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.

My Spring

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The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come . . .
Song of Songs 2:12

Now that February has brought the tiniest green shoots from the ground, I know that it brings a promise of flowers — yellow ones and purple ones — bright promises of the new life that emerges every spring. Perhaps I can take a deep breath now that I am exactly three months today past my kidney transplant. This day is a milestone for my immunosuppressed self, marking the time when my transplant team might tell me that I can possibly escape from my isolation and go out to see the signs of spring. I am making February my personal commemoration month, celebrating, contemplating, dealing with a few deep-set fears and deciding to take a microshift forward.

The beginning of this story was in February of 2014 when suddenly and unexpectedly, I found myself in the emergency department of Baptist Health Medical Center with a diagnosis of end stage kidney disease. I faced a long illness that year that very nearly ended my life, three times during the 58 days I was hospitalized. When I didn’t die, I discovered that I could not walk, feed myself, name colors or even write my name. A kind and dedicated physical therapist helped me work for months after I returned home challenging me to regain those losses. For months, I was very weak, often confused and paralyzed by fear.

The only treatment available to me was dialysis, eight hours a day, seven days a week. Today though, February 12, is another February milestone that allows me to view my transplant three months ago today. Now that I am six years past it, I am looking back on that time that began in February of 2014, and I can see clearly the truths I discovered. I think they are important discoveries for me, of course, but also for anyone who must take an unexpected journey toward an uncertain future. So these are some of the discoveries that give me courage:

Fear takes on many forms and enters my psyche on its own terms.

Gratefulness floods over me at will through a kind word, a phone call, a connection with a friend, old or new.

Faith can be tiny in one moment and large in another, but either way, faith bears me up when I cannot move forward.

Hope constantly calls out to me to remember the source of my hope.

Patience with myself when I am not myself lifts me up, even when I feel physically weak and unable to do all the things I used to do.

These discoveries I know. I also know that, through it all, I have experienced periods of spiritual and emotional depression. Yet, those dark times were interrupted with times when my faith rose from within to comfort me and remind me of my “refuge and strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble. (Psalm 46:1 NASB) How wonderful to be able to see again the light of the Sun of Righteousness and to know that my slumbering soul can most surely rise from its lethargy like the stubborn crocus from the hard winter ground. It feels almost like rebirth.

Everything that has been dead through my winter is slowly waking up to new life, new vibrancy, a new season to grow and live and thrive. Along the way, I remember so much comfort from Scripture, thoughts of new life throughout the pages. This is but one:

The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.

— Song of Songs 2:12

So spring is near. My spring has come, bringing another season, another chance, another burst of hope. Thanks be to God.

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When I was a teenager, I was conscripted many times to “watch” my younger brothers. It was a loathsome task for me! Yet, occasionally the two of them were interesting to watch, especially through their superhero fascination. They seemed to favor the superheroes who could fly, like Superman or Batman (who could sort of fly, but was likely to perish when attempting to land). It occurred to me that in the scene I watched in the back yard, the two young guys looked much more like flight-challenged Batman!

One afternoon after school, the boys were outside playing. Through the window, I watched them as they donned their makeshift capes. Then — without a care in the world and believing that they really could take flight — they stood tall on wooden boxes and launched themselves, arms extended, looking up to the sky. They didn’t fly that day, but they believed, they dreamed. And they had great fun!

I also noticed during those days that I never saw girls stand on boxes with arms outstretched ready to launch into flight. I certainly never thought of doing it myself. But it made me wonder if girls had dreams like the boys did. That thought brought my mood low and, looking back on it, I think I might have felt a bit of heaviness and disillusionment. I didn’t believe I could fly, but rather that I would leap off the box straight into the ground with a thud that probably resulted in a skinned knee. As the years passed, I learned for sure that if women had dreams, they would not likely realize them in our reality, which was “a man’s world.” Dreaming, hoping, flying may not be possible for a “girl.”

