When Branches Are Flimsy and Songs Cannot Be Sung

I have a certain fondness for sparrows and the spiritual stories we have ascribed to them. That my blog is named “God of the Sparrow” is no accident. I have aspired many times in my life to live like the sparrow lives. I wanted my human, adult, mature and seasoned self to know, beyond any doubt, that God is watching over me. I do not live the simple, sparrow-like life I always hoped to live. But my unshakable faith has always told me that the God who watches over my every moment is also the God of the sparrow. I remember well the words written in the Gospel of Matthew . . .

So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 
— Matthew 10:41 NRSV

Such a comforting passage of Scripture! Yet, its message to us often pales in comparison to all the things that so frighten us. The state of the world that surrounds us in these days seems to have even more power over us than Matthew’s words about our value to God.

How is it that we are valuable to God when God does not act to protect us from all of life’s slings and arrows? Yesterday in my blog post I listed our world’s bad and scary things, so I won’t list them again today. But I will venture a prognosis that many, many people are suffering in many ways in this confusing season. I am one of those suffering people, feeling a bit of hopelessness in these days of racial unrest, coronavirus unsettledness and political divisions.

I heard a moving choral performance this morning. Its text lifted up my helplessness before me and turned it into a prayer so attuned to where I find myself.

God of the sparrow, sing through us
Songs of deliverance, songs of peace. 
Helpless we seek You, God our joy, 
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease. 

Jonathan Cook

I need the sparrow’s God to sing through me. Perhaps you do, too. I need that God-given song because my own music seems to have become quiet, my singing turned to mourning. (Amos 8:10) But this week, I took hold of that mourning. With strong intention, I spent most of one day this week singing my heart out. 

You need to know that I had to choose a day when my husband would be away so that I could sing loud, with abandon. Why did he have to be away? That’s a long story, but in a nutshell, my singing is awful these days. Probably my vocal cords have lost some of their youthful elasticity and, on top of that, I did not sing at all for more than a year. Serious illness took my music.

When I (literally) came back from the dead in 2015, I realized that I had lost so many of my former abilities. Singing was one of them. It felt strange to me when I realized I could no longer sing. My former life was filled with song. Since childhood, there was never a choir I did not join, never a solo I did not sing.

Acknowledging my inability to sing was difficult, just as my life after kidney transplant and this coronavirus is difficult. My isolation has been lengthy, most of nine months, and it is taking its toll on my spirit. Prayer has become both a burden and a grace to me. My singing was my prayer for so many years, and I really need my singing in these hard days. I need to sing my praises to God. I need to sing my lamentations. I need to sing like the sparrow who doesn’t worry about her vocal chords. I need to be like the sparrow who sits on her branch — without fear, without worry — because she knows that if she happens to light on a flimsy branch that does not hold her, her wings will lift her. 

The end of this story is that I need the God of the sparrow to sing through me once again — to sing through me in shadowy days, in times of trouble, in isolation, in fear, in hopelessness. That’s what God does, after all. In a troubled and despairing soul, God creates music, tucking it into every crevice, filling it with songs that can sing out both mourning and celebration. As an added bonus, I have it on good authority that God also turns mourning into dancing.

You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

Psalm 30 11-12 NRSV

So as you sing, dance to the new rhythms of your soul! Because you can!

Thanks be to God.

Please spend your meditation time today listening to this beautiful song with text written by Jonathan Cook and music by Craig Courtney. The video follows the text.

God of the Sparrow

God of the sparrow, sing through us,
Songs of deliverance, songs of peace.
Helpless we seek You, God our joy,
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease.
Alleluia.

God of the sparrow, God of hope,
Tenderly guide us, be our song,
God of affliction, pain and hurt,
Comfort Your children, make us strong.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

God of the sparrow, care for us.
Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief.
Sing us Your music, lift our hearts,
Pour out Your mercy, send relief.

God, like the sparrow, we abide
In Your protection, love and grace.
Just as the sparrow in Your care,

May Your love keep us all our days.

Amen.

Roots Intertwined

I think often about roots — current family roots, ancestry roots and roots in my life that were created from various communities. I can’t help but recall the very first church we served in Arab, Alabama. My husband, Fred, was the minister of music and I was (unofficially) counselor and guide for our youth group. The young people of that church surged into our hearts and, along with most of their families, became a very close community — a deeper bond than even family. I thought my heart would literally break into tiny pieces, and I grieved the loss of leaving them for years.

