“Therefore, I have hope . . .”

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The quiet beauty of Arkansas. Photo by Steven Nawojczyk.

This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.

I have been without hope at times, disconsolate, forsaken, wondering why my faith seemed to fail me. My struggle overcame my hope even as I listened desperately to hear the Spirit of hope. I heard nothing. Day after day, in the long dark night of my soul’s anguish, I heard nothing.

That’s the thing about hope. She doesn’t shout our her presence. She doesn’t get your attention in a loud, thunderous manner. Hope, it seems to me, is the quiet whisper of the Holy Spirit that goes beyond your conscious mind deep into the depths of your soul. That is the only kind of hope that works, the only kind of hope that can comfort us in times of affliction. The Scripture offers a promise in the book of Romans: “By the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” 

The prophet Jeremiah speaks in the book of Lamentations with words filled with devastating pain. Certainly Jeremiah was a man of abiding and genuine faith. Yet, he suffered. Although it may not be our understanding, Jeremiah understood his times of anguish to be at the hand of the God he served. In hearing Jeremiah’s words of lament, we hear his loss of hope. Listen to this prophet’s heart.

I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light;

against me alone he turns his hand again and again, all day long.

though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer;

He has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked. He has filled me with bitterness . . . My soul is bereft of peace;

I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.”

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,  his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

— Lamentations 3: 1-3; 8-10; 17-24 (New Revised Standard Version)

To reassure the prophet, God did not shout out a proclamation of new hope. There were no loud, boisterous declarations. Instead, the prophet calls to mind the mercies of God. And as he calls God’s faithfulness to mind, his soul speaks of hope.

If you are a long-time Baptist, you may have sung an old hymn that speaks of the quiet presence of hope. The hymn, Whispering Hope,* promises a gentle hope that comforts us in a whisper. Here is a portion of that hymn.

Soft as the voice of an angel breathing a lesson unheard,

Hope with a gentle persuasion whispers her comforting word:

Wait till the darkness is over, Wait till the tempest is done,

Hope for the sunshine tomorrow, after the shower is gone.

Whispering hope, oh, how welcome thy voice, making my heart in its sorrow rejoice.

— Septimus Winner, 1868

Hope with a gentle persuasion whispers her comforting word . . . To me, that sounds like the whisper of the Holy Spirit who, in our times of despair, in the times when we feel that we have lost all hope, brings her comfort, her assurance, her peace to us again and again.

May you hear the Spirit’s whisper when you need it most.

And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13)

Amen.

 

* If you would like to listen to a lovely arrangement of “Whispering Hope” sung by Hayley Westenra, or if you have not heard this hymn in a while, please visit this link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=zj3N9LE9FPs

 

 

 

 

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A Life Breathtakingly Beautiful

 

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Art by Darlene Gibson-Piper

Life can be tricky. Life is a living thing just waiting to grab you and pull you down, or so it seems at times. Bad things do happen to all of us. Misfortune can suddenly engulf our lives and leave us, any of us, in a heap on the ground, heads bowed low.

I know all too well the stark reality of being brought low, but when I find myself face down in the dirt, I always recall one of the most comforting passages of Scripture.

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 . . .

— 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (King James Version)

At this time in my life, I am thankfully on the other side of a very serious illness. But the year 2014 was a nightmare year for me and for my family. I spent a good part of that year in the hospital, at times leaning very close to death’s door. Much of that year, I spent in a mental haze not even knowing the loved ones caring for me. I was often very afraid, but one thought came to mind again and again.

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.
― Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith

So many people find themselves afraid and in despair. In the time it takes me to write this piece, five people in the U.S. will take their own lives. For every suicide, there will be 25 attempted suicides. Some people will suddenly and unexpectedly lose a job and plunge into financial ruin. Others will lose someone they love by death or divorce. Others will fall deeply into illness. Others will face the challenges of aging and lose their homes. Some will experience the terror of addiction. Every person — every person — will know the lowest depths of despair, an existence void of hope.

I love the writing of L.R. Knost. She is an award-winning author, feminist, and social justice activist, the founder and director of the children’s rights advocacy and family consulting group, Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, and the Editor-in-Chief of Holistic Parenting Magazine. Her writing is down to earth and uplifting, always filled with snippets of pure wisdom. This is what she writes about life.

Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and awful it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.

She is so spot-on about life, so thoroughly wise. She knows about muddling through the muck of life to the best part of it, the beautiful part of it. And that’s what we must do, muddle through until we get to the beauty. It is true that life doesn’t always get better. Sometimes the thing that breaks us down just lingers with us and keeps us on the lowest ground of desperation. Yet there is that life-giving, life-saving thing called grace, the gentle and persistent grace that is ever-present with us during every low season in life.

Here is the reality, the tried and true foundation of truth that keeps us moving forward after a difficult patch. Again, L.R. Knost describes it.

Life doesn’t always get better.
But you do. You get stronger.
You get wiser. You get softer.
With tattered wings you rise.
And the world watches in wonder at the breathless beauty of a human who survived life.