When my son was growing up, we saw the motion picture, Space Jam, a terrific movie for son Jonathan, who was an avid Michael Jordan fanatic. No doubt, my 6’6” son wanted to “Be Like Mike.” In Space Jam’s soundtrack was the song, I Believe I Can Fly, a 1996 song written and performed by American singer, songwriter and former professional basketball player R. Kelly.  This mom was not very fond of R. Kelly, but the song he wrote literally moved me and filled me up with hopes and dreams for my son. R. Kelly’s message was a great one:

I used to think that I could not go on
And life was nothing but an awful song
But now I know the meaning of true love
I’m leaning on the everlasting arms

If I can see it, then I can do it
If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it

I believe I can fly
I believe I can touch the sky
I think about it every night and day (Night and day)
Spread my wings and fly away
I believe I can soar
I see me running through that open door
I believe I can fly

See I was on the verge of breaking down
Sometimes silence can seem so loud

There are miracles in life I must achieve
But first I know it starts inside of me

If I can see it, then I can be it
If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it
I believe I can fly

believe I can touch the sky
I think about it every night and day
Spread my wings and fly away
I believe I can soar
I see me running through that open door
I believe I can fly
Oh, I believe I can fly ‘cause I believe in me . . .

I hope you will enjoy the video below, which I place here in honor of my son, Jonathan .

If God would grant me just one request, it would be that every boy — and every girl — would climb on their wooden box and believe in their souls that flying is possible. I would want them to stand tall, with hope and courage, dreaming their dreams and seeing the magic of watching them grow.

Link

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Jesus and the Stubbornly Tenacious Woman from Canaan


Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied,

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

(Matthew 15:21-28)

I wonder . . . was it her faith or her stubborn tenacity that led to her daughter’s healing? Stubbornness is typically not one of the virtues to which Christians aspire. In fact most of Christendom would rebuke a stubborn woman, in ages past as well as in our day. I know this to be truth! I have been rebuked a time or two, or at least received “strong suggestions” that I should dial back my demeanor. The woman of Canaan, though, returned to Jesus again and again until he healed her suffering daughter.

I can be a bit tenacious, but no one would describe me as stubborn. I typically have a very calm and quiet demeanor, but I remember well one of the few times in my life when I was fierce and stubborn. Our son Jonathan was quite young and very sick with severe vomiting, along with strong spasms that caused him to be unable to breathe. The loud inhalations as he struggled to get a breath were extremely frightening to us, especially to him. Jonathan was a strong boy, an athlete, and very self-sufficient, but these long episodes brought him directly to his Momma. We had been to the hospital emergency room and were now in his pediatrician’s office. This violent gasping for air had been going on for hours, and it should have been obvious to the office staff that Jonathan was in trouble.

Now they would know real trouble!

Jonathan had another violent attack. I jumped up from my chair, went to the desk, and had some strong words to say, in a loud voice, with the passion of a mother desperate to protect her child. I got the familiar line about the doctor running behind.

You know, I don’t care if the doctor is behind! (in my loudest voice) Can you not see and hear that my child is throwing up all over your waiting area and is unable to breathe? Do you realize that he could be infecting every child in here? Take us to an exam room, NOW, and get the doctor away from whatever he’s doing! Because if you don’t, I am headed to the president of Baptist Medical Center who knows me very well because I am a chaplain in this hospital!

Not like me at all! But that is a “Momma response” that almost always erupts when her child is hurting or in trouble. We were in a desperate place and were being ignored. Jonathan was terribly frightened and had been dealing with these spasms for hours. In time (too much time) it was resolved and we were able to get Jonathan settled and resting.

And about the “Canaanite Momma” . . . well, she was definitely stubborn and persistent that day. Clearly, Jesus did not realize who he was dealing with. Maybe he did know! Perhaps Jesus knew precisely what he was doing and chose to use his encounter with the woman from Canaan as a teaching moment for his hearers. Or perhaps he was simply in a stubborn mood and found himself facing someone who could easily match him, stubborn for stubborn!

Either way, the story shows us that when it comes to saving what needs to be saved, being merely nice and calm won’t usually win the day. Sometimes we need to dig in our heels and do some hollering! The text simply portrays the Canaanite woman as a stubborn, persistent mother of a very sick daughter.

Remember, the disciples urged Jesus to send her away. She was obviously making a lot of noise, crying out and disturbing their quietude! On top of that, Jesus was somewhat stubborn himself, saying that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.

But this “Canaanite Momma” went back to Jesus straightaway, knelt down before him, saying, “Lord, help me!”