I was sure that I would never form that kind of bond with anyone ever again. But I did, time and time again, in new places with new people — Alabama, South Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky and Uganda, East Africa. Every time, deep roots of friendship would reach deeper — reaching Into the soil, reaching toward each other, tangled and intertwined in love. And every time when we pulled up roots to move on to places God was calling us to go, I grieved in the very depths of my soul. Here’s the picture: digging up a tree and pulling it out of the soil is not easy with roots so twisted and connected. Pulling up a plant or a tree does not destroy its roots, but often injures and damages them.

I freely admit that this post is not really about trees and roots. It’s about belonging, forming attachments, community, love. Yet, it’s about more than belonging; it’s about walking away from your belonging, moving away, losing the relationships that mean so much to you, feeling the disconcerting feeling that comes from injuring the roots of your beloved community. A poignant quote by Beryl Markham explains the emotions of pulling up roots.

I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way. Leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.
Beryl Markham, West with the Night

“The future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.” There it is: our fear of a future that holds new experiences and new people. For sure, moving forward truly is formidable. But when all is said and done, it seems that the best way to live is to cherish the roots we have every single day, every moment. Love them. Nourish them. Rest in them. And in some future time in your life, when you must pull up roots and move away, go ahead and grieve your loss, but also let yourself grow deep, spreading roots in another place.

With faith and hope, throw off the fear and uncertainty of an unknown future and plant yourself in a new garden. For there, you may well flourish again, grow deeply with a new community, form new attachments. You may even stumble over a life serendipity and find yourself in a place where you love all over again.

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

You Do Not Walk Alone

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Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged,
for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

— Joshua 1:9

Sometimes our reliance on Scripture fails us. We still believe. We still hold on tightly to our faith. We still delve into Biblical promises that we find throughout Scripture. Yet, the trappings of our faith seem to fail us. We feel alone, walking life’s journey alone.

In the past many weeks, several friends and former clients have shared with me intense feelings of being alone. Some of them are not physically alone, but others are. From every one of them, I hear the inner cries of aloneness. They have thought through what might be the source of their despondency and, without exception, all of them believe that the isolation of the coronavirus is causing their distressing feelings.

It’s not helpful, of course, to remind them that they do not walk alone. It does not help to assure them of my presence with them, even if separated by miles and circumstances. It does not help to tell them that they are surrounded by a community of faith. It does not help to tell them that their circle of friends will always walk with them in solidarity and comfort. It does not help to recite to them endless Bible promises that declare God’s abiding presence.

What they feel in their spirits supersedes any spoken assurance I could give, because aloneness is very real, very pervasive in the throes of this pandemic. It’s about many things: actual separation from friends and family; fear of contracting the virus; loss of normal routines of daily living; loss of employment; heavy responsibilities for aging parents; deeply held fears of the virus harming their children; pervasive uncertainty about the future. This list could continue for several lines of writing.

The isolation, the fear, the uncertainty — all of it is simply taking a significant toll on so many people. One effect is that sinking feeling of being alone.

One of my long-time friends said this to me last week as we chatted online: “Kathy, I am in this house with my family, so I should be grateful. But why do I feel so burdened, so despairing and, in the deepest recesses of myself, so completely alone?”

Of course, her words broke my heart. In years past when she was in crisis, I would simply go to her. Today I cannot do that. Even if we were not in this shelter-in-place situation, I could not go to her now. I am in Georgia and she is in the UK. Chatting online, talking by phone and Zooming will just have to do. That’s the best we can do.

Fortunately, I am learning a new pastoral care skill: how to be fully present with someone who is thousands of miles away. I am learning that compassionate care has no boundaries. I am learning that, if I am willing to enter into a soul-to-soul conversation with another person, we can be truly in one another’s presence. I think it’s a grace gift from God specially sent to us in these days of pandemic.

So if I can find my way into my friend’s person’s soul-space, in spite of miles of separation, she tells me that she does not walk alone anymore. And suddenly, by God’s grace, I do not walk alone either.

I must share with you a beautiful video I watched in our church’s virtual worship experience last Sunday. Please spend a few contemplative moments listening to the words from an old Irish blessing and watching the serene images. May it bring you peace and remind you that you do not walk alone.