Going back to that wonderful passage in 2 Corinthians, we find this:

. . . We do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

— 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 (New International Version)

This is, indeed, a soul-healing life, utterly beautiful during the good times, but still heart-breaking and frightening at other times. You and I will pick ourselves up from the dusty earth again and again. We will most certainly rise to our feet for another day. We will find the gentle, persistent grace that holds us upright. We will not lose heart. We will make it to the breathtakingly beautiful part of our lives. Count on it!

Despair

192EA03D-9DFB-4D4A-BB22-A481D2086FCDDespair has its way at times. It sneaks into my spirit and dwells there for a while, Although despair is thoroughly unwelcome and unwanted, it has a way of making a home in me at times. It has its way. It does its damage. It enslaves me with a devastating kind of bondage. It forces me into an uneasy and oppressive place.

Despair’s most damaging legacy is fear. These days are, for me at least, days of fear. I watch the current president and listen to his words in horror. He speaks with hostility. He gives welcome to divisiveness, racism, misogyny and disrespect. His words are often divisive, rude and insensitive. He uses his power to build an unsettled nation. I despair for the nation, and I despair for a world filled with violence, war, hunger, poverty, and natural disasters born of climate change.

My faith tells me that there is a remedy for despair, that fear can be conquered, and that peace might be restored in me. The poetry of Wendell Berry is a beautiful reminder.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.

I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.

For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

— From Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things“

When despair casts its damaging spell within me, my faith still holds. They are waiting for me, always, the peace that is a balm for grief and despair, the presence of still waters and the stars sparkling in my night sky. This otherworldly beauty causes me to rest in the arms of faith and to recall the many times of despair in my life that served only to make me stronger and more resilient.

Thanks be to God.

Life’s Darkest Place

IMG_5929Sometimes, the heart cries out in anguish, “Comfort me, God, in this my life’s darkest place.” There are times when all of us find ourselves in the midst of darkness. Almost despairing, we hope beyond hope for a new dawn. We speak our prayers, often with groanings too deep for words. We look deeper within, hoping that in the depths of our spirits, we will find an enduring faith. We turn to the comfort of Scripture.

If I had to choose one passage of Scripture that has been for me a source of constant comfort, I would turn to Second Corinthians.

In times of betrayal, I turned to this passage. In times times when I felt persecuted, I turned to this passage. In serious illness, I whispered the words of this passage in the deepest darkness of the night.

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 . . .

For all things are for our good, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God.

For which cause we faint not; but though outwardly we may perish, inwardly we are renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works within us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory;

So we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporary; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

– From II Corinthians 4 (paraphrased)

I can only imagine how many survivors of the recent natural disasters have spoken the words of this passage, prayerfully and with hearts disconsolate. I can imagine many of them crying out from what feels like life’s darkest place. The hymn writer expresses so eloquently the presence of hope for all of us who find ourselves languishing, inviting us to bring our sorrows to the mercy seat of God.

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish,
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.

– Thomas Moore, 1816

May those who are disconsolate this day find consolation in the lavish grace of God. May those who languish find respite in God’s never-ending mercy. May those who are suffering in what feels like life’s darkest place experience the brilliance of a new dawn. Amen.

 

The Promise of Daybreak

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Pierce Creek Public Boat Landing, Mayflower, Arkansas. Photo by Steven Nawojczyk.

Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

– Ephesians 6:13 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

– Isaiah 58:10 New International Version (NIV)

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A friend recently described this time in history as “days of despair.” She talked about “a veil of darkness” that has covered our world. I have thought a great deal about her comments and have spent time pondering the kind of fear people might be feeling. Certainly, the natural disasters we are experiencing are causing feelings of great unease. Floods and fires, mighty winds and life-changing storms have left millions of people despairing. They have experienced loss of life, loss of their homes, loss of belongings, loss of their place in community. Perhaps some of them doubt the promise of a dawning day that brings back hope.

Add to that the far too frequent expressions of hate, xenophobia and racism that exacerbate distress. Clearly, there is enough fear and despair to go around in these unsettling days. After many years of acceptance and belonging, the young people we call DREAMERS suddenly feel the fear of losing all that they have worked for, including the country that has been “home” to them since they were children.

So how do disconsolate people move forward when a sense of despair holds them captive? How do people in the midst of fear and grief believe that a new dawn will break their current darkness? How do they hold on to their faith in the God who cares deeply for them, protects them, holds them close?

Can we join hearts and hands and stand courageously against injustice, standing with those who have been marginalized, believing that we will overcome the “evil day” that threatens us?

One voice throughout history declares with certain, living faith that, whatever we face, we shall overcome. I do not even need to mention his name because we hear his voice clearly during every trial. These are his words:

We shall overcome because Carlisle is right. “No lie can live forever.”

We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right. “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”

We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right. “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future and behind them unknown stands God within the shadows keeping watch above his own.”

We shall overcome because the Bible is right. “You shall reap what you sow.”

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1966

These days of darkness and division will pass. These days of dim uncertainty will pass. We shall overcome despair. As it always has, the breaking dawn will drive out the darkness of night. Hope will again rise within us as we embrace the promise of another glorious daybreak.

Amen. Thanks be to God.