And we know what Jesus finally did. He praised her faith and healed her daughter. So was it faith or was it stubbornness, persistence? Maybe it was both, that her faith empowered her to stubborn persistence. Clearly, she believed Jesus was able to heal her daughter, so she tried to convince Jesus more than once. The disciples didn’t deter her. Jesus Could not dissuade her with his statement about dogs!

“Woman, you have great faith.”

A wonderful portrayal of what this woman might have said about her encounter with Jesus is a poem written by Jan Richardson entitled “Stubborn Blessing.”

Stubborn Blessing

Don’t tell me no.
i have seen you
feed the thousands,
seen miracles spill from your hands like water, like wine,
seen you with circles and circles of crowds pressed around you
and not one soul turned away.

Don’t start with me.

i am saying
you can close the door
but i will keep knocking.
You can go silent
but i will keep shouting.
You can tighten the circle
but i will trace a bigger one
around you,
around the life of my child
who will tell you
no one surpasses a mother for stubbornness.

i am saying
i know what you
can do with crumbs
and i am claiming mine,
every morsel and scrap
you have up your sleeve.
unclench your hand,
your heart.
let the scraps fall
like manna,
like mercy
for the life
of my child,
the life of
the world.

Don’t you tell me no.

— Jan Richardson
https://paintedprayerbook.com/2014/08/11/stubborn-blessing/

The work of protection is definitely not for the faint of heart. The work of advocacy on behalf of another person may take some stubborn persistence, the kind of stubborn persistence that Jesus seemed to call by another name — “great faith.” When we advocate for people who are suffering, especially people in need of profound physical healing or deep spiritual healing, their greatest need calls us to our greatest resolve, a fierce resolve. Maybe a touch of defiance! It is in those moments that we call on our hearts to give us strength for sacred stubbornness that will heal the broken, comfort the brokenhearted, restore justice to those who are oppressed.

That is faith! “Great faith!”

Finding Simple Pleasures

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A Saturday of football — what a simple pleasure! I am a fan of certain teams (Roll Tide!), but I am definitely not a football fanatic. And yet, this morning while half-watching Sportscenter, I realized that watching with Fred, not having to focus that much, resting in the ordinary seemed like a simple pleasure.

There are many simple pleasures, of course, far more soulful than watching football — taking a walk in the splendor of nature, listening to birdsong, snuggling with your puppy, looking up at the night’s moon and stars, taking a walk on a labyrinth’s spiritual path . . . There are so many more simple pleasures in life, and most of them do not even require a trip to the grocery store. They cost us nothing, but their worth is priceless.

These are the simple moments that caress the soul, bring peace and calm to the heart and enliven a wounded spirit. These moments, and others like them, are the moments we desperately need, especially in times when we are burdened with the weight of the world, languishing in darkness.

I have learned some things about a wounded spirit: that woundedness happens to all of us; that “dark nights of the soul” happen to everyone at some time in life; that the wounded spirit does not always require sophisticated remedies; that a simple pleasure is sometimes all it takes to begin a healing journey.

The important factor is self-awareness, being mindful of the soul’s health, accepting the reality that healing will require us to self-intervene and that our intervention could begin with entering into a simple pleasure. One worthy New Year’s resolution is to intentionally identify the simple pleasures that feed our souls and then to allow a simple pleasure to enfold us in contemplation.

Normally, I would say “bah humbug” to New Year’s Resolutions that we make, break, and then feel guilty about for an entire year! But a resolution to discover the simple pleasures that give us life is one worthy resolution. So I challenge you to look and listen for the simple pleasures that are “you,” and to hold them near whenever you are experiencing a “dark night of the soul.”

“There comes a time when both body and soul enter into such a vast darkness that one loses light,” wrote Mechtild of Magdeburg. There comes a time when the soul “sinks down into the night.”

Her words are the words of one who knew spiritual journey and seasons of darkness. There is no doubt that at some time throughout your life, you will find yourself traveling the spiritual night. I do know this within my place of deep knowing: when I give myself to spiritual journeying, allowing myself the peace of a simple pleasure that calms my spirit, I realize that God always invites us beyond where we are.

God guides us on the spiritual journey that sometimes means winding through a dark wood. The darkness may frighten us, but it is a necessary part of the trip. When we panic in the darkness, we must try to understand that it’s a holy dark and that the idea is to surrender to it and journey through until we reach God’s light.