On Making Your Own Rainbows

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In my kitchen window hangs a small faceted crystal ball. It’s purpose is to hang in the sunlight and make tiny rainbows in my kitchen. When I open the blinds in the morning, the facets on the ball do their job.
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I see about eight small rainbows on the floor — just tiny, insignificant rainbows on the kitchen floor. That’s it!

My first response is, “That’s all you got?”

I had hoped for more, like refracted rainbows all over the kitchen. The little ball hanging in the window apparently needed some human help. So I twisted it several times. When I let it go, the little ball’s gift to me was dancing rainbows, not only on the kitchen floor, but also all over the walls of the kitchen, dining room and living room. Now that’s more like it!

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It suddenly occurred to me that I could let the ball just hang motionless in the window, settling for the few rainbows on the floor, or I could twist it and see rainbows in motion creating a celebration all around the walls. So this morning, I made my own rainbows, which is a pretty good mental picture of creating rainbow-like times in life.

It reminds me of part of Noah’s story told in the ninth chapter of Genesis. It’s about the covenant God made with Noah after the great flood had receded. You probably know the story well, but it bears revisiting.

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”

— Genesis 9:12-17 NIV

EAB02D98-3E58-48CF-B77D-1C2426E32954I never see a rainbow without remembering the story of God’s covenant with Noah. I always remember that God made the rainbow a sign, the sign of a covenant promise.

What does that have to do with me and you? Maybe not much for some. But for some of us — those of us who want to see tangible signs of God’s promises — the appearance of a rainbow means that God still covenants with us, God still makes promises to us and God still keeps those promises. That is God’s grace to us — God’s hope, God’s light, the very peace that comes to us from God.

With that assurance, we are able to make our own rainbows. Yes, in these days we are covered with a terrible, deadly virus, along with the fear it causes us. But we also know that, in days past, we have faced life storms, dark times that threatened to destroy us. And yet, we survived — with scars from old wounds, to be sure — but we weathered each terrifying time and found our way to better days. To survive the worst times of our lives — times when dark, heavy clouds loomed over us — I’m pretty sure we found ways to make our own rainbows.

What does it look like to make our own rainbows? It looks like seeking out a comforting friend, making sacred space for nurturing your soul, owning heartbreak so that you can be open to the healing of your heart, naming in prayer the wounds and scars of your soul so that your spirit can be made whole.

It seems to me that this is what “making your own rainbows” means — being open to healing through whatever ways you find soul-nurturing. Rainbows are not a bad analogy for the living of these days. A pandemic threatens us. We cannot change that, but we can change our response to this dark time. I believe that we really can make our own rainbows. Maybe for me it will simply be the act of twisting the crystal ball in my kitchen window. But if that insignificant act reminds me of God’s promise to be with me, to be in covenant with me, then I think I can make it through another dark time.

I am confident that, if you listen, your soul will whisper to you and tell you how to make your own rainbows — during these troubling days and for all the troubling times you may face on your journey.

May God make it so for you and those you love!

Be well and stay safe.

— KMF

The Sign at the Car Wash

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Every Monday morning my routine is the same: wake up early, go get weekly labs drawn.

I have memorized the routine and the route, so I rarely spot anything new or exciting along the way. Until today! It was at the car wash at the intersection just before we enter the ramp onto the interstate. Their colorful LED SIGN caught my eye. On the sign were words I had never seen on that sign before. The words?

Do not be afraid, for I am with you. Do not fear, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.

— Isaiah 41:10 NLT

Normally, I’m not a big fan of sacred scripture rendered in LED. It seems a bit sacrilegious to me. So why did it catch my eye today? And not only did it catch my eye, it reached right into my deeper place. It poked on my heart and grabbed my spirit today. As I mulled over this passage of scripture over the next few minutes, I determined that it was worth remembering, worth my time to dig a little deeper into what it means and why it captured my thoughts today.

It certainly wasn’t the setting or the art that illustrated it. The art, I recall, was bubbles! Just your everyday, predictable car wash bubbles! Not so inspiring. Yet the text lingered with me a while and, obviously, seemed blog-worthy.

So here I am in a place of just a little awe that I might have received a holy message this morning. I am in awe at receiving a word of comfort urging me not to be afraid and promising me the protection of the Most High God. The words were not, “God is with you.” The message given especially to me this day was, “I am with you. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up.”

And all of that on a car wash LED sign illustrated by bubbles!

