we would face in the days to come.

Getting to Uganda from Kenya was a long, dusty ride through the most beautiful places we had ever seen. Through bush country and savannah, through banana groves and rain forests, through tea plantations on the mountainsides and the deep waters of Lake Victoria, we were getting acquainted with this continent.

D7C695AB-EF03-4B50-97FB-A60D047CBF9F

Ugandan Crested Cranes; Watercolor

The terrain was ever-changing, and the way was marked by the majestic beauty of elephants, giraffe, cape buffalo, gazelles, flamingos and Ugandan crested cranes.

The most moving sight of all was the people, barefoot and downtrodden, wearing rags and carrying heavy water containers. Yet, the sight of women at the banks of a river dipping their water jugs to carry to their families was a portrait of beauty and community. In spite of the toll the war had taken, these women retained their pride and dignity, and their joy. They wore basutis (native Ugandan dresses) of many vibrant African colors. In spite of the fact that their basutis were torn and tattered, they caught the rays of the equatorial sun and were bright with the greens, oranges, burgundies blues and yellows that mirrored the Ugandan landscape. The women stood together in the river, at times laughing and talking to one another, and at other times singing, in spite of their ominous sociopolitical world.

Their country had all but been destroyed by the evil dictator Idi Amin, who orchestrated the genocide of 100,000 to 500,000 Ugandans. Churches were burned to the ground, schools pillaged, roads were in shambles. Children were left orphaned in a country of widows. Their faces showed the wear of grief, their bodies the mask of mourning.

They were why we had come, sent by God to comfort a grieving people. The days ahead found us digging water wells, distributing agricultural tools and vegetable seeds, giving out books, bibles, blankets and sewing supplies, bringing in simple medicines and vaccines.

I can never think of the Ugandan people without recalling Lamentations 5, a scripture passage that was read in a church service to describe the plight of the people. As the reader read through her tears, the entire congregation wept, mourning so many losses. I offer the text here in its entirety:

Remember, Lord, what has happened to us; look, and see our disgrace.
Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to foreigners.
We have become fatherless, our mothers are widows.
We must buy the water we drink; our wood can be had only at a price.
Those who pursue us are at our heels; we are weary and find no rest.

We submitted to Egypt and Assyria to get enough bread.
Our ancestors sinned and are no more, and we bear their punishment.
Slaves rule over us, and there is no one to free us from their hands.
We get our bread at the risk of our lives because of the sword in the desert.
Our skin is hot as an oven, feverish from hunger.

Women have been violated in Zion, and virgins in the towns of Judah.
Princes have been hung up by their hands; elders are shown no respect.
Young men toil at the millstones; boys stagger under loads of wood.
The elders are gone from the city gate; the young men have stopped their music.

Joy is gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned to mourning.
The crown has fallen from our head.
Woe to us, for we have sinned!

Because of this our hearts are faint, because of these things our eyes grow dim for Mount Zion, which lies desolate, with jackals prowling over it.You, Lord, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation.
Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?

Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old
unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.

— Lamentations 5, New International Version

That worship service in the Church of Uganda (Anglican) sanctuary was unlike any I had ever experienced. The people wept freely and openly, grieving the loss of husbands, children, parents. Once described as “the pearl of Africa” by Sir Winston Churchill, Uganda was a land of incomparable natural beauty that now had been ravaged by war.

As the reading of the scripture in Lamentations came to an end, one woman with tears flowing down her cheeks began to sing and dance. The congregation joined her, singing with great fervency, “Dance then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance said he. And I’ll lead you on wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the Dance said he.”

The aisles of the sanctuary filled with dancing and weeping all at once.

Their mourning had turned to dancing. The inner joy of a people was not, and could never be, destroyed. Their hearts, so filled with the music of their faith, could not be silenced. They could sing. They could dance. Even through their tears. That is the music of abiding, persistent faith.

How grateful I am to God for choosing us to enter into community for a time with these wonderful people.

 

 

Call a Blessing Down

 

16C3A27C-B8C5-4D8C-BC35-A4A550C9662F

“Angels Blessing the Earth” by Suely Eloy

Bishop Steven Charleston writes, “Help me call a blessing down, for I think our poor old world needs it.”

I have listened this week to folk bemoaning the downward movement of the stock market that diminished their retirement savings. I have heard expressions of real fear about what the president is doing and might do. Many people seem despondent about children taken from their parents and placed in detention centers. People are angry that two young children have died there in the past couple of weeks. People are embarrassed about the way other countries now view America. Every day, there is another reason to feel concern, anger, fear,and many other emotions about what our nation has become.

And on top of that, we see the grief and pain of people all over the world. They face repressive governments in countries like North Korea, Syria, Equatorial Guinea, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Yemen, Uzbekistan and the Central African Republic.

They have endured natural disasters like the earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia, volcanoes in Guatemala and Hawaii, the dust storm in India, the wildfires in California, flooding and mudslides in Japan, numerous earthquakes around the world. People are living in countries in the midst of wars that persist for decades.

They have witnessed with horror events like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school ahooting, the Waffle House shooting, the shooting at Santa Fe High School, the Capital Gazette shooting, the Jeffersontown, Kentucky shooting, the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, the Thousand Oaks bar shooting, the Chicago Mercy Hospital shooting. All over the world, disasters — natural disasters and disasters caused by humans — have the power to bring us to our knees.

On our knees is perhaps the very place we must be. And as we fall to our knees to pray for our world, perhaps we might whisper the Hebrew phrase, Tikkum Olam, heal the world.  Perhaps we might repeat the prayer of Bishop Steven Charleston:

Help me call a blessing down, for I think our poor old world needs it, a blessing of peace, a blessing of the ordinary, a blessing of national life without chaos and personal life without fear. 

Help me pray a healing down, for I know how much we need it, a strengthening of the bonds between us, simple respect and patient listening, a new beginning for us all. 

Help me welcome the sacred down, the wide-winged Spirit, drawn from every corner of heaven, to walk among us once more, to show us again how it can be, when justice is the path and love the destination.

Amen.

 

 

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