And then on to simple pleasures!372C6D47-6761-412E-AACF-420F5B1EE76D

God will be present beside us —- in the light of simple pleasures and in the soul’s dark night.

That is the gift, the grace, that God has freely given to us, and for that we give thanks.

The Work of Christmas Begins in Us!

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The angels, the star, the kings and princes, the shepherds — all have moved away from us, taking their splendor with them. Does that mean that the movements and dances of Christmas have ceased? Perhaps.

But the reality that strikes a chord in my spirit every year is the thought that this is the very time when “the work of Christmas begins.” That may be the ultimate hope of Christmas. That might be the call from God that we cannot ignore, but instead answer, “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” No one ever spoke of the idea of the work of Christmas with more heart than Howard Thurman:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
…To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

Howard Thurman

May the work of Christmas begin in us. Amen.

Please take a few moments to hear this song by Dan Forest, “The Work of Christmas.” You will be inspired.

It Is Not Over!

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The Twenty-First Day of Advent
December 21, 2019

The sages of the world came up with this wise saying: “It’s not over ‘till it’s over!” There are some similar sayings around, most notably one about the singing of a “fat lady.” But that one is not at all kind or sensitive! The point is that in life some things are never over. Grief at losing a loved one comes to mind, as does living with an incurable illness, losing a cherished relationship or any number of persisting, chronic, never-ending difficulties.

But the truth is, we are a resilient people, created by God who fully equips us for life’s calamities. We do not shrink in the face of loss. We know that weeping can last through a dark night, but the morning light may bring joy. We do not fear life’s dark times, because we know that our story is not over. There will be brighter days ahead. The brightest stars will give light in the darkest nights. Our resilient spirits will lift us up and, most importantly, God will be near right in the midst of our sufferings. It is not over! I am inspired by the thoughts of Ann Weems about this very thing:

IT IS NOT OVER

It is not over,
this birthing.
There are always newer skies
into which
God can throw stars.
When we begin to think
that we can predict the Advent of God,
that we can box the Christ
in a stable in Bethlehem,
that’s just the time
that God will be born
in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.
Those who wait for God
watch with their hearts and not their eyes,
listening
always listening
for angel words.

— Ann Weems

What profound truth: that those who wait for God watch “with their hearts and not their eyes,” listening — always listening — for angel words. We can find another take on that spoken by the Prophet Isaiah:

Those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They will mount up with wings as eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.

— Isaiah 40:31

When I think that I have reached the end of my resilience, when I have become weary with my life’s tragedies and believe that it’s over, I want to be able to remember the words Ann Weems wrote, that “it is not over, this birthing, and that there are always newer skies into which God can throw stars.”

Like you, I need newer skies now and then. And if God can throw stars into those new skies, all the better. Advent’s promise is that those stars of hope will appear just when I most need them.

May God make it so, and may we remember stars of hope and angel words whenever we celebrate the Christ Child born under the light of Bethlehem’s star. Amen.

 

“There Is Room and Welcome There for Me.”

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The Eighteenth Day of Advent

December 18, 2019

On the third Sunday in Advent, I was confined to home, unable to make my way to the manger. In every Advent season, I am strengthened in finding my place around the manger of the Christ Child. I find myself there because being near the manger moves me to contemplate the significance of Emmanuel, God-with-us. Being near the manger in spirit is holy ground, sacred space that stirs me to deeper faith. The hymn text writer Jaroslav Vajda also placed himself at the manger, searching for its significance in his life. In drawing close in spirit to the manger, he penned the text of the stirring hymn, Where Shepherds Lately Knelt.

Jaroslav Vajda penned the hymn text in 1986, seeking to place himself in spirit at the humble manger bed and there, review the implications of such a visit for himself and for all human beings. He believed that visiting the manger in order to ponder the significance of Immanuel,”God-with-us” in the flesh.

Being homebound after a kidney transplant, I missed my church’s service of Lessons and Carols. That service is always a time of deep and sacred worship for me, and I very much regretted missing it this year. In missing the service, I also missed the choir’s singing of Where Shepherds Lately Knelt, a hymn that has in the past moved me to tears. I invite you to contemplate the following text and to listen to the Anderson University Men’s Choir singing the hymn.

Where Shepherds Lately Knelt

Where shepherds lately knelt and kept the angel’s word,
I come in half-belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred:
but there is room and welcome there for me,
but there is room and welcome there for me.