Even in frightening days like these, days that have brought a deadly virus spreading across the world, we can bury this promise from God deeply within our hearts for the times we need it most . . . “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”

Yes, I feel fear that the virus will come closer to home, as most of us do. I fear for myself, for my family, for my friends, for my church family. I fear because I know that if the virus does reach into my life, I must be separated from those I love. So all that remains is this comforting promise from God, “I am with you.”

Even for a hyper-religious person like me, that doesn’t feel like enough. I need my family close, and my friends, those who have comforted me throughout my life at different points on my journey. I think maybe all of us need that, even more in these days.

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Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead.
Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow.
Just walk beside me and be my friend.
  Albert Camus

My Sunday School class meets every Sunday night, religiously, because we need one another. Our relationship is a covenant between us and among us, and so we are never afraid to be vulnerable with one another and to tell the stories of where we are, how we feel, what we fear. Our stories are mostly about how we’re making it through days of isolation, what challenges us, what frustrates us, what causes us to worry, what we’re most afraid of . . . and our stories affirm two constants: 1) God is with each of us all along the journey; and 2) We are present with each other when our journeys lead us through times of faith and through times of fear.

My community — my sisters — often bring to mind the heartbreakingly beautiful story of Jephthah’s daughter from the 11th chapter of the Book of Judges. Jephthah’s daughter was in a place of deep mourning because her father inadvertently betrayed her. She was facing death, but before her time of death, she begged her father to give her time to go up into the hills with her sisters to mourn.

Grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”

“You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept.

— Judges 11:37-38

Such a sad story! Like some of our own sad stories, stories we tell only to our special, safe people. This is a good day to remember and to give thanks for my sisters, those who are nearby and those with whom I share a deep connection across many miles and decades.

Today’s blog was a little bit about sad stories, yes! But it was even more about today — a good day for me to notice an LED sign with bubbles and the comforting message: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” There is hope in those words on the LED sign. There is comfort there, even if the words are among the bubbles!

I wish for you the peace of this same assurance, that you will know beyond any doubt that God walks with you on your most frightening pathways, and that your community of friends do, too.

 

Lament

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Monday of Holy Week
April 6, 2020

I have been thinking today that this Holy Monday is the threshold into Holy Week, and that I am standing at that threshold in fear. It is true that this time of pandemic has brought a season of fear to many of us, as well as a time of heaviness, concern, confusion and lament. Just one year ago, on April 5, 2019, I posted the following thought.

Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgment that something is more important than fear. The brave may not live forever but the cautious do not live at all.

— From the movie “The Princess Diaries” (2001)

I testify to the reality that courage really is deciding “that something is more important than fear.” None of us anticipated what 2020 would bring. It was simpler last Holy Week to write eloquent words about fear and courage. We could contemplate such thoughts far more comfortably than we can in this season of pandemic, the virus assailing the earth and the arrival of the season of Lent just to make sure we are all weighted down sufficiently.

I do not know about you, but I am experiencing these days as heavy. It feels heavy to me being confined to home. It feels heavy to be overly worried about my suppressed immune system since the transplant. It feels heavy to know that so many people all over the world are suffering with the coronavirus and that many have died. I just feel an oppressive heaviness. I feel as though the place we must be right now is a place of lament. 

Who brought the world as we know it to such an abrupt halt? Is one purpose of this pandemic to make us stop and take time to heal our souls? Is another purpose a demand for us to be still and allow our stillness to begin to heal an earth rife with environmental destruction? Is it to tell our churches to stop, to re-think worship that is sometimes predictable, stale, spiritless? Is the pandemic’s purpose to teach us to cherish the community of faith we have taken for granted, as now community is somewhat lost to us?

There are so many things to lament in these days, for all of us. But I have not intruded on your time today just to write about my laments in this season, to tell you all about my heaviness and the heaviness of the world. I write on this Holy Monday in hopes that we will sit quietly for a few moments of contemplating passion and promise — the Passion that leads to Christ’s death and the Promise that always ends up with Christ’s resurrection, and ours.

Not only is the lament, the heaviness, the anguish and fear of death that surrounds us this year a global phenomenon, but the things that Christians normally do in Holy Week to create transcendent meaning are painfully denied us for now: our palms and crosses, our washing of feet, our sharing of the bread and cup. These powerful physical and sacramental expressions of our faith we always do together. We cannot do them together this year.

In some ways, though, we are humanly and globally more united now than we have ever been (by this virus), and yet more separated than ever (by our fear of it). It is as if we have crashed suddenly and directly into the emptiness and shock of Jesus’s tragic death, before we have even started the journey to Jerusalem with him. Let us not rush. Instead may we walk the way of Christ’s story this week, through the times of passion, to the moment Jesus died, and on to the glorious resurrection Rushing through Holy Week is like controlling the story.

Controlling the coronavirus “story” is also problematic because it isn’t just a story. We are in it, and for now none of us can get out of it. But the glory of the Passion story is that it also isn’t just a story. It is, as we Christians have to remind ourselves during this time, the final and ultimate story of “the struggle between life and death” and of life being triumphant in the extraordinary power and mystery of the resurrection.

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Together in Community

God’s Son breaks the bonds of death and shatters the forces of darkness and sin. We must remember that holy mystery in these days. We must remind ourselves that, even when lamenting our separation one from another, Christ’s resurrection binds us together across the boundaries of time and space and even death itself. 

And, wonder of wonders, the fear and anguish of COVID-19 reminds us of this same fact: that we belong together, in need and vulnerability and compassion and mutual belonging. We are one — both in death and in life.

In this Monday of Holy Week, the coronavirus story meets the Passion story. We may be lamenting the worship we will miss this Holy Week. We may yearn for the physical and spiritual comfort of the familiar traditions that the virus has stolen from us. We quake in fear at the pandemic itself. Yet during this time, we are being stretched in new and unthinkable ways, precisely by that fear and by the temporary loss of worship with our faith community. We stretch to consider afresh the core of our baptismal faith: that the resurrected body of Christ sustains us all, even in and through death itself. 

I wonder how I will spend this very different Holy Week, as I am at home feeling alone on Holy Monday. I am lamenting the temporary loss of my worshipping community. You may be lamenting the same loss. As always, this holy day will lead us into the week and through the Passion of Jesus — his heart breaking for the betrayal of Judas, his moment of feeling that God had forsaken him. We face the Passion story reluctantly this year, already troubled and fearful. We may be afraid to add the story of the crucifixion to the loss the pandemic has also brought us.

But I will not leave us in this place, each of us isolated and lamenting. The very core of our faith — during Holy Monday and always — mystically unites us not only to Christ but to each other.

The coronavirus story will not supplant the story of Christ’s passion and resurrection. The virus will not have the last word, because even in its random cruelty, it may yet turn us back to the transcendent source and unity of our faith. In its scourge, it may open us up to the realization that we are the Body of Christ in this world, together, in radiant community that will endure. The circle of the faithful will not be broken, even by a worldwide pandemic. 

O God, abide with us on this holy day
and through the pain of Holy Week.

Grant that our deep lamentations cease,
even as we walk with Jesus and hear again the story of his death. 

Grant that our deep lamentations cease
as we lift our faith and pray for an end to the pandemic
that harms our entire world.

Help,us, God, to endure what lies before us with hope, courage, patience and faith.

Because our faith tells us, God, that as the Holy Week story continues, our laments will be replaced by praises to God as we witness again the glory of the risen Lord.

Amen.

 

 

 

In a Shaken Time . . . The Unshakable

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I have written often about times when I have been shaken to my core, the hard times and the seasons of angst. Not because hard times have been a constant in my life, but because in the middle of them, I have found a Divine Constant that sustained me at times and saved me at other times.

As we approach the Sunday of the Palm and Passion, we remember the journey Jesus traveled.

. . . the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” (John 1:12-13 NRSV)

Yet, before the day is done, the Gospel of John tells us how troubled Jesus was as he spoke about his death.

Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. (John 1:27-28 NRSV)

As we recall Christ’s passion, we cannot help but recognize our own — and the passion of our families, friends, neighbors scattered throughout the world. Each of us, no matter where we are, are covered with the fear of a pandemic we can not begin to understand, the virus that knows no boundaries. It goes where it will, infecting those exposed to its microorganisms and leaving fear and anxiety in its wake. We are shaken to the core.

Those who are infected, or have watched as their infected loved ones battle the virus, cry out for mercy, for grace and for comfort. They are in search of the Divine Constant, a “very present help,” who keeps vigil with us offering a comfort that surpasses our ability to comprehend it. There is no better description of divine comfort than the words of the Psalmist in the 46th Psalm that tells us to take heart, hang on, fear not.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.

“Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”

The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

At the very beginning of the Cold War in 1952, Harry Emerson Fosdick spoke to students and faculty at the Pacific School of Religion. After acknowledging the very real fear and uncertainty in the world at that time, he spoke these words: “The highest use of a shaken time is to discover the unshakable.”