In that unlikely place I find Him as they said:
sweet newborn Babe, how frail! and in a manger bed:
a still small Voice to cry one day for me,
a still small Voice to cry one day for me.

How should I not have known Isaiah would be there,
his prophecies fulfilled?  With pounding heart, I stare:
a Child, a Son, the Prince of Peace — for me,
a Child, a Son, the Prince of Peace — for me.

Can I, will I forget how Love was born and burned
its way into my heart — unasked, unforced, unearned,
to die, to live, and not alone for me,
to die, to live, and not alone for me?

This beautiful hymn places me at the manger, near the Christ Child. And in that place —in the presence of God — I begin to understand who I am and what I feel about my faith. 6EB80210-20A6-47B8-BD83-1B6AA6BBAE12I contemplate the shepherds who drew near to the Child following the light of a strange star. I imagine that whatever faith they had, no matter how small, brought them to their knees. Pilgrims who lived on the land, they found their way to the manger and, in adoration, knelt before this Child, in this manger, on this night.

I am but a pilgrim in half-belief on a journey led by a fragile faith. Yet, something within me compels me to keep returning to the manger, again and again. And I find myself in true worship, strangely stirred, in adoration of the Christ Child under the brilliance of Bethlehem’s star. The cry of my spirit as I look at Christ, the Savior, while standing before the manger is so perfectly described by this hymn:

I come in half-belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred;
But there is room and welcome there for me…

Can I, will I forget how Love was born,
and burned its way into my heart unasked, unforced, unearned,
to die, to live, and not alone for me…”

Near the manger this advent, I discover that, indeed, “there is room and welcome there for me.”

For the Advent stirring of my fragile faith . . .
For newborn Love, born beneath Bethlehem’s star, thanks be to God. Amen.

GODBURST

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The Eighth Day of Advent

Transplant Day Twenty-seven
December 9, 2019

GODBURST 

When the Holy Child is born into our hearts
there is a rain of stars
a rushing of angels
a blaze of candles
this God burst into our lives.

— Ann Weems

It seems to me that there is no other way to thrive after a kidney transplant than by allowing God to burst into my life. Certainly, God was already in my life, and has been for many years, but this “Godburst” is a different sort of divine entrance. Godburst enters powerfully, often suddenly and without warning. It is always surprise when God plans a divine appointment, unimaginable surprise.

The other side of a Godburst requires that I intentionally give God access and admittance. It is just as Ann Weems describes it when she tells when to expect the encounter between me and God. Something happens —  “the Holy Child is born into our hearts” — and as a result, I begin to believe deep within my soul that I really can face the challenges and difficulties ahead.

Still, I feel fear deep-down-inside. I fear the after effects of the transplant. The fear is in my mind in the daylight and often consumes my heart in the night. Friends ask me what I most fear, but I am hard-pressed to isolate just one fear. I think about all of them: an increased risk of infections, uncontrolled diabetes, high blood pressure, weight gain, abdominal pain, hair loss, swollen gums, bruising or bleeding more easily, thinning of the bones, mood swings and an increased risk of certain types of cancer, particularly skin cancer. And I cannot yet shake the thought of acute rejection of the kidney and the use of high powered, harsh immunosuppressant medications to prevent that rejection.

This fear has been my constant companion for many months, but since the transplant, the fear has been imminent, deeper and more severe. So last night I determined to try to get a handle on it by listing every fear that feels so ominous to me. I knew it would be a difficult endeavor, but I hoped for even a little easing of the fear.

I’m not sure it addressed the fear that much. What it did do is send me all the way back to the foundation of my being, to the source of my strength. It called my attention back to Godburst, where Ann Weems reminds me how it might look when it happens:

there is a rain of stars
a rushing of angels
a blaze of candles
this God has burst into my life.

With that kind of holy entrance into my life, I think I might just be strong enough to move into the unknown and risky future. Maybe unafraid. Or at least I could be free of the deep fear and anxiety that seems so present right now. Isn’t that a perfect picture of experiencing Advent?

In the end, after making and contemplating the list, I still may not believe strongly enough that Godburst will happen for me. But I believe that my faith will sustain me. I believe that the God who knew me before I was even born will know me still — today and forever.

I believe that Godburst is a deeply personal and powerful encounter between me and God. And I have no doubt that it can change my life!