Oh, that we might find the highest use of this time! Oh, that we might find it alone — isolated in our homes, in our prayer closets, in the breeze and beauty of springtime! Oh, that we might find the highest use of this time in community — in all the ways we are striving to create holy community despite our isolation.

Yes, we are shaken right now, but again the Psalmist has the last word of divine comfort and hope.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
(Psalm 34:18 NIV)

As I look around, hearing from those closest to me and also hearing the stories of people around the world, I witness signs that we are indeed discovering the unshakable in this shaken time — the unshakable in ourselves, the unshakable faith we hold in our hearts, the unshakable spirit within us and the Unshakable Constant God who pours grace upon us when we most need it.

May each of you stay safe and healthy. May you wave your palms and witness Christ’s passion still believing in the resurrection that will dawn upon our lives again. May you find the unshakable within you and hold the Unshakable God near you.

For a time of prayer and meditation, you may be inspired by listening to this beautiful arrangement of the hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

 

 

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.

The Hem of God’s Garment

 

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The Aurora Borealis in Finland, called ‘The Hem of His Garment.’”

When we find ourselves in our darkest times, it is then that we search for God with all our hearts. Today I invite you to recall the story of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, and in that moment was touched by God. In years past, I have written and preached many times about searching for God — the images of God experienced when one searches for God, the emotions felt when the search brings God near, the path that leads to a renewed relationship with God. I have read many sermons through the years that have been entitled, How Do You Find God?” In Scripture, God is found in many ways, in many places that suddenly become holy ground. Before anything else, we must hear these words from the prophet Jeremiah:

You will seek me and find me, when you search for me with all your heart.

Scripture offers us many examples of holy moments in God’s presence, times when people like you and me stood on holy ground before God in their own time, in their own way, “seeing” God in the way that most inspired them.

Moses met God on Mount Horeb . . .
Moses came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush . . . Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then God said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

God said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” (From Genesis 3)

The Prophet Isaiah heard the voice of God . . .
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)

Elijah experienced God . . .
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13)

Though the circumstances were not ideal, Miriam met God face to face . . .
The Lord said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, “Come out to the tent of meeting, all three of you.” So the three of them went out.

Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud; he stood at the entrance to the tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When the two of them stepped forward, he said, “Listen to my words . . . (Numbers 12:1-6)

Moses speaks to the Israelites about hearing God just before receiving the Ten Commandments . . .
The Lord spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain. (Deuteronomy 5:4)

Jacob wrestles with a man, some say an angel, at Peniel . . .
The man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed. . .”

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” (From Genesis 32)

Job spends many days demanding that God give him answers . . .
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? (Job 38:1-4)

Eve heard God’s voice in the garden and she talked with God, although hers was not the best encounter . . .
Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?”

. . . To the woman God said,
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
(From Genesis 3)

Finally, Matthew gives us a beautiful example of a woman who searched for God through the presence of Jesus, God incarnate . . .
Suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind Jesus and touched the of his cloak, for she said to herself, “If I only touch the hem of his garment, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made whole. (Matthew 9:20-22)

Perhaps it is this woman whose story most clearly reminds us that ordinary people like you and I can search for God, hear God’s voice and even see God face to face. It is there in the presence of the Holy One that we are made whole. I recently read an article and found in it these words and the image above:

“I look at this in awe! This is the Aurora Borealis in Finland. It is called, ‘The Hem of His Garment.’”

The image of Finland’s Aurora Borealis is truly awe-inspiring. Yet, many other images become visible in a search for God. Those of us who search find God in many different ways. Have you searched for God? What images of God have you seen? Have you heard God’s voice and felt God’s presence in your darkest hours? Have you stood on holy ground, looking into the face of God?

You will seek me and find me when you search for me with all your heart.

I recently read an article and found in it these words and the image above: 

“I look at this in awe! This is the Aurora Borealis in Finland. It is called, ‘The Hem of His Garment.’”

A2BC4CE9-26DE-4DF1-BF34-895E6A4FA47AI pray that each of us will seek God and find God in the ways that most inspire us and make us whole. I leave you with this blessing.

May God’s Image surround you,
and those whom you love.
Rest now, in God’s calm embrace.
May you, in your own way, touch the face of God.

Let your hearts be warmed
and all your storms be stilled
by the whisper of God’s voice. Amen.